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  • Writer's pictureGeorgie Davis

White People Smell like Wet chicken.

John Toga was our first "houseboy." The disparaging title "houseboy" was most likely termed by the first Americo-Liberians who settled in Liberia in the 1800s. However, almost everyone regardless of their economic status, who hired domestic help used the term—even outsiders like us. People occasionally employed "housegirls," but young men were the favored choice for household chores.

John's duties varied: cutting grass with a handheld cutlass, burning brush, cleaning windows, collecting trash, and washing large volumes of oranges, limes, and pineapples that Daddy's friend, Henry Wiah, often brought us from Upcountry. On Saturdays, He scrubbed the porches, trimmed hedges, and scaled fish if Daddy had caught any the night before. Sometimes, he helped with unpleasant tasks, like slaughtering chickens.

Daddy said it was time to butcher the old bird, and if I wanted to, I could watch.

My sister, Rosy, reached across my face and put her hand over my eyes.

"Turn your head, Georgie."

Her warning only heightened my curiosity. I pushed her arm away, planted my bare feet firmly in the sand, and fixed my eyes on the rooster. "I want to see."

Daddy said it was time to butcher the old bird, and if I wanted to, I could watch.

And I wanted to.

John clenched his hands around the chicken's midsection. It squealed, clucked, and fought to free itself from his grip. Daddy tied one end of a thin rope around its feet. Then, he pulled the other end, tied it to the rafters of the open shed, and hung the poor creature upside down by its feet.

The squawking turned into a high-pitched screech like an alarm clock that wouldn't stop ringing. John handed Daddy the knife and firmed his grip on the chicken's body. With his left hand, Daddy wrapped his fingers around the neck of the chicken and clinched the wooden handle of the blade in his right.

"Everyone, stand back."

My chest pounded. I stared at the rooster and tried not to blink.

When Daddy's hand drew back to strike, John let go, and the bird's head fell clean off on the first try. The rooster's body twitched and convulsed, splattering blood in every direction. Daddy dropped the head onto the ground and hopped backward. I felt the sting of tiny wet drops on my skin and turned my head to prevent my face from being completely showered by the flailing bird.

I heard a scream come from the house and turned to look. Bertie stared into the yard from our bedroom window. She had run inside earlier to avoid the assassination but had resorted to peeking through the window instead. Her sensitivity baffled me at times. I didn't understand what the big deal was. It's just a chicken, I thought.

John started a fire and heated water in a pot under the sheltered building. Rosy and I squatted beside him while he soaked the bird repeatedly in the scalding water until the feathers loosened. I shielded my nose with my hand to mask the pungent odor while he and Rosy plucked the plumes from the rooster's flesh.

John glanced at me, and a mischievous grin plastered his face.

"White people smell like wet chicken."

I had heard the peculiar statement before but didn't understand what it meant.

Rosy laughed.

"Don't mind, John, Georgie. You don't smell bad. But your hair does smell funny when it's wet."

"Funny, like how?"

John's grin turned into a chuckle. "Raw chicken. White people's hair smells like a wet raw chicken."

After Bertie and I had bathed that evening, I grabbed a handful of her damp hair and held it close to my nose. "You smell like wet chicken."

"No, I don't," she protested.

"Yes, you do," I insisted.

I couldn't bear the thought of being the only one wandering around the yard smelling like a freshly butchered chicken, for other than Mommy and Daddy, there wasn't another fair-skinned soul within a ten-mile radius that shared my predicament.

~ a draft excerpt from my WIP memoir

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