From three generations of diary entries, follow the drama and intrigue in the lives of two families as they look to the future in a sometimes unfair America.
The Coffey family begins with black Civil War soldier Tanin Coffey, and his son, Tanin Jr., who struggled to survive as they came to grips with a postwar South, the failures of reconstruction, and the Great Depression.
The story continues with Darius Coffey, a World War II veteran, who moved to Florida to work for a group smuggling drugs from Latin America to the United States. His wife, Leona Mihan Coffey, reveals her family’s lies and secrets.
Daryl Christopher was raised by his Cuban mother and served in the Vietnam War before returning to Miami. After he becomes involved in organized crime, he meets Darius and Leona’s daughter Valarie and both of their lives are forever changed, as the next generation finds a place in the world, while making sense of their family’s tangled web.
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Excerpt: The Wicker Diary by Wil Harris
Hand of the Lord
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you. -Zechariah 3:1-2
Darius D. Coffey: Part I
My name is Darius D. Coffey, and I was born in the heart of the segregated south on September 12, 1923, in Opelika, Alabama. I entered this world disposed to debt bondage, where acquired liability passed from one generation to the next. My story begins with my granddaddy Tanin Coffey Sr. He signed his name with an X on the contract for a piece of land that he would never own but would finally, one day, rest his body in.
My father always spoke of my granddaddy and the wisdom his life left behind. He was a slave who fled the Alabama cotton fields in 1863 after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation left the South in an uproar.
There is no record of his birth, but it is believed he was between fifteen to seventeen years of age when he escaped slavery. He made his way to Ohio by underground trails and safe houses, dodging slave trackers, and Confederate soldiers along the way. After shuffling through northeast Ohio for a few months, he found himself in West Virginia, where he got by on Christian charity and the efforts of a local abolitionist movement.
He slept in a bed for the first time in West Virginia. Before that it had been dirt floors and hay. He never knew his mother and father or any other family. He grew up among other slaves, who all spoke with different dialects from their region of the African continent and who all suffered the lash and worked at the pleasure of their owner. Granddaddy often thought about Boss Tom, who, as the overseer of the plantation in Alabama, was a brutal white man. Described as tall and burley, he had no troubles hanging any slave-man, woman, or child.
As rumor of the Emancipation Proclamation spread, revolt was at hand. More than 130 slaves rose up, including my grandfather, and killed the master and his family. My grandfather would tell the story of the main house going up in flames while white bodies hung burning in the apple orchard by the dozens. It was Boss Tom’s death that brought the most pleasure. He was alive when they castrated him with broken glass. Someone cut out his tongue and shoved his gentiles down his throat with a stick. He was finally hung from a banister of the main house before it was set on fire.
By this time the North was losing the war, and there was talk that President Lincoln would be raising a black regiment. When my granddaddy heard this, it was all he could think of. He reckoned if he and other black men fought bravely to end the war and bring the country back together, they could have a new and equal start in America. It was as though the ancestors were calling to him from the other side of the sun. Though he could not visualize it, he knew that it was there. Freedom. He had no one who had gone before him to prepare the way so his path was a mystery.
In 1864 he joined the all-black Twenty-Seventh US Infantry. My father would speak proudly of the time granddaddy heard Frederick Douglass speak at an army assembly: “Your granddaddy told me that when Frederick Douglass walked into the hall, there was a hush throughout. With his fiery-white hair and beard, he looked like a king. He told those in attendance that now was their time, and the future of all Negros rested on their shoulders. And those words had an effect on your granddaddy and he never forgot it.”
My granddaddy’s initial experience with army life was that of manual labor. In four months he went from cooking to digging graves for slain white soldiers. The carnage and blood he witnessed heightened his eagerness for glory and honor. There was a fear growing among the black soldiers that the North may lose the war before their opportunity to prove themselves would come. There was skepticism among some Northern white soldiers on how their black counterparts would fair in battle. Many said they didn’t have the discipline to stand and fight in an organized way or the sense to take and follow orders. Everyone got their answer in Virginia in 1864. My grandfather’s first skirmish was fought on a hillside.
A fresh snow had fallen the night before, which made it difficult for him to get his footing while shelling from the Confederate guns tore through the tall trees ahead as they advanced. Men were being shot down all around him as he marched forward. A Confederate bullet passed through his shirt, nicking his left side. He went down to one knee as the burning sensation took over. They were ordered to load weapons. He had done the drill hundreds of times but never to the thud of bullets hitting flesh. He tore open the powder and poured it down the rifle shaft. After dropping a single ball, he quickly packed it. “Fire,” the officers ordered, and he did.
There was a pop and flash of fire, which startled him and made him lose his balance and fall. The scene was a worse place than hell he thought. Smoke and gunpowder lingered in the air as a melee of black and white flesh and blood stained the winter snow. Pinned down, he was able to move two dead soldiers between himself and the line of fire. He held his position reloading and firing until he ran out of ammunition. He detached his bayonet and waited for the first Confederate to happen along. The temperature fell to below freezing with a dry wind. He lay there all night as the sounds of rifle bullets peppered the night air. The shots became less frequent and eventually stopped all together. In the darkness the air became quiet except for the moans of the injured. While some men bled to death, others froze.
He regrouped with his company the next morning. They had lost half of their number in the fight though he considered it a sign from providence that he had survived when so many had not. There was no time to mourn the dead. By that afternoon they were marching again. He and so many other black soldiers not only fought for their freedom but also the freedom of future generations for whom they imagined a brighter future. That was the only way they could have done it. They were certain they wouldn’t see it. They needed a driving force and by keeping their eyes to the future, they found it.
After Gen. Tecumseh Sherman offered Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln in December 1864, the war was all but over. The South surrendered in April 1865, and my granddaddy was discharged a short time later. Having no family he could speak of, he headed back to Alabama and found it smoldering and decimated from the war.
Droves of black people in Alabama, who were once slaves, were all of a sudden turned loose with nowhere to go and only the clothes on their backs. Most had no education and no options. Any hope they held onto was extinguished on April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth, an American actor and racist, murdered President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, shooting him in the back of the head. Before this point no president had ever been killed. The news shocked the country, but no one took the news harder than former slaves. Upon hearing the news of Lincoln’s murder, my granddaddy wept. He and so many other black Americans saw President Lincoln as a true friend and in many ways as a Christ-like figure. His murder left so many feeling uncertain in the fulfillment of the promise for black citizenship and the right to vote.
In Alabama soldiers heavily patrolled the streets and tracked down Confederate holdouts and war criminals. America was still coming to grips with the revolutionary idea of civil rights for its black citizens and protecting their newfound rights became the job of the US Army.
The war changed my granddaddy. No longer was he the skinny, runaway kid searching for a purpose. He was now a man who sought to make his own way. With the growing threat of lynching in the south after the war, my grandfather made his way through Alabama as a laborer working on farms as a blacksmith. Work for him was steady, though pay was always meager and less than half of what the white men got. He worked hard nonetheless, only moving on when trouble would arrive. By 1870 he had become tempered by slavery, war, and freedom. He hadn’t yet made it to the proverbial Promised Land but thanked God he was no longer as low as a slave. He always carried a pistol that he had acquired a few years earlier and was not afraid to use it. Since the war, the south had become a killing field for former slaves with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan.
None of the former Confederates wanted another war. They reckoned what they couldn’t force by might, they would force through an unjust political system. This system, along with the practice of segregation, allowed the exploitation of southern black people by white landowners. Though they couldn’t call it slavery, sharecropping became a new form of slavery through cheap labor. Sharecroppers worked an assigned section of plantation land, while the landowner provided housing, food, seed, fertilizer, and farm equipment from the plantation owner’s company store at high interest rates.
My grandfather would’ve been in his mid-forties in 1895, the year he married my grandmother Rosetta Collier, affectionately known as Rose. She was twenty-three, medium complexioned, and a slender five feet seven inches tall. They had met on the Underwood plantation in Opelika earlier that year.
In April 1897 he made his mark with the Underwood plantation, a family of ex-Confederates who bought lots of land following the Civil War and made investments in sugarcane and tobacco. That year my father, Tanin Coffey Jr., was born under their roof. When my father grew up, he was the spitting image of his father. They were both slender, dark-skinned men, and about six feet two inches tall.
My grandmother was already pregnant with my father when they moved into a two-room house sitting on a twenty-five-acre patch. Fronted by Underwood, my grandfather went to work adding another room and building a small barn, all on his own. The following year he was credited two cows, a dozen chickens, and a mule. My grandfather worked throughout the year and by its end, when it came time for settling with Underwood, he always got little to nothing.
From a combination of hard drinking, a nasty habit he picked up during the war, and his declining health, he finally lost his life to pneumonia on October 8, 1909. My father was only twelve years old when his father died. Underwood always kept track of the monthly calculations. Neither my father nor his mother were properly educated or could properly count, though they knew they were being cheated.
In the summer of 1917 my grandmother was hanging laundry in the backyard when she suffered a heat stroke and died. It was 103 degrees and her body temperature rose so high that it cooked her brain. From there all debt was passed to my father, who was twenty years old. After his mother’s death, my father was grateful just to have a roof over his head. He knew any black family would be willing to take over his land, kicking him off for the opportunity to turn a profit. He reckoned his father had brought him this far, and he would take the torch and carry it even further.
If he were alive today, my father would say the best thing that ever happened to him was my mother. Geraldine Booker was born August, 17, 1901, in Biloxi, Mississippi. She was a light-skinned, plus-sized woman with beautiful green eyes and was the daughter of a preacher. Her family fled Mississippi to Opelika in 1915 after the Klan threatened to lynch her father for preaching at large black gatherings. Before long her entire family was in the Underwood fields, standing for long hours and enduring the brutal summer sun. As the dust and elements began to wear her down, she carried herself with an awareness of self, unheard of for a black woman of her time.
Sometime in 1918 her and my father met at Underwood’s seed and fertilizer store. My father noticed her first and took a liking to the preacher’s daughter, and soon, they were sharing breaks together. After less than two months of courting, my father formally asked for my mother’s hand. He often spoke about the night he went to my mother’s house to speak with her father, Reverend Booker.
“Your momma’s daddy and your granddaddy, Mr. Booker, was a good man. I wish he would’ve been alive after you were born. He would’ve loved you,” he would say. “After I asked his permission to marry your momma, he grabs a jar of shine off a shelf and we sat in his kitchen and drank it all. By the time we reached the bottom of that jar, we had become family, and that was that,” he said.
Before he moved my mother in, he built another room with materials fronted by Underwood. They wanted it all, and they looked positively to the future like their parents before them. They sought out to work the land, turn a profit, and pay down the debt. They saw their freedom in landownership and worked together from five in the morning until seven in the evening in an effort to achieve it.
On a typical day, my mother would wake at four in the morning to make black coffee for my father along with grits and an egg. By five my father would be in the field tending the crops, while my mother took care of the animals and all chores. My mother would also chop wood and fetch water during the day. For him she was the perfect helpmate. She never complained and never said a harsh word.
Though times were hard, she longed to be a mother and she reckoned they had more than enough room for a healthy family. She got her wish on September 12, 1920, after giving birth to me. I was named Darius Coffey after her youngest brother. From the time I was born, I was a mama’s boy. My mother showered me with all the attention and love any child could want. She took her time with me and made sure I had a sense of right from wrong. Whenever you saw my mother, you saw me, though my father wasn’t fond of my mother’s soft-shoe approach to rearing and figured it would spoil me. To him a black boy who thought too much of himself wouldn’t live long in a white man’s country.
My earliest memory is November 6, 1926, the day my twin sisters were born. For an entire month my mother had been bedridden from the swelling in her ankles. That day I could hear her screams and moans from behind her room door. It hurt me to hear her suffer. I hid under a blanket and covered my ears before drifting off into an uncomfortable sleep. I don’t know how long I was asleep when someone shook me by the shoulder. When I opened my eyes, my room was pitch black, and right away, I had a sense that I wasn’t alone. I felt cold, like an evil was in the room with me.
I remember feeling very afraid that something was going to attack me. I jumped out of bed and ran out into the front yard. Struggling to breathe, I looked back at the house and saw with my own two eyes, a dark cloud hovering over the entire house. Inside the cloud I could see twisting and turning of tornadoes and lightning. Dark mist stretched down onto the house like tentacles. A cool breeze slowly caressed my face when the cloud began to move in my direction as though it had sensed me. I felt frozen. I couldn’t move or scream as the cloud moved closer in my direction. My heart beat in my stomach as the hair on the back of my neck rose. I stood barefoot in the dirt transfixed.
“Darius, what are you doing standing out here in the dark boy?” my father asked, snatching me up and into his arms. He paused for a second staring at the menacing cloud before heading back to the house. “I’ve been looking for you. You have to meet your little sister, Francine,” my father shouted with joy.
I was carried into the room by my father. I first saw the midwife. She was from Haiti and had a head wrap covering her head. She was sitting next to my mother in a chair holding my sister Francine in a soiled towel, rocking her gently in an attempt to settle her down. Francine was turning red as she shook to build her energy for a scream. With her head held back she gave out a guttural cry, which shook her small body and made me nervous.
My mother lay in the bed unconscious and sweating heavily. She was strong and her will was all that carried her now. Just as I began to cry and reach for her, the midwife screamed, “She no done, she no done,” and shooed my father and me out of the room. A few minutes later my sister Mandrel was born.
Days passed before I saw my mother again. She stayed locked behind the door with the midwife and the twins. The only sounds of life were the constant crying from the twins. After five days I was finally allowed into the room. The twins were each suckling a breast while my mother sat up in the bed topless with the biggest smile for me as I walked in.
“There’s my little man. You have two little sisters that are going to need a big brother. These are your sisters Fran and Mandy,” she said.
They studied me as they drank from her breast, froth foaming around their mouths. I didn’t like it. To me, it looked as though they were sucking the very life out of her. They watched me with their golden eyes and I stared back. There was a sense I got from them that very moment that I would never shake.
“I think they know who you are, Darius. Look how they watch you, like they know something,” my father joked.
When I tell you my mother was a mighty woman, I mean what I say. She was given only a short window to rest before she and my father had to break the ground by February to be ready for planting. I don’t know how, but she pulled it together, shuffling between a growing family and the farm. My father later told me that year was the last good year he would see.
By the end of the year, they had raised a good crop. Even still, they ended up owing more than they got credit for. As I grew, my mother slowly pulled away from me to make more time for my sisters. By the time the twins were eight, their bond with our mother still hadn’t taken hold. I remember one particular night that my parents were on the front porch talking. Through the screen door I could hear their conversation. Unaware of me, to my father she bared her soul.
“Tanin, I don’t know what else to do. It’s not normal for my babies not to like me. I don’t know who they are. I look into those brown eyes and I don’t see nothing! I don’t feel nothing! The other evening I was outside chopping wood when I could hear them talking from the other side of their window. What I head, Tanin, no children should say,” she said.
“Well, what did you hear?” my father asked.
“I can’t repeat it,” she cried.
“Now, Gerry, you’re worrying yourself for no reason. They’ll come around. They just need a little time. That’s all. They’re still babies. They’ll grow out of it,” my father assured.
My mother and father were good people. They never cheated anyone, and they tried to teach their children as best they saw it. Year after year I watched as they worked that farm, tied to its land and at the mercy of the seasons. It was tough, but it was tough for everyone in their situation. The system wasn’t there for them to grow. As if things weren’t hard enough, in 1929 we experienced the Great Depression along with the rest of the country. As the Depression lingered along with poor weather, it became increasingly harder for them to turn a decent crop.
I turned twelve in 1932, the same year I went to work in Underwood’s tobacco field while the twins attended school four months out of the year. For me, there wasn’t time for school or friends. You grew up fast back then, and life was punishing with ceaseless work, isolation, and the constant threat of sickness and death. I worked so hard in those fields that by the end of the day I was so tired, all I could do was sleep in my shoes and clothes, oftentimes skipping supper, which was usually flour bread and meat.
The freedom my granddaddy had fought for in the Civil War was only replaced by another form of oppression. My father, mother, and I continued to develop the land because that is what we did. We had never known another way. In all actuality we had been conditioned to be dependent on the Underwoods and let them make the decisions for our lives. We were still slaves.
In 1936 a mysterious illness spread through our community and found its way into our home. My mother caught the sickness, and before I could wrap my mind around what was happening, she had rapidly deteriorated. She died in April. That morning, she lay peacefully in her bed just as my father had found her. I looked upon her soft features as she lay there, remembering her before the twins. I felt lethargic as I knelt by her bedside and wept out loud while burning regret hung in my throat like a knot threatening to cut off my air. I felt foolish. In recent years I had begun to pull away from her as she had done to me after the twins were born. I held her hand and I repeated how sorry I was. The love of a mother can never be replaced.
( Continued… )
© 2017 All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author, Wil Harris. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author’s written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.
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Meet the Author
Wil Harris, Executive Director: Transformative Coaching, LLC
Mr. Wil Harris has an extensive background in leadership development, public speaking and community organizing. Currently he is the Executive Director of Transformative Coaching, LLC a leadership consulting company that is incorporated in the state of Florida.
Mr. Wil Harris was a Leadership Development Coordinator for YouthBuild Trumbull County in Warren, OH, Prevention Specialist for the Warren Urban Minority Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Outreach Program (UMADAOP), Inc., in Warren, OH, and a Congressional Aid for Congressman Tim Ryan, 17th District, OH.