Jolly Ranchers, Taffies, and Receipts

By Cassander L. Smith

The author of Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic on what inspired her latest monograph.

Photo by Mesha Mittanasala

I don’t remember my exact age or the year, but I know the incident that first brought me face-to-face with respectability politics. I could not have been more than five or six. Maybe seven. It was the mid-1980s, a hot summer day in South Carolina. Summers are always hot in South Carolina. I was riding in a car with my aunt, four sisters and brothers, and two cousins. We were seven kids deep, between three and ten years old, piled into the back of a money-green Lincoln Continental. Nobody strapped in with seatbelts, which wasn’t illegal back then. And booster seats were not a thing. Or if they were, nobody I knew had them in their cars. No clue where we were headed. My aunt could have been taking us anywhere—to vacation Bible school, to the grocery store, or maybe to the planetarium over at South Carolina State for a bit of summer enrichment. Wherever we were headed, we needed gas to get there. My aunt pulled up to the pump at a Kent’s Korner convenience store. That wasn’t a big deal. The big deal was when she reached into her little leather change purse with the metal snap and unfolded a small wad of cash, then gave each of us a dollar bill to spend in the store.

Now, I have to tell you a little bit about my auntie. She didn’t have any kids of her own, but she loved kids as far as I could tell. Or more precisely, she loved her nieces and nephews. She was an auntie extraordinaire. On our birthdays, she gave us white gym socks taken out of the pack and rolled up tight in a square box. A practical gift. We would have to unroll the socks to find the dollars tucked inside. She did this until we were ten. She showed up for school plays, basketball games, track meets, chorus recitals. During those dog days of summer, she shuffled us the forty-five miles, one way, to the Holiday Inn in Aiken so we could swim in the pool of the hotel where she worked as night shift manager.

As much as she loved kids, my aunt didn’t mess with babies too tough. Don’t try to set a drooling, diapered infant on her lap. She didn’t have time for that. But once they could get up and go, it was all good. One of my most enduring images from childhood is of my aunt creeping down Denmark Highway, maybe five miles an hour, with the caution blinkers flashing bright red to warn oncoming cars. It was mid-July, early morning. The seven of us kids were hanging out the car windows, already sweating from a sun that doesn’t hesitate to shine bright and early during the summer. Squinting against the mid-morning sun, we kept our eyes peeled for discarded aluminum cans along the side of the road. We sold those cans to the local recycling center for something like fifty cents a pound. Since we were too young for part-time jobs at McDonald’s or picking peaches at Pat’s Orchard, this was how we earned pocket money, which we spent on boiled peanuts and chocolate-coated moon pies.

In my child’s mind, my aunt was the next best thing to Christ. She didn’t drink or cuss. And loved music. All kinds of music. Her favorite was gospel. The woman couldn’t hold a tune in her back pocket, but that did not stop her from joining the church choir. She was even a song leader. Her sharp soprano stood out because it was full of passion. It also was full of a piercing agony that made you wince whenever she went up for a high C. More Sundays than not she led this up-tempo number with the lyrics, “The Lord is everything to meeeee / He said He would my comfort beeeee / The Lord God said he would be right there / My God is everywhere!” The way she sang it, wrapped her lips around every syllable of every word, made you feel the fire, catch the Holy Ghost, too, if you weren’t careful. The sharpness of her meeeeeee and beeeeeeeee didn’t matter. She clapped loud, hard, in a syncopated rhythm on the chorus of the song, “God said it,” clap-clap-clap, “I believe it.” Clap-pause-clap. “God said it,” clap-clap-clap, “I believe it.” Clap-pause-clap. “And ohohoh, I’m gonna take him at his woooord!”

Standing barely more than five feet tall, my aunt was a petite woman with short arms and legs. She wore big, square-framed glasses and had long, loose curls that bounced in rhythm with the music. We didn’t have microphones, but it was no worry because her voice projected to the very back of the small church. We didn’t have instruments, either, except for a bongo my cousin played to keep the beat. So, my aunt sang a cappella. Us kids were part of the choir backing her up. As the church folk would say, my aunt had good religion.

At the Kent’s Korner that day, I grabbed the dollar she proffered, mumbled a quick thank-you, and beelined it for the store. Again, this was 1980-something. A dollar could go a really long way back then. That gas my aunt needed, for example, was maybe sixty cents a gallon. As for us kids, a dollar could buy a Cheerwine or SunDrop plus a bag of Doritos. And you’d still have a quarter left over to buy penny candy.

I wasn’t really interested in the soda and chips. I wanted that candy, one hundred pieces to be exact. I reckoned that it would last longer than chips and drinks. Plus, I could use the candy later to taunt the rest of the kids or bribe them for the privilege of sitting by the back door in the car; everybody wanted the window seat. I went over to the candy bucket and counted out my one hundred pieces, an assortment of Jolly Ranchers and taffies mostly, with a few Tootsie Rolls mixed in. I made the tail end of my shirt into an impromptu shopping bag and carried the candy over to the register. I could barely reach the top of the counter, but I managed to get all the candies up there without dropping a single piece. Their cellophane wrappings made crinkling noises as they plopped against the counter. The cashier proceeded to count up the candies. I gave the cashier my dollar, then snatched my candies off the counter and stuffed them into the front and back pockets of my shorts. What wouldn’t fit into my pockets, I clutched in my hands and then walked out of the store.

I half-skipped, half-ran to the car. I was so consumed with my purchase that I didn’t notice the scowl on my aunt’s face, or maybe I couldn’t see it because the sun’s glare bounced off the frame of her glasses. She stood there between her car and the gas pump, those short arms akimbo, hot air and gas fumes swirling all around. I didn’t register her anger, in fact, until I was standing next to the car right in front of her. She slapped my hand. All the candies I had been holding in that fist fell to the ground; they popped against the concrete like so many jumping beans. “Go back in that store,” she ordered. “You get a bag—and a receipt!” She swirled her index finger in a circular motion, a sign for me to retrace my steps.

A teensy part of me wanted to wail at the top of my lungs for all my lost candy. But I was too embarrassed at that point to cry. She had popped me in front of EVERYBODY! Then the embarrassment turned to anger. Even if it was her money, she had no right to waste perfectly good candy like that. To add insult to injury, I wasn’t exactly sure why she was so mad. I knew better than to ask any questions or say anything. My one and only recourse was to turn around and do exactly what she said. I headed back into the store. I like to think I stomped the pavement a few times as a tiny bit of resistance.

When I got back to the car, with what was remaining of my candy properly secured in a brown paper bag, my aunt and everybody else was seated and ready to go. Before she pulled off from the gas station, though, my aunt looked at me through the rearview mirror. By this time her face had softened a bit. The scowl was gone. The straight line of her lips had turned up ever so slightly. Her voice was less harsh if not less insistent, as she said, “Don’t ever walk out of a store without your stuff in a bag. Make somebody think you stole it. That goes for all of y’all.” Through the mirror, her eyes scanned each and every one of us crammed into that back seat. “Here,” she said, shifting around in her seat and handing me the candies I had dropped earlier. She had picked them up off the ground.

To this day, some four decades later, I never walk out of a store without a receipt and my purchases in a bag. Even amid the push to save the environment by reducing paper waste, I insist on having my paper receipts. It is part of my hard-wiring. That same kind of hard-wiring that makes Black folks avoid driving through upscale neighborhoods with the music turned up loud in the car. Or speak the “King’s English” when in mixed company. Or sit mute and passive when pulled over by the cops. That mindset is at the heart of the respectability politics I address in Race and Respectability.

Cassander L. Smith is associate professor of English and associate dean for academic affairs of the Honors College at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She is the author of Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the Early Atlantic World and the coeditor of several books, including The Earliest African American Literatures: A Critical Reader.

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Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic examines the means through which people of African descent embodied tenets of respectability as a coping strategy to navigate enslavement and racial oppression in the early Black Atlantic world. To study the origins of the complicated relationship between race and respectability, Cassander L. Smith shows that early American literatures reveal Black communities engaging with issues of respectability from the very beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Through these early Black texts, Race and Respectability in an Early Black Atlantic considers respectability politics as a malleable strategy that has both energized and suppressed Black cultures for centuries.

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