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When I called my mother from New York in 1966, excited because Doubleday had signed to publish my first novel, her response was that she was going to write a book,too. “Everybody else is doing it,” she added. Since she was burdened by a load of family responsibilities,I didn’t take her seriously. After my younger brothers and sister left home,my mother’s responsibilities lessened.
My grandmother and grandmother’s brother, for whom she had cared for for many years, died, and my mother and stepfather sold their home and entered a senior citizens’apartment. In 1993, my stepfather died and, shortly afterwards, his mother, an Alzheimer’s patient, also died. My mother had been her caretaker for seventeen years.
After the death of the last person for whom she had taken upon herself to provide caretaker services,my mother settled in an apartment in a building owned by my youngest brother. It was here in 1998 that she began her book Black Girl From Tannery Flats, filling composition books with notes written in an elegant penmanship that is no longer required of school students. I also encouraged her to make audiotapes because her true story telling talent was more oral than literary. Folklorist Cecil Brown (author of Stagolee Shot Billy, and Richard Pryor’s best film, Which Way Is Up), who provided a blurb for the book, said that it was a style of black story telling that was disappearing with my mother’s generation. She was born in 1917. These notebooks and tapes were edited by author Carla Blank, my partner, who spent many hours transferring them to the page.
The memoir covers my mother’s life from her birth in Chattanooga, Tennessee, until the 1990s. Her mother, a caterer, who was very much in demand, worked in homes of the rich on Lookout and Signal mountains in Chattanooga. Sometimes, she would assist her mother at her working places. She remembers the generosity of these employees and one, Mrs. Clifford Grote, apparently took an interest in me. She nicknamed me G. W., since I was born on George Washington’s birth date. Some still call me that. I remember the Grote home as a huge estate whose main house included an elevator. I also remember all of us gathered around Mrs. Grote’s bed where she lay dying of cancer.
While my grandmother worked, my mother spent most of her time with her grandmother, Mary Coleman, whose mother, Lucy Hardiman, was among the last generation to be born a slave. Lucy Hardiman was apparently whipped a lot because my mother records that her grandmother Mary Coleman cried when she mentioned the welts on her mother’s back. Mary operated a diner in Chattanooga that catered to white foundry workers. She insisted that they address her as Mrs. Coleman.
Thelma V. Reed’s story is also that of a teenager whose father was murdered and whose mother suffered from Schizophrenia and who was raped and bore the rapist’s child. A single mother who left Tennessee for Buffalo, New York, as part of a 1940s migration in a time when single mothers were the objects of scorn and ostracism, but her story is not unusual for black women in the south, seen as available by white men, and often oppressed by black men and white women.
It’s the story of two young people, Thelma V. Reed and Bennie S. Reed, who rose from poverty to the middle class in a era when it was still possible to move upward. When labor unions were strong, housing inexpensive and the American Dream for the first time within the grasp of large numbers of citizens,Her book is important to me also because it explains some questions that I had about my family’s history. I’d taped my mother and her late cousin Geraldine Pope, about a “mean” Irish American ancestor, but according to my grandmother, whom I’d interviewed when she was in her eighties, there were Irish American men on her side of the family as well as on her husband,Mack Hopkin’s side.
My mother’s father, who was largely absent from the household, was murdered by a Greek restaurant owner, according to the family’s oral history, after he had knocked on the wrong door. I obtained a copy of the death certificate which includes the comment “stabbed by some man,” written by hand. I have been unable to obtain a copy of the inquest that was conducted nor decipher the signature of the doctor who signed the death certificate, nor the name of his assailant. Black life was so cheap in those days that the researcher I hired to uncover this family mystery was unable to find any newspaper account of Mack Hopkins or Hopsin’s murder.
His sister, Rita, was murdered by some white men who were resentful of Martin Luther King. They ran her down. In the Anniston, Alabama, courtroom they claimed that they thought they’d hit a telephone poll. They were acquitted by an all white jury which explains why many African Americans are allergic to all white juries, bloodhounds and the Confederate flag. Thousands of black American families have an unsolved murder or murders in their history, murders that affect their descendants.
The murder of my grandfather contributed not only to the poverty of his spouse and his child, my mother, but meant that his descendants would inherit less assets. Richard Wright tells of an uncle who was murdered because he was prosperous. Without this businessman’s income, members of the Wright family sank into poverty.
My mother recounts her visit to Chattanooga’s Erlanger hospital where her father, his clothes soaked with blood,lay, neglected, on a cot in the hall. I was born at Erlanger. The doctor had told the nurses “Let that nigger die. ”
My mother being a Christian, has forgiven his murderer. I suspect that her longevity can be attributed to her qualities of compassion and the ability to set aside grudges and her inexhaustible optimism and faith. Her’s is the African Jesus; one who isn’t remote but present in everyday life, always at hand, a savior as well as a friend. For her, ancestors communicate through dreams. Her book also illuminated my understanding of one of those aspects of family history that puzzled me.
I always wondered why my mother and grandmother maintained close ties with their white employers even after relocating to the North. I was a product of the 1960s and viewed these people as their oppressors.
Black Girl From Tannery Flats cleared up this question. During the crises experienced by my mother and grandmothers, their “white folks” were there to lend a hand. My mother’s boyfriend,a dashing handsome lad, always complained about the white women at The Reed House, a Chattanooga hotel, making sexual overtures to him. One day he was caught with one of them. It was one of her employees,Herbert Spencer, who enabled him to escape .
The other family that employed my grandmother and from time to time my mother were the Grotes. They assisted our family when my grandmother was committed to an institution for two years. Another employer insisted that a bus company compensate my mother for injuries she sustained during a bus riot that erupted when whites demanded that blacks yield their seats at the rear of an overcrowded Knoxville bus and the blacks stubbornly refused to move. “You’d do it for me,” she told the executives of the bus company. They paid.
Though Rosa Parks gets credit for busting the racial codes in southern transportation, ordinary black folks resisted Jim Crow every day. Sometimes violently but most of the time non-violently. Civil War diaries show that W. E. B. DuBois is correct when he writes that one of the major reason why the South was defeated was a “general strike” and work slowdown on the part of the African prisoners victims of the largest prison transfers in history. (Regardless of tough love entrepreneurs and intellectual messengers of corporate think tank and a media that’s in the corporate tank, blacks continue to be victims. Part of the right wing’s tough love glossary is a term used by psychologists. “Victimization. ” Wouldn’t be the first time that blacks were put on the couch. Free blacks and runaways were considered crazy. After all, why would anybody want to give up such a sweet deal. Black male authors have been dismissed as crazy for over a hundred years. Richard Wright who was being investigated by French, U. S. and British Intelligence agencies was dismissed as “paranoid. ” Even James Baldwin, elegant as a jewel, a person whose manners were impeccable, was dismissed as “antagonistic” by “60 Minutes,” in an interview that was never used. )
Another example of cooperation between some white women and black women in the South, a solidarity that black, Hispanic and Native-American feminists claim is missing in today’s white middle class led feminist movement, occurred when my mother, a single mother in the 1930s, sought housing. Mrs. Grote persuaded the authorities to bend the rules,enabling her to obtain public housing for her, my grandmother and me. Before the Civil Rights revolution, some blacks, like my mother, were able to survive, not only as a result of their pluck, and cunning, but because they had some benevolent white folks on their side.
One would hope that books such as my mother’s would inspire others of our elders to provide a different witness to history than that offered by our educational institutions. A history written by men who blame the slave trade on “African chieftains,” exclusively. Purveyors of feel-good lies that diminish the contributions of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics and white ethnics to American civilization. How many students know about the working class white southerners who lived in regions that refused to go along with the Secession,and that in at least one southern state there occurred a secession within the secession. How many know that before demagogues arose, warning of “negro domination,” blacks and whites voted together or that populist Tom Watson was able to summon two thousand white farmers to prevent the lynching of a black populist.
My mother said that when the first copy of her book arrived she commenced to do a holiness dance of celebration. She received calls from all over the country including those from former schoolmates and childhood friends. She made the cover of the local Buffalo newspaper, “The Buffalo Challenger. “One woman says that she carries my mother’s book wherever she goes. People are calling her asking her to recommend Bible verses that might help them through particular crises occurring in their lives. And, following her most recent book party held in Buffalo’s Deaconess Center where she has an apartment, which I attended in October. People have arrived at her home and phoned her asking for her blessings. I have suggested that she hire an assistant and a 900 number and charge them. She says that this would be unchristian.
Previously, she was honored by The Every Other Thursday Book Club, one of many such clubs that has sprung up across the country as black consumers are beginning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on book purchases. A black writer can sell more books at venues like Margaret Troupe’s Manhattan Salon than at chain bookstores.
Carla, Tennessee and I flew to Buffalo for the first book party. I had prepared a speech for the gathering, but the hostess told me to make it short because they didn’t have time for me to read it; they wanted to hear from their honored guest.
My mother discussed her book before a rapt audience of black women. Afterwards, she delivered messages to some of the women. Messages from their dead relatives. Nobody saw anything unusual about this and I don’t doubt that my mother,like many African,and Native Americans might be in contact with another dimension, in this day when Astro Physicists speak of String Theory and wormholes.
Respect for such gifted people is widespread among people of the South. In fact, my mother, now 91 (she began her book at 74 and finished at 84)is working on a new book. She said that a few years ago the deceased who had been visiting her since childhood had stopped coming. They’d been replaced by spirits bringing prophecies. She said that one of the spirts said cryptically that Israel is going to be okay. In the old days, she would have been considered a prophet. I told her that with her gifts, if she lived in Africa she could have a villa and a Mercedes. She said, “that would be unchristian.”
Another version of an essay that appeared in ISHMAEL REED’s most recent book of essays, Mixing It Up, Taking On The Media Bullies.
ISHMAEL REED is the editor of the online magazine, Konch.