I grew up in Syracuse, New York, apple-knocker country, where summers are splendid and winters war against the psyche. Black people seem to have entered Syracuse history around 1769. My father's grandmother, Margaret Smallwood, was born in 1820, and she married Gorman Williams in 1838.
My mother’s grandfather was Anthony Jones, who was born in Mississippi in 1830 and died at the age of eighty-two in 1912. My mother, Ola (the only one in her family with an African name), who passed away in 1987 at eighty-three, recalls as a child trying to chase a fly from beneath the netting that had been stretched over Grampa Tony’s open coffin; she recalls church bells tolling beyond what she was used to counting. Grampa Tony had two wives and two sets of children; from the second came my grandfather, Joseph David Jones, who himself had two wives, but not the two sets of kids.
My mother was the eldest daughter of J. D. Jones. In the eastern region of Nigeria her name means Keeper of the Beautiful House; and in the western region, He Who Wants to Be Chief. Both terms apply to her. My mother left Mississippi in her late teens to work in Watertown, New York. When she’d paid off the expenses of her travel, she moved to Syracuse, where she met my father, whom she used to refer to as a sheik, or a lounge lizard.