Angel Mo' and Her Son: Roland Hayes




AUGUST, 1942


WHEN Father William blew his hunting horn the Flatwoods shivered. Hounds moaned and quivered and strained at their leashes. The huntsmen licked their lips, savoring the roast possum they would be eating come next day’s dinner.

Pa’s hunting horns were famous in the Flatwoods, the Negro settlement in the north Georgian countryside where I was born. In those days farmers allowed the longhorned cattle to wear the curved horns that Nature gave them, and it was from those bony cores that Pa made horns for the hunt. He shaved them paper-thin, clear through the sheath, with splitting knives and small, well-tempered planes. He polished their pearly, opalescent surfaces until they were as smooth and shiny as oak leaves.

With hunting in prospect, perhaps on the night of the new moon after the corn gathering, Pa would take one of his horns down from its peg on the kitchen wall, about ten o’clock of the evening, and shuffle out into the barnyard to call up the neighboring farmers. He had prodigious lung power. When he called hogs down from Horn’s Mountain in the autumn, he could be heard all the way to Little Row, the white village three miles up the road; and when he clasped his horn, puffed out his bronzed cheeks, pursed his lips and strained his breath through the mouthpiece, he produced — you can get out of a cow horn only as much as you blow into it — loud, windy blasts of protracted and full-bodied tone, melodious and powerful and eerie. This was my first remembered music, my introduction to the quality of sound.

My father’s colored cronies soon came streaming into the barnyard, some of them afoot, some of them on their ancient nags, all of them with lanterns and torches and tumbling hounds. For a quarter of an hour Pa would din the Mountain with change of key and agitated tremolo, until, with mounting excitement, he had prepared hounds and hunters alike for the fearful adventures of the night.

Pa was part Indian — a good part Indian, according to his own account of himself and he never cared very much for life on the farm. He loved the wild freedom of wood and stream. He was something of a man of mystery to his children, my father, William Hayes, of God knows exactly where and whence. When my mother met him on the road from Atlanta to Chattanooga, just after the Surrender, he was carrying in his pocket a document which showed him to be a freeman and entitled to passage through the country. He had a notion that he might have been born in Illinois, but it was from Missouri that he went South, in the days of the reconstruction of Atlanta, to find work.

Copyright 1942, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

What a wonderful carpenter and craftsman my father was! He owned, during my childhood in the Flatwoods, a fine set of matched and graded tools, which he kept neatly laid out and shining like silver in a nearly immovable hickory chest. He could work magic with those tools.

Pa claimed to be of Cherokee stock, and often boasted that he could read and write his own language. We children, in our time, lacked the means to test Pa’s mastery of the Indian tongue, but we loved to hear him speak and sing the guttural syllables which he taught us to associate with Indians. In my mother’s ears, however, the forms of speech which he passed off as the language of his fathers sounded suspiciously like pig Indian, and she warned us that Pa was only fooling.

Clearly, father never liked the ten-acre farm where I was born. Nevertheless he was a good worker — under compulsion. When he had to, he could straddle row upon row of young cotton plants, between daylight and dark, and chop the soil with his hoe in a frenzy of sustained, if impatient, performance. After a day of such passionate labor he felt, I suppose, the need of a durable rest, and the next morning he would find himself a comfortable place in the shade.

Pa taught us children to plow behind an ox named Ned, who wore a bell of a size and bigness of tone which our small farm never quite seemed to require for purely locative reasons. I early suspected my mother of having fixed that bell to Ned’s collar so that she might be assured of the continuity of his employment.

One hot midsummer day, when Pa had been put to work with the ox in the cornfield, Ned’s bell began sounding out an unusual rhythm. Ma, who ever kept both ear and eye upon the problems of our straitened domestic economy, sharply reminded Pa, across the width of field, of the absolute indispensability of his patriarchal occupation. Presently the bell jingled again with obedient regularity. Ma, thinking to reward Pa with a mollifying dipper of cool water from the spring, went out to him in the heat of the afternoon. She found him taking his ease under a shady tree. There he sat, smoking his pipe and contriving, with a rhythmical motion of his wrist, to produce from a tethered cowbell a convincing imitation of Ned at work.

Years later, in 1926, when I visited Joseph Mann, who had inherited my mother from his father not long before the Liberation, I was reminded of that occasion.

“Roland,” said Mr. Mann, “are you that boy of Pony’s that got caught settin’ down on a plow and ringin’ a cowbell?” The story had been told all over the Flatwoods, but it was really Pa, and not I, that got caught.


The forests, not the fields, furnished my father with his substantial contribution to our daily bread. If he liked better to eat than to feed my mother’s chickens, he was the man to keep the crafty red fox from the coop. If he had no head for figuring and accounts, he could guess within a few ounces the weight of a treed possum by noting the size of the tree the hounds bayed under: the smaller the tree, the bigger the possum; and he would know at once whether to shake him or beat him down. At break of many a day in the fall of the year he would appear from the hunt with meat to eat and skins to be traded for salt and flour from the outside world.

What with the meat Pa fetched from the hills, to supplement Ma’s careful husbandry of the produce of the farm, I do not remember that we children — I had six brothers and sisters — ever went hungry. A few steps from the kitchen door stood a smokehouse, with a pit for curing hams and flitches of bacon and sausages. We stuck our hogs just before Christmas, and through the long month of January we tended a hickory fire whose smoke filled the aromatic chamber where the meat was hung, done up in muslin and wired to the rafters. I cannot remember a season, while my father lived, when there was not a piece of smoked meat to flavor our food — the string beans and fresh corn that we ate in summer, and the rice and potatoes of our scantier winter diet.

A small spring bubbled up from the earthen floor of the smokehouse, providing cold storage for milk and butter and eggs during the hot midsummer weather, when out-of-doors the fierce sun parched our dusty fields; and in a murky corner a twentygallon keg of sorghum mounted a pair of concave wooden horses. On warm mornings the sorghum flowed freely into a cavernous pitcher, whence it was poured over our cornmeal mush at breakfast, but in the winter only a little core of syrup remained liquid inside a shell of sugar, and it seemed to me, when Ma sent me out into the chilly darkness of the early morning, that it took forever, drop by drop, simply to sweeten the bottom of the jug.

In my childhood I admired my father’s wonderful gift for making music. I believed there was no sound in nature that he could not imitate. His voice brought deer, bear, and partridge within range of his gun. He taught me to identify the songs of birds, himself repeating and answering their melodies, over and over again. I learned to distinguish between “true songs,” which the male birds sing when they are establishing their private territorial rights in the spring, and the less highly specialized “recordings,” as the songs of lonely females and the wintry choruses of gregarious males are indiscriminately called. At the risk of offending my mother, and sometimes at the cost of being whacked with her whip, I used to stop work in the fields to listen to meadow larks, orchard orioles, and summer tanagers — fancying, in the sympathetic way I learned from my father, that I was a bird addressed by my companions in the trees, and birdlike answering them.

In transactions with untamed life, my father made an offering of his whole nature. When he called a deer, he was a buck himself. It is perfectly clear to me now that he opened the way for me to become a musician by showing me how to offer my body, in imitation of him, to receive the music which he taught me to discover in the natural world. I learned from my father how the body follows the imagination. If singing is to be a really imaginative art it must give off, on each occasion, the effect of a fresh creation in which mind and body act together. The body must respond freely and newly to the mind’s momentary act of recreation.

I early learned from my father to let my imagination do fluently what many singers have learned to do only through the repetitive use of destructive vocal exercises. I am fifty-five years old now, and yet, because my father taught me that the body follows the mind without stress and strain, I am conscious of no wear and tear on my vocal equipment.


I loved to share my father’s secret life in the woods. After a possum hunt I had frequently to carry the victim over my shoulder, and when the angry captive, suspended by his naked, prehensile tail from a split poplar sapling, gave over his natural habit of playing possum long enough to snap at my legs, I was too frightened to hang on to my burden. Old Kirby used to take pity on me and try to teach me to be brave.

“We’re all hunters here,” he would say. “Hunters ain’t skeered, hunters can carry their catch safe home all right.”

In the late summer a nocturnal hunt usually came to an end in a watermelon patch. Towards two o’clock in the morning the men would build a bright fire — say on the edge of the big Kemp meadow. They would search the vines for ripe, frosty melons — an experienced thumb and middle finger can detect the sound of honeyed sweetness in the dark — and then, having called all hands and all hounds, they would sit down to gorge themselves until they fell asleep. At daybreak my father would carry me, the carrier, home, still full as a tick of watermelon flesh.

There are said to be twenty kinds of native trees in our old hunting country, including eight varieties of oak, and I am confident Pa knew them all. Certainly he knew the shape of every piece of timber growing on Horn’s Mountain, and estimated accurately the best uses each could be put to. He made splits for chair bottoms from the smooth-grained white oak; sound beds and comfortable rocking chairs of maple; straight-backed seats and sturdy benches of impervious hickory. He had built and furnished with his own hands the cabin I was born in some twenty years after the War Between the States.

It was only a log cabin of two rooms that he had built, at the foot of Horn’s Mountain, near the town of Curryville (it was called Little Row in my childhood); but it had certain marks of distinction in comparison with even ruder houses in the neighborhood. There were two chimneys made of stone pulled out of the Mountain, and the timbers of which the walls were built were stopped not with red clay, according to local fashion, but with yellow, after my father’s whim. He had discovered a small mound of it in a near-by field.

The fireside in the front room was the center of our family life. Opposite the chimney, in the other end of the room, Pa and Ma and Jesse, my youngest brother, slept together in a big maple bed. Pa’s rifle, which hung over the bed, caught the firelight at night and brought the far, dark wall to life. I remember how the bursting lights used to glance upon a circle of Victorian picture frames which encased some family photographs. They were gifts, no doubt, of white people my mother worked for when Pa was doctoring in Chattanooga. They were, of course, absurdly inappropriate, but they introduced a note of elegance of which we children were inordinately proud.

On winter nights Pa told stories in front of the fire for the benefit of the whole family. He was a great raconteur; he could make us laugh or cry and cause our crinkly hair to stand on end. One night he came in from the lane, pallid under his bronze skin, and told us that a headless man had followed him all the way home from the neighborhood of Mt. Zion Church.

“I done shot at dat critter,” he said, “and what do you think he done? He blowed up, big as a house, and jumped right up into de sky!”

Perhaps once a year Pa would begin to talk about buried treasure, of which there was supposed to be plenty in the Cherokee country. He would tell us that the Big Chief was coming back pretty soon, to look for gold.

“When he comes,” he said, “he will go to dat cone of rocks yonder on de Mountain. When he sees dat cut on de wes’ side of ol’ white oak, he will know where de gold is buried. He will dig it all up, all right.”

And then we knew that in a day or two Pa would disappear. Sometimes he would be gone for weeks. When he came back he would bring us presents, but we never knew where he went.


The hand of Death is never very far removed from the latchstrings of the poor. Only the strong survived the accidents and rigors of our humble Flatwoods life. Still, when sorrow did not press too immediately upon us, we enjoyed our simple sociability. Most of us had too little knowledge of the world to feel that our pleasures were attenuated. Although my mother did not like to have my brothers go to breakdowns, where corn likker and bad girls circulated freely, she was willing to let us enjoy diversions invented by church members. And above all, we learned to make parties of the routine events of our lives.

Occasionally, when I was a boy, I was allowed to watch the dancing at the Galdington house or at the John Tate farm. Will Garlington had been a notorious infidel, and although public opinion had finally obliged him to join the church, he had never quite been able to put the world away. There regularly repaired to his house all the colored people who wanted to make the most of the church and the world simultaneously, a kind of semi-respectable fringe to the more sedate fabric of our Baptist society. Church people could go to those dances without taking part, but frequently they would be moved to give themselves to dancing and rioting. Then they were likely to be reported to the deacons and brought before the elders, who would exhort them to repent. Unrepentant members were turned out of the church forthwith.

Will Garlington blew the quills at the Garlington dances, and Ren, his brother, one of the neighborhood toughs, cracked the bones and called the sets. The elderly itinerant musician, Jim Kirby, who boarded at our house when he was in the Flatwoods, — I called him Uncle Nat, — played the fiddle and beat straws, and Jesse Tate picked the banjo.

Many of the musical instruments and a good deal of the music were of African origin. Quills are joints of bamboo, tied together with string in an arrangement like the pipes of Pan. You blow across the open tubes and produce tones like those of a steam piano or calliope, but mellower. In Africa a bonecracker cracks real bones, but in Georgia we used simulacra carved from hickory wood. A good bone-cracker can crack bones with both hands, clacking out the rhythms required for buck-and-wing dancing. I learned to blow quills and my brother Robert beat straws, so that, although we were not often allowed to go to the Garlington house, we could make music of our own when Uncle Nat was stopping with us.

Pete Vaughn, who conducted a seasonal singing-school in the Flatwoods, also used to stay at our house when he came to the village. He taught me to read book music, printed in square notes. That was stylish music, from city hymnbooks. Fortunately, not everybody in our congregation learned to read notes, or our folk songs might have gone unsung.

There were certain community festivals which the whole countryside attended, even the church people. When my mother’s brothers, Uncle Wiltsie and Uncle Simon, picked the banjo — it was Uncle Simon who invented a name by which I was called in the family circle, Roland-Come-Mumbling-Come-Tumbling-Come-Paregoric — I was allowed to watch and listen. Even the church members joined in the clapping of hands and the singing, although only unbelievers cut steps and swung their partners.

One of the most popular dance tunes was “Ring Around, Swing and Play.” and it went like this: —

Ring all around, Suzanne,
Ring all around, Suzanne,
Swing all around, Suzanne,
Swing all around, Suzanne,
Swing your partners, Suzanne,
Swing all around.

Mv mother’s cousin, Jesse Tate, of the earringed ears and the sensitive hands — he is still cheerful and engaging at eighty — used to spell my Uncle Wiltsie in calling the sets at “potillias,” as cotillions were called in our county. A potillia was formed by eight dancers, four men and four women, who cut the steps in sets of three “bars.” The music and the laughter, the swaying bodies and the shuffling feet, made your own feet itch if you were a church member and not allowed to dance.

So closely contiguous were the sacred and profane worlds in the Flatwoods that their music was nearly identical. To be sure, there were different texts, inequalities of mannerism, gesture, and vocal expression, and conflicting emotions. Yet, curiously enough, there was very little overt lewdness in the secular songs. Coarseness appeared in them only by implication. There was the “Roustabout Song,” for example: —

Rock me, Julie, rock me,
Rock me like a baby,
Rock me slow and easy.

The melody went like a spiritual. With the substitution of the Holy Name for “Julie,” you might have had a characteristic religious song. You had to know — you could not have discovered it from words or music — that the singer was thinking about a night he had spent with his girl.

In my childhood I knew a considerable number of African songs, but when I went North I forgot them, and it was not until I began to meet native African musicians in Europe, many years later, that I was able to recall the old melodies laid away in the bottom drawers of my mind. It is the greatest misfortune that so little original African music has survived among us — the earthy, natural music that our forebears brought with them in slave vessels from the Dark Continent. To native Africans, sexual intercourse is creative and holy; allusions to it in their songs are respectful, not obscene, and the bodily movement which accompanies the performance of songs of love is not vulgar to African eyes. On the contrary, it is an artistic symbol of exalted experience.


Most of what I know about my ancestors I learned from the man who owned my mother. When I went back to Georgia, in 1926, to buy the farm where Ma had lived in slavery, I found the old gentleman, the last of a great family of planters, in a shanty in Sugar Valley, six or seven miles from the Gordon County plantation which he had inherited from his father. He had been obliged to sell his property many years before, and now he lived in penury with his second wife, a nearly lifeless invalid.

The Big House where my mother worked was not distinguished for the colonial simplicity of the manor houses built in the days of the Georges, but in my eyes, when I was a boy, it had seemed a palace. It was a commodious, two-storied structure, with wide chimneys at either end; and across the full front of it there stretched a veranda with a roof supported by six columns. The bedrooms gave upon a canopied balcony with an elaborately embroidered railing, its lacy scrollwork the epitome of Victorian elegance. And no slave quarters on the farm had been, on the contrary, so mean as the cabin to which the last of the Manns had been finally reduced.

Joe Mann came out into his unkempt yard to talk to me. He spoke of Pony, my mother, his first wife’s favorite slave.

“You come of a great family for singin’,” he said. “Do you remember that song your great-granddaddy made up? It was a song that went, ‘He never said a mumberlin’ word.

I told him I had sung that spiritual about the Crucifixion in most of the capitals of Europe, and begged him to search his memory for other recollections of my greatgrandfather Charles.

Joe Mann remembered a good deal. Charles was called something like Abá ‘Ougi out in Africa, where he had been a highborn chief. He was ambushed on the Ivory Coast, transported to Savannah, and auctioned off to a family called Weaver. That was along about 1790. It was the Weavers who gave my great-grandfather the Christian name of Charles and wrote out his pedigree. Then, Mr. Joe Mann reckoned, they put him to stud like a stallion.

Charles was a powerful fellow. Joe Mann said it must have taken ten men to capture him. Aboard the slaving ship, crossing the Atlantic, he lay in chains in a solitary cell. At dock in Savannah, after the other captives were driven from the ship like cattle, he strode down the gangplank alone. He was of such superior bearing, so handsome and so strong, that many plantation owners bid for his possession. The Weavers had to pay high for him.

My great-grandfather gave himself to ordered tasks on the Weaver plantation near Jonesboro, in Georgia, and it was not long before he became an overseer. It seems clear to me that he did not try to incite rebellion amongst his fellow slaves, but he did counsel them to prepare themselves against the day when God should give them their freedom. He appointed secret meeting-places in ravines and marshes. In the morning of the day of congregation he sowed the word across the fields. “Steal away,” he would whisper to his neighbor, and the phrase was passed from mouth to mouth through all the plantations in the neighborhood. At length the ritual words were set to music and a new spiritual was born.

Plantation owners were reluctant to allow their slaves to attend camp meeting. They were afraid the Northern missionaries who came down to Georgia to evangelize the slaves would instruct them in the heresy of freedom. But the Negroes were determined to hear the comfortable words of Jesus and went secretly at night to sit at the feet of the Christian teachers.

My great-grandfather continued to improvise musical signals to announce the return of the preachers. On a windy morning he would sing: —

Green trees a-bendin’,
Poor sinner stands a-tremblin’,
A trumpet sounds within-a my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Or if the meeting were prefaced by an electric storm, he sang: —

My Lordy calls me,
He calls me by the thunder,
A trumpet sounds within-a my soul,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

The song by which my great-granddaddy is remembered to this day, in the South, was his personal version of the story of Jesus and the Cross, a tragedy which had moved him because he, too, was a man of sorrows.

“Wasn’t it a pity an’ a shame,” the spiritual begins.

Wasn’t it a pity an’ a shame,
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word,
Wasn’t it a pity an’ a shame,
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word, oh,
Not a word, not a word, not a word!
Dey nailed Him to the tree,
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word,
Dey nailed Him to the tree,
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word, oh,
Not a word, not a word, not a word!
Dey pierced Him in the side,
In-a the side, in-a the side,
Dey pierced Him in the side,
In-a the side, in-a the side,
De blood came a-twinkalin’ down
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word,
The blood came a-twinkalin’ down
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word, oh,
Not a word, not a word, not a word!
He bowed His head an’ died
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word,
He bowed His head an’ died
An’ He never said a mumberlin’ word, oh,
Not a word, not a word, not a word!


On the day of my grandfather’s birth — according to the family history — my great-grandfather Charles lifted the child up from his mother’s arms, laid him silently down again, dropped to his knees, and buried his head in his hands.

“I was born a free man,” he said. “My son comes into the world a slave.”

Grandfather Peter Weaver grew up to be a fine, strong man, and when he turned twenty he began to pay court to Mandy Mann, over on a neighboring plantation. Although stout Negro bucks were commonly bred out, to increase the stock, the Manns and the Weavers agreed that Peter and Mandy should be allowed to have a Christian marriage. To this end, one of them had to be sold. Ed Mann paid fifteen hundred dollars for Peter and married him up to his own slave girl Mandy, the daughter of black Jesse Mann and his Indian wife. My mother, Fannie, was their oldest child. Grandmaw Mandy was a tall, copper-colored woman, with straight black hair. I am said to take after Peter, while my brother Robert is the spitting image of Mandy.

Joe Mann never liked my grandfather Peter, who was clearly difficult to discipline. One day, during the War Between the States, he ordered him to cross his hands, — a warning that a beating was about to be administered, — and when my grandfather refused to stand up to the rawhide whip, Joe threatened to kill him. Peter ran away to the woods, where he lived for eighteen months, returning now and again to his cabin, but otherwise dependent upon food cached in trees by his friends. My grandfather was finally captured and he never recovered from the beating he took. He died before the Surrender.

Not long after my mother’s marriage, it became apparent to her that Pa could not support a family of children in Chattanooga. She longed to return to Gordon County to claim, if she could, Grandmaw’s sharecropping portion of the old place, but it took her nearly ten years to persuade my father to go back to the farm. They found the plantation divided up, but Mose Garlington agreed to sell her ten acres which had once belonged to the Manns. There, in the cabin which Pa built and furnished, the last five of us children were born.

Mother Fannie worked hard all her life. She plowed and hoed and picked cotton. She washed and ironed for the white families in the neighborhood, the Gordons and the Manns and Squire Kemp, who kept the store and owned the sawmill and gristmill in Little Row. For all the years of my childhood she had no rest from labor, except for going to church.

When my mother went back home in 1875 there was no meetinghouse nearer than the white folks’ Baptist Church in West Union, about five miles from the farm. My first intimation of the great gulf fixed between white people and black came to me in that church when I was a very small boy. I used to wonder — although I cannot remember that I ever really inquired — why my mother and my Aunt Maria and I always sat on a bench so far from the preacher.

I was about six years old, I think, when my mother and my aunt founded Mt. Zion Baplist Church in the Flatwoods and gave the Negroes their own spiritual home. My mother, as we children grew older, tried to temper the difference between white and black. She had lived in the city long enough to know that black people had always to appease the white, no matter where they lived. She was gentler than my Aunt Maria, who hated to take a back seat for anybody.


We had neither prayerbook nor hymnal in the Mt. Zion Church. Printed books were too dear. We had a kind of local ritual, however, subject to variation at the hands of itinerant preachers and revivalists who visited us. Service always began, for example, with a hymn which the deacon lined out, two verses at a time: —

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.

When we had sung so far, he would line out another pair: —

I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.

With what a joyous burst of song we repeated these evangelical stanzas, set to tunes that everybody knew! Prayers and Scripture reading led at length up to the dramatic climax of the meeting, the pastor’s sermon.

Sometimes the preacher sang his homily, and then my little body could hardly contain my heart. I absorbed it word by word and note by note, so that I could repeat it at home and in the field. Such a sermon in song is an Old Testament narrative which I believe has been sung in concert halls only by me. It came to be known as “The Fourth Dimension ”: —

Now look at brother Jonah,
A servant of the Lord,
Was commanded by the God of Peace
To go to Nineveh to prophesy.
My God is so high you can’t get over Him,
He’s so low you can’t get under Him,
He’s so wide that you can’t get around Him.
You must come in by and through the Lamb.

Another great favorite was a sermon about Ezekiel, in the singing of which the congregation had learned to take the part of a kind of Greek chorus. This sermon, “Ye Dry Bones Goin’ to Rise Again,” was first preached to us by our own pastor, a powerful black man, the Reverend Charles Foster, who had a thrilling voice and used to stay amongst us for two or three weeks at a time. He had an amazing repertoire of Biblical paraphrases: “The Horse Pawing in the Valley,” “The Sun Do Move,” and an epic piece about Creation. We knew his sermons by name and called for them over and over again. Poor as the people of our neighborhood were, they showered Brother Foster with donations — eggs and chickens and fine smoked hams and bacon — whenever he left us to return to his home in Rome.

It became my duty in the church, as I grew older and less timid, to learn new songs and teach them to the congregation. Hundreds of variations have been created in the spirituals because the texts were rarely written down. I have always used in my concerts the Flatwoods version of songs I knew in my childhood. Every year I sing spirituals which are new to my programs, and nearly always they have come from the neighborhood of Curryville.

As recently as the summer of 1941 I heard a workman humming the strains of a song which I had long since known and forgotten. The tune went through my head for many days, and little by little the words came back. I remembered that it had been sung in our countryside by a woman of both African and Indian blood. The music is likewise both African and Indian, but the culmination of the melody is composed of purely African tones and rhythms.

We children grew up with the language of the Bible ever in our ears. In church it struck me that the Scriptural words were often warm and comfortable. At home we were more likely to hear the hard sayings of Jesus and the Prophets. In later years my mother used to repeat Jesus’ words of consolation, like “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But when we were children, she was more likely to instruct us in harder doctrine. She was unwilling to take chances with our immortal souls.

I am sure that my mother appreciated my father’s skillful carpentry and his genius as a cabinetmaker, and that she was grateful for all the food he made the forest yield. But it was a mortification to her that he was not also a good farmer and a man of God. The truth is that Pa, although he became a member of the Baptist Church, cared no more for churchgoing than he did for farming. It was probably because Ma was a pillar of the church that Pa was never excommunicated.

My Uncle Bill Mann was read out of the society of believers by reason of his habitual non-attendance at worship, and Uncle Bill most generally non-attended church with my father. When, as frequently happened, he dropped by to visit Pa on the way to church, more often than not he sent my Aunt Maria to hear the Gospel story in Ma’s company, while he stopped on to listen to Pa’s accounts of less supernatural wonders.

Under the hickory tree, where on weekdays Pa rived white oak saplings and wove splits into baskets for the cotton pickers — or in front of a roaring fire on a wintry Sabbath — he sat to the tonsorial ministrations of my brother Robert, whose weekly duty it was to plait Pa’s long, straight hair. This ritual inevitably recalled to Pa’s mind the days when he had lived the tribal life of the Cherokees, and fiercely entertaining were his recollections (or were they fictions?) of that time.

My mother was a small, slight woman, with a beautiful, erect carriage which hard work never bent. She was scarcely more than five feet tall, and she moved rapidly about on her small feet, quick and sprightly as a bird. Her facial structure was both delicate and strong, and you could see from her sharp, keen eyes that she was able to penetrate a situation in an instant. Her skin was as smooth as an olive.

On weekdays she wore plain ginghams and printed calicos, which she herself made up on lines which were perhaps more practical than fashionable. Her “common-sense” shoes, laced tightly to support her ankles, reached up to the hem of her skirt. On Sundays she dressed like an immaculate deaconess in a good black calico frock, over which she wore a starched white apron. A white ruffled bonnet and high buttoned shoes of soft kid completed the dominical costume. I was proud of her when we went to church together.

When we were children, Mother sometimes seemed cold and hard. She was never unkind, she was never unjust. She simply was thoroughly persuaded of the difference between right and wrong, and she steadfastly refused to relax her moral judgments. My older brothers, if they found her discipline unbearable, took to running away from home. It was hard for us to understand why Ma, who was so jolly when there was no wrong in sight, should be so much more severe with her own children than she was with outsiders.

I remember seeing my mother cry only once, and that was when my sister Mattie, her only daughter, died; and to me, who grew steadily more and more dependent upon the solid rock of her character, she was soft and warm only once. The last time I saw her she broke through her devout reserve for a single moment, after more than fifteen years of resistance to my vocation, and said, “Son, you are the continuation of me.”


Pa was hurt in a logging operation on Horn’s Mountain, so grievously that his body could not be mended. It was pitiful to watch the dissolution of that strong man. I remember that his body was swollen and that he suffered horribly. He would crawl to the side of his bed and clasp the bedposts, the veins standing out from his powerful hands and wrists. Sometimes he would ask me to scratch his head with a comb, and then he would relax and grow drowsy and fall asleep. When he woke up he would tell me a story.

For many days Pa was nearly helpless. He could not lie quietly and he could not get up out of his bed. Then, not long before he died, he seemed to recover a little. He made deliveries of chairs and baskets which he had made before he was injured, carrying them out of the yard on his lame, aching back, and coming home exhausted. Mother Fannie, worn with tending him and us children and our unyielding farm, put him back to bed.

Pa died in my mother’s arms. Stilled utterly, the fine, lusty voice that people stopped to listen to when he called hogs down from the Mountain; cold and quiet in death the nimble fingers that had been quick and skillful to furnish a house for his family; mercifully abated the terrifying pain; and ready for its rest the racked body.

I walked with my mother up the lane to Mt. Zion Church, behind my father’s coffin, and I heard her voice ring out clearly, even exultantly, when she joined the mourners’ chorus in that triumphant song of faith, “Roun’ about de Mountain.”

The funeral past and done, Ma took stock of our condition. She calculated that it would be a good two years of hard work for all of us before we could pay off the debts which had accumulated while Pa was sick. Then she could take us to the city for the serious business of getting us an education for life. Ma hired an additional piece of land from Babe Hendricks, across the lane from the home farm. My brother Robert and I — I was eleven — were obliged to leave school and go to work on the new piece. We burned it off and planted it on shares. I learned to plow in that field. One day I plowed into a nest of yellow-jackets. I thought I was afire. I thought I should perish before I could get home to my mother.

In a field on Babe Hendricks’s own place, where I worked for wages when I was not busy at home, my mother one day caught me preaching to Molly, a blind horse we had bought after Ned, our old ox, died. She heard me out, all the way through the “Dry Bones” sermon from the book of Ezekiel; and then she came out from her hiding-place behind a cornstack.

“Son,” she said, “I am glad to hear you singin’ all dem Bible words. I’m glad you listen to what de preacher says in church. Now get along to yo’ work, and try to earn yo’ fifty cents.”

It was also my job to fetch and deliver the washing which Ma did for three or four white families in the neighborhood. I dreaded the days when I had to visit John Gordon’s house. Mr. Gordon, who kept a stable of fine horses and a pack of hounds, always carried a long whip which he used to crack around my ankles, whilst pretending to sic his dogs on me. I had often heard Mose Garlington describe the flogging of slaves, back in the days before the Surrender, and from the tip of John Gordon’s whip I got my first taste of what rawhide had meant to my forebears.

Some time after I returned to Georgia to take up farming in the 1930’s, Mr. Gordon called on me in my house — the very same house, except for renovation, that he had lived in when I was a boy. He recalled the days when I used to carry the clean linen up to his house on the hill, and stop on — infrequently — to play with his daughter. We did not speak of the times he had frightened me with his whip and his hounds.

After Pa died, there were times when we desperately needed meat and flour and had no money in the house to pay for them. It was at that time, although I could not confide everything to her, that I began to think of my mother as a tower of strength. If she was severe, she was also righteous and strong, and I leaned upon her strength. I needed then and later — although I do not profess always to have understood that need — not kindness so much as discipline. Many a peremptory rebuff lay ahead of me. I was a timid, perplexed, uneducated Negro boy. I had to learn to be a man in a world in which privilege is reserved for children of a different complexion.

(To be continued)