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Voices / Memoir

Asleep in Mississippi

One Southerner who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement travels the slow road from the Old South to absolute outrage

Linda Campany, a newcomer to southern Vermont, originally read this piece during the Local Voices program at Moore Free Library in Newfane. The program, which meets the last Wednesday of each month, welcomes readings of unpublished works by writers of poetry and fiction; all writers are welcome to read from their works for up to seven minutes. For more information, visit moorefreelibrary.wordpress.com.

Newfane

I wonder what I don’t see now.

Columbus, Miss., was my universe in those days before World War II. A small town of maybe 13,000, it was pretty much evenly split between black and white.

Columbus was home to the Pilgrimage, a tour of antebellum houses held early each April, when the place was alive with azaleas in bloom. Girls and women, dressed in hoop skirts for this occasion, displayed themselves on green lawns and shady porches.

Our Friendship Cemetery, with its gnarled magnolias, was one of the places where Memorial Day observances began, with the decoration of the graves of both the blue- and the gray-uniformed soldiers who had lost their lives nearby during The War Between the States.

I felt safe as the town lay between the Luxapalila and Tombigbee rivers, as I had been told that tornadoes don’t cross rivers.

On the surface, as in most of the Deep South, life was pleasant and quiet.

My parents and I lived on Third Avenue South, halfway between the gracious campus of Mississippi State College for Women with its huge old trees and traditions (where I attended nursery school, kindergarten, elementary school, and college), and downtown (where we did all our shopping, including groceries from Piggly Wiggly).

Both were 2{1/2} blocks from our apartment in a white frame house. We had a living room, kitchen, and one bedroom, which I shared with my parents, and a bathroom with a flush toilet.

* * *

Five blocks south, my nurse’s house, one in a cluster of unpainted dwellings, shared an outside faucet and an outhouse. I use “nurse” because that was the appellation, a shortened form of “nursemaid,” no doubt.

Cotton, to her friends and to me, was hired to take care of me, clean house, do laundry by hand, and cook, while my mama worked downtown as a bookkeeper at Loeb’s Department Store.

Cotton was a negress. No one had thought to use “black” or “African-American” then. This was less than 100 years after emancipation. She must have been very young when she first came. I don’t remember, and no one is alive today to tell me.

We had no cars. Mama walked to work, as did Cotton. We also walked to church. (My family was Baptist. Cotton was Methodist. We seldom missed a Sunday.)

In my first memory of her, it’s 1942. I am in first grade. We sit at the kitchen table. The back door is open. I can see the Partains’ house, where I play Monopoly sometimes, and the elm trees and the mimosa on the corner.

Cotton is teaching me to embroider a tablecloth as a gift for my mother. We cross-stitch green men in red sombreros, yellow clothes, black donkeys.

I don’t know where the money came from for the white cotton cloth with the design stamped on it. Money was hard to come by in Cotton’s family and in mine, too. When we finished the stitches, she took the cloth home to her “auntee” to hem and crochet a border.

* * *

One of my favorite summer things to do with Cotton when I was in the early grades was to go to the movies, which changed three times a week at the air-conditioned Princess. We liked Lassie and Shirley Temple.

Because she was my nurse, Cotton could sit downstairs with me instead of in the balcony. On Saturday mornings I could meet my friends at the Varsity for Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or even Wonder Woman.

Cotton didn’t work for us on Saturday because Mama didn’t work then. Mama had advanced and was working downtown at Dr. Pepper Bottling Company. I could stand outside on the sidewalk and watch through the plate-glass window as the clean bottles went by on a belt. The plant was near my grandparents’ house, and their backyard adjoined the backyard of the house next to the Episcopal church, where Tennessee Williams was born.

I loved to go to the 10-cent stores, Woolworth’s, and McLellan’s. And I was allowed to walk there by myself even though I wasn’t even 10 years old. What was there to fear?

I think Cotton didn’t like to go unless she had to because the white porcelain water fountains with their warm water gurgles were labeled white only, and there was no place for her to use the toilet.

* * *

I recall Cotton being really upset only twice.

The first time was when the father of her first child was stalking her. We didn’t know that word then. But he would slink along the sidewalk across the street from our house and cross over to our side, which had no sidewalk, as if he were coming in, and then he would cut his eyes toward the kitchen window.

Then he’d cross the street again and continue on the other side.

Cotton would stoop down and cover her face with her apron. She told my daddy about it, about how she was afraid of him, afraid he’d kill her, and the man disappeared for a long time.

I heard Mama and Daddy whisper about Daddy “having him picked up.”

Though I was in junior high school, they never talked openly about Daddy being able to call someone who had connections to cause a man to “disappear” for a while. Only in retrospect do I understand what happened. I adored my gentle, even-tempered daddy. And Cotton was grateful and relieved.

The second time, Cotton came in late through the back door all in a huff. We never locked the doors. Didn’t even have keys. I asked whatever was wrong, and she grumbled that some white man had come up on her porch trying to get her to sign up to vote, and she had had to run him off with the broom. I asked her whether she didn’t want to vote. She just scowled at me and put her hands on her hips. Ummph!

* * *

After the war, we had moved to Fifth Avenue South. We were still 2{1/2} blocks from the college, and a couple of blocks farther from downtown. Mama had gone to work at Moss Tie Company by then, and Daddy must have been already working at the gravel company. Cotton, in the meantime, had moved to Northside. She was willing to take on a much longer walk to work for a better house.

Thinking of life in my parents’ house in those days after I was in college, I see Mama and Daddy sitting in the living room after lunch (“dinner,” then) waiting until time to go back to work and watching As the World Turns and Cotton, sitting at the dining room table, having her own dinner, still in her apron, watching from across the room, commenting Uh oh. There’s trouble now.

* * *

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in 1955, I was in college and maybe, just maybe, beginning to wake up. At least I noticed. Yes, there’s trouble now.

If we had had buses, I’d have wanted Cotton to sit wherever she chose. But the next year, when blood was shed for three days in Tuscaloosa trying to integrate the University of Alabama, I was 60 miles away at Mississippi State College for Women. I might as well have been on the moon. These historic events happened somewhere else.

By 1963 I was married, had a four-year-old son, and was living in New Jersey. When four young girls were killed in the church bombing, the fourth bombing in Birmingham that season by American terrorists, I felt sad and ashamed knowing Southerners had done this thing.

In 1965, I watched television in horror as police wielding billy clubs and tear gas bloodied the folks — black and white alike — in the crossing of the bridge in Selma.

Had I been home I would have wanted to talk with Cotton, but we had never discussed anything of this kind. Would she put her hands on her hips and snort?

* * *

My husband and I, my son, and my five-month-old baby traveled home to Mississippi on April 4, 1968 to celebrate my son’s ninth birthday. While we were out having a celebratory barbecue meal with my mama and daddy, a breathless man burst in.

Someone’s shot Martin Luther King!, he shouted.

Another man jumped up, Praise God.

We just sat there, shocked into silence, too polite to confront the speakers.

* * *

When I went the last time to visit Cotton, she had cervical cancer. Her second son, grown into a young man, let us in off the same porch where Cotton had run the white man off with the broom.

Cotton, a skeleton stretched with taut black skin, lay on her bed on clean newspapers. Finally, I felt more than guilt, shame, anger, and disgust with myself.

Finally.

Finally, I woke up into absolute outrage.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” All this time, I had been so pathologically “nice.”

Newspaper!

To save laundry? They had no washing machine. Not enough sheets to keep up? Maybe.

Why hadn’t my mother intervened? Why didn’t I know these answers? How could I have looked the other way while all of this mindless disregard of people like Cotton was all around me?

Did we imagine they were different from us in any way that mattered? That they had no inherent value? In god’s name, why couldn’t I — why didn’t I — speak up?

I am not the only one blindly embedded in custom. Most of us rock in that cradle. I wonder what I don’t see now.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #190 (Wednesday, February 13, 2013).

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