Uncle Rufus’s Whiskers and Other Stories the Old Folks Told

The old folks in our family were more proud of being part Cherokee than just about anything else – even though we probably weren’t. Whenever we got together, they told stories about heroic Cherokee leaders and the white men who stole their land.

Every summer, homecoming brought the family back to Meat Camp, a near ghost-community near Brewton, Alabama, where my great grandparents had farmed. From all over Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle they came, with blankets, benches, lawn chairs, coolers, and baskets filled with everything that was ever good to eat.
The roughhewn and weatherworn table, four times the length of Uncle Eb’s pickup truck, was crowded with jugs of sweet tea and lemonade, bowls, pans, and platters of food – fried chicken, two or three hams, fried fish, snap peas, turnip greens, collards, salads, banana pudding, apple turnovers, and every kind of cake and pie you can name. Mama’s fried chicken was always the first to go because her chicken was the best in the country. Everybody said so.

I was nine, and Daddy was right about one thing, even though I got mad when he said it – my eyes were bigger than my stomach. But what child wouldn’t be seduced by such a spectacle? I loaded chicken and dumplings, ham, potato salad, fried okra, and creamed corn onto my plate, and sat under the oaks where I would be able to eat less than half of it.

I listened to the grownups talk, mostly, it seemed to me, about who was sick or dying, having marriage trouble, or a new baby. I was bored until Uncle Eb said, “We’re part Cherokee on Grandpa Thomas’s side. His granddaddy was half Cherokee – his mama was full-blooded. He had a decent-sized farm up in North Carolina, near Gastonia as I understand it, though we don’t know for sure. But he was well off.
“Then,” Uncle Eb paused to make sure everyone was paying attention before he went on in a dramatic voice, “a white man tried to steal his land. There was a fight and our great granddaddy killed him. Of course, the law took the white man’s side and went after him. He had to leave his farm in the dead of night. That’s how we came to live in Alabama. He moved down here where his daddy had family, married a white woman, and lived the rest of his life as a white man.”

I was part Cherokee! That was something to brag about. I told the kids at school. Then, right in front of everybody, Jimmy Baker said it wasn’t true, because, “you have yellow hair and blue eyes. That proves you’re not any part Indian. I should know, because we really are Indian. My daddy and I both have black hair and eyes. That proves it.”

Facing the kids, in my almost too-white skin and my dishwater-blond hair, my face burned red. I knew he was wrong, but I was scared he was right.

I had to wait till the next family gathering to learn the truth. When I told them what Jimmy Baker had said, Grandmama’s pale eyes shot sparks. She snapped out, “Pshaw! I know those Bakers and they are no more Cherokee than I’m a rooster. Black hair, my foot! That boy’s Daddy may have hair black as tar, but his beard’s red and bushy as the whitest man’s on earth. Everybody knows Indians don’t have chin whiskers at all and they for sure don’t have red ones.”

Uncle Tup chimed in, “It’s been some generations, but you can still see the Cherokee in some of us. Look your Uncle Rufus. He’s never had to shave a day in his life. The most whiskers he ever had at once were two or three.”
Daddy put down his sweet tea. “I remember when I was a boy. Uncle Rufus would get dressed up for church, then he’d rub his chin. Any few whiskers there, he’d pull out while he walked and be clean as a whistle by the time he got to the church house.”

I was reassured of my heritage. Uncle Rufus’s whiskers proved I was part Cherokee!

From that day on I accepted my Cherokee ancestry as true, until my cousin mailed away one of those DNA tests kits. The thing declared us to be just plain, ordinary Europeans. It shook me at first, but after giving it some thought, maybe it’s wrong. It’s hard to dispute Uncle Rufus’s whiskers.

January 22, 2019