Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Familyby Ronne Hartfield
In her prologue to Another Way Home, Ronne Hartfield notes the dearth of stories about African Americans who have occupied the area of mixed race with ease and harmony for generations. Her moving family history is filled with such stories, told in beautifully crafted and unsentimental prose. Spanning most of the twentieth century, Hartfield's book celebrates/i>
In her prologue to Another Way Home, Ronne Hartfield notes the dearth of stories about African Americans who have occupied the area of mixed race with ease and harmony for generations. Her moving family history is filled with such stories, told in beautifully crafted and unsentimental prose. Spanning most of the twentieth century, Hartfield's book celebrates the special occasion of being born and reared in a household where miscegenation was the rule rather than the exception—where being a woman of mixed race could be a fundamental source of strength, vitality, and courage.
Hartfield begins with the early life of her mother, Day Shepherd. Born to a wealthy British plantation owner and the mixed-race daughter of a former slave, Day negotiates the complicated circumstances of plantation life in the border country of Louisiana and Mississippi and, as she enters womanhood, the quadroon and octoroon societies of New Orleans. Equally a tale of the Great Migration, Another Way Home traces Day's journey to Bronzeville, the epicenter of black Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century. Here, through the eyes of Day and, ultimately, her daughter, we witness the bustling city streets and vibrant middle-class culture of this iconic black neighborhood. We also relive crucial moments in African American history as they are experienced by the author's family and others in Chicago's South Side black community, from the race riots of 1919 and the Great Depression to the murder of Emmett Till and the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Throughout her book, Hartfield portrays mixed-race Americans navigating the challenges of their lives with resilience and grace, making Another Way Home an intimate and compelling encounter with one family's response to our racially charged culture.
"A major accomplishment of Another Way Home is to demonstrate how a woman of mixed race could live a life that does not conform to all of the stereotypes promulgated by popular fiction and traditional perceptions. Ronne Hartfield's mother, fondly known as Day, was not a tragic mulatto. She knew how, as Hartfield puts it so well, to live with who she was and with who all of her people were. This is a loving and honest book."
"In this lyrical, riveting account of her mother's life and history, Ronne Hartfield underscores the importance and permanence of our families' legacies. You'll be so enriched by reading it."
"A poignant, powerful, and soulful narrative, Another Way Home captures the layers of life, the mixing of cultures, the crossing of boundaries, and the complex history of Day Shepherd, a mulatto woman—born at the turn of the last century—who looked white and lived colored. Blending the imagination of a storyteller, the heart of a poet, the lens of a social historian, and the devotion of a daughter, Ronne Hartfield weaves an inspiring intergenerational tale of an American family; a tale of ambition and compassion, anguish and hope; a tale filled with welcome warmth and earthy humor."
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Another Way HomeThe Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family
By Ronne Hartfield
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Lightning Fields
Human life ... is a vale of soulmaking ... soul as distinguished from intelligence-(individuals) are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.... How, but by the medium of a world like this? -John Keats
After that August of the lightning, so many things would never be the same again. First of all, it was really hot that fateful summer, the air so stagnant and thick that everything went into slow motion, cooks in the kitchen, children in the yard, barn animals, even the sticky leaves in the sorghum fields. That's the way our mother remembered it, anyway, and that's the way people talked about it for a long time afterward. Second of all, this was 1913 in the Deep South river country, walking distance from the border of Mississippi and Louisiana. People were already upset because of the gathering talk of the conflict overseas, feeling what would be called Woody Wilson's War slowing its way toward them, and they dreaded any idea of so many of their boys being taken all that way across the Atlantic Ocean to fight against foreigners, called upon against their will to try out their honor against the Kaiser, whoever he was. Vicksburg was just up the road, and you could still talk to people who lived right there at the battlefield and remembered the sound of the guns.
Hundreds of brave Southern boys had gone down in glory at Vicksburg, fighting their hearts out under Admiral Pemberton and turning away Grant's Yankees not once but twice before they were finally overcome. There is a stone marker right in the center of Fort Adams, where people still board the ferry to ride downriver to New Orleans. It's carved with the names of all the Wilkinson County boys lost in that battle, and white people around there were still in grief over those boys, over the loss to their families and the loss of what they called the Southern Way of Life. The coloreds had a different eye on it, of course, not sharing in the general lament. They talked among themselves about Vicksburg and the whole War of Liberation, and to their way of thinking, General Grant's whipping the Johnny Rebs at Vicksburg had been a great day. Some of the older colored people had taken to memory President Abraham Lincoln's entire proclamation, the one that should have set the thing to rest once and for all. Abe Lincoln had a way with words a lot of the time, they thought-he looked like a preacher and sounded like one too, and what he said about Vicksburg and about their own Old Man River sounded straight out of the Good Book. What he had actually said was that "The Father of Waters," meaning the Mississippi, of course, "can again go unvexed to the sea." The situation they lived with was not so unvexed as all that, but everybody, white and colored alike, shared in this one resolution: yes, the War of the States may have meant different things to different races, but there wasn't one single family that was not relieved when the war was finally over and people could get back to living their ordinary lives.
And now while people still alive were still remembering everything about the War Between the States, they could feel in their bones the slow gathering clouds of another kind of war to deal with, and most people didn't understand why Southern boys, colored and white, might be yanked off the plantations again, leaving so many mothers without sons and young wives without husbands. Stories grew that way in that place, the public became the personal and vice versa, with people putting their stories together, collectively reshaping their shared and separate times. In that way, this new war growing around them that they were never to name as their own weighed on them like the heat all that summer, turning their spirits heavy and sodden. Instead of peace and quiet there on the Place, everybody's nerves got more on the edge. As children sat on the steps of the Small Houses, their voices grew more shrill, and in the barns the cows lowed interminably, resting on their haunches while the phaeton-carriage horses stood stock-still and rolled their eyes crazily at each other. And Miz Katharine-well, she got meaner. Miz Katharine was trouble most of the time anyway. But, my mother said, when the bad heat came you had to leave that old lady by herself.
That Tuesday afternoon, Miz K sat heavily on the big house veranda and fanned herself. She was my father's mother, a Virginia lady, and she was too proud or too fancy to use regular church fans, saying that she had no intention to advertise anybody's burial parlor. Rather, she kept her own special rose-colored lace fan close to hand. Somebody had brought it to her from overseas. That particular day, Miz Katharine was sitting there in her big old wicker chair with the green flowered cushions, fanning away with that rose-colored fan of hers, frowning at nothing or everything, when suddenly the air changed. You know from your own experience that it does that down there sometimes. In the middle of a long slow stillness, the earliest sense of a storm will make itself felt without any warning you can name. It's not the wind exactly. More of a prickling in the ears and the nose, like before you sneeze. That particular day, it didn't get cool, as people testified, but the air took on some kind of motion, just barely there but there, and a giant-sized zigzag of lightning out of nowhere flashed across the sky. "A good thing," Miz Katharine said. "Some rain is what's needed." Her son's crops needed it. She liked to watch storms anyway. Mamán said that without a husband around, that old woman had to take her excitement when she could get it.
Mamán herself did not like storms. She had a bit of African remembrance in her still, and thought in some hoodoo kind of way that big lightning and thunder meant God had his teeth on edge with somebody or something. So when lightning came, with that sky-breaking crack of thunder following on its tail, all the children came inside and found something to do with themselves so as not to pay too much attention to the storm coming at them. It was a little scary even if you didn't have too much African mind about yourself. That day it was truly fearsome, because the sky turned such strange colors. One minute it was blue-blue, like a wildflower, heavy and so slow-feeling you could almost feel the thickness. Then the lightning came, sudden as first blood down a girl's thigh when she turns into her womanhood. And then the light changed, just like that, from blue-blue to a kind of sick-looking green with streaks of red in it. It just got darker until it was almost night-black, and all the while there'd come these lighted-up flashes and boom-boom sounds, cracking open the thick quiet all across the Place. The hard rain that soaked everything out there was an afterthought, really.
People had different ideas about the time of day, but it seemed to have been somewhere in the late afternoon, because nobody was thinking about supper yet. Miz Katharine just sat out there on her wicker chair and watched it all, not caring that everybody with any sense had gone inside. She did leave off from fanning though, and started up humming the way she did when she thought nobody could hear her. The funny part was, she would hum colored people's songs, church songs that her cooks sang in the kitchen. She just took those songs to memory without thinking about it. If she had thought about it, you can bet she surely wouldn't have learned those songs. She did not like to have any more to do with the coloreds than she had to just to keep the Place going.
Because the air was so strange, those tunes moved right through the space in between the Big House and the Small Houses, and all of the people heard her humming, and some of the old people started to sing the words themselves. Not Mamán, though. She didn't sing. What she remembered was the humming. Aunt Calline remembered the song as one of those Lord-Jesus-help-me songs, and Lil Aunt Nettie remembered exactly, she said, that the song Miz K was humming was "Way Down Yonder by Myself and I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." You couldn't argue with Lil Auntie about things like that, so that just became everybody's recollection.
Anyway, that humming was the last sound people remembered coming from out of Miz Katharine's thin tight lips for the next three days. After Mr. Miles, our father's colored foreman, came riding up on his horse with a face nobody would ever forget, streaking wet with rain and crying, even though grown men didn't cry in that part of the world, to carry the news to that mean humming woman, she never spoke a word for the next three days. The news was this: that her only son, our father, had been struck dead by lightning, sitting on his horse Rafe, under a tree.
Miz Katharine Shepherd didn't say one word when that message was brought to her by Mr. Miles, whose life had been spared because of this rule: No colored person could get under a tree when a white man was there seeking shelter. So Mr. Miles had been on his own horse, some distance from the persimmon tree that drew the lightning, and he just got soaking wet. Now he actually got down off his own horse, crying, and then walked fast up the steps to where she was sitting and got down on bended knee carrying that heavy news to my father's mother.
People said Miz K almost died on the spot, and that it was her heart that broke in two inside her body that stopped her windpipe from moving so that she couldn't speak any words at all that frightful night. They thought with the whole place in such terrible grief, people running all over every which way, repeating the news over and over to anybody they could find, that the words to speak might come back to Miz Katharine in a rush and that she would run across the field screaming out the name of her only son, screaming against God or screaming for some kind of help from Jesus, but she didn't. She got up from her wicker chair and turned into the house she lived in with her son, and she walked into her room and lay down on that big walnut bed, the same one she slept in by herself every night of her life except when she went to visit her sister's family back in Virginia. People talked about how she turned her head to the wall and never let loose one word for three days, even after the sun came back out. She never got up to view her only son's body, which had been brought in by his foreman. Not even after the white burial parlor people had laid him out on a cooling board in the back visiting room, where he lay looking perfect and just like he always did except with his eyes closed.
Word got around about two strange things. One was about that: Arthur Shepherd, laid out as he was, looked so untouched, like he was just sleeping, not black and blue from being knocked off Rafe's back by that bolt of lightning-not a lightning burn on him anywhere you could see. People pondered what that occurrence might mean. Some old people on the Place said that the man must have been taken up by an angel. This was because he was known to be a good white man, good to us three colored children who bore his name, not hiding anything from anybody, and he had built us our little house on the Place, close enough so he could walk over and visit us when he wanted to. He was pretty good to the people who worked for him too. Because his people had come from England and he had a cousin over there named Sir Henry Hook Shepherd and everybody knew about that, and because he spoke softly and different from the other high-toned white people around, even differently than his mother, who just had a Virginia whiny-in-the-nose manner of talking, most people agreed that he was a good white man.
Still, Lil Auntie herself never did like him much. She said he wasn't really all that free-handed, and that you had to really make yourself a case to get something if you needed it, so it was clear as day to her that he wasn't taken up by any angel. She said she had heard before of other people, white and black, good and bad people, who got struck down by lightning and ended up with not a mark on them. But there were a lot of the shout-in-church-type people on the Place, the ones that Lil Auntie and Mamán said you should keep a little distance away, handling them with a long-handled fork. Those kinds of people still said that good man's spirit was taken up into those big dark rain clouds by an angel, no doubt about it, so quite naturally his remains looked perfect.
The second strange thing was that Miz Katharine would not listen to anybody tell her how it happened, how her son had been riding across his own fields when the rain came down, and he had stopped under a tree no different than he had done a hundred times before, except this time this one streak of lightning just aimed itself right at him, cutting through that old persimmon tree like a strop-sharpened knife. Everybody wanted to tell her their version, but Miz K just kept her head turned to the wall, and if people would come in she would throw up her hands like the colored people do when they're saying "Lord Have Mercy," but she didn't say the words, just put up her hands, and people would leave her alone out of respect or fear. Some people thought she had gone silent crazy like Miz Louann down at the Pond, or like Miz Rachel over to Longmont, and wouldn't ever talk again. The coloreds on the Place were more than a little scared of any kind of crazy white people, especially when you didn't know what they might do if they came to.
While she was still in her silent grief, all of Miz Katharine's relatives came streaming in from Virginia, where they had named a whole town after the Shepherds over a hundred years ago. The whole place seemed almost like a party, with so much coming and going and cooking and men drinking, and heaps of flowers everywhere, arrangements of Broken Wheels and Bleeding Hearts and Flowering Crosses of all different sizes. But it was not a party, and the white burial parlor people were there every day, making arrangements for a really big funeral without any instructions from Miz Katharine. That lady had long before written out her will and last testament, and left a copy of her handwritten directions for her own funeral service, express written out selections for hymns and prayers for her own funeral, all while she was still alive. She had left the whole list with Lawyer Bramlette on her sixtieth birthday. That's the kind she was. No colored person would ever invite the attention of Death that way, and a lot of white Christian people wouldn't either.
Excerpted from Another Way Home by Ronne Hartfield Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ronne Hartfield is a senior research fellow in religion and art at the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions and an international museum consultant. She is the former Woman’s Board Endowed Executive Director of Museum Education at the Art Institute of Chicago and was executive director of Chicago-based Urban Gateways: The Center for Arts in Education.
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