His face be pale white, like after all this time, he just didn’t realise it before now. I smooth down my white uniform, as is habit. “Black children ain’t meant to play with white children.”
“And that’s law, is it?”
“I don’t know ‘bout no laws, suh.”
“All I’m saying is, there are laws about black children in white schools, white diners, white libraries, white water fountains… Where are the laws about black children playing with white children?”
“Them kinda laws don’t be in no law book, Charlie. Them kinda laws just be Mississippi laws.”

Lila is a thirteen year old maid, working for a family in Coldwater, Mississippi. Charlie is a sixteen year old boy, living in that family.
Life is fiercely divided: especially amongst the children of the state.
But charlie isn't like any other boy.
The two of them embark on an unforgettable journey: to Washington, to march with Dr. King to save their Mississippi.


2. Chapter One

Some white man had once said that whatever people say ‘bout you, you just gotta hold your head up high and don’t listen to what lies they tell. I always found it funny how a white man said that, cause in my opinion; no white man would ever know how that feel.

Out here in Coldwater, Mississippi, Tate County, the white man rule supreme. Us peoples have to listen to what they say, or we in trouble. And sometimes, they ask us to do some pretty God damn stupid things. Just last week his boss, Miss Stephanie, asked my best friend Stevie if he could rake up all the leaves in her backyard and organize them into color. Now, that sounds bad enough, but it’s even worse when the heat’s up to a sweaty eighty-two degrees.

Stevie’s the gardener of Miss Stephanie, and he old. Real old. Seventy-four years, and he still raking the leaves in her backyard.

People might think it strange how an old man like that ne a thirteen year old girl’s best friend, but around here in Mississippi you take what you given, ‘specially when it comes to friends.

Stevie’s a kind old man, but he also tells real good stories. When he was just a little boy, he lived in Botswana, Africa. I ain’t never been outside the US of A, and these stories be like rich dark melted chocolate to me. The stories be of the bush as those peoples call it: of lions and snakes and great big giraffes that have necks as long as a church spire.

I love hearing Stevie tell these stories to me, but sooner or later we get to the bit when Stevie gets thrown on a big, cramped boat and shipped off to Mississippi away from his Mama and Daddy. Why take a good man like Stevie from his country and drop him on a cotton plantation in this hellhole, I will never know.

I had first met Stevie at Miss Stephanie’s annual summer beverages party. I had to accompany Lawrence and Miss Lucinda in my crisp white maids uniform and my sensible brown flats, and I was dreading it. Charlie wasn’t gonna come, said he’d rather be cooked alive in Crisco.

I had gone through the first round of drinks, lowering my head all respectful like, and yes ma’aming and no ma’aming to all these no-good Mississippi ladies, when I saw a face peek out the bushes like a tomcat. It was a kind face. A black face. I smiled, cause I didn’t know what else to do. The face smiled back. Looking around to check no persons was spying on me, I crept behind the bushes to see just who this man was.

When Stevie saw me, he put out his hand and bowed his head. I had never had no persons bow to me before, and I haven’t had no persons bow to me since. When he lifted his head up again, he tipped the old flea-bitten cap he wore on his head.

“Name’s Stevie,” he had said, in a voice as rich and thick as treacle. “Now, baby girl, what’s yours?”

Stevie had called me baby girl ever since. I love Stevie, he be my best friend in the whole world, but he not my Daddy. My Daddy had been some no good man that knocked up my Mama the week ‘fore they was gone get married, and then left ‘fore she could even say ‘I do’. Mama then had to work for Miss Lucinda, her widowed brother Lawrence and Lawrence’s boy, Charlie. She gave birth to my baby self in the basement, and when they finally found where the screaming come from, Mama was dead. I ain’t never got over the fact that I be the one who killed my Mama.

So I got no Mama, and no Daddy neither. All I got myself is Lawrence, Miss Lucinda and Charlie.

Charlie. It be the first word I ever said.

I first said his name when I be nine months old. It was late at night, and I be standing up in my cot, my face bright red, smeared with tears and snot.

“Carlie! Carlie!” I had hollered, tugging the bars of the crib, wobbling on my fat little legs. He had said I was one fat little baby.

I had hollered and hollered, until I heard someone rustling. I held my breath, hoping, praying that it was Charlie. 

The second I saw that bright cheeky face pop round the side of my door I knew everything would be all right.

“Hey, baby,” Charlie had said, in a voice that was quiet, soothing; and he picked me up and kissed me. I buried my head in his shoulder, breathing in Charlie’s smell. Charlie be only a boy himself at that time. He had stroked my wispy hair. “It’s going to be ok, Lila,” He had whispered, “I promise.”

And Charlie kept his promise. Every day he’d be there with me, from the time I waked up in the morning till the time I fall asleep at night.

But the best times were in church on Sundays. Charlie would stand next to me, singing the hymns in a grand brassy voice so that everyone would turn and stare. As for me, I’d scrunch my eyes and pray hard, asking baby Jesus to keep Charlie with me forever.

We’d ride too, flying down the dusty road on his old rusty tricycle, his snowy white legs and my black oily ones, flailing out in all directions like an octopus on wheels.

So it didn’t seem to matter that I was the black kid, and that he was the white kid. Course, when we played out together Charlie’s friends had to be grabbed back by their nurses and strapped in their perambulators, and taken home. I knew it was because of me. But Charlie didn’t mind.

“So what?” he’d laugh, grinning, “We don’t need them. We can make our own fun.”

And we would, going into battle as vicious Vikings, and hiding in wooden horses at the gates of Troy, and crossing the Alps with Hannibal and a hundred elephants. Charlie be the best actor, falling all in the dust, his eyes laughing. The best characters were played by boys, but Charlie let me play them anyway.

Then one day, a white girl named Mia came out to play.

“What you doing?” She asked.

Charlie looked up. “We be playing Peter Pan.”

Mia turned her sticky-up nose at me. “Who are you, Negro?”

“Peter Pan.”

I had grown so used to being black, but feeling white, so I didn’t understand why Mia started laughing then. But she did; loud, cackling laughs that made the lights on our porch shake.

“You can’t be Peter Pan. Who’s heard of a nigger Peter Pan?”

That night in the bath I cried and hollered to myself, and took a bar of foul carbolic soap and scrubbed, hard. Charlie came in.

“What you doing, Lila-lily?”

“I be dirty.”

And he just watched me with his eyes; not laughing now, and never said a word. Soon he came over to me, and took the soap from my Negro hands.

“You’re not dirty, silly.” He wiped away my tears. Then Charlie took my hand and placed it inside his.

“Look at this, Lila. I’m white color. You black color. That’s the way it’s meant to be.”

I wept, and my salty tears fell on to the bath rim. “But that ain’t fair, Charlie! I want to be your color.”

For as long as my good self lives, I will never forget what Charlie said to me that hot Mississippi night.

“Listen, Lila. You need to be black. If you white, nothing gonna change. If you black, you can go out there and make a whole lotta difference.”

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