Confessions of a Civil Rights Daughter
IF AINT BABY IS WATCHING, THEN SHE HAS SEEN HERSELF DIE A THOUSAND TIMES.
On a porch in Greenwood, Miss., 1965. Flesh and blood dissolve into memory, in the instant it takes to light a fire and throw it.
If Aint Baby is listening, then she surely has heard her story told again and again, on stages in London, New York and Los Angeles. Her life is art; her death is a loss registered in history.
Now they are applauding her, lavishing praise on the memory of an illiterate midwife, a field hand, a black woman born in the Mississippi Delta, killed by other children of the Delta. Now they are applauding her baby girl who, faced with years of silent mourning, eventually found a place on the stage. Aint Baby’s daughter, who laid everything out like it was a fine Sunday meal: rape, murder, hate, joy, pride, resistance. Laid it out, then invited London, New York and Los Angeles to sit and bear witness. The daughter who left the Mississippi Delta in 1965 as Ida Mae Holland, a 20-year-old with her GED scores pinned to her brassiere, too devastated to cry, too poor to buy a tombstone, a final tribute for her mother’s grave.
“I promised I would give her a tombstone that the world could see,” the daughter says, “and I did with my play. They know [her name] all over the world.”
The daughter is now Endesha Ida Mae Holland, PhD, prize-winning playwright (“From the Mississippi Delta”), author, USC professor and former foot soldier in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The daughter is now a griot, a storyteller using her plays and book to testify about a place, a moment in history that is impossible to fully understand unless you were there.
You had to be there.
The grainy black-and-white footage of Mississippi during the civil rights movement can never capture the long-playing nature of certain memories. Those scenes of protest
stir sadness, anger, pride, then victory, but they do not show the rest: the hurting years that followed when there were no cameras. When the losses were tallied in individual lives, Aint Baby was dead. Her daughter, deeply wounded, was left to build tombstones, left to live and always return. Her daughter, for whom a trip home is never just that.
“If South is a perspective as well as a direction, then the Mississippi
Delta may well be the most Southern place on earth.”
--"From the Mississippi Delta, a Memoir.”
ONE DAY THIS SPRING, ENDESHA IDA MAE HOLLAND TRAVELS BACK TO that most Southern place at the invitation of the University of Mississippi at Oxford.
The request to speak at the Seventh Oxford Conference for the Book carries centuries of significance. Oxford is the hometown of William Faulkner. Ole Miss is where students rioted when James Meredith tried to enroll in 1962. Four hundred U.S. troops clashed with 2,500 students and others opposed to integration. Two people were killed.
In those years, Ole Miss was something black folks could only dream about--a gleam in someone’s eye. Holland sees the offer to speak through those eyes, the eyes of her elders, that solid generation who taught their children to revere teachers and ministers, who embraced God as the answer and education as a way out and up.
“By virtue of inviting me,” she says, “they’ve invited Mama.”
For Mama and the others, she accepts, the way she has done so often in the past. But these are not ordinary times for Aint Baby’s daughter.
Holland, 55, is in a wheelchair, placed there by ataxia, a genetic disorder in which the cerebellum, that part of the brain that controls muscular movement, slowly degenerates. Things that were once simple--speaking, bathing, teaching, traveling--are now grueling. The illness devastates the body but leaves the processes of the mind untouched. So the trip to Oxford is a time of reflection and planning, all the while racing against an oversized opponent. “This illness has taken hold,” Holland says, “but I don’t want to give in.”
Holland has been fighting and resisting for a long time. If she had stopped every time things got hard, she never would have made it out of the Delta and the raggedy life it had planned for her.
To make this journey back, she will need the help of two women: Joy Shani A’Che and Ronda Racha Penrice. A’Che is her live-in personal assistant and creative partner. She is working with Trina Davis Cundieff on a feature film and documentary about Holland, which Charles Burnett (“To Sleep With Anger”) has agreed to direct. “There’s such a need to do films that aren’t always comedy or violent, or big-budget explosions and effects,” A’Che says. “There’s a need to show human drama, drama that rejuvenates the human spirit from a black perspective.”
On this trip, A’Che is the coordinator, making hotel and meal arrangements, pushing Holland’s wheelchair. Penrice is an Ole Miss master’s candidate whose thesis is on regional identity in African American literature. She will be their driver and will read Holland’s work at the conference.
The three women arrive on a Friday, with Holland scheduled to speak the next day. But before the panel discussion and readings, there is a first stop: Greenwood, more than an hour’s drive south of Oxford and many years away.
Greenwood bills itself as “The Cotton Capital of the World.” It is home to Cottonlandia, a cotton museum that Holland has never visited and never will. “That was an old plantation. It was the big house. I lived with it every day. I figured I didn’t have to see it. We couldn’t even touch the same Bible as a white person. We never went through the front door of a white person’s house.”
HOLLAND HAS THE LOOK OF SOMEONE CREATED DURING AN ABUNDANT season. She has big eyes, a deep-brown hue, full features, a wide smile. Every element came to her in generous proportions, as if God wanted to be sure no one would ever overlook her. She is a woman with extreme tolerance for questions, even those that make her cry or look off into someplace no one can see except her. But she has no tolerance for those who treat her as if she is not the somebody she has spent a lifetime becoming.
What she has become is a patron. Each month Holland signs checks that will be sent to college students, artists and others with financial needs. In the past she has taken complete strangers into her life--and sometimes into her home--and made them believe in themselves, then gotten them into school. At one time she put a clause into her play contract to make sure black directors would be considered for the job.
“It’s our generation that has to step up and help the young folks,” Holland says. “We have to tell what we’ve been through so our young people know they don’t have to stay down. They can come up.”
In Greenwood, people like Eva Brown Simpson remember how far down Holland was. “How you doin’, Dr. Lady?” asks Simpson, a childhood friend.
Simpson is ready for this visit. There are pots and plates waiting in her kitchen: greens, hot-water corn bread, baked chicken, black-eyed peas, okra, sweet potatoes, peach cobbler and RC cola. A bottle of homemade pepper sauce in a Crown Royal bottle sits on the table. Z.Z. Hill is crooning “Down Home Blues” on the radio, and soon Holland is into a plate of collard greens and corn bread the connoisseur’s way: with her hands.
Simpson watches with a satisfied look. “I told my sister that’s how you was gon’ eat em. She said, ‘No, she won’t,’ ” as if Holland would eat differently now that she has a doctorate. “I said, ‘Yes, she do, that’s the only way to eat ‘em.’ ”
These are Holland’s people and they know her. Bessie Ruth Kohn leaves heads under the dryer in her beauty shop to come visit. Her joy fills up all the space in Simpson’s kitchen.
“Girl, I’m so proud of you, I don’t know what to do,” Kohn says. “I read the book, girl, I love it. I love it. You is something else, girl. Somethin’ to be proud of.”
This is Holland’s Greenwood, the place where she was born, the place where she was named after her mother, the first Ida Mae, and then nicknamed Cat. She had a baby doll named Sister Girl, two brothers and a sister, no father and a mother.
Greenwood is where they became friends, she and her Mama. Mama was the first theatrical one in the family. She made Cat the audience while she “play-acted,” imitating the white woman she worked for. Mama cried big, silent tears when she was sad and sang the blues when she was happy.
This is Holland’s world, but Greenwood is Mississippi, and Mississippi is as “flinching and beautiful” as the author Richard Ford described it. Without warning the scenes change; a lovely landscape gives way to another country and other memories.
That used to be a movie theater. This is the church. Right there is the funeral home where they took the boy’s body.
She is 11 years old, conspiring with her playmates, peeping through a back window. The body of 15-year-old Emmett Till lay, bloated with river water, dismembered, disfigured, lynched. A sight for a little girl’s eyes. A white man tells them: See what happens when you sass a white woman.
Evelyn Estes was a little girl with Cat. She remembers: We used to laugh and make jokes and play church and hopscotch and do childish things. In the summer, we used to sit out on Highway 82 and watch all the white people drive by in their cars with the windows rolled up. We used to fantasize about growing up and having nice cars, and rings on every finger and watches all up our arms.
The white man lives in the house where Cat works, baby-sitting his granddaughter. He summons her into his room. It is her birthday. She expects something good.
In that room, he rapes her childhood away. When he finishes, he hands her a $5 bill. She clutches it tightly, as if it were the part of her he took.
“Everything changed with that incident,” says Estes. “She was just not that laughing, devilish child. We used to talk about hugging and kissing. You know how young girls do? Like this boy and that boy? We didn’t like any boys anymore. It just took that away.
“It made you wonder: ‘What is the matter with the black people down here? The grown-ups. Why didn’t they go and pull this man out of his house and hang him? That’s what they did to black people.’ ”
But in 1956, Greenwood is not a town of two-way streets. It is a town where a white man can rape a black girl without fear of arrest. There will be no lynching.
This is part of the Delta’s landscape. In 1956, rape of black women and girls is as alarming in white society as a rusting pump or dust in the attic. This man will continue having birthdays and enjoying favorite meals. Cat will never tell her Mama or her brothers, because she loves them and there is nothing they can do, except cry and get themselves killed.
That used to be Broad Street High School. This is downtown. These the streets where we marched.
Aint Baby is a midwife, so skilled at “catching babies” that she once turned a breech birth in the womb and delivered a healthy child. She is so respected they consider her a “doctor lady.” She wants that and more for her children.
The Delta wants another “good” colored, one who knows how to expect nothing, to know nothing. The Delta offers Cat a half-life, and expects her to take it.
Neither the Delta nor Aint Baby get what they want from this child. In 1962, Cat is 18 and a single mother. She is a high-school dropout and a prostitute: $5 for black men, $10 for whites. She is a thief, a jailbird and “the worse somebody in town.”
Until a summer day in 1962. That day she is on a mission, hoping to turn a trick with a new man in town. That man is Bob Moses, who would become a legend of the movement and in Cat’s life. He leads her straight to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee office and into the heart of the voter-registration effort in Mississippi. The young workers are full of purpose. What they propose, registering black people to vote, is full of danger. And Cat wants to be like them, talk like them, share their purpose.
“This is what freed me in Mississippi,” Holland says. “We didn’t know nothing about voting until the civil rights movement came. We didn’t know how bad off we were.”
Aint Baby is scared. She begs her child not to “mess around with “dem Freedom Riders.” She tells that “omanish gal not to be stirring up trouble with the white folks.” But Cat is already changing, seeing possibilities.
People who had looked down on her now look to her to help lead. After all, she had already been arrested and been to jail; she knew what it was like. She had already been an outcast.
She is perfect for the movement.
In those old black-and-white films of the movement, she is there, still just a tender-faced girl, leading the marchers to the courthouse, facing down the local deputy sheriff, Mr. Big Smitty. She faces black folks who welcome her and some so afraid that they pull guns when workers knock on their doors to talk about registering.
“Miss Fannie Lou Hamer taught me how to canvass, how to stand strong and not show fear,” Holland says, “even though we were scared to death.”
At the request of movement leaders, Cat travels the country to talk about Mississippi. She serves the movement and is changed by it, before ever realizing the price she would pay.
THE CEMETERY FOR BLACK FOLKS IN GREENWOOD IS A LARGE OPEN lot. The grass has not been cut and a wild mess of green has taken over. The gravestones and markers lie in a state of confusion in the high grass, as if they woke up one morning and suddenly found themselves here, competing with weeds for the attention of passersby. Aint Baby is buried here.
Cat was dry-eyed at the funeral. There was too much to cry about, and not enough tears. And not enough clear thinking space in the Delta in the 1960s to make sense of it.
“What you have to remember is, you in the heart of the South,” Estes says. “Those white folks wasn’t just going to roll over and say, ‘OK, we’ve treated you wrong, we’re gonna give you this.’ ”
After all, white leaders had created a holiday to celebrate the Leflore County Massacre of 1889, the year white residents killed many black people who had been seeking political rights. Now here was Cat, trampling all over that line that divided Greenwood in black and white.
Aint Baby, who had never even tried to register to vote, was alone in the house when the white men came that day in 1965. She had dutifully served white people all her life, picking their cotton, ironing their clothes, cleaning their homes. She brought babies into the world who grew up and picked the white people’s cotton and ironed their clothes and cleaned their homes.
Aint Baby is 57 years old and confined to a wheelchair because of ataxia. A firebomb rips the house apart and leaves it in flames with Aint Baby trapped inside. She manages to crawl onto the porch, but her body is on fire. Miss Susie and May Liza, neighbors, pull her from her burning porch, but the women can do nothing to keep her skin from falling off or rid the air of the smell of her burning flesh. They can only warn her youngest daughter, who had run back home at the sound of the explosion, not to touch her.
In the hospital room, tubes running through her mouth and nose, Aint Baby beckons Cat with her eyes. Her lips tremble as she struggles to speak. Cat leans closer. “You want water, Mama? You gotsta use the bedpan?”
The whispery voice answers with an echoing strength: “Tote me t’ vote, gal.”
Aint Baby died from her injuries without ever knowing the feel of a ballot in her hand. Her killing was never solved. Everybody figured the killers were not looking for Aint Baby, but for her baby girl.
“My sister and everybody else said Mama wouldn’t have gotten burned up if it wasn’t for me,” Holland says. “They said if I hadn’t been involved with the civil rights workers, Mama would be alive today.
“I don’t guess I’ve ever forgiven myself.”
A few months later, Cat left her baby, Cedric, with his paternal grandmother and headed for Minnesota, where, with the help of people in the movement and their supporters, she enrolled in school and began a new life. The day she left, she carried a suitcase borrowed from Eva Brown Simpson, and guilt too large for any 20-year-old to shoulder.
“FROM THE MISSISSIPPI Delta” is the story of Holland’s life and that of her mother. A cast made up of three women plays all the characters. Melba Moore has played the part of her mother, as has LaTanya Richardson (wife of Samuel L. Jackson), whose performance was painfully true to life.
The play is written in the dialect Holland heard and spoke growing up, the voices that stayed in her head. It is touching and tragic, funny and victorious. “Delta” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 but lost to “Driving Miss Daisy.” It earned Holland key support and recognition, including the help of Oprah Winfrey, a producer of an off-Broadway run. “Delta” was the reason USC President Steven Sample recruited her to teach at the university. She had been teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he had been president.
“I think what I identify with most is her being able to survive without being bitter, without even being judgmental--not that that’s the way I am,” Sample says. “Sometimes we identify with people in an aspirational way: ‘I’m not that way, but I wish I were.’ ”
It took time for Holland to be open, to learn how not to be bitter. The process begins in Minnesota.
She is 23 years old. It is 1967. Her roommates are white. At one point, she is married to a Jewish man. Then it all falls apart. The memories mount, then turn to rage headed in one direction. “I hated white people,” Holland says.
During a meeting of the student government, a white male student tells her to be quiet, that she talks too much. She pulls a razor from her bosom and “cut myself to let him know I meant business.”
“I didn’t know how bad off I was,” Holland says almost 35 years later. “All the trauma from the civil rights movement. It was like war. They let us all out without any treatment, without anything.”
In the time that she spent in a psychiatric ward at a hospital near campus, doctors gave her shock treatment and encouraged her to forget, to build her life from there. What she still cannot remember is the date her house was firebombed. “I remember the day I forgot it,” she says. “I deliberately forgot [in order] to keep my sanity.”
What stopped the bitterness was the play itself. In 1979, 14 years after she left the Delta, Holland earned a bachelor’s degree in African American studies--and discovered the stage.
That year she had enrolled in an advanced playwriting class on a fluke. In that class she wrote work that would eventually become “From the Mississippi Delta.” When she read her work out loud, she finally cried the tears she had brought with her from Mississippi. In Charles Nolte’s class that day, there were no dry eyes.
Later, after one staged performance and during an astounding ovation, the bitterness and rage “evaporated into the air,” she wrote in her memoir. “It was not that [Mama’s] death didn’t matter anymore, only that it now mattered to the world, not just to me. By freeing her of my grasp, I had finally freed myself.”
The climax of her play, her book, the first 40 years of her life, comes on May 25, 1985. On this day, she participates in a ceremony marking the completion of her doctorate in American studies. On this day, her Delta has come to her. Black Greenwood has rented charter buses for her graduation and shows up at the University of Minnesota in their Sunday best. When the name of the town’s daughter is called, the audience goes wild: “Go on, Cat, walk that walk!” She takes her time walking across the stage because she is walking for Mama and the ancestors, because it has taken her 20 years to get here, because this is her, and their, parade.
“Somewhere in the hollering, I heard my Mama’s voice: ‘Step high, up yon’er, wit de birds!’ ” The family had another “doctor lady” in its ranks.
IN GREENWOOD THERE IS another someone whom Holland must visit. The strong brown arms that helped pulled Mama from the fire are thin and frail now. Miss Susie Brooks looks like someone’s precious doll, lying in bed, the covers swallowing her tiny body. She is dressed in light-blue satin pajamas; her nails are polished.
Memory is threadbare in some places. Miss Susie mixes up names and sees the dead among the living. But she remembers to offer comfort to her company: “Find you a chair, baby,” she orders to the entourage standing around her bed. She remembers that Cat has come home.
They are two women who belong to each other, bound by something other than blood.
“She’s speaking at Ole Miss,” Miss Susie’s daughter, Queen, explains. “Isn’t that great? Ain’t you proud of her?”
“I wish I could be there,” Miss Susie says, her eyes fixed on her guest. “You made something out of yourself. Gone on and got your education.”
As if suddenly remembering those days when such things were almost impossible, Miss Susie pauses: “How you get it, Cat?”
“Y’all just pushed me forward,” Holland says. “Thinking about you and Mama. It took me a long time.”
The women talk about family and friends and funerals and visitations. Miss Susie belongs to Aint Baby’s generation. Miss Susie says she has seen Aint Baby right in this room.
“I never will forget,” Miss Susie says. Then she begins to tell the story. A fire in 1965. A friend lost.
Holland takes Miss Susie’s hand in hers and kisses it. Now the storyteller is silent, head bowed. Holland has only one thing to say. “Thank you, Miss Susie. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Don’t cry,” Miss Susie tells her. “Don’t cry.”
PEOPLE IN GREENWOOD know all about Holland’s life, who she was, and who she has become. But they have never seen her like this, in a wheelchair, unable to walk without help. Long before her condition was diagnosed in 1990, she saw the signs: loss of balance, frequent falls, uneasiness walking. The illness has been like an evil avenger, tormenting her family generation after generation.
“My mother, her mother, my cousins, my aunts; my brother died from it in ’94,” Holland says, “It done ravaged my family.”
It is ravaging her life. At USC she loved to see the metamorphosis of her students. They came to her not knowing or valuing their family’s personal history. They left having uncovered the stories and characters and lessons. Since the illness has worsened, she has been on leave. That love belongs to the past.
“I can’t go back to teaching,” she says. “The students can’t understand me.”
Ataxia has taken Holland’s voice--the instrument of her storytelling--and made it sound like someone else’s. On the phone people must think she is drunk or otherwise impaired, because when she calls to handle business, they hang up or order her to have someone else call. A’Che handles the work she can no longer do: shopping for her Venice home, cooking, driving, phoning. And when she falls, as she often does, A’Che lifts her back up.
Life has a different rhythm now, set by the illness. Things like bathing and brushing her teeth take about three times longer than they used to. Walking up the stairs inside her house can take an eternity.
Still, Holland has work to do: Along with A’Che, she is writing the screenplay about her life. There is a book in the works about the Minnesota days. And there are requests from those who want to produce “From the Mississippi Delta.” Each day she reads a portion of her memoir, to remember how far she has come. She works each week with a physical therapist, so that she can go on a little further.
“There’s no sense in me saying I’m getting better,” Holland says. “I’m improved somewhat. I exercise to keep my limbs strong. I won’t ever be able to walk by myself or not be in the wheelchair.”
Two years ago, the doctor finally convinced Holland that it was time for the chair, after she had fallen twice and twice torn her rotator cuff, a group of muscles that controls shoulder movement. Each fall required surgery.
For a woman who loved to run as a child, who tried to imitate the way the older women in the movement marched--chest pushed forward, with heavy steps as if the earth was bending to their will--sitting in a chair is hard to accept. It means she is 32 inches tall.
But Holland has earned some peace. Her sister has forgiven her. Her son, Cedric, is 40 and a father of two. Yet ataxia can be fatal; now, more than ever, she cannot lollygag. “I don’t have the luxury of time,” she says. “I have to get things done if I’m going to leave something for the young folks.”
SUNDAY MORNING ARRIVES and Holland is in an auditorium--surprisingly full for a Sunday morning--on the campus of Ole Miss. She is talking--with difficulty--about her life, her book, representing Aint Baby and that generation.
Afterward a stream of people, almost all white, makes its way to the stage to thank her, to tell her they love her work and that they felt like they knew her mother after seeing the play or reading the book.
In the afternoon session, when it is her turn to read, Penrice reads for her in the dialect Holland had to fight with an editor to keep intact. When it is his turn to read, poet, memoirist and journalist Anthony Walton, author of “Mississippi: An American Journey,” offers her his respect.
“I am particularly touched to be able to stand here today with Dr. Holland,” he says. “I feel our presence here today signals something that happened for us, and for African Americans around the country.” Then he reads and dedicates “For My People,” a Margaret Walker poem, to her.
Now they are applauding Aint Baby’s daughter, whose spirit was not destroyed or rendered forever unreachable by the history she has lived, the daughter who through it all made something of herself and remembered to keep her heart.
Now they are applauding remembrance, in a nation that most often prefers to forget. We live as if the years chronicled on those grainy films are eons ago, as if the nation suddenly sprouted equality and we found ourselves standing at this juncture, no balance due.
Some still remember the cost. Their remembering is an act of gratitude, a gift one generation gives to the past, and to the future. They, too, will need their tombstones raised. They are training new builders.
“I think I’ll take on the cemetery as a project, hire some local kids to take care of it,” Holland muses as she leaves Oxford, “plant some flowers that’ll bloom in the spring. I’ll be making a contribution to the living and the dead.”
Jocelyn Y. Stewart’s last story for the magazine was a profile of Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.