Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's

Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), by Sunny Nash, is now in digital format.

Bigmama Didn't Shop 
at Woolworth's
by Sunny Nash

Bigmama Didn't Shop 
at Woolworth's
by Sunny Nash

Kindle Fire HD 8.9" Tablet, 32 GB 
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Selected by the Association of American University Presses as a tool for understanding race relations in the United States, Nash's book earned her a California Literary Fellowship in 2003. In 2010, Nash earned a second California Literary Fellowship for a book she is currently completing. Read more on Sunny Nash's Amazon Profile: BIGMAMA DIDN'T SHOP AT WOOLWORTH'S

Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's was selected for Spotlight on Texasnarrated by Linda Fox, par of a biannual announcement of the latest audio books produced at the Talking Book Program Volunteer Recording Studio in Austin, Texas, and Recording Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Midland, Texas. Audio versions of  Spotlight on Texas books are distributed on request to Texans with disabilities who are registered to receive the Talking Book Program's free library.

"When I wrote Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, based on syndicated columns I had written for Hearst and Knight-Ridder newspapers," Nash said. "I was not writing about race relations, specifically. I was writing about growing up with my part-Comanche maternal grandmother, Bigmama, in the 1950s and ‘60s.  It just so happened that my life occurred during a period deeply steeped in racism that ushered in the period of Jim Crow laws and the modern Civil Rights Movement. Under those circumstances, it would be difficult not to at least touch upon racism and race relations. My life was good. We didn’t sit around thinking and talking about segregation when it wasn’t being thrown in our faces. We found joy in an ordinary day."

Glencoe Literature

In the essay, My Grandmother’s Sit-in, an essay in Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, which is included in Glencoe Literature: the reader's choice, Nash, a little girl at the time, tells of her experience with Bigmama at a segregated hospital in Navasota, Texas. When Bigmama was ignored at the reception desk, Nash followed her to the seating areas and remembers the colored and white only signs above the benches. Nash writes:

Like a smoking gun, Bigmama stood there staring at the sign, studying it. That was curious to me. She knew how to read. Why was she staring at the word 'colored' like she’d never seen it before? After all, 'colored' and 'white only' were the first words southerners learned to read and the only words illiterate southerners recognized.
I’d been reading 'colored' since I was three. When Bigmama taught me to recognize the word, I was so young, I don’t remember yet having seen my own reflection in a mirror. When I was drawing on the floor one day, she knelt, picked up a crayon, and, on a piece of my paper, wrote a word in large black letters. She called out each letter as if trying to make me aware of our vulgar circumstances without soiling me in the process.

“I’m sorry I have to to teach you this ugly word, colored,” she said “I wish I didn’t. But if I don’t make you understand, you’ll have one hurt after another all of your life or you’ll go out and get yourself killed.”

I stared at the letters she wrote...
Afraid that my grandmother and I would be arrested or worse, my blood ran cold sitting under the 'white only' sign. I was proud and ashamed at the same time but too terrified to look up and see other people watching us.

“I was about your age when the Supreme Court used the railroad to legalize what they called ‘separate but equal,’” Bigmama said. “It was 1896. Plessy v. Ferguson made things separate, but it sure didn’t make them equal.”

Bigmama shifted in her chair and looked at me, whispering, “All Mr. Plessy wanted was a first-class train ticket. Well he could spend first-class money on a first-class ticket But Jim Crow said he couldn’t put his black behind in a first-class seat.”

Jim Crow Laws
“Who’s Jim Crow?” I asked.

“A minstrel show character with a shiny painted black face and big white lips,” she said, glancing up at the sign. “Two nations under God, one ‘white only’ and the other one ‘colored.’ They wrote laws to keep us from using their restrooms, drinking from their water fountains, trying on clothes in a store, eating with them, going to school with them, marrying them and being buried under the same dirt with them.”

“Was Jim Crow before or after the South lost their war?” I asked softly hardly breathing.

"The North may have won the Civil War in the history books, but the South didn’t lose,” whispered Bigmama, smiling with a frown between her eyes as she often did. “The North gave the South everything the South was fighting to keep; because the North, the South, the West and the East all wanted the same thing—us in a low place.”

My grandmother got up, smoothed her coat, and politely nodded to the other stunned hospital guests. “I’m going now,” she said. “I never stay long where I’m not wanted.”
& My Mother
Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s is listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center in New York and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

Bigmama did not shop at Woolworth’s. She didn’t trust the quality of anything that cost a nickel or a dime and she didn’t like the idea that she, as a woman of African American and Native American heritage, didn’t have full access to everything in the store available to other customers. “I used to read Sunny Nash's column,” wrote Cahiron Suir of Silicon Valley, California. “It was my favorite part of that paper…Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's is an amazing look back at what for some Americans--either for our age or our background--is an unknown history.

"Bigmama didn't shop at Woolworth's because black shoppers were not welcome in stores on the Main Streets of southern towns in the pre-civil rights era. "Another reason Bigmama didn't shop at Woolworth's," Nash said. "Is Bigmama wasn't all that impressed with the quality of Woolworth's merchandise. She was a wise and practical woman who taught me what life really was and how life really should be. My memoir of growing up in the 1950s in the segregated Candy Hill neighborhood describes the love and warmth of the community as well as the many obstacles people faced."

In Door-to-Door Sales, Nash writes:

On Tuesdays, elderly Mr. Watkins came to Candy Hill in his Blue Chevy and brought goods to show to my somewhat rude but unpretentious grandmother. She preferred his ill-fitting matronly line of light cotton print dresses to the slightly nicer ones that she was not allowed to try on downtown.

“May as well buy cheap clothes from Mr. Watkins,” I overheard my grandmother say to Miss Odessa. “Can’t try on those high-priced clothes downtown. Everybody scared some black is going to rub off of you on the clothes and end up on some of them.” She laughed.

Below, in the essay, Private Business, Nash writes:

Bigmama’s brother-in-law, George--a jet black gentleman cowboy with one of the few cars in the family (in the 1950s)—waited for Bigmama out front in his shiny black Buick.

When he was young, Uncle George broke horses and punched cattle on the Yeager ranch near Iola. He’d retired years before but still lived in a cabin on the ranch, and the Yeagers made sure he had a new car every two years or so.

Cowboy Boots
Before I was born, Uncle George was married to Bigmama’s sister, Lill, until her death. Uncle George never remarried.

He got out of the car and opened the trunk for Bigmama’s suitcase. His sweet-smelling cologne drifted from the street to my nose. As usual, he wore a crisp white shirt, gray pinstriped suit, cream Stetson hat, and fancy cowboy boots.

“Come on, Wideface, he called to my grandmother. He said Wideface was Bigmama’s Comanche name. I don’t know which annoyed her more—being called by that name or being identified with that group. “If you weren’t as black as midnight,” she called back to him, “you’d be a white man."

In Faces on Dark Thrones, an essay from Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, Nash explores her great aunt’s fear-based beliefs and her grandmother’s explanation of them during a visit to see her great grandfather. Nash writes:

I walked into the darkened bedroom through a blistered doorway that, in 1954, when I was only five years old, seemed very tall to me. Inside the room, heavy draperies sagged from two narrow floor-to-ceiling windows, sealed shut so long ago that several seasons of dead houseflies lined their sills.

My Great-Aunt Sis said the carpenters had painted the windows shut when they worked on the house back in the forties. But, according to my grandmother, Bigmama, Aunt Sis lied about the windows. Bigmama said the windows were not painted shut at all. Aunt Sis had ordered the workmen to nail them shut because she was afraid.

“Afraid of what?” I asked.

"Everything!” Bigmama said. “Her own shadow, owl hoots, and even night falling.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Some of my people have lived three generations with one eye open over their shoulder,” Bigmama said. “Fear is bred in prairie blood, always on the run. Afraid the ghost of some old dead soldier will pop out their eyes and lock them up in a pen. Sis passed that awful curse to my children since she has none of her own. But fear can’t take over a body unless a body gives in to it...”

“Go over there and let your great grandfather see you, child,” Aunt Sis said again, nudging me closer to the bed where the old man half sat and half laid in the middle of a semicircle of pillows against the tall black headboard. Carved figures of human like animal faces strained against the dark wood and gazed out of colorless eyeballs. The shapes of leaves and roses protruded from the wood, crowning the top of the massive structure like a throne, holding my great grandfather.

The Prairie People Bigmama referred to were the remnant bands of Amerindians, full- and half-bloods, partially or wholly absorbed into other American cultures in the United States. Bigmama’s father was one such case of a dark-skinned Amerindian marrying into and hiding among the members of a black family because African Americans were treated better in some places than Native Americans.

Many times, when people write about a particular period in history, like the pre-civil rights era in America, they tend to omit or sometimes may forget to talk about the things that are universal about growing up. "I have read some bitter accounts of life, which may all be true," Nash said. "Although I have had my share of sadness, it is difficult for me to identify with people who write as if they have felt no joy ever. In my book, I try to answer all the questions that someone who was not there in the era of Jim Crow laws may have. That is how we discover our similarities."

The video below, The Tutu, shows the side of life in my neighborhood. My mother, my father and my grandmother gave me every advantage that I would have gotten had we been a white family. I took dancing and piano lessons. Our modest library in the corner of our living room was better stocked with books, encyclopedia and periodicals than the one at my school. We went on car trips around the state to visit family and traveled by train to other states. Don't ask me how they did it, but my family believed in educating me and exposing me to, what some may call, the finer things. And when the time came, they sent me to college.

An excerpt from an essay, The Tutu, Nash writes:
The steady pumping sound of Aunt Lucille’s dusty shoe on the sewing machine pedal sent the fragile pink fabric cascading upon the floor, to the rhythm of the faint machine buzz. Stopping every now and then, Aunt Lucille straightened seams, adjusted fabric, put in or removed a pin, and pulled threads. Without thinking, she seemed to know what to do. Catching  a glimpse of me looking at her, she smiled and held the tutu out to me. “Come try this on.”

“After slavery, lots more Indians hid out and mixed with Africans to keep from being put in the pen or killed,” Bigmama said. “Cut off their hair and they blended right in...”

“Did your father give you the Indian name that Uncle George calls you?” I asked Bigmama, staring at her for a long time, while she decided not to tell me anything more. How well I knew that look.

“We’re going to leave this old talk along, now.” She seemed to snap back from somewhere far away. “You don’t need to know that old slavery time prairie business. I didn’t teach it to my children, and I’m not telling you. The old way is gone. Knowing about it can’t help you in this world.”

“But Bigmama.”

Lumbee Indians
in Jim Crow South
“Folks are scared of the word, Comanche!”  She scolded. “They hate anybody they believe got one drop of that blood. Safer to be African than Comanche!”
I shivered.

“Now, let it rest,” she said

‘That’s why you hate it when Uncle George calls you by your other name,” I whispered.

Subsiding into aloofness, she seemed to forget I was even there. She wouldn’t have been more alone on a mountaintop in the wind. I didn’t mind allowing her to escape. I’d found myself doing the same thing when something annoyed or bored me.

In the excerpt below, from Movies—Not Just Black-and-White, another essay about the first time her mother took her to lunch and the movies, Nash writes:

Without reply, my mother dug into her tiny cloth coin purse and paid. Time passed as slowly as it could before her change and our food arrived.

“Y’all can’t eat in here,” the cook said. Without a word, my mother grabbed my hand and dragged  me to the back door. As we stood outside and ate in silence, I thought I saw a tear sparkle on my mother’s cheek as the day’s last sunlight stroked her face.

Buttered Popcorn

With a few drops of rain falling on us, we took the short walk to the Palace Theater and stood at the ticket window outside the main lobby. The aroma of buttered popcorn floated through the little round hole in the glass where the ticket woman worked.

To avoid getting wet in the shower, the moviegoers dashed through a glass front door into a dry, comfortable lobby filled with tiny white lights, velvet draperies, and red carpet. By the time my mother and I got our tickets, big drops of rain were splashing down on our heads. With her hair heavy with water, sliding into her face, my mother dug into her tiny cloth coin purse and paid.

The little blue door on the outside of the theater slammed us inside the darkest place I’d ever been—like a coffin, I thought, holding my mother’s hand.

Bigmama Didn't Shop 
at Woolworth's

by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s can be purchased at all major bookstores, domestic and international.

“Sunny Nash's writing makes readers feel they are there, experiencing the characters' anxieties, fears, joys, and hope," according to Rebecca C. Burgee, Pimmit Hills Alternative High School in Falls Church, Virginia. “Young people will learn a lot from this book; it is poignant in its teachings about discrimination.”

Robin Fruble of Southern California said, “Every white person in America should read this book (Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s)! Sunny Nash writes the story of her childhood without preaching or ranting but she made me realize for the first time just how much skin color changes how one experiences the world.  But, if your skin color is brown, it matters a great deal to a great number of people. I needed to learn that. Sunny Nash is a great teacher,” Fruble said.

Buy  Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's by Sunny Nash