Cotton Club Princess (Excerpt)

by Karla Diggs

“Sixteen-year-old Nostalgia Richardson has lived all her life in the rural township of Spivey’s Grove, South Carolina, but that has not stopped her from dreaming of running away to Harlem to become a showgirl at the world famous Cotton Club.

One night when she comes home from work she finds her father in the company of Noah Holdtstaff, the most notorious bootlegger in town. Later, Nostalgia’s 14-year- old sister, LILY, divulges their father’s plans to marry her off to the 49-year-old Noah.To escape the ominous fate, Nostalgia goes to work as usual the next day, scheming to sneak off to the bus station to leave for New York City. Just prior to her audition for The Cotton Club, Nostalgia learns there was money involved in the deal their father made with Noah, forcing Lily to marry the miscreant instead. From 1928-1935, Nostalgia and Lily communicate with each other through a series of letters in which Nostalgia lives the glamorous life hobnobbing with the talented elite of the Harlem Renaissance. Lily, fueled by her ardent affair with milkman Henry Whit, uses Noah’s love for pig’s feet and penchant for hustling reefer to concoct a scheme to absolve her dreadful marriage. Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow south, and the Great Depression, these two spunky heroines are determined to live, love, and excel on their own terms!” (Synopsis courtesy of Waldorf Publishing)

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Read an excerpt from Cotton Club Princess


Chapter 1       

Mrs. Barden loves to have her bed sheets starched and ironed, so the corners are perfectly folded. That is the only explanation I have for the lady being so stiff! My name is Nostalgia Richardson and most days I would rather be somewhere else then doing housework for the Barden family. It is 1928, and I’m a sixteen-year-old colored girl from Spivey’s Grove, South Carolina! So it may seem to you I have no choice but to clean up after white folks, but I have a dream. I want to go to New York and dance at this place called the Cotton Club. I know they sell liquor and don’t allow colored folks in it unless they’re serving and entertaining whites, but I don’t care!

My parents would kill me if they knew I lied about how much the Bardens were really paying me. I told Mama Mrs. Barden was giving me $1.00 a week. Ha! She is actually paying me $2.00 a week! I give my family $1.00 while saving the other half in a sock underneath a loose floor board in my room, until I’m ready to kick the red Spivey’s Grove dust off the bottom of my shoes, and run toward my destiny! Not bad for a little girl from a backward Southern town, huh?

I live with my parents and share a room with my fourteen-year-old sister, Lily. Of the two of us, she is the good girl. She sings in the choir at the First AME Church on Water Street. She doesn’t dream of anything but marrying Henry Whit, her beau of two years, and making our parents proud. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with what she wants, but there’s a big world out there, and truth be told, I can’t understand anyone who has no desire to see it!

One thing I do appreciate about the Bardens is they allow me to indulge in their private library, especially since colored folks aren’t allowed in the Public Library downtown. In spite of finishing sixth grade four years ago I, unlike most girls my age, never stopped reading. I couldn’t stop because I love it so much! All of my friends are married and raising families now. Me? I’m still free, so I can read, or go to New York just as soon as I feel I have saved enough, which may not be long!

Anyway, until I can get out of Spivey’s Grove reading is how I escape.  Most folks around here avoid books as soon as they stop going to school, but I read now more than I did when I was there! It really irritates my parents.  I guess because they can’t even read the one book they own: The Bible! For all they know they might be committing a sin by not reading it. After all, they have to rely on what Reverend Clark tells them about God. There is this one line in The Bible I do remember more than anything else: Seek ye my face! Now how can a body really “seek His face” if they can’t read the instructions on how to do it? Makes no sense to me.

“Nostalgia, after you’re done with the laundry you may leave for the evening!” Mrs. Barden just called to me from the hallway while I finish putting the newly starched linens on the bed. “Yes Ma’am, Mrs. Barden!” I call back.

The one thing I don’t mind about doing housework is that it’s relatively peaceful. When you do exactly as the Mrs. tells you, nobody bothers you so it gives you time to hear your own thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, it is worrisome to have to clean someone else’s home for money, but at my house, my name is constantly being called for one thing or another. Like last night, my mother wouldn’t stop calling me to help her in the kitchen with something, and I had just gotten home! It never dawned on anybody at my house that sometimes a moment to yourself might keep you from being two straitjackets away from an insane asylum.

My mother says now that I am sixteen a woman’s work is never done. Ha! Never would occur to her that this depends on the woman. I’m not ever going to live the life she’s living, or the one Lily’s setting up for herself. Those two are so desperate and miserable they don’t even realize it. If I have my way I am going to perform at the Cotton Club, singing and dancing. Heck, I might even end up in a Broadway show like Rose McClendon! Most folks around here have never heard of Broadway, let alone seen any further than the frustrations standing in front of their faces. I know where I want to be, I have an idea of how I’m going to see it happen, and I am determined not to live my life blaming my circumstances on my color, or being a woman, or being poor.

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