59 Life on the Color Line
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59 Life on the Color Line GREGORY WILLIAMS "Billy!" Dad said sharply as he leaned across the aisle. I looked into his face. The Greyhound's air brakes hissed as it slowed for the junction with State Highway 201. In a somber voice he continued. "Boys, I've got some bad news for you." He paused. We leaned forward, anxiously. The wool of the seat made me itch. "We're not going to stay with Grandpa and Grandma Cook when we get to Muncie." The gears clunked and the bus shuddered to a stop at an intersection. "Why not?" I demanded. "Your mother and I are getting a divorce. We can't stay with them." Straightening my back, I turned toward him. He tightened his lips. My stomach rumbled with anger. I refused to believe we could not live with Grandpa and Grandma! They would end all the worries about food, clothes, and lunch money. If Dad thought Grandpa and Grandma didn't want us, he was wrong! Reassured, I leaned against the seat. As the bus bumped into gear, I felt a tinge of doubt. He leaned closer and spoke very softly. "There's something else I want to tell you." "What?" I groaned. "Remember Miss Sallie who used to work for us in the tavern?" Dad's lower lip quivered. He looked ill. Had he always looked this unhealthy, I wondered , or was it something that happened on the trip? I felt my face-skin like putty, lips chapped and cracked. Had I changed, too? "It's hard to tell you boys this." He paused, then slowly added, "But she's really my momma. That means she's your grandmother." "But that can't be, Dad! She's colored!" I whispered, lest I be overheard by the other white passengers on the bus. "That's right, Billy," he continued. "She's colored. That makes you part colored, too, and in Muncie you're gonna live with my Aunt Bess.... " I didn't understand Dad. I knew I wasn't colored, and neither was he. My skin was white. All of us are white, I said to myself. But for the first time, I had to admit Dad didn't exactly look white. His deeply tanned skin puzzled me as I sat there trying to classify my own father. Goose bumps covered my arms as I realized that whatever he was, I was. I took a deep breath. I couldn't make any mistakes. I looked closer. His heavy lips and dark brown eyes didn't make him colored, I concluded. His black, wavy hair was different from Negroes' hair, but it was different from most white folks' hair, too. He was darker than most whites, but Mom said he was Italian. That was why my baby brother had such dark skin and curly hair. Mom told us From LIFE ON THE COLOR LINE by Gregory Williams. Copyright © 1995 by Gregory Williams. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. Copyrighted Material 358 Gregory Williams to be proud of our Italian heritage! That's it, I decided. He was Italian. I leaned back against the seat, satisfied. Yet the unsettling image of Miss Sallie flashed before me like a neon sign. Colored! Colored! Colored! He continued. "Life is going to be different from now on. In Virginia you were white boys. In Indiana you're going to be colored boys. I want you to remember that you're the same today that you were yesterday. But people in Indiana will treat you differently." I refused to believe Dad. I looked at Mike. His skin, like mine, was a light, almost pallid, white. He had Dad's deep brown eyes, too, but our hair was straight. Leaning toward Dad, I examined his hands for a sign, a black mark. There was nothing. I knew I was right, but I sensed something was wrong. Fear overcame me as I faced the Ohio countryside and pondered the discovery of my life. "I don't wanta be colored," Mike whined. "I don't wanta be colored. We can't go swimmin ' or skatin'," he said louder. Nearby passengers turned toward us. "Shut up, Mike." I punched him in the chest. He hit me in the nose. I lunged for him. We tumbled into the aisle. My knee banged against a sharp aluminum edge. The fatigues ripped. I squeezed his neck. His eyes bulged. I squeezed harder. Whap! Pain...