COVER STORY : The Long March of Endesha Ida Mae Holland : Her Struggle Began in Mississippi, Where She ‘Rose From the Dirt of Society’ to Become a Civil Rights Activist, Teacher and Prize-Winning Playwright
She walks into the classroom wearing crimson tights, red Reebok’s and an oversized red sweater spattered with odd-shaped gold buttons.
Although she relies on the support of a large wooden cane, she radiates strength as she slowly maneuvers her way into the room, wearing a brilliant smile. She reminds her students that they will be reading their autobiographical essays aloud. And as they fidget with their notes, she lounges back in her chair the same way someone preparing to watch her favorite movie would sink into a sofa.
To Endesha Ida Mae Holland, everyone has a story buried somewhere inside. Her job is to help unleash those stories and carve them into jewels.
Holland is a prize-winning playwright, tenured college professor, longtime civil rights activist and a self-proclaimed nurturer of the human spirit. Her own life started out tragically, but she never gave up on the idea that she could do better. Now, her success is a source of inspiration to others struggling to realize their dreams.
“When you say, ‘She went from being a prostitute to Ph.D,’ it brings people some hope,” Holland said. “That’s why I don’t mind people talking about my past.”
Although Holland has been at USC only since January, she already has left an indelible mark at the university, where she teaches a playwriting class in the School of Theatre and an autobiography/biography class as part of a program called the Study of Women and Men in Society.
“She connects with you at a deep place,” said Linda-Rose Myers, a graduate student in her playwriting class. “It’s really exciting to be with her because you see her spirit.”
Holland has the ability to inspire because, as she puts it, she “rose from the dirt of society” to achieve great things.
Born in 1944 in the northern Mississippi town of Greenwood, Holland spent her childhood in a run-down home with her mother and three siblings. Her sister and brothers were the town drunks. But her mother was a strong woman who delivered the black babies that white doctors wouldn’t.
On her 11th birthday, Holland was raped by the white grandfather of a child she was baby-sitting. Angry and frustrated, she became a prostitute at age 12, charging white men $10 and African American men $5.
She dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and then spent time in and out of jail for shoplifting and fighting until she was swept up by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She had trailed a black civil rights worker from out of town, hoping to turn a trick with him. Instead, he recruited her to work on a voter registration drive in Greenwood.
“I didn’t know what I was doing until I started marching,” Holland said. “My values changed after that. I didn’t want to steal no more, and I didn’t want to ‘ho’ no more.” Despite the excitement of being part of a historic movement, Holland still cannot talk about what happened next without tears welling up in her eyes.
In 1965, hooded men believed to be Ku Klux Klansmen killed Holland’s mother, who was in a wheelchair, when they firebombed her home in retaliation for her daughter’s activism.
“The one wish I have is that my mama was alive to see me now,” said Holland, who does not know her real father’s identity. “But when I told Oprah (Winfrey) that, she said to me, ‘How do you think all this happened? Your mama’s still with you.’ ”
A year after her mother’s death, she moved to Minneapolis to attend school. Having received her high school equivalency diploma, she started taking classes at the University of Minnesota at the urging of fellow civil rights workers and her prostitute and junkie friends. Although Holland had stopped turning tricks, she established friendships with prostitutes and junkies in Minneapolis.
In 1979--13 years after she first enrolled--Holland received a bachelor’s degree from the university in Afro-American studies. Five years later, she earned a master’s degree in American studies, and two years later, she received her doctorate.
She went on to write eight plays, including her autobiographical work “From the Mississippi Delta,” which has been performed internationally and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Holland also is the recipient of more than two dozen awards, including the 1981 Lorraine Hansberry Award for her first play, “Second Doctor Lady.”
In addition to being a prolific playwright, Holland has just completed her autobiography, which will be published by Simon & Schuster next year. She is also negotiating a movie deal about her life story.
Longtime friends said they knew Holland’s stories would be told one day, and that a lot of people would listen.
“When I first met Endesha, stories were coming out of her every minute,” said Elaine Tyler May, a professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota who worked with Holland on her dissertation. “During the first day of class, everyone was supposed to introduce themselves and tell a little bit about themselves. Endesha had everyone in the class in tears by her brief but powerful story of her life.”
Holland’s break came when a New York City producer, Woodie King Jr., came to Buffalo in 1987 to see a performance of “From the Mississippi Delta,” which began as a one-woman dramatic reading. At the time, Holland was an assistant professor in the American Studies Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and frequently performed her own plays.
King showcased the play in New York, and soon, “From the Mississippi Delta” made its way to theaters across the country, winning accolades at almost every stop. Producer Susan Quint Gallin saw the play in Hartford, and then turned it into an off-Broadway production with Oprah Winfrey as co-producer.
Although Holland’s passion for the dramatics has not ebbed, she can no longer perform because she suffers from ataxia, an incurable, degenerative neurological disorder that causes her to occasionally lose her balance. Although ataxia is not necessarily fatal, it has affected Holland’s speech and her ability to walk.
She now spends much of her time writing from her spacious condominium overlooking the harbor in Marina del Rey. She lives alone among striking African artwork and portraits of her mother, who is the inspiration for much of her work. Her only child, Cedric, 32, lives in Buffalo.
In Swahili, “Endesha” means “one who drives herself and others.” She was given the name in 1979 by Kwanzaa creator and Cal State Long Beach professor Maulana Karenga, and she takes it seriously.
“I want to make an impact,” she said. " . . . I know the reason why I made it was because people believed in me. That’s what I want to give back to others--a sense of hope.”
Students appear to feed on Holland’s optimism. Although she can be brutally honest if she believes someone’s writing is emotionless or awkward, she convinces her students that they have to keep trying until they get it right.
She is also savvy enough to know that aspiring writers and playwrights need more than just encouragement if they want to make a living. Sometimes, she seems less like a playwriting professor than a shrewd businesswoman with a wealth of tips about how to get an agent, attract a publisher and play hardball when negotiating contracts.
She is upfront about the obstacles artists face as they strive for recognition, but she still manages to pump self-esteem into her students in clever ways. She recently invited professional actors to read her students’ plays to give them a chance to hear their works performed by professionals.
After the actors read senior Andrew Kamenetzky’s play about a blues guitarist who sold his soul to the devil, Kamenetzky’s first words to the principal actor were: “If this play is ever produced, you’re hired.”
“It was really great to hear it performed like that,” Kamenetzky said. “Dr. Holland has made me believe that I can do this. She’s encouraged me to write from the heart.”
Part of the reason Holland is so effective at encouraging others is because she does not accept excuses.
After seeing “From the Mississippi Delta” in Detroit, Habibi Minnie Wilson wrote Holland a letter saying how moved she was by the play and including samples of her own poetry.
In her letter, Wilson told Holland that she was a similar age, and that she too had overcome a life of obstacles. But unlike Holland, Wilson said she had too many other obligations to pursue her writing dreams.
A few months later, Wilson’s phone rang. It was Holland.
“I was flabbergasted,” Wilson said in a telephone interview. “But she said she wanted to offer words of encouragement. I told her my self-esteem was low, and she said, ‘No, homegirl, you’ve got to find a publisher.’ I said I was too old to go to school, but the next thing I knew, I was moving to Buffalo to get my college degree.”
About four years have passed, and Wilson is now preparing to graduate summa cum laude from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a degree in women’s studies.
“She sees potential in everyone she meets, but particularly women who are middle-aged and don’t feel they have any power,” said Wilson, who is now Holland’s business manager. “I do not think I could have done any of this without her.”
For her part, Holland said she reached out to Wilson because she liked the way she crafted her letter.
“She was talking about ambition, and I said to myself, ‘Now, here’s someone who needs a break,’ ” she said.
Holland said she often receives letters and calls from people who want to do something creative but feel trapped by fear and lack of inspiration.
“I hear from whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, males and females,” she said. “They all tell me they can relate to my story.”
Holland came to USC at the urging of Steven Sample, who was president of the State University of New York at Buffalo before being named president of USC. After her first semester of teaching, her colleagues see endless potential in her.
“Students are still a little bit in awe of her,” said Robert Scales, the dean of USC’s School of Theatre. “But we’re thinking of doing creative things like performing her plays with professionals.
“Endesha is a real person who wants to give something back. She has a voice and it’s more than just being a teacher.”
Although Holland almost moved back to Buffalo after the Jan. 17 earthquake, she likes Los Angeles and USC. She said part of the reason she came to USC is because it’s at the edge of South-Central.
“I haven’t been here long enough to know what’s really going on, but it seems like people here feel a sense of hopelessness,” she said. “There’s a sense of being unable to do things. I want to help people break down the barriers.”
One young woman in Holland’s playwriting class recently took a trip to Missouri to see her own play produced, courtesy of the Ida Mae Holland Educational and Artistic Scholarship Fund. The scholarship, which is named after Holland’s mother, is designed for anyone who wants to go to school or needs funds to pursue his or her professional goals.
“If someone says, ‘I want to go to school,’ I stay on them and make it so that they have no reason not to go,” Holland said. “I even have a stack of community college applications that I keep in this apartment.”
Holland’s pride is evident when she talks about her work and accomplishments. She’s not afraid to say she has made it, and she wants other people to know it. She almost seems haughty when she tells students in her class that she expects people to call her “doctor,” but no one is challenging her.
“She’s someone who makes you think that if you just hang in there, great things can happen,” said Felton Perry, an actor and friend of Holland’s. “She’s living proof of that.”
On the Cover
She was raped at 11, turned to prostitution at 12 and suffered through the violent death of her mother. But she was transformed by the righteous fervor of the civil rights movement, and Endesha Ida Mae Holland has spent more than a decade bringing her life experiences to the stage. Now, she’s inspiring students at USC.
“She has always struck me as a walking storehouse of wisdom,” said Elaine Tyler May, an American studies professor at State University of New York at Buffalo, Holland’s former employer.