Chapter One: Paradise
She was the first to arrive, the sister in the powder-blue suit from the Sunday school class, standing in the foyer, rigid, tentative, like a statue with a pocketbook. She was exactly on time. Lula figured the sister must have driven around the lush hills south of Ventura Boulevard in the winter rain for fifteen minutes before finally parking and knocking on the door, not wanting to be early but not willing to wait a second longer than she had to.
She stood there in the foyer and took it all in: the white-and-gold French Provincial furniture, the sparkling chandelier that made the late-afternoon light dance, the lush white rugs, the mahogany dining room table dense with food and wine, the white baby grand in the center of the room. She had that hungry look, the look Lula had seen before, hungry for whatever she could see.
And there was plenty to see. No question about that.
Can I take your coat, Sister? Lula asked.
Why, sure, she replied, snapping awake. Lula slipped the raincoat from her shoulders and gave it to the maid, who had drifted in from the kitchen along with the heady smell of baking bread.
Lula took the sister by the arm and led her into the living room with the soaring ceilings, toward the table. Let me pour you some champagne, Lula said. Sit down over here, and I'll get you something to drink. We'll visit until the others get here.
Well then, I don't mind if I do. The sister giggled slightly, then caught herself. She took the crystal flute proffered by Lula and smiled warmly. Sister Hardaway, she said, this is a fine and lovely place you have here. Just fine and lovely.
Well, thank you, Sister. I've been blessed.
An awkward silence. The sister took a long, greedy pull of champagne, and then another. The hungry eyes rested on the snow-white baby grand.
Will Stevie be --
The doorbell sounded. Excuse me, Lula said. Let me get that.
The other ladies from the Sunday school class began to spill through the door, laughing and chattering and shaking off the rain, and the social was underway. They gathered first in the living room, sporadically gawking about, as if in Manhattan for the first time. Then, at Lula's nudging, they began to graze along the well-appointed table and sip champagne. After a while they began to scatter about the house, several settling in the den, the walls spangled with framed gold records and the shelves dotted with framed pictures -- Stevie with Coretta Scott King, Stevie with President Nixon, Stevie with Everybody.
The talk was of the church, the preacher, the preacher's wife, of Brother This and Sister That. Didn't the choir sound good last Sunday? Will you be here on Easter Sunday, or visiting your children? No one spoke of the invisible yet overwhelming presence in the room, the omniscient superstar ghost of the great Stevie Wonder. It would be rude, after all. This was Lula's party, Lula's house. They would have loved to have asked a thousand questions -- What's your boy doing now? Tell us about that boy! -- but they did not. Not even the sister in the powder-blue suit, even though she now had the too-quick laugh and the unmistakable glow of someone unaccustomed to alcohol before the sun goes down, if at all.
Soon enough things began to break up. One by one or in small clumps, the guests paid their respects to Lula in the foyer and began to make their way out the door. The last was Sister Powder Blue, listing slightly in her tracks.
I appreciate your coming, Sister, Lula said.
Honey, it was my pleasure, she replied, gazing about one last time. I just love your home, your lovely home. And you treated us so nice.
Well, thank you. We'll do it again sometime.
So lovely. The sister smiled and shook her head. I'll tell you one thing --
What's that, Sister?
You must have been a praying ass to get all this.
Lula stared hard for a moment. Then, slowly, she gave the sister a diplomatic smile. Thank you for coming, she said again, and gently closed the door.
Lula walked back into the heart of the house, taking in the white-and-gold French Provincial furniture, the sparkling chandelier that made the late-afternoon light dance, the lush white rugs, the mahogany dining room table still dense with food and wine, the white baby grand in the center of the room, the baking-bread smell. She poured half a glass of champagne and sat down on the sectional sofa and felt the old anger rise like bile.
A praying ass?
I must have been a praying ass?
Sister, you have no idea.
You best believe I was a praying ass.
Lula sat in the darkening silence of the room, her son's famous countenance radiating from every wall and shelf, and felt the hot tears of memory come.
To get to where it all began:
You float down out of the Southern haze until the Birmingham skyline materializes amid the rolling, tree-peppered hills, which, depending on the season and the drought, are a lush green or a desultory brown. The plane bumps and brakes and rushes to a halt, and before long you are in the car working your way out of Birmingham, which is modern and prosperous and new-seeming, down Interstate 65 toward Montgomery, which is not.
Montgomery, as if frozen in time, still looks as if it could serve as a movie set for the quintessential redneck capital city in the 1930s. The bone-white statehouse gleams dully above the two-storey, brick-and-mortar downtown facades, plain but rigidly resolute in their resistance to the linear desires of contemporary architecture. You half-expect, if you hang around long enough, to catch sight of a rotund, broad-faced, string-tied, porkpie-hatted caricature of some good-ole-boy legislator, his white Palm Beach suit mottled with two great flowering patches of sweat from beneath each armpit, ambling up the avenue toward the capitol after a languid, mostly liquid lunch at the Elite (pronounced "E-light" among the locals), a lunch provided for by, let's say, the cattlemen's association or the teachers' union. The city still has that air about it.
But Montgomery is not only the capital of the state but is also the nexus of the Black Belt, Alabama's still-rural middle swath, so named for the rich soil that has dry-spit out a living for those who have farmed it for two hundred years. But the Black Belt carries another connotation. Once you leave Montgomery behind, be it to travel east, west, or south, Alabama's African-American population is at its most predominant. Some counties -- like Lowndes, or Wilcox, or Bullock -- are 70 percent black or more, and, unlike rural areas anywhere else in the country, have power structures that are almost exclusively black: black commissioners, black school boards, black mayors, black sheriffs. Whites, meanwhile, have voted with their feet. They are gone.
The irony is obvious and overwhelming. Blacks, transplanted here two centuries ago as slave labor to prop up the great antebellum plantation mansions that glistened like fine ships on a dark, loamy ocean, have ended up with the land as a sort of rueful inheritance. These are some of the poorest counties in America, and -- if you take the time to stop along the wandering two-lane blacktop and talk to any of the polite yet suspicious old-timers, who are legion -- you'll be told that while the color of the man wearing the local badge may have changed, not much else has. People is still poor and grabblen for whatever they can get, said one old man in overalls and clodhoppers, who introduced himself as Harvey, watering a modest garden behind a small white frame house with the obligatory swing on the front porch. People is poor and always will be.
So the plantations are gone from around here, as is just about every other sign of economic activity. That is abundantly clear as you drive east out of Montgomery into the country, where tarpaper shacks and dust-streaked double-wides and stooped, rust-flecked farm equipment fly by in a never-ending blur. And there certainly are no plantations in Hurtsboro, Alabama, population five hundred and ninety-two, which is where you will find yourself after about an hour of watching the blur fly by and availing yourself of the passing lane every chance you get to make your way around the sputtering hay truck going thirty-five or the postal carrier in the old Buick station wagon who lurches to a stop at every forlorn, weed-constricted mailbox with the name stenciled in spray paint on the side.
Except you don't stop in Hurtsboro proper, which is three blocks of tattered small town that still looks like an artist's depiction of the Depression at its nadir. No, you keep going along the two-lane for another mile or so, then make a hard right and leave the asphalt behind for a red-clay road, its shoulders draped in kudzu. You barrel along for about a mile, past shacks and barns and sagging houses that make the highway's window dressing back there look like Glitter Gulch. Then, finally, the church -- the little Baptist church, redbrick now, with the original white cinder-block building resigned to the rear, with the cemetery just beyond. The church appears, you hang a left, and you know you are almost there.
The road, lined with barbed wire, is little more than a turkey trot. Big branches hang low. You take it slow...and round a bend and break back out into the open sunlight where the dirt lane slips through an expanse of pastureland. Another fifty yards and the road suddenly expires as though it just got weary and quit. It is stone silent. You are utterly alone. If this is not the end of the earth, it is a fine rendering of it.
And then you realize that straight ahead, in the short distance among the sagging pines and the tall, dusty broom sage swaying in the slight afternoon breeze, is the rubble of the old home place. By all appearances, most of the house that once stood here burned many years ago. The only thing left erect with any notion of pride or poise is an old, crumbling brick chimney. The rest is charred debris and what used to be.
It has been nearly sixty years since Lula Hardaway lived among the pines and swaying broom sage here on the outskirts of Hurtsboro, just beyond the reach of the small-town tatter. Stevie Wonder never lived here, nor has he ever visited this place. But it is the place where his mother came into consciousness, where her legs took root and steadied beneath her, only to fling her northward toward the strange and cruel and wonderful destiny that became places like East Chicago and Saginaw and Detroit and Los Angeles.
Here, at this particular end of the earth in 1932, a young, unmarried, pregnant woman named Mary Ellie Pitts, still in her teens, came in a lurching, mule-drawn wagon from Eufaula -- a thriving river city, further east near the Georgia line -- to bear a child with the assistance of her uncle, Henry Wright, and his wife, Virge. Henry and Virge were sharecroppers on what is now the expanse of pastureland but, back then, was a billowing field of cotton that was planted, tended, and harvested by several black families, with Henry acting as sort of a patriarchal overseer for the white planter.
Henry Wright was a big, strapping, authoritarian man who knew farming and understood people, both black and white. Little is known about his background or ancestry, but to the handful of those in Hurtsboro who vaguely recall him, Henry was emblematic of -- and yet a departure from -- the black men who played principal roles in the sharecropping economy of the rural South in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s. He was a gruff opinion leader within the community and an absolutely dedicated family man with a brood of children who worked on the land just as diligently as he did. He handled the finances for the sharecropping collective, acting as middleman between the families and the landowner, at once field boss, banker, and mayor.
That made Henry a very unusual sharecropper, according to the ways of the Black Belt, for blacks almost without exception were placed at a great disadvantage. Sharecroppers essentially were economic prisoners within the self-contained fiefdoms that were the plantations. They were issued scrip, rather than real money, redeemable only at the plantation store. As late as 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. encountered Alabama sharecroppers who had never laid eyes on U.S. currency. Sharecropping families worshiped at plantation churches and their children attended grossly substandard plantation schools.
Each sharecropping family farmed a plot of land, as much as forty acres depending on the sharecropper's reputation for hard work and the number of able bodies at his disposal. While the crop was brought to fruition the families relied on the "furnish," a monthly payment by the landowner meant to cover expenses until harvest time. The furnish rarely was adequate, even for the standard of poverty prevalent then, and most sharecroppers were forced to purchase items from the plantation store on credit. The final accounting came at the "settle," which occurred after the sharecropper had delivered his cotton to the plantation gin. In November each sharecropper would be called to the plantation office, where he would learn how much money he had cleared from his crop -- if any -- and get paid.
For most sharecroppers -- black and white -- the settle was a crushing ritual. Rarely did they come away with more than a few dollars. More likely, the planter's arithmetic -- which included charges for store purchases and other, sometimes murky, fees -- would show that the sharecropper had broken even or, worse, still owed the plantation money. That deficit would be carried over to the next planting year, ensuring that the sharecropper started the new year in the hole.
(One old sharecropper told of the blatant lengths to which one owner would go to avoid paying what was due. At one settle, the sharecropper purposefully held back twenty-five dollars worth of scrip, which ordinarily would have been turned over to the owner for credit toward cash. The owner did his computations and determined that the sharecropper owed a few dollars. The sharecropper then pulled the hidden scrip from his pocket, which would have covered the "debt" and brought him some real cash besides. Undeterred, the owner blatantly "refigured" the settle yet again and determined the sharecropper still owed money.) If a planter chose to shortchange a sharecropper by lowering the weight of his cotton, the sharecropper's hands were tied. If a planter chose to layer a sharecropper's account with suspect equipment repairs and the like, so be it. The sharecropper was powerless.
The sharecropper had little or no recourse. Legal action was out of the question. To even question the settle was risky business in the Depression-era South. Legends abound here of sharecroppers shot by owners as a result of arguments over the settle. Punishment in such cases usually was nonexistent; the big plantations were above the law. When troubles arose on their land, the planters handled it themselves. The local authorities would stay clear.
Inevitably, the end of the year presented a sharecropper who had come up short with few options. Finally, there was the decision at which most sharecropping families inevitably arrived: sharecropping elsewhere. Some were forced to sneak away to escape a burdensome obligation to the planter. There was a great annual redistribution of black families throughout the plantation South that strained both the families and the social structure of the entire black community. Rarely did a move do much good for a sharecropping family's circumstances. The relatively few plantations where sharecroppers regularly cleared money rarely had openings, so the families that moved usually wound up at another dishonest place where they would once again end the year in debt.
It was a cruel and distressing system, one that in many ways worked against the planters as well as the sharecroppers. It certainly couldn't have been good business for the landowners to have to deal with the constant churn of field labor, but the more unscrupulous and shortsighted planters shrugged it off as just the way of getting business done. In the 1930s, slavery was a reality only six decades in the past, an experience and time well within the memory of many, many people, white and black. Sharecropping was undeniably viewed -- by the white planters, anyway -- as an evolutionary step removed from the slave days, while most sharecroppers certainly saw it as simply another, albeit more complicated, manifestation of forced servitude.
Those few sharecroppers who were able to find a plantation that was run in an aboveboard fashion and where their families were treated with a modicum of respect considered themselves lucky indeed.
And so it was with Henry Wright, who was diplomatic and wily and commanded respect from the planters he dealt with, in no small measure because he also commanded respect from the sharecropping families he partnered with. Dealing with Henry meant that you dealt with the chieftain of about five or six families. Henry guaranteed the quality of each family's work and deportment. In return, Henry guaranteed the families that he would ensure that they were dealt with as equitably as could be hoped for. Henry oversaw the food purchases, negotiated the settles, and generally served as a buffer between the planters and the families.
This was a rarity, indeed. Henry's interlocution with the planter meant that there was a prized, if relative, stability among what amounted to the farming commune he headed. And so, for a number of years, Henry and Virge and their brood of children lived in the clapboard house amid the broom sage and not-yet sagging pines, enduring poor and desperate lives that were, at the same time, more secure than any of them could have ever hoped.
So it was natural, then, that Mary Ellie Pitts, her belly beginning to swell, would hitch a jostling wagon ride with a relative and finally make her way down the turkey trot to the clapboard farmhouse amid the billowing cotton. She needed help, and care, and a good roof over her head. The father of her child, Noble Hardaway -- a fine-looking man, knowledgeable and glib -- had disappeared as quickly as he had appeared, visiting his family from up North. But when Mary Ellie's condition had become apparent, he had vanished. There would be neither love nor aid from him, which was fine with Mary Ellie. Her mother and father, tired of her contrary and independent ways in matters of men and everything else, had given Mary Ellie her unconditional release into the world years ago. But now she needed help, and she wasn't about to go back to Mama and Papa, who were dirt poor anyway, and old. So it was Henry and Virge who willingly pulled the short straw, who took in their blood because there simply wasn't anyone else who would.
Two months later, Lula Mae Hardaway was born in the teeth of one of the poorest corners of one of the poorest states in the most poverty-stricken chapter of American history. But her birth was greeted as a blessed occasion, a gift. She came into the world healthy and grinning, with a dusting of reddish hair. They named her Lula, but they called her Little Red.
Mary Ellie stayed for about six months. But then the contrarian, independent part of her breached, like a whale leaping clear of the water, and she made her apologies and excuses and promises and left. She didn't come back. And Henry and Virge became Papa and Mama, and Little Red wouldn't know anything different, not for a long time.
To think of Hurtsboro as idyllic in any sense of the word -- particularly during the Depression and World War II, when Lula lived there -- seems almost ludicrous. The way of life there, even today, would be a shock to the system of most Americans. Yes, today there is some subsidized housing, and there is a local pizza delivery outfit, and a couple of gas stations that stand sentry out on the main highway that blazes through the town in a tremendous hurry to just keep going somewhere else. Some of the people who live there now commute to jobs in Montgomery, or Eufaula, or Columbus, Georgia. Downtown there is a struggling drugstore and some people, white and black, milling about. Mostly, though, it is a typical small Southern town that, like its inhabitants, is barely getting by. Its young people leave at first light, if they have a glimmer of ambition. It is dying a slow, not very complicated death, a death that is being repeated throughout the rural South as the big cities and their suburbs steal away the lifeblood of Hurtsboros everywhere.
But for Lula Hardaway, Hurtsboro was a happy place, even in those punitive times. There wasn't always enough to eat, despite Henry's assiduous efforts. The work was hard and long, and Lula herself was no stranger to the fields (as a small child she was dragged up and down the cotton rows in a wooden crate attached to a rope; at age six she was expected to do fieldwork herself). But for one of the precious few times in her early life, she was surrounded by a nuclear family, complete with father and mother, and an extended network of family and friends comprised of the other sharecropping families who lived nearby. As the youngest child -- and as one who was there under special circumstances -- Lula was doted on. There were playmates, lots of them, and there were golden afternoons when the children all gathered and ran and shrieked and played as children do, trappings be damned.
In the evenings, after the smokehouse ham and black-eyed peas and cornbread had all been cleared away, the family would settle in next to the stove and the singing would begin. Some of the songs were gospel hymns, others old slave songs passed down through the years. Henry would rumble deep and low, while Virge had a sweet tenor that cut through all the voices that filled the house. The songs were punctuated by Henry's ruminations on Jesus and the family's forebears, spliced with interrogations of the children about the various ways in which they spent their days. He spoke of a time, long ago, when black men were kings. Sometimes, the children would ask if Henry believed that black men would ever be kings again.
I don't know, child, he would say.
But we are all kings and queens on the inside, if we choose to carry ourselves that way.
We are all kings and queens, he would say, though we may not have a throne or a kingdom. Riches come from within.
And then Virge's pure voice would start up, and the little congregation joined in and the clapboard house bulged with the sound. Sometimes at those moments, in the summer, Lula would slip outside -- for she was the baby, and special -- and spin and careen among the fireflies that appeared from some secret firefly-hiding place (she could never figure out where) at dusk. Then suddenly she would stop, turn toward the house, and stand motionless and steady. The song -- maybe it would be "Bound for Canaan Land" or "In the Sweet By-and-By" -- poured from the house, filling the sky. It sounded different, better, from out there, pent-up and cascading from the open windows. And the fireflies, swarms of them, blinking-blinking, swirled about her in a vortex as she stood motionless, listening, watching, feeling as if she were the absolute, inarguable center of a knowable and fathomable universe. The lightning bugs would swirl about her, and she felt that if she stood still enough, long enough, the fireflies would pick her up, gently and carefully, light as a feather, and carry their special friend to the secret firefly-hiding place. She imagined that it was a cave in some distant, as yet undiscovered woods. It would be a place of sheer happiness; a dark, cool place where the lightning bugs flitted and blinked and sparkled all day long, impervious to the withering sun outside.
But they never took Lula there. So she would stand there motionless and steady as the song bulged until the darkness was complete and the lightning bugs seemed to evaporate into the night, conceding to the stars. And then Lula would slip back inside, sitting on the floor next to Papa, nestling up against his oaken shins and taking in the glory of melding voices and talk of kings.
Copyright © 2002 by Dennis Love, Stacy Brown, and Lula Hardaway