The day I was born in Laurel, Mississippi, Willie McGee, a black man, was legally lynched at the courthouse only a few blocks away to the cheers of over a thousand white citizens. If you walked a bit south, you could spy the mansion where a young Leontyne Price regularly helped her aunt clean, until the white lady of the house heard her sing and got her into Julliard. And if you kept on walking to the other side of town, you might spy a respected businessman, Sam Bowers, the owner of Sambo’s Amusement Company, closing up shop. He was only a few years away from becoming the Imperial Wizard of the KKK of Mississippi Burning fame and charged with planning one of the bloodiest atrocities of the Civil Rights era.
Home sweet home.
But I knew none of these things until I was well into adulthood. Like most white citizens, I was isolated from the events and assumed they had nothing to do with me.
It shames me to admit that in the white-defined society in which I was raised blacks were considered part of the background. This was worse than physical segregation. This was psychological segregation. It wasn’t that we were taught not to associate with blacks: close association was unavoidable. Instead we were taught to see half the population not as individuals, but as functionaries—maids, yardmen, etc.
I distinctly remember the first time I was taught a lesson in bigotry. I was about eight and sitting under a tree in our backyard on a hot summer day. Over in the next yard I spotted an elderly black man in a flannel shirt, raking straw.
“Why are you wearing that hot shirt?” I asked. “Ain’t you burning up?”
He looked down at me and smiled. He explained that he wore the shirt because it made him sweat and when a breeze came up, it was like air conditioning.
As I mulled over the wisdom of his reply, his employer, an older white lady, approached us. Her name was Helen Callahan. I called her Miss Helen, not because she was unmarried, which she wasn’t, but because older white women were not addressed using either Mrs. or their last names. When they advanced past some unspoken age you just knew to address them using Miss and their given name. It’s part of the complex nomenclature of titling in the South.
As was typical of older southern women, Miss Helen felt obligated to shape every rough-edged boy within her purview into a southern gentleman. So besides teaching me various titles of respect, she told me to always say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” never to talk with my mouth full, and to keep my elbows off the table. I loved Miss Helen dearly. She was one of the gentlest and most refined women I ever came across. To make her proud was my most noble ambition.
“What y’all doing out here?” she asked sweetly, joining her yardman and me.
Minding my manners and wanting to make her proud, I said, “I’m just talking to Mister Joe.”
Miss Helen knitted her brows and pursed her lips in a way that indicated I had been “unmannerly.”
“No, Johnny,” she said, “Joe’s not a mister. Joe’s a nigger.”
You may be shocked when you read this. After all, the vernacular is distasteful, if not abhorrent, nowadays. But this was 1959 Mississippi. And when it happened, I felt somehow relieved. Suddenly so much in my world made sense. In that moment I understood why there were certain water fountains that I was not supposed to drink out of. Why blacks had to eat their food from the cafe out in the alley. Why the shacks in the colored town had no paint and the roads had no pavement. It all made perfect sense. No longer did these conditions seem arbitrary. I finally understood that it was about color, and Joe’s color was “wrong” and mine was somehow “right.”
“Now, one day, Joe will call you mister,” Miss Helen went on, “but never the other way around.”
She was gazing sweetly at Joe. Her words had not been harsh nor her tone unkind. There was no villainy in what she believed, only the Christian truth. It was obvious she cared for Joe.
And Joe was also smiling pleasantly, nodding his head in agreement.
This was the way it was supposed to be, I thought, and it was just fine with everybody. It was indeed a fine thing to be a white boy in Mississippi! The silence of an entire race was evidence of your superiority.
Fast forward a few decades to a January evening in 1988. I was living in Minnesota, on the more tolerant end of the river. I had created a comfortable existence as a business consultant. I had come out as a gay man, a liberal, and an agnostic. I believed I had overcome all my prejudices and left my past behind.
That night PBS was running film clips from the Civil Rights movement in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I had watched these scenes on the evening news when I was growing up in Mississippi—blacks marching down the middle of Main Street in some hot and dusty nearby town. I could smell the thick humid air, the sweat. The dust prickled my nose.
But this time, as an adult, I saw something I had not noticed before. Instead of focusing on the marchers, I noticed the white people who lined the streets, throwing rocks, jeering, waving Confederate flags. My people. And again I studied the marchers.
For the first time I saw the whole picture. This is not black history, I thought. This is my history! And I know nothing about it. These people, white and black, and especially the unspoken space between us, made me who I am. Every day as a white man I shape and am shaped by race.
I remembered Joe and his silence and it was clear to me that I owed Joe a tremendous debt. I still can’t begin to fathom what his mandatory silence cost him that day, but I am beginning to understand how his invisibility was used to underwrite my sense of privilege and entitlement, to embellish my history. His dignity was the price extracted so that an eight-year-old child could feel superior.
I also became certain that I would never understand my own story until I discovered Joe’s. He and I held the missing pieces to each other’s narrative, and for our stories to be complete, one would need to include the other.
When I decided to write novels focusing on the racial divide, I got some good advice from a black friend. “Don’t you dare write another To Kill a Mockingbird,” he cautioned.
I was taken aback. I told him every “evolved” white person I knew loved that book.
“Exactly,” he said. “Self-respecting black folks hate it. Whites get to feel sorry for the poor, ignorant, and powerless black man. And conveniently put the blame on the white southern cracker. I’d rather your book be about a black scoundrel, just as long as he’s a full-blooded and complex human being. We don’t need any more victims for you white folks to feel sorry for. I don’t want my children to have to read one more book about a pitiful black man who needs saving by the white man.”
I went back home to Mississippi. I sought out African Americans who could introduce me anew to myself through their stories. I did countless interviews. I read books, listened to oral histories, poured over slave narratives, spent hours in the cellars of county courthouses. I collected all the broken pieces, all the missing links that I could find.
When The View from Delphi, my first novel, was published by a small press, Kirkus Review wrote, “…Odell, an African American, is the rare writer on race who allows for a range of responses—and for the possibility of change.” (Italics mine.) I really hated to alert them to their mistake. To assume that I was a black man was the greatest compliment they could have paid me.
In this second novel, I wanted to delve even deeper into the shadowy world uneasily inhabited by both the black and white psyche. I specifically wanted to look at the black midwife. During my research I had interviewed several elderly ladies who had “caught” thousands of children in their communities. I learned that midwifing served spiritual and communal functions as much as a physical one. Midwives could trace their practices back through Jim Crow, through slavery and all the way to Sierra Leone and Temne tribal practices.
Their occupational demise began in the 1950s when the white medical establishment orchestrated a campaign to discredit midwives in order to make way for government-funded public health services. In other words, when it became once again profitable for white men to touch black flesh, the midwives had to go. They were portrayed in medical journals and state legislatures as dirty, ignorant, and superstitious abortionists. When the medical establishment required that they be licensed, many were forced to “turn in their bags” because they could not read. A category of “nurse midwives” was created to work under the direct supervision of a doctor.
The midwives I spoke with were gracious, proud, and spiritual, saddened to have been barred from their calling and eager to have someone listen to their story—not the official white story that vilified them. After I discovered that the live-birth rates among these “uneducated” black women were higher than the white doctors who replaced them, I knew I needed to write their story.
Serendipitously, I discovered something about my own family history that fueled my desire to write.
My grandfather lived to be ninety-seven, but just before he died he called his estranged son, my father, to his bedside. “I think it’s time I told you about your mother,” Papa Johnson said. My dad was then in his seventies.
We had all been told that my dad’s mother died of pneumonia in 1927, when my father was only an infant. But that wasn’t the truth.
In the nursing home that morning Papa explained that when my father was six months old, his mother, Bessie, planned to take her child and run away with him. But then she found out she was pregnant again. She had sworn she would never have another child by my abusive grandfather, whom she had come to despise, and so she went to her stepmother, my great-grandmother, who happened to be a midwife. Big Sal performed an abortion on her daughter, from which Bessie contracted blood poison and died. My father was left motherless.
Big Sal went on to help raise my father, whose mother she had had a hand in killing. My father loved her dearly and never learned the truth until seventy years had passed.
I began to wonder, what could it have been like for my great-grandmother to have that child reach out for her, the same woman who was responsible for his mother’s death?
And then there was a third element that intrigued me. Can stories about which we are not consciously aware still serve to shape our lives?
The fear of betrayal by the ones you love most, whether by death or deceit, was never talked about in my family, but it affected at least three generations of men. It is the genesis of our common unwillingness to be truly vulnerable before one another, especially those we love. It explains the high premium my family places on self-sufficiency, on never relying on others for help.
The repression of story can scar the soul.
But knowing our common story can heal. My father, my brothers, and I have learned to connect with an understanding and compassion that was not available to us before. We recognize ourselves in one another.
Through writing The Healing and by stitching together my own family history, I have discovered the truth in the old saying, “Facts can explain us, but only story will save us.”
If you want to destroy a people, destroy their story. If you want to empower a people, give them a narrative to share. One of the most dramatic, awe-inspiring American tales is how slaves and their descendents have strived and survived as a proud community and, in spite of every adversity imaginable, infused the larger American culture with a richness like none other.
Their story is a story for us all.