READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

Some kindness awaited Lena at the one-room schoolhouse where Edna sent her. The Hornes contains a touching photo of the child flanked by two classmates. She grins proudly as she hugs both girls close; one of them beams at her adoringly. But Lena was also learning that sometimes no one was meaner to Negroes than other Negroes. Perhaps because of her reading skills, the six-year-old had been placed a grade ahead. Her resentful schoolmates called her "dumb." Worse still, they taunted her for her northern accent and light skin, which to them meant she was "high yaller"—in a drawled pronunciation of "high yellow," which denoted the child of a mixed-race union. Up North, her lighter skin gave her advantages. Lighter-skinned Negroes there were perceived to be "better"; here that look signaled the blood of the reviled white man.

The jeers crushed her. But Edna was too preoccupied to offer much comfort. In their travels, she did find a few tent-show jobs. But much of the time, recalled Lena, Edna wound up "stranded, and starved, and once she was caught in a company where one member was lynched." Lena saw her mother turn frustrated and sad. She took it out on her little girl; minor infractions, such as leaving her sweater at school, brought beatings.

In her self-centeredness, Edna also unthinkingly exposed her daughter to outside dangers. Their next stop was Jacksonville, Florida's largest city. She left Lena with a theatrical couple and disappeared again. Back one day for a visit, she made plans with the couple to see a nearby tent show. With Lena in the car, they drove off into the night, laughing and telling stories. Suddenly they saw a black man up ahead, waving his arms. He warned them frantically, "The crackers are out killing tonight!" The gay mood turned to terror; they swerved around and sped home.

Soon Edna and daughter fled Jacksonville and took aimlessly to the road. Lena recalled boarding in a house where the police broke in during the night and used their guns to beat a black man mercilessly. Everyone else in the room looked on in terror. Afterward, Lena sobbingly asked her mother to explain. "They're mean down here," was all Edna said.

When money ran so low that she couldn't afford Lena's care, Edna scraped together what cash she could to buy her a train ticket to Brooklyn. Traveling alone with a tag on her lapel, the little girl returned to what she later called her "only sense of roots." But invariably Edna plucked her away again. It seemed odd that Cora—who battled for the rights of young people she didn't even know—would not have taken steps to keep Lena home. And did the moneyed and connected Teddy Horne know or care about his daughter's plight? Teddy, of course, had deserted the family, and surrendered his fatherly control. Time and again Lena toted her bag down the staircase of the Chauncey Street brownstone, heeding a familiar command: "Come on, Lena, we're going!"

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