Never Give Up: When Earl Met Juanita

Never Give Up CoverThe time is fast approaching. Indeed, Never Give Up: A Christopher Family Novel, my historical novel/family saga/whodunit, will be released by August 15. It’s exciting during these final weeks, knowing that soon I will hold the fruit of my labor in my hands.

Those of you out there who are published authors and poets know what it’s like when your book hits the production phase. If you’ve gone the traditional route, you’re reviewing the cover design; if you’re independent, you’ve either designed the cover yourself or had someone design it for you. And then there is the process of reviewing the galleys and the back cover copy, not to mention the details such as the print format and the physical size of the book. It’s painstaking work, but at the end of the day, it’s our novel, and we want it to represent well.

Never Give Up may be a whodunit, but I’m still all about Black Love. Because the novel has romance elements for each of the characters/family members, readers who are familiar with my series may wonder how Judge Earl James Berry met his future wife and soulmate, Juanita Sue Langston. In order to do that, let me take you back to the Minneapolis of 1946 in this excerpt, when Juanita was an 18-year-old woman:


I was working late on a Thursday evening in December (December 12, if memory serves), making plans to do a little Christmas shopping before I went home and hoping my parents wouldn’t be there yet. I was dressed more for a brisk fall day, since that December was mild and still “green” at that point. I locked the office door and headed down to the end of the hall. Normally I was out the door at five, but that night I saw a young man leaving an office with a mop, bucket, and cleaning supplies. He didn’t see me at first as I stood there waiting for the elevator, but when he turned around our eyes met.

“Hi,” I heard him say.

“Hi,” I replied just as the elevator door opened and I got on. As the door closed, I saw him look at me again and give me a smile. I don’t even remember if I returned his smile, but on the trip down I found myself hoping that I had.

As I shopped for presents at Dayton’s, then while I waited for the trolley, and during the ride home, he piqued my curiosity. During dinner with my parents, I found myself distracted. While I listened to the Hit Parade on the radio, I couldn’t get his image out of my mind. I wracked my brain in an effort to place him. I wasn’t sure if he was familiar, but his image was a delight to the senses. I had estimated him to be 6’0”, in contrast to my 5’6”. Even in a custodian’s work clothes, he was one well-built man—I had no doubt he must have been an athlete in high school, and probably kept that way in the military. His deep brown complexion was rich, and his raven black hair a curious mixture of curly and wavy. Could he possibly have Native American blood in him somewhere? As for his smoky gold eyes, I saw intelligence and pure animal magnetism in them, a sense of knowing exactly what he wanted.

My dear—if a woman wasn’t careful, she could lose herself in that man, but the trip would be filled with nonstop enjoyment.

As the Ink Spots serenaded me with “To Each His Own,” I got up from my bed and stood in front of the floor-length mirror in my bedroom for an appraisal. From Mama I had inherited a healthy hourglass figure and a thick head of shoulder-length, dark brown hair which was currently hot-pressed into submission. Papa had given me smooth, medium brown skin, his engaging smile, and his passionate but wise eyes. People who see me today would consider me an older and darker-complexioned version of the Fifth Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo. I’ve laughed about that, since she’s young enough to be one of my daughters. When the group hit the charts in the late ‘60s some people would ask me, “Are you sure she’s not your niece?” Nobody I ever dated had given me an argument about my looks, and Papa was always there to guard my virtue—with deadly weapons if necessary. In my self-appraisal, I already visualized my “mystery man” standing next to me in the mirror.

No, there was more to that brief exchange of greetings than met the eye, as far as I was concerned. I was full of questions, questions I hoped to have answers for soon. Of course, at 18 a girl wants those questions answered yesterday. Had I seen him before? Where did he live? What was a man like that doing in a custodian’s job when he was clearly capable of so much more, if his eyes were any indication? And how would I fit into the picture? Better yet, how did I want to fit into the picture, if there was one?

Back in those days a woman who considered herself a lady would never do the unthinkable and throw herself at a man, not like today when so many girls line up to audition for the role of slut. As I thought about him over the next couple of days, the thing to do was find out who he worked for and his hours, unless divine intervention brought him to me. I had so little to go on that I didn’t even consider talking to Mama and Papa. Cassandra, however, was another story.

“He sounds luscious,” Cassandra said as we talked on the phone the next evening. “So, have you done anything to find out more about him?”

“Well, not yet. I thought about staying late today, but that would have been too obvious. Monday might be a better time. How are things going with Vince?”

“Smooth as silk. We’re going to the movies tomorrow night. But back to this dreamboat of yours. How does this affect your plans as a professional secretary?”

“It doesn’t. I want both, at least for a while. What movie are you going to see?”

The Postman Always Rings Twice is playing at the Orpheum. It’s supposed to be good.”

We continued to discuss film noir movies we’d seen in the past. For us, seeing women in power in such movies—down to the knives in their nylons and guns in their minks—was utterly fascinating, not to mention the way they led their male victims down the road to destruction. Not that we would even consider that as a surefire way to get a man, but we loved the sheer entertainment value.

Sunday, of course, had the Langston family in St. Matthew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. I always made sure I looked good for church. On that day I wore my best grey wool suit with matching pumps, having pressed and curled my hair into a chignon with victory rolls, something similar to Ingrid Bergman’s hairstyle in the cocktail party scene of Notorious. We were always there before services started because Papa was one of the trustees and Mama taught Sunday school. I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do at church since I graduated, but I knew that at some point I had to do something.

Service attendance had been increasing since Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, so the church was nearly full when it was time for service to start. Because I tried to stay as focused as much as possible on the service itself, I usually didn’t look around at people who came in late. Today was no different. I took out my Bible to follow along with the Scripture lessons and soaked in the sounds of the choir, looking forward to the Christmas program that afternoon.

Rev. Walker gave an inspiring message about the “reason for the season” that day, and after the benediction we stopped for a few minutes to chat with other members. I happened to look over at one of the exits for a moment and caught a glimpse of someone leaving. My mouth dropped slightly. What’s he doing here? Is my mind playing tricks on me? I decided that was it; I’d been thinking about that man for the past few days, and now I was imagining him showing up everywhere. Still, when we returned later on for the program, I found myself wondering if he would show up.

The church was packed for the Christmas program, and it was wonderful. Our choir and a guest choir from St. Andrew’s concluded the program with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and afterwards we gathered in the dining hall for fellowship. I felt a little disappointed that Mystery Man hadn’t made an appearance, but the time for praise and worship had been well spent.

As I waited in line to get a plate, I saw Lillian and Melvin Edwards holding court with their friends. They were a “power couple” long before the phrase was coined. Mama and Papa exchanged pleasantries with our pastor, while I wished that Cassandra would have been there as she’d promised to be. I was pleasant and polite to the women who were serving, and I talked to the people nearby about the program. I filled my plate and found a seat when I realized I had forgotten to get some punch. When I got up to do so, I stopped in my tracks. My heart fluttered in my chest. When did it suddenly become more difficult to breathe?

“Aren’t you…”

“Yeah,” Mystery Man said, and that brilliant smile of his came out in full wattage. “You’re the woman from the hallway.”

“But…I feel like I know you from somewhere.”

“Well, if it helps, I’m Earl James Berry. I’ve been away at college. And you are…?”

“Juanita Langston.”

“Langston…Langston. You know, I think my father knows your father. Probably from the NAACP and the Urban League. Didn’t you go to Central?”

“No, Vocational. I just graduated this past June.”

“It figures. If you had gone to Central, I would definitely have remembered someone like you.” I must have been smiling, because there was an extra twinkle in his eye. “Would you like some punch?”

Remembering my initial mission, I answered, “Yes, thank you.”

“Coming right up. And if it’s all right with you, I’d like to join you.”

“I’d like that.” I was downplaying my response to his flirting as much as possible, even though I wanted to scream “Yes!!!!!” from the rooftops.


Believe in dreams and never give up.

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