How Black Mississippi Midwives Brought Me Home Again by Jonathan Odell

A few months ago I pick up an advanced copy of a novel called The Healing by Jonathan Odell. Simply put: I loved it. We’re proud to have selected The Healing for our First Editions Club for February. Jonathan visited Lemuria in 2004 for his last novel A View from Delphi which was also well-loved by Lemuria staff.

I am so excited that he’ll be here again on Wednesday, March 6 at 5:00 to talk to us about The Healing. Jonathan was gracious to write a guest blog and has shared some of the photographs, too. I’ll write no more and let Jonathan himself tell you about the story behind The Healing. -Lisa

How Black Mississippi Midwives Brought Me Home Again

by Jonathan Odell

Where I come from, you ask a man, you get the facts. You ask a woman, you get the story. As a child, I was no fool. I hung out with the women.

At family reunions, their province was in my granny’s sweating hot kitchen peeling potatoes, boiling collard greens and ham hocks, and swapping family tales, while the men sat on the porch quoting from the farm market report. Before church the women gathered in the sanctuary, catching each other up on small town gossip while the men stood out on the concrete steps, smoking cigarettes and catching each other up on college football standings.

In my own home Daddy was in charge of the checkbook, continually adding and subtracting, making sure the bottom line balanced to the penny. Mother, on the other hand, was in charge of the picture box, a tattered Keds shoebox stuffed full of family photos that spanned five generations. I’d pluck them at random and say, “Tell this one, Momma.”

When my mother narrated a snapshot she didn’t just tell of one particular day. Each photo was a vital thread in an intricate web of stories that revealed the essence of who we were, indeed, why we were.

An uncle killed in Korea, then a picture of his son — a near duplicate – with his own boy; depression-era dirt-farm poverty, then the first family automobile, shiny new; and skeletal, half-starved girls who later show up beautiful and buxom, with beauty parlor perms. There was direction to our story and it leaned toward hope. No single event was so burdensome or shameful that it could not be redeemed. The women who preserved my family’s history taught me early the truth in that old saying, “facts can explain us, but only story can save us.”

At mid-life, I was reminded of this again. I was living in Minnesota, thinking I had turned my back on my native Mississippi forever. I had become a successful, hard-nosed businessman. I had committed myself to learning the “how to” of gaining money, power and position. Knowledge was simply a means of getting more stuff. And it worked. I mastered the how to of the material world. But there is another old expression. “True sadness is getting to top of the ladder of success and realizing it is propped against the wrong wall.” The way my life was heading, all that was left to do was more of the same, only bigger and better. I came up against the paralyzing realization I was long on how, but short on why.

As my dissatisfaction grew, voices came to me at night when I lay awake in bed. Women’s voices, strong and southern, tempting me with stories, calling me back home.

Looking back, it should have been obvious what was happening. Tom Wolfe once said you can’t go home again. What he didn’t say was, you can’t totally leave either. It seemed I had escaped Mississippi in body, but not in soul.

I knew what I had to do. I shut down my business, sold my house and gave away my dog. I returned to Mississippi and sought out these women. I was ready to listen to them.

The first were members of my own family, my mother and my aunts, those women who had raised me. Seeing I was ready, they told me secrets that filled in the gaps. Some were dark and long-held and took courage to repeat.

First they told me the familiar. Then seeing that I was ready, perhaps, or simply that I cared and would not judge, they shared the secrets, the darker stories that filled the gaps: tales of violence, abuse, loss, shame, desertions. Family stories that, even though I had never heard them, shaped me nevertheless, because they shaped those who did shape me.

I learned my great-grandmother was a midwife who gave her daughter, my paternal grandmother, an abortion that killed her. She was then obliged to raise a motherless boy, my father. This explained so much about him, about me, about our struggles with trust.

On the other side of the family, my mother’s father would come home drunk from town. My grandmother would scurry my mother and all her siblings into the safety of the storm pit, a hole dug into the side of a hill. They sang gospel songs all night to drown out the sound of my grandmother’s screams as my grandfather beat her. As soon as I heard this, I understood the origin of the self-protective, suspicious nature that I shared with my mother.

I can’t overstate the impact this insight had upon me: that hidden stories, the ones of which we have no conscious knowledge, can mold our lives, determine our fates, even shape the character of a nation, without our consent. That’s when I decided I wanted to write a book that captured these stories, not just of my family, but of my people. In doing so, I had to expand the idea of who my people were.

When you open yourself up to the complex weave of story, and you diligently follow the threads, you can’t predict where you’ll be led. It’s out of your hands. And the truth is, the story of Mississippi is the story of race. You can’t get around it. Every thread leads there.

I interviewed African American women, those women who were ever present in my childhood, but whose voices I rarely heard due to the legacy of segregation.

“You have no reason to trust me,” I told them, “but I’ve got a feeling that your stories helped shape who I am.” These women, my fellow Mississippians, graciously opened up to me.

I was introduced to an older generation of people who had challenged Jim Crow and ushered in the Civil Rights era, and I learned once again that the true story was hidden from sight. I discovered that the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi was originated, supported, and led, not by the preachers and teachers written about in history books, but by women. It was the maids and fieldworkers and “Saturday night brawlers,” as Fannie Lou Hamer called them, who had nothing left to lose but their lives.

These voices, black and white, filled my first novel.

But the story didn’t end there. After completing the book, there remained a thread of story I had not followed. But the more I pulled at it, the more it promised to be a much larger story.

When I thought back over my interviews I recalled a phenomenon that had occurred repeatedly, especially among African Americans, when they spoke of a certain kind of woman. The midwife. Their voices would warm, their faces soften, and they spoke with reverence, a nearly spiritual regard. This stumped me.

In THE HEALING, I decided to focus on a subject that often arose in my interviews, but which I kept dismissing. It concerned black women healers and midwives. I first had to overcome my own prejudices. White historians and noted medical authorities treated the work of “granny women” as something to be ridiculed, an uncivilized business steeped in superstition and ignorance. Yet when the subject came up with the African American women I interviewed, I could sense they disagreed. They regarded these women with great reverence.

My breakthrough came while I was doing research in the oral history library at USM and happened to strike up a conversation with the department head, a scholar in Southern gender studies. I mentioned that I had come across many stories midwives until the 1940’s, when public health services began replacing them. I guess she noticed the dismissive tone in my voice. I may have even referred to them as granny doctors.

“You realize there was an orchestrated campaign to discredit these women, don’t you? They were seen as an obstacle by the medical establishment. They were vilified as dirty and barbaric and pushed aside.”

I told her I had not heard this, but that I really didn’t see it as a great tragedy. After all, I countered, didn’t midwives do things like bury placentas in the backyard? Nor were they professionally trained or licensed. They claimed to have been called by God. Surely the modern medical model was a better alternative.

She firmly let me know I had missed the point. “You’re talking about black women at a time when they had less authority in their lives than anyone. Many were illiterate. When one chose to be a midwife, it was a challenge to the power structure, to the established order of being subservient not only to whites, but to black men as well. The vocation took them out of the home, away from their families and out of the domestic control of their husbands, and into the homes of other men, at all times of day and night. How were they to obtain consent for such an undertaking? Black women had no voice. To do this under their own authority would be futile. But to say, ‘God told me to do it,’ was a way of taking the decision out of the hands of those who normally regulated their lives. It was not sentimental to say God chose you. It was defiant.”

As for those superstitious practices like burying the placenta or putting a knife under the bed to “cut the pain”, she challenged me to look deeper for cultural explanations. “The midwives tended not only to the physical wellbeing of the woman, but to her place in the community, and in a larger sense, to the soul of her people. For four hundred years, the message of slavery was that a black man belonged wherever a white man told him. He could be sold the next day. Or his children. During Jim Crow, with sharecropping, black families couldn’t be sure if they would be in the same place year-by-year. Imagine a midwife, who takes the placenta and buries it, emphasizing the message, or perhaps the prayer, that this child belongs in the world, in a greater web of community, with his people. That he indeed has a place. Can you imagine the power of that?”

I didn’t tell her the significance “belonging” held for me personally, but it was like a veil had lifted. I had found the book I wanted to write.

During my research I learned that during and after slavery these women tended to the soul and heart of the community. The slave master and the architects of Jim Crow derived their power by reinforcing the belief that God and scripture placed African Americans on the lowest rung of humanity. By treating their patients as deserving children of an inclusive God, the midwives subverted the message. They proved to young black girls that women could occupy powerful roles in the community. To black mothers that they were worthy of admiration and respect. These midwives were part of a resistance on whose shoulders King, Parks and Malcolm X stood.

I was privileged to interview several elderly women who had “caught” thousands of children in their communities. Over their lives, they had bonded communities together with a common sense of history, pride, and belonging. Being with them brought me closer to my own grandmother.

I remember the words of Mrs. Willie Turner, 91 at the time. She was explaining to me what an honor it had been to be a midwife. She looked out of her window.

“There are 2,063 people in this county who call me Mother,” she said. “And you know, they everyone still my child.”

Jonathan Odell, a native of Laurel, Mississippi, is the author of two novels, THE VIEW FROM DELPHI and THE HEALING, published by NAN A. TALESE/DOUBLEDAY. He lives in Minneapolis, MN. His series columns on the Legend of New Knight was awarded a First Place by Mississippi Press Awards.

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