Bobby, Albert, and Frenchy had known each other from birth, delivered five miles and no more than three hours apart by the same colored woman who had delivered their mothers, friends for life who had grown up in the heat and cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta.
“We’ve got to get out of here”, said Mavis Porter, the mother of Bobby, on the porch swing overlooking the Yazoo River. “We’ll die here long before they put us into the ground”; and the idea of moving North was hatched.
Why they chose Philadelphia none of the boys could ever answer, except that Frenchy’s mother had shown him pictures of the Liberty Bell and the famous painting of the signers of the Declaration of Independence her fourth grade teacher had given her because she was her favorite student. “America is a great country”, she said, “and if you work hard and believe in God, you will reap its bounties”.
After twenty-one years in the Delta, working in the cotton mill and living in an old sharecropper’s shack, she didn’t believe it. Her husband, like those of her two friends, had left for Arkansas when the babies were four months old and hadn’t been heard from since; and she was left on her own in the heat and dust, picking cotton lint out of her hair, eating red beans, rice, and pork belly until she was ready to jump into the Yazoo and float down the Mississippi and out into the Gulf.
The three women never made it past Eupora when their old Ford broke an axle, and they had to take a room above the gas station. Three squalling babies and nothing more than a table fan to move the hot air, the August light coming through the slats, and feeling the desperation of Miss Coldfield, William Faulkner’s heroine, Mavis sat like her in desperation and frustration.
Mavis had heard Faulkner read the first chapter of Absalom, Absalom at the Yazoo City public library when she was 15 and filed books and dusted Civil War memorabilia, and she never forgot it.
From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.
She felt like Rosa Coldfield and thought she would never get out of the Delta, never escape the heat and the cotton and the poverty which her own parents who had brought with them from the Hills, hoping to cash in on King Cotton after generations of scratching the red dirt, but ending up even poorer; and this trip to Philadelphia was her last chance; but here she was in Eupora over the gas station, not more than 100 miles from Yazoo City and far from Philadelphia.
The three women had no money to head farther East, so until they did Mavis worked at the gas station frying up catfish and hush puppies for the travelers headed to Vicksburg or Tuscaloosa. Albert’s mother offered to stay and take care of the three babies while Mavis cooked and Dolores cleaned manor houses out on the prairie.
After six months they had gotten enough money together to repair the axle on the Ford, piled the boys in the back seat and strapped their belongings on the roof like a family of Okies in the Depression headed to California, but they were headed East to Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell.
They only made it as far as Johnson City, Tennessee; but were spooked by the mountains and for the first time since leaving Yazoo City missed the wide expanses of the Delta, the acres of white cotton, and the big sky. They each took two jobs and this time Mavis stayed at home with the boys, this time in three rooms above the railroad station. Now it was winter, and they shivered in the cold and the dismal, grey rainy days; and began to wonder why they had ever left Mississippi.
They finally made it to Philadelphia; but by now it was January and colder than they ever imagined any place in the United States could be; but this was their destination, their final stop; and they had neither the money nor the energy to go any farther.
Needless to say, life in North Philadelphia in an illegal old law railroad flat was far worse than anyplace in the South. In the South at least people were friendly, and the heat forced people onto porches and benches by the river; but here everything was isolating, restricting, and depressing. Days, weeks, and months passed with no respite nor hope. They realized the folly of their dream, their ignorance, and their idealistic notions about America.
The three women were no different from the Okies who left the Dust Bowl for California, the Italians who left Sorrento with no clue about the New World except that it was America, and had to be better than the miserable peasantry of southern Italy; or even the Jews who had suffered more than anyone, herded in cattle cars to the concentration camps where they were gassed and incinerated. Life in the Delta was nothing compared to what they endured; but it was still hard to be thankful on the coldest, greyest days of winter, in the slush and grime of city streets, and in the monotonous, backbreaking days on the factory floor.
Bobby, Frenchy, and Albert somehow made their way. Their mothers did what they had to do – shared a bed with men, washed their dishes, ironed their shirts; but made sure the cookie jar was full. The boys bullied, soft-soaped, and did favors; looked the other way, cached guns and dope, excelled where they could above-ground, and scrapped their way with the goombas of South Philly, the Jewish gangs in Atlantic City, and the Irish Mafia running the city. By the time they were adults they were by no means clean, but free and clear with some left over. They took care of their mothers, their families, and themselves.
All three boys never left Philadelphia. They had never known the Mississippi Delta except for the tales of their mothers. Yazoo City, Indianola, Cleveland, and Greenwood were only place names, towns where black people came from, Negroes who had bought passage on the Illinois Central and made their way to the East, and who had were as canny and tough as the Italians and Irish when it came to running their crowd.
Not many people leave the Delta. The big landowners who are descended from the slave-owning plantation families still have status, cachet, and inherited wealth and don’t want to leave. Poor whites can’t; and tarpaper blacks, if they didn’t catch an early ride to Chicago are still so close to bottom, are stuck in the flatlands, the bottoms, and the eddies of the Mississippi.
Those who left – or got out – never want to return. I have been asked by many a Southern refugee to the North why I would ever spend time in Mississippi. Like my family who left the dirt-poor farms of southern Italy for the riches of America, these Mississippi expatriates want nothing more to do with red dirt, cotton, and fly paper.
Bobby, Frenchy, and Albert were different. There was something equally American about them – a desire to go home. Their mothers were long dead and gone when they decided to return to the Delta, to see where it all started, what made their mothers so impatient to leave, and why they were do desperately determined to go North.
By the time they left, of course, they were hardened Northerners; and more than that, city rats with city reflexes, tastes, and expectations. Mississippi was a dreary backwater. It was as hot as their mothers had described it, but the irremediable poverty was hidden. There were no more sharecroppers in the cotton fields, mammies and Old Black Joes, country stores and grain silos. Their mothers had come from a different America. Mississippi was in many ways the Old South but they had no way of picking up on the subtleties of racial conversation, old line conservatism, or new age radicalism.
Their children were of a third generation of Americans. Frenchy’s boy went to Harvard. Albert’s girl was part-owner of a vineyard in Sonoma; and Bobby’s kids had Wall Street ambitions. For them the South meant nothing. The Civil War, Selma and Birmingham, Faulkner and Rosa Coldfield, were of academic and indifferent interest.
Bobby Martin, now in his late seventies, reflected on upbringing, his mother’s journey east and north, and his own life. “I was shot at, beaten up, and dumped in the Passaic River”, he said. “I don’t regret it. I did what I had to do, and so did my mother”.
America is like that. We move without knowing where the move will lead. We leave, resettle, and move again. We are indeed exceptional.