Jonathan Odell, author of The Healing, is the June Minnesota Author in the Spotlight and he has written a guest post titled Catching Babies and Rooting Children. He gave this talk at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis. On Father's Day, this speech is an ode to parents everywhere and a path to finding our stories. It is the answer to the question on why Jonathan Odell writes about women in his stories.
Catching Babies and Rooting Children
Where I come from, you ask a man, you get the facts. You ask a woman, you get the story. That’s why in my novels, the women, the mothers, always have the starring roles.
Lord knows I’ve tried to create leading characters that were male. I’m all for equal opportunity, but it just doesn’t work. They are serviceable enough, but lack that snap, crackle, and pop a truly memorable hero requires. They don’t have the inner depth to carry the book. It’s like digging through rock.
But put me in the head of a woman, white or black, and I just can’t shut up.
As a child in Mississippi, my relatives ritually got together for reunions and holidays on my grandparents’ farm. Inevitably, the men wandered to the front porch to smoke while the women went to the kitchen to cook. My cousins charged out to the barnyard to play war with corncobs and chinaberries.
I was no fool. I hung out with the women.
I had tried sitting with my father amongst the men, but they did little to keep me entertained. They would grunt a few words about the crops or the weather or their pickup trucks.
The action was back in the kitchen. As pots boiled and potato peelings piled up on newspapers spread beneath their feet, the women pooled their information about the extended family—the births and who the babies favored, sicknesses and deaths, triumphs and tragedies, that ongoing drama that they believed to be the most interesting thing on God’s earth.
They even swapped stories about their husbands, those serious mumblers on the front porch, each woman offering up her man as a loveable object of amusement, harmless and good-intentioned, but fallible.
When they were all up to date, they told their memories of growing up with each other. There were twelve children in my mom’s family, so everybody had a different slant on things. These were stories I had heard over and over, but they never lost their magic. Like the time my granny was out hanging clothes and the boar hog got loose. He supposedly ran between her legs and then rode her around the yard, Granny all the time trailing a bed sheet behind her like a flag. These women laughed until they cried and cried until they laughed.
Such voices never die.
In our own home, Daddy was in charge of the checkbook, making sure the bottom line balanced to the penny. Mother, on the other hand, was in charge of the picture box, a tattered Buster Brown 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 say who was in it. Each photo was a vital thread in an intricate web of stories that revealed the essence of who we were, indeed, why we were.
Depression-era dirt-farm poverty, then the first family automobile, shiny and new; 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, convinced I had overcome my Mississippi heritage. I was a successful, hard-nosed businessman, committed to learning the “how to’s” of gaining money, power and position. 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. I came up against the paralyzing realization I was long on how, but short on why.
It was about that time the 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.
In time, I knew what I had to do. I returned to Mississippi and sought out the women behind these voices. I was once again ready to listen.
I started with members of my own family, my mother and aunts, those women who had raised me.
First they told me the familiar. Then seeing that I was ready, they shared 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.
I can’t overstate the impact these insights had upon me: that hidden stories, the ones which we have no conscious knowledge of, can mold our lives, determine our fates, even shape the character of a people, without our consent. That’s when I decided I wanted to write a book that rooted out these stories, not just of my family, but of my people.
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. The story of Mississippi is the story of race. You can’t get around it. Every thread leads there.
And so I interviewed African American women, those women who were ever present in my childhood, but whose voices I rarely heard due to the poison of segregation.
“You have no reason to trust me,” I told them, “but I’ve got a feeling that your stories helped to 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 the women--maids, fieldworkers and “Saturday night brawlers,” as Fannie Lou Hamer called them. Mothers, 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. The more I pulled at it, the more it promised to be a much larger story of motherhood.
When I thought back over my interviews I recalled a phenomenon that had occurred repeatedly among African Americans, when they spoke of a certain kind of woman. The midwife, or granny doctors. 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 these healers and midwives. I first had to overcome my own prejudices. White historians and noted medical authorities treated the work of “granny doctors” 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 they vehemently disagreed. They regarded these women with great reverence. I had stumbled upon a mother’s story, larger than any I had imagined.
My breakthrough came while I was doing research at a Mississippi College and happened to strike up a conversation with a professor of Southern gender studies. I mentioned that I had come across many stories about midwives who practiced 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.
She said, “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 superstitious things like bury placentas in the backyard? And they weren’t professionally trained or licensed. They claimed to have been called by God. Surely the 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 anybody. 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, mothering an entire community. 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. She said, “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. Jim Crow, wasn’t much better. Imagine a midwife, who takes the placenta and buries it, emphasizing the message, or perhaps the prayer, that this child is rooted in this world, in a greater web of community, with his people. That he indeed has a place. Can you imagine the power of that?”
It was like a veil had lifted. I had found the book I wanted to write. A book about belonging, about the women who knit us into the world.
During my research I learned that during and after slavery, these women, actively subverted the messages of white supremacy. 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 challenged that message. They proved to young black girls that women could occupy powerful roles in the community.
They demonstrated that black mothers were worthy of admiration, respect and emulation. These midwives were part of a resistance on whose shoulders stood King, Abernathy 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 their people together with a common sense of history, pride, and belonging.
I remember the words of Mrs. Willie Turner, of Midnight, Mississippi, nearly 91 at the time. I can still here her advice to me. “Jonathan, don’t forget God, ’cause He is the Head of the Heaven. In your work with that book, put God in front and you’ll make it. That’s what I did and I done made it to 90 years old.”
In fact, she made it to 99, and I’m sure God was in front all the way.
Before I left, I asked her what it had meant to her to be a midwife. She looked out of her window, and succinctly gave me the theme for my novel. She said, “I caught 2,063 babies in this county alone and they all call me Mother.” The she said, “And you know, they everyone still my child.”