Donyale Luna: off in another world?
It’s a given on Internet lore that Donyale Luna created a fantasy world to escape the terrors of growing up with a father who worked sporadically and was an abusive brute.
What is the source for this? Is it true, or has Nathaniel Freeman been given a bum rap?
Whatever his nature, he and Donyale’s mother Peggy had a really wild ride: they were married and divorced four times!
A powerful chemistry must have bound them together, because as life partners they were like oil and water. Or better, oil and fire.
Nate came to Detroit from Alabama as part of the great Black migration to the auto factories. Contrary to reports of his lackadaisical approach to work, he was employed by Ford Motor Co. nonstop for 37 years. He worked most of those years in the foundry, shoveling metal into hot furnaces. “At one point he was going to quit,” says his daughter, Donyale’s sister Lillian, “because he was getting older and the work was so hard. He went in and talked to the bosses, told them he was tired of getting burned. They gave him a promotion to an easier job in a different division.”
The foundry was hard work, but the pay was much better than what Nate could earn down South. He was not qualified for office work, and he was content to muscle down for eight hours, then kick back with his family.
His wife Peggy was beautiful, but she was a woman and a Negro. (She was only half-Negro, but in those days mulattos were Negroes.) As such, her job as a receptionist at the downtown YWCA might be as much as she could reasonably aspire to. But she had drive, the same drive that she imparted to her eldest daughter. Seeking to climb the social mobility ladder, she played real estate. This undoubtedly created friction between her and Nate, who after eight hours of shoveling was content to read the paper, have a beer and watch TV.
No alcohol in the house
That was another source of friction. Peggy didn’t allow alcohol in the house—which also meant no visits from his brothers, who drank.
“Our mother wouldn’t allow us to associate with my father’s brothers,” says Donyale’s sister Lillian. “You can’t do that to a grown man, tell him he can’t have company in his own house, when he’s bringing money home, working every week. He has to have his way sometimes.
“She was strong-willed and what she said went. There was no argument; that’s the way it was. She was strong; almost the head of the household. But the man has to be the head of the household. When you have a 100% man like my dad, you can’t have a second head of the household.
“So they clashed. My dad was high-spirited and my mother was even more high-spirited. They clashed on a lot of things.”
If anyone, it was Donyale’s mother who was abusive to the children. Sanders Bryant remembers Lillian telling him that Peggy was physically abusive to both Josephine and Donyale, hitting them at times. Lillian concurs that Josephine had a rough time:. “My mother treated her very harshly.” But Donyale, she says, got preferential treatment.
Where did Peggy get her aversion to demon rum? Was she traumatized early in life by an alcoholic parent? Or did Nate have a drinking problem?
“My favorite was my daddy,” says Lillian. “I was closer to him.” Donyale loved him too, and visited him whenever he and Peggy were between marriages. This suggests that Nate Freeman was not a rummy.
However, everyone agrees that he did get drunk and beat Peggy on occasion.
By AA definition, if your consumption of alcohol negatively affects your life, you’re a candidate for the 12 Steps. Beating your wife is a felony. So Nate had a problem, yes.
Peggy had a problem too: she was rigid, a control freak. And she was smart and sophisticated—hell, she was even half white—and she could talk rings around Nate. Both of their problems, really, were each other. They loved each other and they hated each other.
Donyale loved both parents
Donyale loved her dad and she loved her mom. Her dad must have also brought fear into her heart. Not that he would ever do anything to harm her, but if he came home with liquor on his breath, he and her mom would shout. It scared her a lot when they shouted, because shouts could come to blows, and that made her sick and took her right out of reality into dissociative denial. It was the most horrible of all the bad memories Donyale Luna was learning to banish from her psyche—out, where they could do her no harm.
Or so she thought. “She tried to keep it all out,” says Sanders Bryant, “but you could see some things got in.”
One day in March, 1965, about six months after Donyale had left for New York, Bryant visited the family. He found Peggy sitting on Nate’s lap. They were considering yet another spin on their marriage-go-round. “I had never seen them so close,” he said.
Sometime after he left, somebody pushed somebody’s button and the koochie-koochie stopped—we’ll never know how the argument started. Nate left and headed for the bar.
She makes me so mad, I’m gonna punch out her lights. I’ve done it before. True, but it made him feel so bad when he sobered up, he swore he’d never do it again.
But after he got mad he started getting scared, and another drink and the anger returned, only without the shame this time, and he felt pretty righteous, and finally he figured it out: she’s taking away my manhood, trying to wear the pants in the family. Even my daughters can see that I’m not half a man around her. If I don’t show them what a man is, they could turn out like her. And I’ll show her too, bitch! Just a few more drinks while I plan out what I’m gonna say to her. She won’t be talkin’ back to me if she’s afraid I’m gonna hit her; she’ll listen to my side all right.
And finally Nate had enough to drink, and he had his words figured out, and off he went.
Peggy heard him pull into the driveway. There he is, steaming drunk again, thinks he’s gonna hit me around and hurt me, hurt me real bad and put bruises on my skin that makes me feel shame whenever anyone looks at me. But hey, I’m not gonna be freezing up in fear this time. No more! She opened her purse and got out the gun she had bought for the next time. And I’m not afraid to use it! Not to kill him: I’ll shoot him in the leg.
Oh God, my heart’s pounding, I can hardly breathe, I can’t do it—yes! Yes I can! She holds out the gun and walks in a dream world to the door: “You go away Nate. Do you hear? I got a gun and I ain’t afraid to use it.”
Listen to her, out on the porch, still yelling! Nate got out of the car and headed toward her.
A gun! He never figured on that.
But when she tried to aim it at him, Nate saw that she was too riled up to hold her hand steady. It just pissed him off more. He walked straight at her, didn’t even break his stride.
Peggy empties the gun
That was the final frustration for Peggy: didn’t he even see the gun? A strange energy moved through her body and she could barely hold it in her hand, which was shaking like she had the palsy. Suddenly something else took control and the weapon exploded in her hand, and kept exploding, six shots in wild succession, firing off in all directions.
The house where the shooting occurred. 45 years later, a bullet remains lodged in the tree on the right
Two bullets landed somewhere in distant corners of the neighborhood. Two more drilled holes in the car that Nate was driving. One burrowed into the trunk of the tree in the front yard, where it remains to this day. The other—by chance or in a moment of life-changing clarity?—sped straight into Nathaniel Freeman’s heart.
Was it the first bullet or the last? Even for this, there are two stories. Sanders Bryant says the last. Lillian, who at age 18 witnessed the shooting, says it was the first.
“My mother didn’t want to kill him,” she says. “She just wanted to shoot him and knock him down or something.”
Bryant concurs: “It wasn’t a murder; it was almost a fluke. She wasn’t angry; she was afraid, and he kept coming at her. She told him to leave. He was coming toward the porch when he was shot. She was on the porch and he was in the driveway. The distance between them was no more than here to there. She missed five times.”
Lillian called the ambulance. “The hospital was half a block away and nobody tried to get him there. Nobody tried to revive him or keep him awake or anything. They didn’t do anything for him. I don’t want to talk about that any more.”
The police arrested Peggy. Lillian, in shock, called Sanders Bryant, who came and stayed in the house with her. The next day, after interrogating Peggy Freeman for 24 hours, the police called it self-defense and released her. When Nate was laid out for burial, Peggy asked Sanders Bryant, who was a budding photographer, to take a photo of him. She also sold Bryant the bullet-marred car.
Donyale stayed in New York
Donyale, who was in New York, did not come home for the funeral, something for which she still catches flak on the Net.
The world meets Donyale Luna. This is the March 1965 Harper’s Bazaar cover that launched her career. The magazine had never run a Negro on the cover before, and the editors made sure Donyale was more vanilla than chocolate.
Did I mention that the shooting happened in March, 1965? That was the very month her groundbreaking Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared. And—not to get ahead of our story, but she also got married that March. What an incredible three-way convergence of psyche-bending experiences for an ultra-sensitive 18-year-old girl to undergo!
That ultra-sensitive girl had spent 18 years soaking in all the family dynamics, although her understanding of them was probably suppressed, causing little-understood emotional energies to careen wildly through her psyche and body.
Did Nate’s eldest daughter pay her respects in her own way, with some sort of spiritual ceremony? Or did the let’s-be happy mind of Donyale Luna simply give the incident its walking papers?
But go home? To a funeral? Go home to drench herself once again in the woes of that tragic war-torn couple whom she claimed didn’t even spawn her? Hell no, she didn’t go back.
She got married instead.
Would you go back? Let us all know. Send a comment!
Sanders Bryant III, conversations Sept.-Oct. 2009
Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009