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Quincy Troupe is a poet, journalist, and teacher. He won the 1980 American Book Award for poetry. He has published essays and articles in Essence, the Village Voice, Newsday, Spin, Musician, and many other publications. He was the editor of James Baldwin: The Legacy, and is a professor at the College of Staten Island (City University of New York) and at Columbia University.
The authors received a 1990 American Book Award for Miles.
The very first thing I remember in my early childhood is a flame, a blue flame jumping off a gas stove somebody lit. It might have been me playing around with the stove. I don't remember who it was. Anyway, I remember being shocked by the whoosh of the blue flame jumping off the burner, the suddenness of it. That's as far back as I can remember; any further back than this is just fog, you know, just mystery. But that stove flame is as clear as music is in my mind. I was three years old.
I saw that flame and felt that hotness of it close to my face. I felt fear, real fear, for the first time in my life. But I remember it also like some kind of adventure, some kind of weird joy, too. I guess that experience took me someplace in my head I hadn't been before. To some frontier, the edge, maybe, of everything possible. I don't know; I never tried to analyze it before. The fear I had was almost like an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about. That's where I think my personal philosophy of life and my commitment to everything I believe in started, with that moment. I don't know, but I think it might be true. Who knows? What the fuck did I know about anything back then? In my mind I have always believed and thought since then that my motion had to be forward, away from the heat of that flame.
Looking back, I don't remember much of my first years -- I never liked to look back much anyway. But one thing I do know is that the year after I was born a bad tornado hit St. Louis and tore it all up. Seems like I remember something about that -- something in the bottom of my memory. Maybe that's why I have such a bad temper sometimes; that tornado left some of its violent creativity in me. Maybe it left some of its strong winds. You know, you need strong wind to play trumpet. I do believe in mystery and the supernatural and a tornado sure enough is mysterious and supernatural.
I was born May 26, 1926, in Alton, Illinois, a little river town up on the Mississippi River about twenty-five miles north of East St. Louis. I was named after my father; he was named after his father. That made me Miles Dewey Davis III, but everybody in my family called me Junior. I always hated that nickname.
My father was from Arkansas. He grew up there on a farm that his father, Miles Dewey Davis I, owned. My grandfather was a bookkeeper, so good at what he did he did it for white people and made a whole lot of money. He bought five hundred acres of land in Arkansas around the turn of the century. When he bought all that land, the white people in the area who had used him to straighten out their financial matters, their money books, turned against him. Ran him off his land. In their minds, a black man wasn't supposed to have all that land and all that money. He wasn't supposed to be smart, smarter than them. It hasn't changed too much; things are like that even today.
For most of my life my grandfather lived under threats from white men. He even used his son, my Uncle Frank, as a bodyguard to protect him from them. The Davises were always ahead of the game, my father and grandfather told me. And I believed them. They told me that people in our family were special people -- artists, businessmen, professionals, and musicians -- who played for the plantation owners back in the old days before slavery was over. These Davises played classical music, according to my grandfather. That's the reason my father couldn't play or listen to music after slavery was over, because my grandfather said, "They only let black people play in gin houses and honky-tonks." What he meant was that they -- the white people -- didn't want to listen to no black folks playing classical music anymore; they only wanted to hear them sing spirituals or the blues. Now, I don't know how true this is, but that's what my father told me.
My father also told me my grandfather told him that whenever he got some money, no matter where or who he got it from, to count it and see if it was all there. He said you can't trust no one when it comes to money, not even people in your family. One time my grandfather gave my father what he said was $1,000 and sent him to the bank with it. The bank was thirty miles away from where they lived. It was about 100 degrees in the shade -- summertime in Arkansas. And he had to walk and ride a horse. When my father got down there to the bank, he counted the money and there was only $950. He counted it again and got the same amount: $950. So he went on back home, so scared he was just about ready to shit in his pants. When he got back he went to my grandfather and said that he lost $50. So Grandpa just stood there and looked at him and said, "Did you count the money before you left? Do you know if it was all there?" My father said, no, he didn't count the money before he left. "That's right," my grandfather told him, "because I didn't give you nothing but $950. You didn't lose anything. But didn't I tell you to count the money, anybody's money, even mine? Here's $50. Count it. And then go ahead on back and put that money in the bank like I told you." Now what you got to keep in mind about all of this is that not only was the bank thirty miles away but it was hotter than a motherfucker. It was cold of my grandfather to do that. But sometimes you've got to be cold like that. It was a lesson my father never forgot and he passed it on to his kids. So today I count all my money.
My father, like my mother, Cleota Henry Davis, was born in 1900 in Arkansas. He went to elementary school there. My father and his brothers and sisters didn't go to high school, just skipped right over it and went straight to college. He graduated from Arkansas Baptist College, from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and from Northwestern University's College of Dentistry, so my father received three degrees and I remember looking at them motherfuckers up on his office wall after I got older and saying, "Goddamn, I hope he won't ask me to do that." I also remember seeing a picture somewhere of his graduating class from Northwestern and counting only three black faces there. He was twenty-four when he graduated from Northwestern.
His brother, Ferdinand, went to Harvard and some college in Berlin. He was a year or two older than my father, and like my father, he skipped over high school. He went straight into college after passing the entrance exam with high scores. He was a brilliant guy also; used to talk to me all the time about Caesar and Hannibal, and black history. He traveled all over the world. He was more intellectual than my father, and a ladies' man and player, editor of a magazine called Color. He was so smart he made me feel almost dumb; he was the only person I knew growing up who made me feel this way. Uncle Ferdinand was something else. I loved being around him, hearing him talk and tell stories about his travels, his women. And he was stylish as a motherfucker, too. I hung around him so n that my mother would get mad.
My father got out of Northwestern and married my mother. She played the violin and the piano. Her mother had been an organ teacher in Arkansas. She never talked much about her father, so I don't know much about her side of the family, never did, never asked either. I don't know why that is. From what I have heard of them, though, and the ones I did meet, they seemed to be middle class and a little uppity in their attitudes.
My mother was a beautiful woman. She had a whole lot of style, with an East Indian, Carmen McRae look, and dark, nut-brown, smooth skin. High cheekbones and Indian-like hair. Big beautiful eyes. Me and my brother Vernon looked like her. She had mink coats, diamonds; she was a very glamorous woman who was into all kinds of hats and things, and all my mother's friends seemed just as glamorous to me as she was. She always dressed to kill. I got my looks from my mother and also my love of clothes and sense of style. I guess you could say I got whatever artistic talent I have from her also.
But I didn't get along with her too well. Maybe it was because we both had strong, independent personalities. We seemed to argue all the time. I loved my mother; she was something else. She didn't even know how to cook. But, like I said, I loved her even if we weren't close. She had her mind about the way I should be doing things and I had mine. I was this way even when I was young. I guess you could say I was more like my mother than my father. Although I've got some of him in me, too.
My father settled first in Alton, Illinois, where me and my sister Dorothy were born, then moved the family to East St. Louis, on 14th and Broadway, where my father had his dental practice up over Daut's Drugstore. At first we lived upstairs behind his office, in the back.
Another thing I think about with East St. Louis is that it was there, back in 1917, that those crazy, sick white people killed all those black people in a race riot. See, St. Louis and East St. Louis were -- and still are -- big packing-house towns, towns where they slaughter cows and pigs for grocery stores and supermarkets, restaurants and everything else. They ship the cows and pigs up from Texas or from wherever else it is that they come from and then they kill them and pack them up in St. Louis and East St. Louis. That's what the East St. Louis race riot in 1917 was supposed to be about: black workers replacing white workers in the packing houses. So, the white workers got mad and went on a rampage killing all them black people. That same year black men were fighting in World War I to help the United States save the world for democracy. They sent us to war to fight and die for them over there; killed us like nothing over here. And it's still like that today. Now, ain't that a bitch. Anyway, maybe some of remembering that is in my personality and comes out in the way I look at most white people. Not all, because there are some great white people. But the way they killed all them black people back then -- just shot them down like they were out shooting pigs or stray dogs. Shot them in their houses, shot babies and women. Burned down houses with people in them and hung some black men from lampposts. Anyway, black people there who survived used to talk about it. When I was coming up in East St. Louis, black people I knew never forgot what sick white people had done to them back in 1917.
My brother Vernon was born the year the stock market crashed and all the rich white men started jumping out of them Wall Street windows. It was 1929. We had been living in East St. Louis for about two years. My older sister, Dorothy, was five. There was just three of us, Dorothy, Vernon, and me in the middle. We have always been close all our lives, my sister and my brother, even when we are arguing.
The neighborhood was very nice, with row houses, something like the ones they have in Philadelphia or Baltimore. It was a pretty little city. It's not like that anymore. But I remember it was that way back then. The neighborhood was also integrated, with Jews and Germans and Armenians and Greeks living all around us. Catercorner across the street from the house was Golden Rule's Grocery Store, owned by Jews. On one side was a filling station, with ambulances coming in all the time, sirens blasting, to fill up with gas. Next door was my father's best friend, Dr. John Eubanks, who was a physician. Dr. Eubanks was so light he almost looked white. His wife, Alma, or Josephine, I forget which, was almost white, too. She was a fine lady, yellow, like Lena Horne, with curly black, shiny hair. My mother would send me over to their house to get something and his wife would be sitting there with her legs crossed, looking finer than a motherfucker. She had great legs and she didn't mind showing them either. As a matter of fact she looked good everywhere! Anyway, Uncle Johnny -- that's what we called her husband, Dr. Eubanks -- gave me my first trumpet.
Next to the drugstore under us, and before you got to Uncle Johnny's house, was a tavern owned by John Hoskins, a black man who everybody called Uncle Johnny Hoskins. He played saxophone in the back of his tavern. All the old-timers in the neighborhood went there to drink, talk, and listen to music. When I got older, I played there once or twice. Then there was a restaurant owned by a black man named Thigpen down the block. He sold good soul food; the place was real nice. His daughter Leticia and my sister, Dorothy, were good friends. Next to the restaurant was a German lady who owned a dry goods store. This was all on Broadway going toward the Mississippi River. And there was the Deluxe Theatre, a neighborhood movie theater on 15th going toward Bond Street, away from the river. All along 15th paralleling the river toward Bond were all kinds of stores and places like that owned by blacks, or Jews, or Germans, or Greeks, or Armenians, who had most of the cleaning places.
Over on 16th and Broadway this Greek family owned a fish market and made the best jack salmon sandwiches in East St. Louis. I was friends with the son of the guy who owned it. His name was Leo. Everytime I'd see him, as we got bigger, we'd wrestle. We were about six. But he died when the house he lived in burned down. I remember them bringing him out on a stretcher with his skin all peeling off. He was burnt like a hot dog when you fry it. It was grotesque, horrible-looking shit, man. Later, when somebody asked me about that and whether Leo said anything to me when they brought him out, I remember saying, "He didn't say, 'Hello, Miles, how you doing, let's wrestle,' or nothing like that." Anyway, that was shocking to me because we were both around the same age, though I think he was a little older. He was a nice little cat. I used to have a lot of fun with him.
The first school I went to was John Robinson. It was located on 15th and Bond. Dorothy, my sister, went one year at a Catholic school, then transferred over to John Robinson, too. I met my first best friend in the first grade there. His name was Millard Curtis, and for years after we met we went almost everywhere together. We were the same age. I had other good friends in East St. Louis later, as I got more into music -- musician friends -- because Millard didn't play music. But I knew him the longest and we did so many things together that we were almost like brothers.
I'm pretty sure Millard came to my sixth birthday party. I remember this birthday party because my boys, guys I was hanging out with at the time, said to me, let's go hang out on the runway -- the wooden scaffolding that runs across sign boards, them billboards that have them ads all pasted over them. We would go and climb up on them, sit on the scaffolds with our feet dangling down in the air and eat crackers and potted ham. Anyway, my boys told me we might as well go do this because later I was having a birthday party, so wasn't none of them going to school that day. See, it was supposed to be a surprise birthday party, but all of them knew it and told me all about what was happening. Anyway, I think I was six; I could have been seven. I remember this cute little girl named Velma Brooks being at the party. Her and a whole lot of other pretty little girls with short dresses, like miniskirts...
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