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The year is 1874, and in flat wet country located in what was then regarded as the semi-barbaric Southwest there is a small cabin I want to enter, a sharecroppers' dwelling on the edge of a cotton field, inside of which a woman lies in a deep sleep on a narrow wooden bed. Between chills and fever, she breathes evenly, a quilt from the old days tucked firmly under her chin.
Dying is no mystery once it begins-it is as dutiful as a clock-and this woman is now into the process. A child is also in the house, a girl, and I will place her at the foot of her mother's bed: her high wide forehead, strong set jaw, brown skin and dark burning eyes, her hair tied up in strings.
From outside, if the water is back within the banks, come the sounds of early summer: hoes scraping at weeds in the cotton rows, railroad tracks being repaired, a depot under construction and, beyond it, a wharf boat that will rise and fall with the river, to facilitate the transfer of railroad cars from land to water and vice versa. A mule might bray or some far-off rooster let go as if dawn had just cracked. There is a blast of a boat's whistle, either passing by mid-river or stopping to pick up freight and passengers. These are the sounds of summer in this particular Louisiana river town. Year to year, only the nature of the construction changes. Everything else is repetition, ritual, more of the same.
Water is the story of the dying woman's life. Water, hard work and scraps of paper, one declaring her sound of body and a slave for life, the other proclaiming her to be now and henceforward forever free. Having lived on this patch of ground as far back as she can remember, she can identify by the number of hoots and the pitch of the whistle what boat is going which way, the ferryboat P. F. Geisse making one of its four daily trips between Delta and Vicksburg sounding nothing like the steamboat Pelican passing down to New Orleans or the Albatross going upriver to St. Louis.
Where does this scene come from, history or the imagination? Some things we can reckon precisely enough to construct a reasonable set of probabilities. To begin with what perhaps matters most, in time we are in the post-Civil War period and some ten years into Reconstruction. Geographically, we are in northeastern Louisiana, not far south of the Arkansas line and as far east as Louisiana reaches to the Mississippi. And while Reconstruction is on its last legs in this particular state, its effects-and those of the war-are still a part of everyday life. When Andrew Johnson, raised poor and white in Tennessee, took his seat in the White House, he promptly gave white Southerners every reason to believe that life would soon snap back to normal with only one exception: they would have no slaves. And so these people-having experienced the early stages of humiliation and defeat-are now on their feet again, nail-spitting mad and armed to the teeth.
The one-room cabin is constructed of cottonwood logs collected in the surrounding countryside, then chinked with rocks and daubed with clay to hold them in place and keep out rain and wind. There is no floor except the ground. A fireplace for warmth and cooking takes up most of one wall, but no fire likely burns now, for in all probability we are in the sickly season, either well into or entering the summer months, when in nineteenth-century Louisiana disease goes on an annual tear.
Because black people are not allowed to congregate socially with whites, even posthumously, they often bury their loved ones in the levees and along the riverbanks. They know that the ground will turn wet and sucky when the water rises, that the dead will be washed downstream past New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico, where their bones will drift and roll with the tide and eventually become one with salt, sand and fish eggs. But there is nothing else to do. And perhaps, these families reason, in the end the river is an apt tomb for those who lived by its whims and occasional blessings their entire lives.
Stiff ropes knotted at the corners hold the bedstead snugly together and cradle the woman's mattress-a sack of homespun cloth stuffed with Spanish moss which has been scalded and then buried for a time to soften its threads and kill off the fleas. Moss is easy to come by in Delta, Louisiana, where it hangs in mournful swags from the willows and the sycamore and swamp ash, dense as a curtain out in the swamps and bottoms.
The mother slips beyond thought as the alert, big-boned girl at the foot of the bed maintains her watch. Single-mindedness, stubborn focus and wind enough for the long haul are part of her nature. She is seven years and some months old. Her parents have been croppers since before she was born, and she has spent pretty much every minute since with them. When she was a baby, her mother either strapped her to her back while she worked the fields or sat her on a long burlap bag and pulled her along the rows, keeping a sharp eye out for copperheads and moccasins. By the age of four, a croppers' child had a job drilling holes for cotton seeds and dropping them carefully in.
Long after Sarah Breedlove's death, a woman from Delta will say that she and Winnie (as some people there called Sarah) were the best pickers of all the children, and I believe this. Later, as Madam
C. J. Walker, Sarah Breedlove is demonstrably tireless. No one can match her capacity for work, whether younger or fitter and no matter from what kind of background. Work is what she knows, as deeply ingrained as a heartbeat.
Louisiana is a state so divided in its geography and culture that natives can know close to nothing about those who live only miles to the north or west. Where, then, are we exactly-where this woman is dying? Using a map from the early 1870s, find Vicksburg, Mississippi, then move your finger across the river and you will come to a thin finger of land which until 1876 reached so far east that it looked poised to tumble into the Mississippi itself. There, in northeastern Louisiana, is a town called Delta, on a wickedly narrow peninsula that extends like a lifted pinkie finger, forcing the river to veer from its natural course and flow briefly almost due north before looping around and crashing furiously southeast again.
The woman, who wears a loose dress made of heavy cotton, has been sick for longer than she knows. Here, where frost touches down like a quick kiss and lingers only briefly on its way to someplace else, sickness sleeps in the system all year round. One reason Southerners have the reputation of being sleepy and slow is that they are, many of them, sick deep down, all of the time. Fever, general malaise, a spleen so tender people call it an ague cake.
Let me tell you her first name: Minerva. For years she had no officially documented last name, but in an 1869 Madison Parish mar-
riage certificate, the only Minerva on the Burney place-where Sarah Breedlove's parents were owned like mules and she herself was born and grew up-is called Minerva Anderson. Since the bride cannot read or write, she signs the certificate with an X, as does her husband, Owen Breedlove. There is an accepted way of doing this. "Minerva" is written, presumably by someone else, and then there is a big X penned, presumably by the bride herself, and finally the surname: Owen X Breedlove and Minerva X Anderson.
In time, their youngest child will be interviewed by newspaper reporters, and large crowds will come to hear her speak, and they will want to know where she came from and how she managed to hack her way through poverty and oppression to become a woman in a full-length fur coat who can conduct audiences with politicians and interviews with reporters from the New York Times. And while Madame herself will rarely speak directly or publicly about her parents, many stories will be told about them in press releases she authorized and in accounts whose details she approved.
In 1874 disease is thought to be as free-floating as ghosts and memories, alive in the air and damp enough to soak like milk into paper and clothes. When epidemics hit, mail delivery halts; boats don't stop for passengers; even newspapers aren't printed. People live in dread of the night mist, when pale clouds of what are called miasmata move invisible through the river bottoms. Minerva Breedlove may think she became ill walking barefoot on the cool ground or from the air that sneaks through the chinking, or she may remember a night when, after the hogs were called up from the brakes, she and her daughters sat on the front porch and listened to a neighbor play the banjo, unmindful of the passing mist creeping down her unsuspecting throat.
Madison is a parish of bottomland, with only an occasional undulation to break the flatness, and is rimmed by rivers: the Ouachita to the west, the Arkansas and the Yazoo to the north, and to the south the less significant Tensas, which flows through a channel created by the Mississippi known as a meander scar. The Tensas-named for Indians, pronounced "Ten-saw"-drains Madison Parish, or tries to, through a maze of bayous to the north, south and west: Bayou Macon, Joe's Bayou, Roundaway and Brushy Bayous, the Bayou Bonne Idee.
We are, of course, west of the Big Daddy of rivers, actually on the Mississippi. In deeds and contracts, the property on which the dying woman's cabin is located is invariably described as "bounded on the East and West side by the Mississippi River, on the North by the old Hoffman tract, on the South by the Frederic Smith tract, now owned or occupied by Nicholson Barnes."
The town of Delta was improbably carved out of swampland in the 1830s by hopeful, upstart white men hot to fill their pockets with revenues from cotton, of course, or from ferryboats running east-west or steamships working north and south or, eventually, railroads headed west. In the nineteenth century, railroads turned the entire nation into a veritable money park. And because Delta is situated on the thirty-second parallel-which constitutes the shortest route between oceans from Savannah to San Diego-planters were hoping to claim and colonize territory as the tracks moved west. Before their spree was busted up by Lincoln and the Union Army, they had hoped to provide even the labor system for this enterprise; by 1874, now that slavery's disallowed, they'll settle for the real estate profits.
A short walk from Minerva Breedlove's cabin there is a smart new restaurant, and the railroad speculators have made Delta the parish seat. An engineer from the North Louisiana and Texas Railway Company has even marked off blocks and squares in preparation for the building of a whole new town around the projected depot. The ballyhoo never stops. Asked about the inflated property values in Delta, a participant said in 1874, "Well . . . we was booming the town."
When the sun goes down, Minerva Breedlove can see from her cabin the gaslights and lanterns of Vicksburg, where on the landing there are bars and cafés and a famous whorehouse. Vicksburg is the city Delta yearns toward, and its white citizens shop, pray and marry there, and they bury their dead in a cemetery on a hill east of the city. For black people, there are jobs, churches where they are welcome, schools for their children, a life beyond cotton fields and tree stumps.
Now we do not historically know that in 1874 a young girl stood at the foot of her mother's bed and attended her dying. We don't know exactly when Minerva Breedlove died or from what or, for that matter, when or where she was born or who, if anybody, owned her before Robert Burney did. Until 1913, neither death nor birth certificates were required by the federal government. And earlier, since slaves were considered property-classified, in Louisiana, as real estate-they were not counted as people in either U.S. Census or parish records.
What we do know is that within three years, when the little girl is ten years old and is said to have left Delta, she is-has to be-a fully formed person. This certainty is based on hard study, extended thinking and what feels like rock-bottom necessity, considering the woman she turned into; based too, in general, on what I have learned, lived and come to believe if not always, that is, on verifiable fact.
A mother who'd been born a slave would necessarily pass on hard-won information to her children. Lesson one is a commandment every bit as non-negotiable as those of Moses: Learn to read. Not especially for self-improvement or even education but as strategy. As long as the other race reads and you don't, they get to make the rules, interpretations, decisions and laws. Rules two and beyond are less predictable. Never mind business that's not yours, perhaps. Maybe, Stay out of white people's way. And again: Learn to read.
To create the scene of a mother's death-her very bed and fireplace-and then boldly assert that this was possibly the moment at which that particular daughter marshaled her strength and began becoming the girl who would become the woman we know as Madam C. J. Walker is, of course, a brash assumption. But let us do just that, without apology, and go on.