Climbing Monkey Hill
This piece was submitted by Fatima Shaik as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Fatima Shaik’s event: Stories That Traveled
It was cause for embarrassment if black children climbed on Monkey Hill, just after they had integration. The boys and girls who ran from their nearby homes to play in Audubon Park after school did not arrive with their freedom, only given the law.
When they ran up the hill, they were ridiculed by the parents who called down their own pale children. The adults stared at the black ones, as if seeing them for the first time. Although some were their over-the-fence neighbors, they replaced the casual greetings of earlier times with bitterness.
“Look at them little monkeys on Monkey Hill,” the parents agreed to each other over their children’s heads. They spoke in a jovial way that encouraged their sons and daughters toward adulthood by sharing the laugh.
Watching from a distance, Levia knew what occurred. The adults stood confidentially close to one another, but arrogantly. Phrases of sarcasm carried to her in the air, although only slightly, because there was no breeze, as is usual in New Orleans in summer. Levia didn’t expect to hear more of their words, because to shout at the children made the adults appear reckless under the law. She recognized that they used their only remaining tool—ridicule—and that, legally, the children were not bound to care.
Still, she held the hands of her brother and sister to keep them away from Monkey Hill. “Don’t let yourself be a joke for nobody,” she told them, just like her mother.
Levia’s mother warned them not to wander too freely while she walked to get soft drinks. They were all safer if the children stayed on the blanket she placed on one patch of grass while she alone went to the concession stand.
But Levia now told her brother and sister, to make them feel better, “Here, take some money and go get on a ride.” She wanted them to know they could afford to go places. And she watched their figures walking away, like miniature adults, hand in hand, little shadows of a man and a woman walking across a horizon sharp as tightrope, while around them the world offered itself bleached and bare in the midday sun.
Levia sat on the scrap of lawn looking at Monkey Hill. It was a big lump in the middle of a flat, dusty field of Audubon Park, like one bucket of sand a child upends at the beach. Any grass once planted on Monkey Hill had died from the heat or underfoot from children running. Before development in this area, the park was a corner of swamp near the Mississippi River. It still had, in spots, the aura of unforgettable melancholy, like most of New Orleans. But it took on an irony. Huge oaks with moss waterfalls fringed the dry field where Levia sat.
Monkey Hill was an even more incongruous site on the barefaced and dusty plain. Mud and river sand piled up about three dump trucks high, Levia figured. She pictured men in white uniforms building Monkey Hill and molding it with their hands to look like a giant clay scoop of ice cream. After Monkey Hill took on popularity, politicians on television proclaimed it a site for the education and freedom of enjoyment of the children of New Orleans. Levia knew who they meant.
Anyone offered something by television in 1965 had to be only one race. And that specification excluded Levia, who was many things but not white.
She was a girl who, now at adolescence, molded her two fat plaits into one rope of hair that followed her long neck and turned up naturally where her shoulders took hold. She was nearly as tall as her squat mother and glowed healthily like her dad.
“You’re a miser’s penny,” he told Levia, to let her know how precious and beautiful she was to him. She was copper-colored sometimes when he looked at her. Other times she showed more red or gold. He teased her, “Maroon,” like that kind of person sold for a time in New Orleans after she ran very fast. So Levia was actually black, and, as such, a threat to the people who wanted only one kind of child on Monkey Hill and in Audubon Park.
Her mother said Levia should begin making decisions. The first one she gave her today was to watch the children near Monkey Hill. “Olevia, mind them till I come back. Show a little responsibility,” her mother said. Levia felt responsible already. But she could not talk back. “Yes ma’am.” That’s all she was allowed to say as yet.
“Yes ma’am.” “No ma’am.” Who gave Levia credit for thinking? She felt she considered a lot, but everyone said she was daydreaming. “Just a stage, you know,” her mother told people all the time to explain Levia.
Levia had stared out the window this morning while they drove to Audubon Park. It was about one half-hour from their house.
The scene changed from small wooden homes that were painted to match the same shades in their gardens, to half-block estates with stained glass windows and ironwork.
While they loaded the car to leave—shoving in the blanket and ice cooler along with a box of sandwiches their mother had promised to bring for her friends—the neighbors came out to their porches and watched. They nodded in approval, or showed envy at the picnic by waving down to them like shoofly, as the car drove off. The children were bound, out of respect, to reply to either greeting.
“Hello, Mrs. Dee. Hi, Brown. Good-bye, Irma Ann.” They had to catch each neighbor personally or the one they missed would try to convince the others who got a hello that the children—because they were going to white places now—were stuck-up.
By the time they neared Audubon Park, they could quietly look out the window. The houses here were so big that even if people wanted to they couldn’t wave to their neighbors, because no one could see from porch to porch.
Everyone called this area the Garden District because the big plots displayed huge flowering trees. Not only did hundreds of flowers grow there, but almost as many people were hired to take care of them. Levia’s father, who knew people who worked outdoor parties in this area, said anyone black who wore a uniform was welcome here. In this neighborhood, no one flinched at the mention of slave quarters attached to a house.
Levia studied those estates in the city magazine that her mother ordered to come weekly to their home. And when she and her mother drove around, exploring the city, as they did often, Levia counted streets and streets of these massive and imposing buildings.
Some had four big, square, brick front-porch pillars, which her mother called “grandiose Creole.” Others had smooth, round, white columns, “southern Greek.” Shingled roofs came down low to just top the cut-glass front doors that sparkled like diamonds.
Levia liked to believe these doors were locked, like the treasure trunks in her mythology books, and held great mysteries, and came from secret places. But Levia’s mother reminded her as they drove that everything she saw was the product of “hard work.” And occasionally, as they passed the houses, she added, “Slave labor.”
But she didn’t say that often, because it stopped both of them from talking, and she knew Levia liked to dream aloud.
“I’m going to have a big house on St. Charles Avenue someday.”
Her mother said, “You better learn first to keep clean.”
“And I’ll have a library of books in two rooms and a horse in a stall near the back by the park.”
“And who’s going to pay you to waste time?”
The conversation usually developed into an argument soon after that, or else Levia’s mother ended it quietly: “My child, you can have anything that you really want.”
Except recently, Levia wanted to go to the Garden District by bus and walk around by herself as she did in her neighborhood. But her mother said, “That won’t do.” Because of integration, people in the city were angrier with each other than ever before.
Levia considered going without telling. Their anger had nothing to do with her. She’d have to change buses and streetcars three times. Even the transportation system allowed for the separate traditions of New Orleans communities.
Different people did not live side by side. Instead, their houses were back to back. So there were white streets and black streets, and most traffic followed the major white avenues, where Levia thought to get off and walk.
If she went on the bus, on entering she got a thin piece of tan paper to make the transfers. She had to be careful not to clasp it too tightly, or sweat, because it could melt in her hand. Many seats would contain workingmen who smelled strong from their day jobs and women with their arms draped tiredly over the back part of the chairs where their small children sat. Levia had to avoid the old ladies because no matter who sat next to them they talked, and she could miss her stop.
For the first transfer, she would be on Canal Street, where she could see anyone. A neighbor might tell her family. A stranger might hurt her. There were sailors and tourists, shop girls and businessmen, teenagers much worldlier than Levia, and foreigners who wanted to stop and talk.
But they were dumb, people said, so conversation was pointless. Levia wasn’t sure whether that was actually true. It was safer, she felt, not to speak to anyone at all.
At Canal and St. Charles, where she boarded the streetcar, there would be a crush to get on. But by Magazine Street, all the pushy ones—men from the business district, transients, and the women who shopped in the expensive stores in the daytime, but who lived in other places—would have left. Those remaining stayed in either big St. Charles houses or the small communities organized to serve them, located a couple of streets behind. Both accepted their destinations with leisure. Some pulled down the wooden shade and dozed in the sun as the train rocked on the tracks to the end of the line.
The problems, Levia imagined, would come when the streetcar had only a few empty seats. A great deal of confusion occurred about who would sit first, since the curtain was gone where black people sat. Now if a seat became open, a white person might come to the back of the bus to claim it or a black to the front. Both movements were considered rude if others in the predominant race in that section stood. Even a young boy would not get up for an old woman, unless they were the same.
Once, Levia’s friends rushed to a seat to prevent a white woman from sitting. “Come. Here. Olevia,” they called. “You shouldn’t stand.”
Levia repeated to herself, “Slave owner. Miss Anne. She’s not so fragile.” Levia wondered if her mother would think this was rude or just.
Levia did not want to encounter trouble if she went by herself, but she did want to take the ride. She knew her mother would say, “No. Everyone is just too upset now over integration.”
Integration, that’s all Levia heard about and she was sick of it. New Orleans became possessed with the idea. It seemed good enough to think about, when it was planned. But now it just appeared like too much trouble.
For years, Levia had looked forward to high school. But now the first question everyone asked her was whether she wanted to go to school among blacks or whites.
Next summer she’d have to make up her mind. “Does it matter?” she asked people who looked dumbfounded when they heard her reply. That was another occasion when her mother asked everyone to excuse her child. Then whoever posed the question to Levia in the first place would say she had a duty to her race. Of course she had a duty. Levia understood that.
For what other reason would she be going to school at all? Lynne Carre’s parents let her wear miniskirts and boots and date boys who were five years older, and Lynne said she wasn’t going to school because she first had to please herself. Actually, she was pregnant last fall.
But Levia’s parents “expected things” of her, and a baby was not part of their plan. In fact, her father warned, “If I ever see you on the corner with those neighborhood bums, don’t come home.” So she didn’t stay out late. Not that she thought he was being fair. But she believed he wouldn’t let her back in the house, and she couldn’t figure out how she would take care of herself alone.
“New Orleans has too much of a mixed-up society to be bothered anyway.” Levia heard one of the adults talking against integration at the kitchen table one night. “Now, who’s going to tell me how they going to draw the line around here?” The grown-up said no one would want real race relations legalized: “With where the poor whites live, and the St. Lima whites with black people from Corpus Christi Parish right back of them, politicians going to be zigzagging that color line all through people’s front porches to keep everyone separate and still follow the integration law.”
Levia had listened only to this part of the conversation, and then she had gone out into the backyard. Maybe it was unnatural to force people to change. She wouldn’t mind people keeping a friendly distance like she did with the white country people around the block. They were a family of six pale, big-boned boys and girls whom she really didn’t mind.
Once their pet armadillo climbed under her fence.
“Watch him, watch him now,” the oldest boy told his sisters as he ran around the corner to get into Levia’s yard. The armadillo buried itself into the mud where the chain-link ended near the ground. The girls poked it with a stick to send it to their side. But their backyard was concrete. And the armadillo acted as if it were embarrassed to run away but obligated to go where it was greener because it burrowed under the grass behind Levia’s house while they called it, going deeper and deeper into a hole.
The boy arrived with a wood and screen box, the kind, Levia knew, that was used to keep in pigeons. He stopped the armadillo by cornering it with a board. He kept blocking its moves until the animal tired of the places it originally wanted to go. Then he picked up the armadillo and showed it to Levia: “Look here.”
She studied its slate-colored shell, long fingernail claws, and the little unprotected parts around its legs on the underside.
“Won’t hurt yer,” he said by way of thanks. “Come play with it if you want.” Levia nodded to be polite. But it seemed too unfair to both man and animal, she felt, to play with something that you had to trap.
Instead, in the evenings, she played with the children in the houses that faced hers on the block. They attended the black public school up the street, or went to Corpus Christi, the elementary attached to the church.
Their games were mostly inventions, like Coon Can, where they hit a rolling ball with a stick and ran back and forth, from one square drawn on the ground to another, scoring points. They played Red Light to see who could sneak to the light before getting caught, or Fassé, with each one keeping the ball from the others, or a hide-and-seek called I Spy.
Before night fell, all the children sat on the steps and talked. Levia felt they made their own sidewalk family, besides being involved in separate ones at home. Eleanor wanted to be everyone’s mother with her bossiness: “Girl, you ought to take off that short skirt with them bony legs;” “Johnson, come over here.”
Philip was a “do-fuss,” the children said. He once allowed his mother to tell the barber to cut his hair too short, and one time he even showed them a part shaved crookedly right to his scalp. Philip never spoke first to anyone and only talked back to Eleanor if she pushed up against him. Once he told Levia that when he grew up he wanted to be a policeman.
“Why you want to do that—to have a gun?” she had asked.
“I’m sick of white people telling me what to do,” he replied.
Levia looked at him hard for a few minutes, then took up conversation with another child on the step. She didn’t tell anyone Philip’s desire, and she even avoided Eleanor some after that. Levia wasn’t quite sure why, although she sensed that Eleanor would force Levia to choose sides. All Levia knew was that she felt bad talking about white people all the time, as everyone did, and now she didn’t feel good talking with Philip, either.
Levia preferred to spend time with her cousins. Charlene was a cheerleader for St. Augustine. The two black Catholic high schools, St. Augustine and Xavier Prep, had a football rivalry so intense that nothing else mattered for weeks in the neighborhood.
“Go, St. Aug!” people called from their porches to youngsters dressed in purple and gold. Young mothers balanced their baby-children on their hips as they stood outside the St. Augustine schoolyard fence, watching the band practice in cavalier helmets. Girls not yet pregnant lingered with one arm hooked above their heads in the chain-link to display themselves to the male musicians. Many of the trumpet and saxophone players got inspiration to further their musical careers by the sight of female curves on the horizon, a line that stretched from the school’s Hope Street to Law Street boundaries.
Everyone made too big a deal of things she would do naturally, Levia thought, like to go to high school. She had a better plan. Levia made herself a promise to enjoy living day-to-day. And she was keeping it, not worrying too much, thinking about the things she wanted to do and not the requests of others, remaining free like a child.
This was the prime of her life, the summer beginning, and she was in the park. Levia lay in the sun, idly thinking, no longer about her sister, her brother, or her mother. She took the quiet for granted, rested, and watched the shadow of Monkey Hill grow as the sun marked time.
This piece is excerpted from Louisiana Stories for Young Adults by Fatima Shaik, Bayou Road Publishers (June 2015).