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A Very Long Way From the Mississippi Delta, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Ph.D., Open

by Melissa Payton

Photo by Irene Fertik

Endesha Ida Mae Holland grew up in the Mississippi Delta listening to her mother tell riveting stories of struggle and adversity in the segregated South. Then Holland found joy, and eventually a livelihood, in telling and acting out her own stories – “play-liking,” in the argot of her childhood.

Now Simon & Schuster has published her memoirs, From the Mississippi Delta: A Memoir, and Holland’s audience is about to grow. In her book, readers can hear Holland’s voice, rich in Mississippi expressions, tell an inspiring and moving story about transcending a childhood scarred by poverty, racism and violence.

“Everyone has a past, and these things are part of mine,” writes Holland, a celebrated playwright and professor at USC with a joint appointment in the School of Theatre and the Gender Studies Program. “They’ve shaped my view that our time on this sad and happy earth is a gift.”

The story’s elements are known to play-goers around the world who have seen her Pulitzer-nominated autobiographical play, also called From the Mississippi Delta. Holland was born in Greenwood, Miss., in 1944 to a mother who raised four children by taking in ironing and renting out rooms to prostitutes and their customers. Holland never knew her father.

On her 11th birthday, she was raped by a white man whose grandchild she was baby-sitting. During a troubled adolescence, she dropped out of high school and became a prostitute herself; she also spent time in jail for stealing. Her son, Cedric, was born when she was not quite 17.

Then a chance encounter with a civil rights worker – whom she tried, unsuccessfully, to solicit for sex – led her to the fledgling civil rights movement of the 1960s. This contact with educated blacks and whites and the confidence she gained led her in 1966 to enter college in Minnesota.

And that’s only the first 20 years. Holland plans to write in a future volume about the next 20 years, and her struggle to be Somebody, in her mother’s words, through her pursuit of academic and artistic success.

“These stories I’ve been telling about the Mississippi Delta and Minnesota, I’ve told them every Saturday of my life,” she said from the patio of her Venice condominium, where she likes to listen to the splashing water in the canal a few feet away. “I keep them first and foremost in front of me.”

Along the way, Holland has drawn scores of admirers, from her Mississippi childhood friends – who keep her updated on the lives of Greenwood citizens portrayed in From the Mississippi Delta – to students in her playwriting and auto-biography classes, theater reviewers and university deans and presidents.

“All of us are really taken with Endesha’s story – and I think anyone would be,” said Judith Grant, chair of the Gender Studies Program. “To come from such humble beginnings and then to move on to being a player in the civil rights movement and a playwright – well, it is really quite extraordinary.”

A VISITOR CAN SEE the stages of Holland’s life in her airy home, filled with African artwork, mementos from her plays and pictures of friends and family. Black-and-white portraits of her beloved mother and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer look down from above the kitchen.

“I’m tired,” she said with a smile. “It’s been a busy day.” A filmmaking crew had just finished packing up cameras and gear after interviewing her for a documentary about her life.

Holland has been suffering since her 20s from ataxia, a progressive and incurable neurological disorder that affects muscular control. Her mother and grandmother had ataxia, and a brother died from it. She uses a wheelchair now, but she also works out on a treadmill every day, bracing herself on the treadmill’s supports, and she talks to keep her vocal muscles working.

“I’m feeling kind of poorly, but my spirits are buoyant,” she said, with her characteristic wide smile. “I come out here and relax, and it’s soothing.”

Holland is about to embark on a tour to promote her book, with stops in Chicago, where the Kuumba Theatre Company is staging her play, back to Los Angeles, then Mississippi and “then Lord knows where.”

In Mississippi, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups are planning an invitation-only banquet for Holland. “They’re inviting all my old friends and the people I used to walk the streets with – blacks and whites, and that makes me feel so good,” she said.

Holland has been working on her memoirs since 1993. Her first editor, Judith Regan (who has since left Simon & Schuster and heads her own publishing company), gave her 18 months to finish the book. “She kept saying, just take your time, take your time – and that’s what I did. After 18 months, I hadn’t listened to enough voices talking to me, because those are the things that prompted me to write.”

About the same time she began her memoirs, she was recruited to USC by President Steven B. Sample, who knew her when he was president of State University of New York at Buffalo and she was a professor of American studies there. She moved into the high-rise Marina City Club in Marina del Rey in October 1993 to be near the water that helps her write. Then in January 1994 came the Northridge earthquake.

Holland, lying in bed helpless when the quake struck, was terrified. “It upset me first of all because I’m crippled and it’s hard for me to get around.” But she found a flashlight and gathered up the courage to help others leave the building. Neighbors she had never met before, in turn, helped her out.

The experience made her consider returning to Buffalo.

“But when I thought about Buffalo and the wind chill there, and how they have to tie you down to the sidewalks to keep you from blowing off, I just said to myself, ‘Oh, God, I love it here.”’

So Holland stayed. “But I couldn’t write. Then one night I was lying down in the Marina City Club and the voices just started talking – and I knew I licked it! That was about six months after the earthquake.” In 1995, she moved to Venice.

After some initial doubts, Holland said she is happy with the way the memoir turned out.

“I’m satisfied with the portrait I drew of Mama. Because to the person who doesn’t know about things like this, she can come off unfeeling, as a con artist. I was satisfied with the way I tempered that.”

Indeed, Holland’s mother, whose name was also Ida Mae, but who goes by her Delta nickname, Ain’t Baby, in the book, is a complicated character. An uneducated woman who became a skillful and sought-after midwife, she was often angry about her daughter’s transgressions. But she was equally proud, for example, when young Ida Mae demonstrated her recitation skills at a school assembly. And it was her exhortation to her daughter to get a college education that finally prompted Holland to leave the Delta and enroll in the University of Minnesota.

But writing about her mother proved traumatic – especially the chapter about her death. Holland’s mother, crippled by ataxia, was unable to flee her house quickly enough when it was firebombed in 1965, possibly by the Ku Klux Klan in retaliation for her daughter’s civil rights work. She died days later from her burn injuries.

“I used to sit at my computer and I’d be crying,” she said. “My mother was amazing, wasn’t she?”

WRITING HER MEMOIRS was much different than writing a play, she said. In addition to interviewing sources and gathering archival materials, “I had to reach deep inside because my voice is guiding you, as opposed to the actors’ feelings and whims on the stage. As the literary artist, I have to guide you so the last words you hear, the last signpost along the way, is mine.”

For example, in the play, the rape scene is only hinted at; in the book, Holland explains how she felt when it happened. “If this was what it was like to turn eleven, I didn’t want to live to be twelve,” she writes.

She also describes the bravery of the freedom workers leading the drive to register blacks, who had been disenfranchised by arcane rules and tests imposed by local clerks in Mississippi. Expanding on stories she told in Freedom on My Mind, the 1994 PBS documentary about the voting rights movement, Holland writes about protest marches in which the threat of police violence was real and arrests were frequent. Holland was herself arrested 13 times.

From the Mississippi Delta has lighter moments as well, describing the foibles and strengths of small-town residents. Nearly everyone, it seems, had a nickname: hers was “Cat,” though no one agreed on why. One day in school, she writes, the principal obtained students’ birth certificates, and the results were a revelation: “Stone Street School was filled with Apple Jacks, Baby Boys, Sugar Pies, L.Q.’s and Bright Eyes who turned out to be just plain Aaron, George, Betty Mae, Quentin, Tommy and Maybell.”

As an adult, Holland added the name “Endesha,” bestowed on her by Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga. The Swahili name means “she who drives herself and others forward.”

Holland’s book, which has been in stores for only a few weeks, has been picked as a Literary Guild alternate selection. In the publisher’s press release, her friend Sample praises its “fresh, flowing honesty.”

“I’ve known Endesha for many years,” Sample said, “and Kathryn and I are great fans of her work. We’ve found her life and work to be truly inspiring.”

(“He’s wonderful,” Holland said about Sample. “He has opened so many doors for me, and he is the ideal person to lead ‘SC into the 21st century. Him and Kathyrn, they’re just the greatest, their owndearselves,” she said, using an affectionate Mississippi-ism.)

HER NEXT BOOK, which she has started writing, will cover the 20 years she spent in Minnesota, culminating in her jubilant march down the University of Minnesota mall to receive her Ph.D. in American Studies in 1985.

The next volume will also tell how in 1979, looking for an easy course to finish up her bachelor’s, Holland found an acting class, but transposed two numbers and found herself in an advanced playwriting seminar. She stayed with it, though, and wrote two plays, Second Doctor Lady and The Reconstruction of Dossie Ree Hemphill. She won a Lorraine Hansberry Award for the plays, and hasn’t looked back.

“You can’t find a better storyteller,” said School of Theatre dean Robert Scales. “Despite her physical problems, she still finds joy in living and sharing her experiences and encouraging students to go forward. She has no fear; she’s a beautiful woman and a beautiful spirit.”

“She’s a national treasure on our faculty,” said Barbara Solomon, vice provost for faculty and minority affairs who was acting dean of the School of Theatre when Holland was recruited. “There are not many people who are around and active in scholarly work today who were part of the Movement – and she was. And her ability to help students right their lives is almost as magical as her ability to right her own.”

Holland also wants to write a play about the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper whose Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the all-white state delegation at the 1964 Democratic presidential convention.

Most of all, Holland wants her life, with its mistakes and triumphs, to inspire others who feel their dreams are out of reach.

“That’s what it’s about, so that people know I wasn’t always Dr. Holland. I have been Cat, I’ve been a whore, I’ve been a thief and I’ve been a street fighter – I’ve been all these things. This book is for anyone who wants a better life; they don’t have to stay that way.”

She was a mountain of a woman, big-boned, with lots of flesh on her frame. She had smooth, snuff-colored cheeks, a little hint of a mustache, and a Sphinx-like gaze that stared out from behind the wire-rimmed glasses she removed only to go to sleep. If you’ve seen pictures of those little clay statues, those Great Mother goddesses dug up in North Africa, or a West African fertility fetish – all fat and sassy and gazing off into time – that was my Mama.

When she wasn’t rocking, she was ironing a big stack of starched laundry that never seemed to get smaller, no matter how fast or long she worked – that was how popular she was with her white ladies. Sometimes she got so tired she’d put the ironing board on the floor and iron lying down, but she never quit. “Mr. Glazer needs dem closes to be right, wit’ out no cat-faces. Dey is gwine to Jackson to see de lawyer,” Mama said from the floor, as she lay next to the ironing board. “All dem ‘portant white folkses be axin’ Mr. Glazer, ‘Who do yore pressin’?’ He say to dem, ‘I gots de best in de Delta, but you needs a ‘pointment!'” She would stretch out full-length on the floor and laugh and laugh until her eyes welled up and she started coughing.

– From From the Mississippi Delta by Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Ph.D. Copyright * 1997 by Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.

An Author’s Signing, Plus…

In the coming weeks, fans of Endesha Ida Mae Holland and her work can attend a book signing on campus and a performance of her play in Hollywood.

Holland will sign her just-published memoir, From the Mississippi Delta (Simon & Schuster), on Wednesday, Oct. 15, from noon to 2 p.m. at the Pertusati University Bookstore.

Through Nov. 15, the Fountain Theatre is mounting a production of Holland’s autobiographical play, also called From the Mississippi Delta. The play, which was nominated for a Pulitzer after its off-Broadway production in 1991, uses three actresses to portray all the characters in Holland’s story of growing up poor in the Deep South and finding redemption in the civil rights movement and through education.

Performance times are 8 p.m., Thursday through Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays; 3 p.m. matinees are scheduled for two Sundays, Oct. 19 and Nov. 2. The production is directed by Shirley Jo Finney and stars Bernadette Clarke, Juanita Jennings and Aloma Wright. The 80-seat Fountain Theatre is at 5060 Fountain Ave. in Hollywood. Tickets are $22 and $18, with discounts for seniors and students on Thursday and Sunday evenings.

Special benefit performances of From the Mississippi Delta are planned for the School of Social Work on Thursday, Oct. 23, and the School of Theatre, on Friday, Nov. 7. Proceeds from the $50 to $100 tickets for the Oct. 23 show benefit the Barbara Solomon Minority Scholarship fund; proceeds from the $100 Nov. 7 tickets will benefit School of Theatre programs. For Oct. 23 tickets call 740-8625; for Nov. 7, call 740-6261.

Holland’s play is the centerpiece of a three-month festival dedicated to African American women playwrights, poets and fiction writers. “No Ordinary Flowers: A Celebration of the African American Female Voice” will offer poetry and play readings, performances and music concerts. Most events are free, but reservations are required. For information, call the Fountain Theatre, 663-1525.

A Very Long Way From the Mississippi Delta, Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Ph.D., Open

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