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I am an old woman now, retired from work and life, resting, looking back. I learned many things living in Alabama, and the most important thing I guess is that the only way to help change things really is to live honestly, something I have not always achieved. What I like to remember most is how much fun it all was, the dark times and the good times. As I write this story of my life, I can pick and choose what I recount. That doesn’t mean glossing over the bad parts, but I hope that I lean toward the happiness I found rather than dwelling on the sad and bitter. That sounds too serious. What I really mean is that I hope to focus on the ridiculous, the farcical, and the inevitable.
The camelias go first, in February. Next, the azaleas and dogwoods pop out. The magnolias bloom in May. The garden should be planted by Good Friday. A few hills of watermelons would be nice. Start picking peas in late June. Put up beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, onions, squash, okra, corn, eggplant. When the peas and beans stop making, plant mustard greens, collards and cabbage. The camelias go first, in February. Next, the azaleas and dogwoods pop out. The magnolias bloom in May. The garden should be planted by Good Friday. A few hills of watermelons would be nice. Start picking peas in late June. Put up beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, onions, squash, okra, corn, eggplant. When the peas and beans stop making, plant mustard greens, collards and cabbage. This is the rhythm I grew up with. I remember waiting, searching for the first dogwood blooms, eating the first green peas off the vine, having tomato fights when we pulled the ones that were no good. Heck, when I was very little, I can remember lying in between the rows looking up at the sky, cooling off like the dogs. Lord knows I still remember the planting hoeing, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, shelling peas and butter beans till my fingers were sore and stained purple. Picking peas and okra and tomatoes in the early morning to avoid the heat, wearing long sleeves to avoid the stickies on the okra, carrying baskets full of corn, tomatoes, peas, everything, to the end of the rows, and then onto the porch. Shelling and shucking until there was a mess to put on the stove for dinner, Mama stopping to go do that, and making cornbread. While the dinner peas simmered, we kept on shelling, using empty hulls to swat at flies and mosquitoes. At noon, Mama would go make tea and fried okra, slice some tomatoes, cucumbers, and onion, and we all sat down to eat. To this day, nothing satisfies my thirst like a glass of ice tea. I came home from college between summer sessions to sit and shell all day, waiting for the call to sit down and eat. One year I came home even when I had a paper due. I sat at one end of the table, and my sister who worked at the newspaper sat at the other end, typing and retyping my paper while I rewrote, edited, and kept on shelling. I got an A. One year, when Mama was pregnant and she couldn’t hoe or pick, I did almost everything. I prayed she wouldn’t plant running butter beans, but she did. We had storms, and I had to re-stick each plant more that once. I picked and picked that summer. My youngest sister was born in early July, so Mama was confined to the house with the baby. That was a very long summer. My mother and even my Grandma could leave me far behind when it came, to hoeing a row, or picking, or shelling. Not my granddaddy though. I would catch him sitting on his bucket half way down a row.
This book has several drivers, or themes. First, I don’t feel that I said everything I wanted to say about women as the impetus and sustaining force of the civil rights movement. Second, I don’t think I said all I want to say about family, how we live within the ones we are born into and how we construct one perhaps more suited to us.
Next, given my unremarkable life, of course I want to tell some of my particular story. A sort of thinly disguised memoir, set during a time not of my own generation.
My research centered around several women, so I will just list them here:
Juliette Hampton Morgan, southern aristocracy, a single white lady who never married, got herself involved in the bus boycott, committed suicide over the stress, now has a library named after her in Montgomery. The same library that fired her over her outspoken support of the boycott, dedicated to her in a wonderful ceremony with surviving family present.
Virginia Durr, white southern aristocracy, married to New Deal attorney Clifford Durr, purged from their Washington job as part of the Communist witch hunts, blackballed when they returned home to Montgomery, got involved in the civil rights movement.
Lillian Smith, Georgia white aristocrat, firebrand writer, lesbian, house was burned.
Barbara Johns, teenager who led a strike at her school protesting separate but equal, filed a lawsuit that was rolled into the Brown v Board of Education suit.
Joann Robinson, English professor at black Alabama State, actually started the Montgomery bus boycott. Never married.
Rosa Parks, not meek and mild.
What you don’t see listed here are any white women of the same economic class as poor blacks. No white trash redneck. That’s where my personal history comes into play.
We were tenant farmers for Fortner Agee. Daddy built us a house from scavenged lumber on Mr. Agee’s land. We did not have glass windows, only wooden shutters. We did not have running water or electricity. We dug a well for water. I helped. The house is gone, but the corn crib, made from logs, is still there, deep in woods now, where once was cleared pasture. I found the depression where the well was, at the end of the porch.
Daddy worked in saw mills, when he had a paying job, in Sweetwater and Myrtlewood and Linden and Jackson. In Linden, we lived in the projects. In Jackson, we lived in a company house, bought groceries at the company store by signing a ticket, which was taken from Daddy’s pay each Friday.
There were eight of us children. Daddy liked to drink, and when he drank, he got mean. He was often out of work, so Mama worked as a nurse’s aide and then as an LPN. We didn’t have a car, and Mama couldn’t drive in any case, so she walked to work when she couldn’t get a ride, up the hill, through the black quarters, to the hospital, and then home again. She walked through the race disturbances, admittedly not on the scale of Watts or Newark, but just as dangerous to a white woman on foot and alone. She worked side by side with black women who she came to respect, because they faced the same struggles, that of feeding and raising their children while their men were often absent. Mama never understood or agreed with the economic desperation and need that fueled the civil rights movement. She completely disagreed with any political justifications for it. But she understood very well and respected the women she worked with.
Eight children. Eight pairs of shoes, eight hungry mouths. All eight children wanting something from her that she couldn’t give. The youngest four don’t remember much about the poverty and the struggling, the baskets of food and clothes from the church ladies, the things Mama sometimes had to do to feed us. The oldest four should never forget it, but some of them have, or pretend they have forgotten.
We had so much fun growing up. It was fun, and sometimes funny.
My own family history will make a great story. Disguising characters should be fairly easy, because no one ever sees herself as others do. What I see as outrageous and self righteous, a sister will see as pious and sincerely Christian and just. I have no fear of any repercussions at all, since most of them aren’t speaking to me anyway. And they do not read my books. They do like to tell people that their sister writes books, but none of them, the pious ones that is, would keep one of my books in their homes. The others, the ones who do read them, are as proud of me as Mama was, and will of course see what they want to see in this story.
So this will be a story of a poor white family, and the main character one particular daughter, who grows up very different from her siblings, is a lesbian, gets involved in the fringes of the movement when she moves to Montgomery, but can never escape her roots, her ties to that family.
The father dies, a tragic hero to some of them, a deluded old man to others, and there ensues a heated argument over what to do with the will and their meager inheritance. The mother becomes dependent on the children for support, and no one wants that responsibility, except those who remember the struggle and sacrifices this now mean old woman made for them.