from Black Boy
Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly. The hunger I had known before this had been no grim, hostile stranger; it had been a normal hunger that had made me beg constantly for bread, and when I ate a crust or two I was satisfied. But this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent. Whenever I begged for food now, my mother would pour me a cup of tea, which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. I would grow dizzy and my vision would dim. I became less active in my play, and for the first time in my life I had to pause and think of what was happening to me.
“Mama, I’m hungry,” I complained one afternoon.
“Jump up and catch a kungry,” she said, trying to make me laugh and forget.
“What’s a kungry?”
“It’s what little boys eat when they get hungry,” she said.
“What does it taste like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why do you tell me to catch one?”
“Because you said that you were hungry,” she said, smiling.
I sensed that she was teasing me and it made me angry.
“But I’m hungry. I want to eat.”
“You’ll have to wait.”
“But I want to eat now.”
“But there’s nothing to eat,” she told me.
“Just because there’s none,” she explained.
“But I want to eat,” I said, beginning to cry.
“You’ll just have to wait,” she said again.
“For God to send some food.”
“When is He going to send it?”
“I don’t know.”
“But I’m hungry!”
She was ironing and she paused and looked at me with tears in her eyes.
“Where’s your father?” she asked me.
I stared in bewilderment. Yes, it was true that my father had not come home to sleep for many days now and I could make as much noise as I wanted. Though I had not known why he was absent, I had been glad that he was not there to shout his restrictions at me. But it had never occurred to me that his absence would mean that there would be no food.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Who brings food into the house?” my mother asked me.
“Papa,” I said. “He always brought food.”
“Well, your father isn’t here now,” she said.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“But I’m hungry,” I whimpered, stomping my feet.
“You’ll have to wait until I get a job and buy food,” she said.
As the days slid past, the image of my father became associated with my pangs of hunger, and whenever I felt hunger, I thought of him with a deep biological bitterness.
My mother finally went to work as a cook and left me and my brother alone in the flat1 each day with a loaf of bread and a pot of tea. When she returned at evening, she would be tired and dispirited and would cry a lot. Sometimes, when she was in despair, she would call us to her and talk to us for hours, telling us that we now had no father, that our lives would be different from those of other children, that we must learn as soon as possible to take care of ourselves, to dress ourselves, to prepare our own food; that we must take upon ourselves the responsibility of the flat while she worked. Half frightened, we would promise solemnly. We did not understand what had happened between our father and our mother, and the most that these long talks did to us was to make us feel a vague dread. Whenever we asked why father had left, she would tell us that we were too young to know.
One evening my mother told me that thereafter I would have to do the shopping for food. She took me to the corner store to show me the way. I was proud; I felt like a grown-up. The next afternoon I looped the basket over my arm and went down the pavement toward the store. When I reached the corner, a gang of boys grabbed me, knocked me down, snatched the basket, took the money, and sent me running home in panic. That evening I told my mother what had happened, but she made no comment; she sat down at once, wrote another note, gave me more money, and sent me out to the grocery again. I crept down the steps and saw the same gang of boys playing down the street. I ran back into the house.
“What’s the matter?” my mother asked.
“It’s those same boys,” I said. “They’ll beat me.”
“You’ve got to get over that,” she said. “Now, go on.”
“I’m scared,” I said.
“Go on and don’t pay any attention to them,” she said.
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