here," she says. There is a sign by the side of the road—MONEY,
MISSISSIPPI. Across the highway, pointing down a dirt lane, is another
sign—SWEET HOME PLANTATION. Up ahead on a sagging, unpainted, wood-frame
building are the hand-lettered words GROCERY STORE. Farther on is a mobile home
propped on cinder blocks. POST OFFICE. And finally, at the edge of Money, the
tallest building, THE COTTON MILL.
A railroad track
runs alongside the highway, and beyond are rows of green bushy plants flecked
with white. A morning mist hovers over the plants. "I was born out
there," she says, pointing out the car window toward the cotton fields.
"On the plantation. We lived way down in the fields. Now they build the
houses closer to the road, but in those days, before anyone had an automobile,
they built them in the middle of the fields. My first memory is of my uncle
leaving home. My mother stood in the yard and watched him walk through the
fields. You could see the top of his head moving between the rows. When he
reached the road and turned left, my mother said, 'Well, your uncle's leaving
home.' He lives in Oakland now.
chopping cotton when I was 10. We used a long hoe called 'the ignorant stick.'
At five in the morning the plants were cold and wet and they soaked your
clothes as you moved down the rows. It was a terrible kind of chill. But by
late morning the sun would be hot. Lord, it was hot! You could see the heat
waves shimmering behind you. 'Hurry up,' someone would shout. 'Hurry up, the
monkey's coming!' And then others would pick up the shout, 'The monkey's
coming, the monkey's coming!' Lord, those rows were long! You could chop for a
whole week and never finish a row. I got paid $2.50 a day for 12 hours. I never
understood why my father made me chop until now. He wanted me to be
independent, and it worked. I call him my father, but he was really my
grandfather. I was born with red hair, gray-green eyes, and skin so pale you
could see my veins. My real father looked at me and told my mother I was not
his child. Three days later he took a boat across the Tallahatchie River from
Racetrack Plantation, picked me from my mother's arms and carried me 15 miles
to my grandparents'. They raised me. I hold no animosity toward my father. It
was just ignorance. Later on he realized that I was his child.
"We can go
It is nine in the
morning and the temperature is 92� as the car heads south to Greenwood. Inside,
however, the only sound is the hum of the air-conditioner. The road runs
through fields of cotton. Occasionally, there is a shack alongside the
sharecropper homes all one color, according to the plantation," she says.
The ones along here are a faded red. "Plantation life was not bad, really.
Every holiday there would be a picnic. They would dig a hole in the ground and
start a fire, then throw a fence over the top and roast a pig on it. The owners
supplied the food. Each plantation would have its own baseball team and the men
would play against each other. If someone died on the plantation everyone would
stock that person's house with chickens and greens and stuff, and if it was a
woman who was left, they would come and pick her crops for her. It was a warm
relationship. The hardest adjustment to make when I moved to the city was
learning I could not be friendly, that you did not sit down beside someone on a
bus and talk.
"This was a
dirt road when I was a child. There were always people walking up and down,
usually couples holding hands. They walked from Money to Greenwood and back, a
distance of over 20 miles. They were courting. Now that is heavy courting. Then
people got automobiles and the Ku Klux Klan started riding again. Right over
there is where Emmett Till was lynched. You remember Emmett Till, in the '50s?
He was the 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who supposedly whistled at a
white woman in a grocery store. That night they dragged him from his uncle's
home, tortured and shot him and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie. I remember
once my cousin came to visit, and she got off the bus at the wrong stop. It was
already dark so she started to walk. Two white men drove by. They turned around
and came back toward her. She knew what was going to happen so she ran into the
cotton fields and lay down. They searched for her for hours but couldn't find
her. She heard them thrashing up and down the rows. It was the most frightening
experience in her life, she said. I imagine it was. I never had any experiences
like that. I try not to put myself in that kind of position."
The car crosses
the Tallahatchie River into Greenwood's city limits. A tree-lined esplanade
divides the main thoroughfare, Grand Boulevard. On both sides are massive
mansions, aging and untended. From the second-floor balcony of one hangs a
me well," she says. "My grandparents, I mean. It was not the same as
having parents, of course. They were not affectionate. I never remember any
warmth, any feeling that they really cared, but I never wanted for necessities.
And they were strict. Very strict. Why, they would not even let me receive
company until I was 16. Whenever a boy called the house and asked to speak to
Miss White, my mother—my grandmother—would answer the phone and say, 'I'm the
only lady in this house who receives company, and I am sure you are not calling
me because I am a married woman.' And they would hang up quick. I appreciate
that kind of thing now. It taught me self-respect. But then I just wanted to
get out of the house. That was why I turned to sports. It was the only way I
could stay out past five o'clock. And I was good at it, too.
"When I was
in the fifth grade I played on the high school's varsity basketball team, and
when I was 16 I was running track for Tennessee State. Sports was another kind
of escape, too. As a child I was an outcast. Blacks were prejudiced against me
because I was so light-complexioned. Parents would not let their kids play with
me. They said horrible things about me. In school, whenever there was a play or
a dance, the instructors would choose the black girls with wavy black hair,
starched dresses and patent leather shoes. It did not matter that I could sing
and dance better. I was too light and I had this funky red hair, and I was
always running around in overalls with a dirty face and no shoes. The only way
I could get any recognition was through sports. Now those same parents want me
to stop by their house to visit a spell whenever I return to Greenwood. I can't
do it. I feel funny. I remember things. Lord, I had a miserable childhood. But
I survived. Baby...I...have...survived."