from NER 39.2 (2018), now published as a chapter
in the book Officer Clemmons (Catapult, 2020)
When I was born, the Sanders-Scarborough clan had lived for several generations in the sprawling, blanched little town of Blackwater, Mississippi, just north of Meridian in the backwater region near the Okatibbee Reservoir and the Alabama border. If you weren’t a cotton farmer or sharecropper, or a smithy who worked for white folks, there wasn’t much else to do there. Some folks got along raising chickens and guinea fowl, some did light farming but could not prosper. Each year they fell further in debt to the landowner, Ol’ Man Sanders.
Twice in our clan’s memory the floods had come in late spring, and no one had been able to plant in time for a summer crop. The seed money was wasted. But most folks stayed on because they didn’t have any place else to go. It seemed better to be around your own folks, to scratch out a living in the tired earth, than move to some strange place where folks called you “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and didn’t know your nickname or your granddaddy’s name, or how your uncle Jeb had lost one finger in the smithy on Mastuh Sanders’s homestead, or even who to call for a county fair game of baseball. New folks wouldn’t know nothin’ at all about you. That was no way to live, so folks stayed on, hard as it was.
To my great-grandmama Laura Mae Sanders Pinman, this is what seemedimportant and what made her call this place home. She was also tired.
Laura Mae Sanders Pinman had raised thirteen children of her own and found herself once again imprisoned by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren she had to raise when their mamas couldn’t do it. The children just kept coming. She would cook. She would clean. She would wash and pray. The more she did, the more it seemed there was to do. So she worked and didn’t slow up for old memories to catch her.
The Old Homestead on Mastuh Sanders’s land had been falling apart for as long as she could remember. Every shutter was hanging down or gone. The paint she had helped put on when she was a young girl had never been refreshed. It was barely visible. If she could ever get the front door to close on the sagging porch it might help to keep the marsh rats from invading the kitchen on hot summer nights. She was always mindful not to leave food out where they could get it, and felt constant dread that those rats might crawl into the bedrooms of one of her grandchildren—her grans—and bite one of her darlings. When it rained, every bucket and pot in the house was used to catch the water.
There were many causes for sadness in her life, but the way people tell it the greatest sadness of all was when her last husband, Noah Leon Pinman, got killed, ten years before the second flood. Noah Leon Pinman could work good and easy with his hands and had a quick smile and pretty teeth. He had been her third husband and had stayed around The Homestead the longest. Every day Laura Mae missed him and went on about her business. Otherwise she might start remembering again that day he was killed.
My own mama, Inez Delois, would sometimes tell me and my brother the story later on, after we had moved up North, to give us an idea of how it was down South in the old days.
The way she told it, everybody knew that Great-grandmama Laura Mae was Ol’ Mastuh Sanders’s woman. He came by to see her most every week. Noah Leon Pinman, Laura Mae’s third husband, knew it too. Even though he had agreed to work the farm for Ol’ Mastuh Sanders, he hadn’t agreed to anything else. Noah went on about his business farming and, with the help of the kids, year after year, got the planting and harvesting done. There was always some fence that needed mending or some field that was not growing right and needed water or new airing. He kept the children busy and they all worked together from sunup to sundown. That was just the way it was in those times.
Most of the time Noah Leon just ignored Ol’ Mastuh Sanders and his late afternoon visits. Great-grandmama Laura Mae used to wonder how it was that Noah Leon always seemed to know when Ol’ Mastuh Sanders was coming around and just disappeared into the fields. She tried to ignore it too. She had been going with Ol’ Mastuh Sanders for so long that it just seemed natural to her. She didn’t know any other way. Mama Inez would say that her great-grandmama Lily Mae had told Laura Mae to go with Ol’ Mastuh Sanders when she was a young girl, and it had been that way ever since.
Laura Mae’s mama Lily Mae had been a slave on the Sanders plantation all her life and had always been “worried” by the white men who came by the place. That’s just the way it was, and she was no different from any of the other colored girls around there, even if she had wanted to say something. Her cousin Dina Mae, who was two years older, had had two babies for Mastuh Shulman on the old Shulman place. Dina Mae had told her so. After the first time with Ol’ Mastuh Shulman, Dina Mae’s mother, Timareen, had gotten her to drink some gullah tea she had made from frog urine, crushed fish fins, and herbs. But the tea made Dina Mae so sick she threw it all up and nearly fainted. After that, she refused to drink any more of the tea, and the babies started coming. Laura Mae didn’t want to be like Dina Mae. She didn’t want to have any children yet but didn’t know what to do. Even so, what she did with Ol’ Mastuh Sanders was her business. It wasn’t for nobody else asking or telling.
One day Noah Leon asked her to come to town with him and not go with Ol’ Mastuh Sanders when he came by. She just looked at him and kept on with her cooking and cleaning.
When Mastuh Sanders came by the old house that night, Noah Leon Pinman stuck around. Laura Mae pulled off her apron and headscarf, wiped her face with her hands, and straightened her simple dress as she had always done when Mastuh Sanders came. She walked slowly out the house, down the path, and past the barn.
Tonight she could feel Noah Leon’s eyes following her. The yearning and longing and pain in his stare was calling after her so loud her ears started knocking and she felt dizzy. She felt like his eyes were piercing her back like the gleaning hooks used to hang the cows after slaughter. She didn’t like leaving and going with Mastuh Sanders, but this was the way it had been so long she had stopped worrying and wondering. If she didn’t go with Ol’ Mastuh Sanders, she knew that they couldn’t stay in the Old Homestead any longer. She didn’t know where they would go. This place was home. This was the only home she had ever known. This was the way things were.
Why was Noah Leon doing this? Laura Mae was wondering. Why hadn’t he gone on off to the fields like he always did, so she could meet Ol’ Mastuh Sanders down past the barn and come on back home, so they could live here in their Old Homestead without no more trouble?
Just past the barn, Ol’ Mastuh Sanders walked closer and spoke to her as he always did. He asked her how she was feeling and if she was glad to see him. She tried to smile and said yes, as she always said yes. He told her how he had wanted to stop by and see her earlier that week, but his work and family had kept him away. He had been saying that now more than twenty years and Laura Mae had stopped listening. Tonight she was troubled by the pounding of her heart and the sharp voice calling to her from the house. It was Noah Leon telling her to come back to him and leave Ol’ Mastuh Sanders. Why was Noah Leon talking that way to her now? She would soon come on back to the house and the family.
Ol’ Mastuh Sanders was still talking to her as she tried to block the hurt and anguish of Noah Leon’s voice out of her ears. His voice got louder and suddenly she realized that he was standing close by. She wheeled around and stared at him. He had a big chopping cleaver raised in his hands over his head and was coming towards Ol’ Mastuh Sanders.
She screamed as she heard the shots ring out. Noah stood motionless and stunned. Ol’ Mastuh Sanders had reached into his overall pocket, pulled out the pistol he carried, and shot Noah Leon point-blank—Bang! Bang! Bang!—three times without stopping.
Everybody knew that he carried that pistol. He sometimes used it on sick livestock and stray rabbits. Didn’t Noah Leon know it? Laura Mae never had time to speak, it happened so fast.
Noah Leon was on the ground at her feet, bleeding from his chest and stomach. She was about to bend over to help him.
“Stand back!” Ol’ Mastuh Sanders barked. “Let him lay there! Nobody touch him. Let the slimy bastard lay there where he belongs: in the dirt. I never liked him anyway.”
At the sound of the gunshots everyone in the house had come running. They all stood there and nobody moved, not even the babies. They were all afraid of Ol’ Mastuh Sanders and knew that he would shoot any one of them just as quick as he had shot Noah Leon if they tried to help him. He looked around and his eyes stopped on Great-grandmama Laura Mae. She started crying, fell to her knees, and crawled over to Noah Leon’s body. Blessedly he’d died before he hit the ground.
Laura Mae gathered what was left of him and rocked him in her arms gently as she cried and wailed. She rocked him as though he were her baby and he was only asleep. Ol’ Mastuh Sanders told everyone to leave him be and not to bury him. Silently everyone backed away while Ol’ Mastuh Sanders stood there over Laura Mae, who was crying and rocking Noah Leon’s body. She looked pitiful and helpless there on her knees while Noah Leon’s blood slowly soaked the front of her dress.
After mumbling something to Laura Mae and getting no response, Ol’ Mastuh Sanders just shook his head, turned, and walked away, putting his gun back in his pocket. He walked away without looking back, past the barn and up the path to the old house. He moved silently around the side, got on his horse, and rode away.
Mama Inez Delois remembered that after the gunshots killed Noah Leon, Great-grandmama Laura Mae had sobbed and wailed in the yard for the rest of the evening. She was still there when Aunt Coradelle and Cousin Dina Mae walked over to her and called to her softly and carried her to the house.
After dark, some of the men went back for Noah Leon’s body and carried it into the house. They laid him out, washed him, and cleaned off the blood. Great-grandmama Laura Mae insisted on being in charge of everything. She gave him his last bath with love and great patience as she talked to herself and anyone there listening. She kissed his body and rubbed him with Vaseline and the lanolin she used for her hair. When they all had finished cleaning and dressing him in overalls, she sat silently all night and continued to talk and sing and pray to him.
She sat for the rest of the night with the Bible in one hand in her lap and her other hand on him. When people began to wake up in the morning, before the rooster crowed, they found her still in silent vigil with her Bible.
She was like a walking, nodding trance-woman for some time, weepingquietly. She stayed that way until some of Noah Leon’s people arrived from Louisiana. They wanted to take his body back home to be buried, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. Finally, she allowed him to be buried on a little hill by the creek. She put up a wooden cross. That way she could see him every day and take food and flowers to his grave. That was the way she wanted it and no one could change her mind. Noah Leon’s people went home without him.
When Ol’ Mastuh Sanders came back, weeks, maybe months later, it wasn’t to see Great-grandmama Laura Mae. It was to introduce Mr. Slim Hawkins to everyone as the new overseer for the plantation. That time Great-grandmama Laura Mae never came out of the house. Seemed like he waited for her a long time, but she never came out. He stood around his horse and the trough looking and just waiting. After that, he came to the Old Homestead to talk to Slim about the crops and to discuss planting, but he never came to “worry” Great-grandmama Laura Mae again. Those days were over when Noah Leon died.
Nothing much was ever said of Noah Leon’s death. No questions, no investigations, no detectives, no county sheriffs. No coroner’s inquest. No court case, no trial: no nothing. That’s what I remember most about my mama’s telling of Great-grandmama Laura Mae’s story. Everybody knew something and nobody said nothing.
How long it took before things returned to normal, nobody knew. It just happened.
Laura Mae’s third daughter, my great-aunt Minnie, bore six children: Lula Bea, Abraham, Inez Delois, Catherine, Minnie Laura, and Levi. All these babies were left in the country with their grandmother while Minnie went to town to earn money as a domestic for white folks. Minnie had married Saul Scarborough when she was fifteen, and she bore him those six children before he lost his mind.
Great-granddaddy Saul did little when I was a child except sit in the old rocking chair and dip snuff or chew tobacco. He wore the same old overalls every single day until he had to get a new pair. My mother Inez Delois told me that when Grandmama Minnie or Great-grandmama Laura Mae started complaining about the smell of his overalls, if he couldn’t find a second pair, he’d wash them in the old creek and lay them out on a tree limb or on rocks to dry.
When I was a little boy he was already using a cane to get around. I remember him telling me that the cane he used could talk. When we were alone, the cane would tell me fanciful stories of coon hunting and catfish fetching down by the creek. Great-granddaddy Saul’s arthritis and rheumatism bothered him most of the time, and he had frequent migraine headaches. I didn’t know what “rheumatiz” was, but I wondered why it never seemed to bother him when we went walking in the woods and that cane was busy talking. As we walked out beyond the hedges and down by the fields, he would hold my hand for a while. Then he would let me hold onto the side of his overalls so I could keep up. He seemed just like everyone else to me; he always seemed fine.
Every morning when I woke up I’d go looking for him. I’d always find him sitting and rocking somewhere by himself or staring off into space or talking with the chickens in the yard. When I found him, I would stand by him and talk to the chickens too. After a time, we would go off walking together.
All the big people who came to the house were bossy to me and said that I was kin to all of them. Even when they came from far away and I didn’t know them, they said I had some of their blood. Then they would hug me and kiss me and call me “Little Angel” and “Little Buttercup,” as if they knew me. I didn’t like that.
If I could find Great-granddaddy Saul, we would go out walking for a long time. I would stay with him until the big strangers left. When we’d come back, it would be after dark and the dogs would bark and jump up, licking and greeting us. Everybody would fuss at Great-granddaddy Saul for keeping me away so long. I never complained because he fed me cornbread and sorghum from a can, and we talked to the cane. When I told my brother Willie Jr. that the cane could talk, he said it wasn’t true because Great-granddaddy Saul never asked the cane to talk to him.
At night, while I lay on my pallet, I could hear my great-grandmamaLaura Mae fussing at him about that talking cane and those tales he told. She said that she knew he wasn’t telling the truth and shouldn’t be fooling me like that. That was when I had the revelation that Great-granddaddy Saul hadn’t told Great-grandmama Laura Mae or Willie Jr. or my mama Inez Delois that the cane could talk. This was a deep secret between him and me.
Great-granddaddy Saul taught me that to hear the cane talk, we had to be quiet. I learned to be very quiet. Sometimes we were quiet for so long that I fell asleep. Great-granddaddy Saul would wake me up to tell me that I’d missed the talking. He’d try to remember what the cane had said and I’d listen real hard. I didn’t like it that I had fallen asleep under a shady tree in the midday sun and had missed my important encounter with the talking cane. I’d promised myself and Great-granddaddy Saul that I wouldn’t fall asleep again. I would keep quiet while we waited for the cane to start talking.
When I managed to stay awake, the cane would tell me of clever animals that lived in the woods and outfoxed the old plantation master and ate his chickens. It told me about the deer and the rabbit and the fox, the bear and the coyote, and the turtle and grasshopper that lived deep in the woods. I’d listen anxiously, hardly batting my eyes, and holding my breath.
Sometimes Great-granddaddy Saul and I would sing songs with the cane. We’d sing about flying and fishing, marching, and stealing honey from the bees. It never occurred to me that the cane wasn’t singing when Great-granddaddy Saul was singing.
One day when we were out walking and I wanted the cane to talk, we waited a long time. After a while we sat down by the banks of the Wateechee Creek and continued to wait and listen. Finally, Great-granddaddy Saul told me to hold my thumb and first finger of each hand together and close my eyes real tight and make a wish that the cane would talk to us. I closed my eyes, and slowly the cane began to talk. It told me of kings and queens who were my oldest kin, peoples in an ancient civilization called Afrique. The cane talked about tropical jungle places and described strange ferocious growling animals large enough to eat the fox and possum and jackrabbit and deer and me. The cane talked of a great Afrique warrior who was strong enough to kill the big animals with a spear and knife. He would skin and cook them over a fire. Then he would eat them and share them with his kinfolk. He wasn’t afraid and would protect me from the big animals. The cane called the animals lions and tigers. The warrior was named Shakti Binga, a mighty leader who was loved by his people. There were no lions and tigers where we lived, and I would have to wait until I was a big boy to travel to see them. I told Great-granddaddy Saul that one day I would take him with me to Afrique. He smiled and rubbed my head and said that he would wait.
One day my mother called me in from chasing the chickens and told me to stay in the house. It had been raining all day, letting up only for brief moments. There was water everywhere, and we all huddled under quilts and kept our socks on to try to stay dry. After a while the rain was no fun. It continued raining steadily, and the pounding of the water on the roof and the battering wind in the trees and on the side of the house made us look at each other in fear. I stood between Great-grandmama Laura Mae and Great-granddaddy Saul. My brother Willie Jr. and the overseer Mr. Slim Hawkins stood behind Mama Inez and Daddy Bill. Cousin Dina Mae and her four kids and Lula Bea and her six kids were all huddled nearby looking and wondering like the rest of us. It had been raining off and on for well over a week. Daddy said that the factory didn’t have any work for him.
My grandmama Minnie Green arrived home from town soaking wet. I heard her voice before I actually saw her. She said that everybody in town was talking about the rising water and the rain. Her feet were muddy and she was carrying her shoes. She said that she’d had to walk the last five miles because Ol’ Mr. Carmichael was afraid his mules and wagon wouldn’t make it through the waterlogged roads. There were snakes everywhere, she said. She was almost bitten when she accidentally stepped on a rattler.
For that whole day, the men huddled and smoked and checked on the animals in the barn so many times I knew it was a way to get away from the houseful of ladies and kids. The men grumbled and hunched over as they walked through the rain reaching in their pockets for their matches, pipes, tobacco, and snuff. Nobody had a good feeling about this water. The men had to mull over what to do if the rain got worse. There were few choices because there was no higher ground anywhere.
Mr. Elijah Sanders Jr., Ol’ Mastuh Sanders’s oldest son, who ran the plantation, appeared through the trees, leading his horse and holding his coat tightly to his chest. He was soaked to the bone. He called out to Great-grandmama Laura Mae and drawled his news, “I reckon we may be movin’ up the valley a piece to higher ground if this rain keep comin’ up. My Ol’ Missus up the road’s been gatherin’ everything to move first thing in the mornin’ with this water not stoppin’. Y’all best be packin’ and gettin’ ready. Just don’t know what this water’s goin’ to do.”
Great-grandmama Laura Mae let him know that we all intended to stay, if the house held up. Elijah said he’d be leaving in the morning and bid her goodbye.
Despite the best efforts of Great-grandmama Laura Mae, her sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters, and the overseer Mr. Slim Hawkins, the Old Homestead couldn’t withstand the heavy downpour. The rains kept coming and the waters got higher. By morning the brick and stone supports began to sink and lean. Everybody began to feel unsafe. We gathered all the dry things we could, wrapped food in old sacks and quilts, pulled out small precious things we could carry (Laura Mae’s Bible), and began the long muddy trek to higher ground. My cousins and I helped the elderly and frail and very young move beyond the muddy quagmire that used to be the yard. As we walked, we kept looking back at the sagging Old Homestead and wondered when if ever we might return. Would the house still be there? Great-grandmama Laura Mae looked longingly at the knoll where Noah Leon Pinman was buried and tried to hide her tears. Those closest to her knew her anguish at leaving Noah Leon’s body behind.
Our progress was slow and slippery. Everybody was soon soaked and muddy. Snakes and mosquitoes were everywhere and most of the paths had been washed out. Sagging trees and heavy hanging branches were strewn along the way. All conversations slowed and finally stopped as we all moved farther and farther away from home, from stability, from our roots. By midday we had covered several miles, but nobody knew where we were. We were lost and confused.
Time and time again Great-grandmama Laura Mae would refer to that torturous journey as the The New Flood Days, and everybody who heard would nod, look sideways at one another, and sigh knowingly. That journey tested us all. The torrential rains had kept coming. The clouds of circling, biting mosquitoes, the slithering snakes and sodden fallen branches were everywhere—it got worse and worse.
All through those first awful days, Great-granddaddy Saul wandered off the path and couldn’t keep pace with the group. At first Cousin Lemiel was sent to watch over him. He had to go fetch him from his wandering again and again. But after a time, with all the mosquitoes, snakes, and panicked stray animals, and with more people joining our trek north, it got harder to keep track of Great-granddaddy Saul. Twice my cousins went looking for him through the crowd, which grew ever bigger, more raggedy, and disorganized. Luckily, my cousins found a local farmer, Mr. Dextrom, who allowed Great-granddaddy Saul to ride on the back of his mule-driven wagon.
But then someone noticed that Saul wasn’t riding with Ol’ Farmer Dextrom anymore. What had happened to him? Where had he gone? Nobody knew. We all searched frantically, but there was no trace of him. Later, someone found his cane alongside a gulch. No one was surprised that there was no trace of him in this torrential rain. No footprints, no clothes, no body—nothing! Only his cane, lying there by itself on the stream bank.
When I saw the cane, I knew that something bad had happened to my granddaddy, but nobody told me anything. I cried and screamed until they gave me the cane for comfort. For days I lugged it along with me, fluctuating between urging the cane to talk to me and tell me where my great-granddaddy was, and imploring it to tell me stories of Afrique and the warrior Shakti Binga. I didn’t sleep, didn’t eat. I was lonely and listless, watching, listening and waiting.
One night while I was asleep on the march to Alabama, they took thecane away from me. “For your own good,” they said.
I grew silent. I withdrew. It just wasn’t worth trying to talk about it. The loss of my beloved great-granddaddy Saul and the magical cane was simply too much for me. Even though I was only four, I grieved deeply, like an adult. I was inconsolable.
Then one day, I began to sing. No one had heard me sing before except my great-granddaddy. Great-grandmama Laura Mae, and Grandmama Minnie Green, and my mother, Inez Delois, all looked at me and at each other. I sang the songs I had sung with my great-granddaddy Saul and the magical cane. I didn’t really know what I was singing about or whether my songs made sense to anyone. I sang because it eased my pain. Singing, I found my Little Buttercup self, my center, my home. It was Great-granddaddy’s legacy: I was singing the music he taught me, the music of the cane.
Listen to François Clemmons read this story here.
Born in rural Alabama in 1945, François Scarborough Clemmons began singing as a child, performing traditional sprituals in church. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin College in 1967 and a Master of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in 1969. He sang for the Metropolitan Opera Studio for seven seasons, performing more than seventy roles with companies such as the New York City Opera, Cincinnati Opera, and Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. He also sang with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and many others. Clemmons played the role of Sportin’ Life in the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus’s 1976 Grammy Award–winning recording of Porgy and Bess. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Clemmons appeared as Officer Clemmons—a role he created—on the children’s television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and this year he will appear in two films celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the show, You Are My Friend and Won’t You Be My Neighbor.
In the early 1980s, Clemmons returned to singing traditional spirituals and founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, dedicated to preserving, sustaining, and commissioning new and traditional arrangements of American negro spirituals. The Ensemble debuted at the Harlem School of the Arts in 1986 and in 1991 had its Carnegie Hall debut. The Ensemble toured internationally, and its work was recorded on the Arcadia label through 1999. From 1997 until his retirement in 2013, Clemmons was the Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence and director of the Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir at Middlebury College, where he received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree. He was given a lifetime achievement award from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004. He is currently at work on a series of children’s books, including Little ButterCup and the Magic King, and a memoir, DivaMan: My Life in Song, from which the passages below are taken.