How a trip to the South and conversations with Mississippi midwives helped birth a friendship and a new novel
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I was living in Minneapolis when my aunt called to say that my grandmother was ill. If I wanted to say goodbye, I should come down at once.
A couple years earlier, I had left Mississippi on my own volition—before I was forcibly ejected. As a budding gay, liberal, late-night-carousing, backsliding Baptist, I clearly wasn’t fitting in. Don’t get me wrong: Mississippi is the finest place on earth if you belong. But it’s hell if you don’t. Minnesotans, on the other hand, don’t seem to care if you belong or not. They leave you alone. But if you need help, just ask. They probably have a 12-step group for it. In the two years I had lived in Minneapolis, I had come out, sobered up, begun a business, and become reasonably successful. For the most part, I had turned my back on my native South.
Actually, there was one place in Mississippi where I do recall belonging, and that was in the company of my grandmother. She never looked at me like I was a disgrace-in-training, a family embarrassment. I think her unqualified acceptance stemmed from the kind of durable love that came from raising a dozen kids on a dirt-poor, Depression-era farm. Her unflinching gaze said that she always knew who I was, and that nothing I could do would permanently alter that. A person could breathe around Granny.
The hospital waiting room in Jasper County, Mississippi, was filled with family members hoping to be allowed a final goodbye. I was waiting among my aunts and uncles, their spouses, and a passel of cousins, when my mother rushed out from Granny’s room and put her arm around me. “It’s Johnny she wants to see,” she said, her tone tinged with pride. “And after him, nobody else. She says she too tired.”
I stood at my grandmother’s bedside and looked down upon her wasted body and gaunt face. One eye had been taken years ago by the cancer, and the other was straining against an approaching darkness. I took her hand. She feebly attempted to grip.
“She’s been fretting to talk to you,” my mother said. “She said she has to tell you something. Nobody knows what.”
Granny never made any bones about saying that out of 50 grandchildren, I was her special one. I’m sure the slight smile she gave me cost precious energy. But when her lips moved, there was no sound.
I bent down and put my ear to her mouth. I heard something, but it was only the rush of breath against my ear, broken by the parting and closing of dry lips. I could make out no words.
“What, Granny?” I whispered. “Tell me.”
“What did she tell you?” my mother finally asked.
“I didn’t understand. I don’t know.”
That was it.
Or maybe not. When I returned to Minnesota, I began hearing voices that woke me at night. They were distinctly Southern and mostly women. No faces, no plot, no point, really. They chatted about cooking and raising children in one breath, raising gardens in the next; about husbands, neighbors, the preacher, and laying hens. It was the talk of the kitchen, the general store, late afternoons under the chinaberry tree, and evenings on the front porch—the comforting background chatter I had heard growing up. And even though I could not name the voices, I recognized the sound as the music of my childhood. Perhaps my grandmother had not been silent after all.
I filled a journal with the scenes, trying to catch the rhythms and expressions that evoked Southern life. There was “hog-killing weather”—that first cool spell in fall when it was safe to butcher a pig, a festive occasion that would bring in all the neighbors. There were “porch babies”—children not allowed off the porch, older than lap babies yet younger than yard babies. And “cathead biscuits”—lard biscuits, rounded not flat, big as a cat’s head and feather-light. And “lay-by time,” that longed-for midsummer break after the weeding was done and before the picking began, when the cotton crop was laid by.
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 made the decision to quit my business, sell my home, and write; to follow the voices and gather up their stories.
I began to take forays into the South, with no other aim than to listen. I spent time with my mother and my aunts, asking them to tell me their stories. I interviewed women who had worked as maids and sharecroppers during Jim Crow; women who had dared to march with Martin Luther King Jr.; mothers, many illiterate, who put their lives on the line so their children could get an equal education.
These voices, black and white, filled my first novel.
But the story didn’t end there. After completing the book, there remained a thread I had not followed. When I thought back over my interviews, I recalled an individual that had surfaced repeatedly, especially in conversations with African Americans: the midwife. When they spoke of her, their voices would warm, their faces soften. They spoke with reverence, a nearly spiritual regard.
This stumped me. I had always viewed midwives as old granny women, reputed to be ignorant, unsanitary, and superstitious. I had heard how they placed a sharp knife under the bed of a woman in delivery to “cut the pain.” They ritually buried the placenta in the backyard. They had the mother hold her husband’s hat during delivery. I also heard they were frequently sought out to perform abortions.
But the adoration the women I interviewed had for midwives contradicted my views. So I began to revisit my assumptions, searching out facts and reading histories. I learned that during and after slavery, African
American women, out of necessity, relied on midwives. I also discovered that the midwife did not limit her ministrations to delivering babies. She also tended to the soul and heart of the community: her practices kept alive important and spiritual communal traditions, some of which could be traced back to tribal healers in Africa. I learned that putting a sharp object under the bed to cut the pain, for instance, was more than silly superstition. It was a symbol to the mother that the community understood her pain, and enfolded her in its embrace. Holding the husband’s hat could bring emotional comfort and strength to the mother, the sense that her man was in the room with her. And burying the placenta? For 400 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. As sharecroppers during Jim Crow, black families couldn’t be sure they would be in the same place year after year. So by taking the placenta and burying it, the midwife was sending the message—to the newborn, to the mother, to the community—“You are rooted in this world. You have a place to stand.”
By the 1930s, the white medical community saw these midwives as an impediment to their control, and thus began an orchestrated campaign to discredit them. Medical journals and state legislatures portrayed them as dangerous. When the medical establishment required that they be licensed, many were forced to “turn in their bags” because they were illiterate. A category of “nurse midwives” was created to work under the supervision of a doctor.
I was shocked when I read in the American Journal of Public Health that the infant mortality rate for midwives was half that of the white doctors who first replaced them. I shouldn’t have been surprised. These women knew intimately the generational birthing history of the patient’s family. They understood the mother’s heredity: her home life, her diet, her worries, her hopes, her fears. They were also versed in the ingenuity that poverty engenders. Today, we are rediscovering many of their “quaint” remedies and herbal potions. Their birthing techniques are finding their way into modern delivery rooms.