From that time to this is a straight line,
pointing at a girl,
who doesn't even have shoes anymore,
as she runs down the road,
throwing off her ragged clothes, as she goes,
until she's as naked as the day she was born.
When she comes to washing hanging on the line,
she grabs a fine dress and keeps on running.
She's crying and laughing at the same time.
Along comes a truck that says J. GOODY on the side.
The man driving stops to give her a ride.
He swings the door open on the passenger side,
but Bertha says, "Move over, I'll drive."
When she asks him why he stopped,
he says, "I know white trash, when I see it.
You're just like me, but you're a girl. You're pretty.
You can free yourself. All you have to do
is show a little leg and some titty in the big city."
He gave her fifty cents and a wink
and she started thinking she might as well turn white.
She got a job waiting table in a dance hall.
One night, the boss heard her
singing along with the band.
He said, "Why don't you go up on stage,"
and she said, "I play piano too."
He said, "Howdy do."
From then on, she made everybody pay
one way, or another.
She got hard. She took lovers-
fathers, sons, and husbands.
It didn't matter,
but once in a while, she heard her mother's voice,
saying, "You made the wrong choice,"
and she felt the blues
and she let loose with a shout.
"Lordy," said the boss, "you sound colored."
More and more people came to hear her sing,
but they kind of feared her too.
They said, she was too white to sing the blues like that.
It wasn't right.
One night, she got to talking with the boss.
He walked round and round the office, shaking his head,
saying how much he'd lose,
if she stopped singing the blues.
"How often can you find a treasure like mine," he said,
laying his hand on her shoulder,
then he said, "If I weren't so old,"
and his voice dropped off to a whisper,
then he said, "I got the answer now, sweet Roberta.
Go on down to the dressing room and wait."
It didn't take long.
He came in and set a jar on the table.
"What do I do with this?" Asked Bertha.
He said, "you're going to pass for colored."
Suddenly, she was wearing blackface.
Suddenly, she was safe on the other side
of the door she slammed on the past
and it was standing open at last.
She could come and go as she pleased
and no one saw her enter, or leave.
She was free, she was freed,
but she didn't feel it
and she needed it to be real.
She went on, though. She flowed like a river,
carrying the body of a man,
who had himself a nigger, because he could.
She lived. She got old.
She almost froze one cold spell
and she got up from her sickbed
and told her daughter
she got during the change of life
it was time to go.
She sewed a note to her ragged coat.
It said, "This is the granddaughter of Mama Rose."
She put fifty cents in her hand
and went to stand with her at the bus stop.
She would not return, but her child
had earned the right to go home.
When I got off the bus,
a hush fell over the people waiting there.
I was as white as my mother,
but my eyes were gray, not green.
I had hair down to my waist and braids so thick
they weighed me down.
Mother said, my father was a white musician
from another town,
who found out her secret
and left her and me to keep it.
Mama Rose knew me, though, blind as she was.
"What color are you, gal?" She asked
and I told her, "I'm as black as last night."
That's how I passed, without asking permission.
Written by Ai (1947-2010)
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