This land was too troubled…Posted: April 12, 2008
From Melany Neilson’s Even Mississippi (received a Pulitzer Prize nomination) — a strong and evocative narrative of a young white woman coming of age in Mississippi and encountering the real world of class and prejudice: “I should go somewhere else, far away. This land was too troubled, excesses and poverty mingled here, and time moved slowly. Life here was too close to the land, too hard, with folks, black and white, sharing experiences but always at a distance, separate in a way you had to live through to understand.”
It was the way it was, the way it always had been. Keep ’em in their place. Separate but equal. (Equal, my foot.) Neilson’s book reminds me that though the Sixties were fraught with racial strife, equal rights didn’t come with the passage of federal laws. I lived in a rural Delta town during the early Eighties, the time frame of Neilson’s book. That’s when I met Old Henry.
He was old, all right. Nobody knew how old. Not even Henry, himself. They said he had scars made by shackles from when he was a slave. I tried to subtract and arrive at a meaningfully accurate age, and I ended up with 115. Could that be? Or did someone keep him shackled when he should have been free?
By 1980 Henry was too old to work, but he’d earned his own little spot near a corner of the plantation, close to a bayou, just off Highway 61. He had a house — a raw cypress two-room shanty with cracks between the boards clumsily patched with tar paper, no running water, junk scattered about, the common abode to black folks even then. He also had a little spot beside the shack for a garden, a garden he played and strummed like a well-tuned guitar. He’d grown up on that plantation, close to the land, knew how to bring things up out of the rich loam, and his garden told the story of his diligence and obedience to the cyclical experience of growth.
The landowner offered us a spot between Henry’s shanty and the bayou to plant a garden of our own — tomatoes, squash, eggplant, green beans, cucumbers, a few stalks of corn. I was into the “natural” movement. I’d just had a baby, delivered by a certified nurse midwife. Accompanying the stark Delta poverty was a high infant mortality rate among the poor and black population, prompting a midwifery program to provide adequate care to mothers and babies. I had good insurance and the means to afford an obstetrician in Greenville, but chose this method of delivery. Then my child drank only breast milk and ate pureed pears from a tree down the street and vegetables from the garden in front of Old Henry’s shack.
I could stand on the turnrow that served as Henry’s drive and cup my hands in front of me in my line of vision and see the black, low-slung silhouette of his house against the golden glow of the sky and cotton fields falling away from it, the rambling ranch of the landowner in the distance with a Crow’s Nest from which the bossman could look out over his white gold. Poverty juxtaposed against mocking wealth lay in the parenthesis formed by my hands. The crusty pea-green bayou curled beside it all, cypress trees sitting in it, mingling with old hardwoods, like the meagerness and excesses of the land and its people alongside it.
In the sweltering heat late one afternoon we arrived to work in our rows and pick our yield. After depositing our tools in a heap on the ground, we noted we’d forgotten something and it would require a trip back to town. My husband called out to the old stooped man, “Hey Henry, could you please keep an eye on our tools till we get back?”
In a half hour, we drove up the turnrow toward Henry’s shack and noticed he was standing over the heap of hoes and shovels and trowels, looking down at them, not budging, not looking up at the noise of our car. Then came the sickening realization that he’d been there the whole time keeping an eye on our tools because the white man told him to.