Daddy sat back in his chair, cocked his head to the side, and finished chewing a bite of food. He wiped his mouth. “Hairston, huh? Did she tell you why?” He held his bowl out to be served by Annie Ruth, who shuffled around the table in her worn, white, hand-me-down SAS shoes. “Annie Ruth, you right! Them black beans are better than pinto beans in the chili!”
Cotton also held out her bowl for the chili, then answered her daddy’s question. “No, she just said it was a name that went way back in her husband’s family and that they were an old local family on both sides of the river.”
“Uh huh…ok…Hahston is the white branch of the Hairston family. When the slaves were freed they often took on the names of their former owners. The white Hairstones adjusted the pronunciation of their names to differentiate themselves from the black Hairstons. They didn’t want folks to assume they were related or lowborn.”
“Oh, well, that’s silly. I can’t imagine why they’d go to that much trouble.”
“When it comes to color in the South, they do.”
“What would happen if a Hahston Hairston married a Hairston Hairston?” Cotton asked.
“Crosses would get burned. Now, Mary Haskell, hush. That is not going to happen in my lifetime in Mississippi.” Using her given name was her father’s way to end the conversation.
“Daddy” —Cotton contemplated her tea glass a second— “what a sad life her family must live to feel like they had to change the way they say their last name just because they were afraid of being confused for a black person.”
“Cotton Girl, it is just the old ways. One day they will die out, just not today.” He pushed back his plate, rang the small bell by his waiting dessert plate, and called to the kitchen. “Annie Ruth, I hear tell you made us some of your famous buttermilk pound cake.”
Shannon Evans is a Southern author accidentally born north of the Mason Dixon. She is an MFA in Creative Writing student.