Guest post: Disappearing on the Delta

This is a guest post from writer Samuel Autman who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Arkansas. Enjoy.

I am standing outside of my grandparents’ house in Grady, Arkansas, a town of 523 souls on the Mississippi Delta. My sister and I spent our summers running around barefoot on these red dirt roads as children. Our grandmother sometimes locked us kids out of the house as she sat at a sewing machine eating ice cream with an electric fan blowing on her.

“Chillun belongs outside,” she’d yell to us as we had our faces pressed against the screen door.

Clouds dance on the pink horizon as the sun sets over the green and white wooden house my grandfather built in 1960. I’m five hours late having flown from New York City. I haven’t stayed the night at their house in twenty-five years. I’ve come to see Madea, 87, and Granddaddy, 90, before one or both of them dies. I want her to hug me, give me a hot tea and wrap me in one of her homemade quilts. Just maybe age has softened her.

I slam the rental car trunk shut, compose myself and knock on the door.

They yell for me to come in.

Madea rests on her recliner while Granddaddy sprawls out on the sofa. The audience cheers on The Wheel of Fortune. I stoop my 6-foot-4 frame to hug them each. Vanna White turns a consonant around. The woman on the TV picks the wrong word.

Granddaddy sits back and radiates in silence.

“Now boy how’s comes you is so late?” Madea spits out, clutching the TV remote.

“Oh, I overslept and missed my flight. I had to take a later one.”

“Overslept? Well, if you had a woman in your life you wouldn’t have overslept. The woman would have woke you up and you wouldn’t have missed your flight.”

I smile at Madea. Her once bovine frame bent over with what my mother called an “old folks hump,” the deformity so pronounced she needs a walker to prop herself up. Moles, the sizes of raisins and chocolate chips, populate her face. Those same moles had begun appearing on my mother’s skin. The eyeglasses sit cockeyed on her face. She looks like a little girl.

Madea reaches down and spits in an old torn up Clorox Bleach bottle crammed with paper towels stained with brown spittle.

I grimace and swallow before mumbling, “Yes ma’am.”

“Now child how come you ain’t married?”

“Well, I’m just not with anyone right now.”

“Listen I want you go and find a woman, any woman. Marry her for two weeks and then get you a divorce. I want you to know what it’s like to wake up next to a woman, any woman. Ok sir?”

Madea knows that a 40-year-old man who has never mentioned women nor brought home a girlfriend wasn’t into women. The things I want to say, I can’t. My mother would never forgive me. I force a smile. My grandmother will never change. I’m still the kid with his face against the window looking inside.

My grandparents have lived in Lincoln County all of their lives. Cotton gins and John Deere tractors litter the landscape. Sunflowers, hogweeds, and dandelions grow a plenty. Cotton, rice and soybean fields claim more than three-quarters of Grady’s land, an atmosphere where rats and snakes thrive. The swampy summers are filled with lots of thunderstorms and flash floods. Even after the many years of slavery and sharecropping had ended, whites still own most of the big farms.

In Arkansas, just like in Mississippi, Missouri and Louisiana, the life of the state once depended on the industry that came floating along rivers, except that no major rivers flow through Grady.

There are two bayous nearby, Deep Bayou, a small water hole where people still get baptized by full immersion, and the Bayou Bartholomew, which is the biggest bayou in the United States. It flows from northwest Pine Bluff on for 359 miles south crossing the Louisiana Border connecting to Ouachita River. But when Madea talks about “the bayou,” she means the Bayou Bartholomew because of its size. And more folks drowned in that one.

As the crow flies, Grady is 22 miles south and east of Pine Bluff in the middle of Lincoln County. From U.S. 65 highway it once was a clean shot. Around 2009 the federal government extended Interstate 530, effectively cutting Grady off from any traffic now. All the stores, even the gas station closed. Grady hovers at death’s ridge but won’t cross over.

Most of my cousins that we ran round with as kids have moved away.

Granddaddy took his last breath in the house in 2011 at 94.

A few months before Madea turned 94 a stroke forced her to move in with relatives in Little Rock.

The Grady I knew has become a memory.

Samuel Autman teaches writing at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. His essay “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow” appears in The Chalk Circle: Prizewinning Intercultural Essays anthology and ​was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012. His essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Postcard Memoirs, I’m Black and I Travel, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. He is currently working on Sanctified: A Memoir, an excerpt from which has been turned into a short film called “A Long Walk.”

Andrea Reads America: Arkansas

Andrea Reads America Arkansas Book Map
Andrea Reads America: Arkansas

I was excited to get to Arkansas on my reading-road-trip of the US. Despite my mom living in Blytheville for a couple of years when she was growing up, I knew nothing about Arkansas except that President Bill Clinton hailed from that state. I couldn’t even locate it on the map.

Now, I know that Arkansas borders Louisiana in the south, Oklahoma in the west, and Missouri in the north, and the Mississippi River marks Arkansas’s eastern border with Tennessee and Mississippi. What fascinates me about its geography, and I saw this reflected in the books I read, is that Arkansas is both a Southern state – with deep South sensibilities and a history of cotton, slavery, and Baptist faith – and a Western frontier state with outlaws and cowboys and a border with the Indian Territory. Its literature reflects both of these histories: True Grit is bandits and gunslinging (with one of the best female protagonists in the Old West), Ark of Bones is the smoldering legacy of slavery, and The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is rural riverbanks, biscuits, and the family of a preacher man.

True Grit by Charles Portis book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: True Grit
Author: Charles Portis, born 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas
Setting: 1870s Dardanelle, Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory
Categories: Western

True Grit, set in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory in the years just after the Civil War, when Texas Rangers chased fugitives in Indian Territory and the frontier was pushing west, is the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl who seeks a man “with grit” to help her apprehend the man who killed her father.

Mattie Ross is one of the most endearing female characters I have come across – not because she is sweet-natured and charming, but just the opposite: she is hard and blunt. It does not take long to figure out who in the book is the one with True Grit:

“You are impudent.”
“I do not wish to be, sir, but I will not be pushed around when I am in the right.”(Mattie)

“You have misjudged me if you think I am silly enough to give you a hundred dollars and watch you ride away.” (Mattie)

“I had not the strength nor the inclination to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?” (Mattie)

Before reading this book, before I even knew True Grit was a book, I watched the John Wayne movie of the same title. The movie tickled me – I loved the characters and the wandering through Indian Territory in pursuit of a murderer – but then when I read the book less than a month afterward, I heard the actor’s voices when I read their lines, and I saw their faces as the characters moved through the story. The movie was very true to the book, so that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – I was delighted to see some of my favorite lines in the movie were quoted directly from Portis’s pages:

“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.” (Mattie to Rooster when he offered her whiskey)

  • it’s more that I’m not sure what my experience of the book would have been had I not seen the movie first. It is unusual for me to experience literature in that order: movie then book. It is almost always the other way around. Either way, both stand up as everything you want from a rolicking Western tale: drunkards, bandits, campfires and horses, and frontier women with sand and true grit.

Ark of Bones and Other Stories by Henry Dumas book cover on andreareadsamerica.comCollection: Ark of Bones and Other Stories
Author: Henry Dumas, born 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas
Setting: 1950s and 60s Arkansas and Harlem, New York
Categories: African American Literature, Short Stories

Ark of Bones and Other Stories is a collection of nine short stories by Henry Dumas, an Arkansas native whose family moved to Harlem, New York when he was ten. These stories, some set in Arkansas and some set in Harlem, are dark and smoky, and are infused with mojo and a deep spirituality. His characters and his ghostly magic were refreshing to me in their differentness: the strong, male, African American voice was not strictly of the here and now; there was an ancientness to it, as if these stories came up from the depths of the earth and through a long line of African-rooted souls. Spirit magic swirls thorughout the stories, as in “Ark of Bones”, when the Mississippi River rises to carry the Ark – Noah’s Ark? our character wonders – to Headeye, a chosen one from Arkansas:

“Only river people know how to talk to the river when it’s mad. I watched the light on the waves way upstream where the old Sippi bend, and I could tell that she was movin faster. Risin.”

At the same time, in “Boll of Roses” Dumas paints beautiful, earthy scenes of his Arkansas roots:

“That little brown girl bout the prettiest thing I ever seen in a cotton field.”

“He was off the porch, into the sun, passing the garden, when the smell of cotton… then the rose garden, and then wet dew…”

Never far from the surface is the struggle of the young black man in the pre-Civil Rights South – the struggle to escape the vicious cycle of servitude, of poverty, of ignorance, and the cotton fields that kept him shackled to all three:

“He felt ashamed of staying out of school just to pick cotton.”

Ark of Bones and Other Stories reminds us that many Southern blacks were still stuck in the cotton fields as recently as the 1960s, missing school, missing out on education, so that they could eat. Unlike farmers’ children, whose lives look the same during harvest time, pickers do not own the land, they do not own the cotton, they cannot sell the cotton. There aren’t more hours in the day to earn more money, there are not opportunities to get ahead, to educate themselves, to move on to something better. Not until the Civil Rights movement:

“‘I picked cotton all my life, chopped, planted, cleared land, and I aint got nothin to show for it. You younguns oughta get out of the field and get with them rights people. They got the Lord on their side.'”

These are important stories. They are vivid reminders of not just our history, but our recent history, and the effect this history has on a significant portion of the American population.

For more about Ark of Bones, please see Arkansas woes, post-Goldfinch spiral, and Henry Dumas is my savior.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield book cover on andreareadsamerica.comNovel: The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
Author: Jenny Wingfiled, born Fountain Hill, Arkansas
Setting: 1950s Columbia County, Arkansas
Categories: Southern Literature, Southern Gothic, Christian Fiction?

Set in 1950s southern Arkansas, The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: it is a story of both vileness and tender beauty, told from the perspective a a spunky eleven-year-old girl.

Swan Lake is the daughter of Methodist preacher Samuel Lake, and though the novel shows us the lives of the adults, and bedrooms, and other people’s homes, it is Swan who is the heroine of this story. Normally Swan and her brothers move every year when their father is transferred to a new parsonage, but this year he has been let go all together. He has no church, and the Lakes move from Louisiana back to Arkansas, to the childhood farm home of Willadee, Samuel’s wife and the children’s mother.

The summer is filled with the antics of children, as summers should be, but it is also filled with tensions: seduction, suicide, Samuel’s feeling he has been abandoned by god, and most stomach-turning, the entry of Ras Ballenger, a cruel child-beater of a man. The characters are entertaining, the plot is well-paced, and the narrative, while sometimes making me hold my breath, gave me a sense of hope. Wingfield does a wonderful job with the landscape of southern Arkansas, and she made me nostalgic for my grandparent’s farm in middle Georgia; I felt at home on the banks of the creek, in the woods, on the land as if I were eleven again, ranging Grandaddy and Nannie’s hills:

“He stood out in the yard, sucking in air tat smelled of damp earth and autumn, and he wondered why people even had houses.”

“I think sitting in the backyard watching the kids catch lightning bugs is a pretty good way of worshipping God every once in a while.”

For a large portion of the book I wondered if The Homecoming of Samuel Lake would be considered Christian fiction – it is unflinching and unapologetic in placing God and Christ, church and faith at the center of Samuel Lake’s life – but by the end of the book I wasn’t sure if that was enough to classify it as Christian lit. There are miracles and Samuel Lake’s faith, but there are many “good” characters who don’t give a whit about religion, who don’t share Samuel’s fervor, and who are treated just as well by the author without depending on Christ to get them through. Because I have never read Christian fiction, I was curious about the author’s intention, and when asked in an interview about her reaction to some reviewers labeling it as such, she answered, “To Samuel, God is as real as his wife and children are, and nothing is more important…None of the other characters care one way or the other about religion…This is not a religious story. It’s a story with one main character who is deeply religious.”

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake was a compelling read that kept me turning pages.

For more about The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, please see Poor preacher’s child.

For further reading in Arkansas:

Books I have read and can recommend:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Daisy: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Janis Kearney
Cotton Field of Dreams by Janis Kearney
Butterfly Weed by Donald Harington
The Choiring of the Trees by Donald Harington
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks by Donald Harington

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at

Poor preacher’s child

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield book cover on

“From Swan’s observations, there seemed to be a conspiracy among church members to keep the preacher and his family from knowing them too well. Playing cards were hidden when they came to visit. Liquor was stuck back in the pantry.” – Jenny Wingfield

It never occurred to me how lonely and isolating it might be to be the family, and especially the child, of a preacher. The preacher may not get lonesome – he has God – but his daughters? His sons? I doubt they feel the connectedness to God that their father does. They want on-the-earth friends to explore with, to play tag with, to whisper in the forest with. They want real friends who will be real with them.

“Swan yearned to get close to somebody. Really close. Soul deep.” – Jenny Wingfield

I can attest, based on my own altered behavior when I’m around wholesome church-going folk, that I would stop cussing, I’d abstain from my gin, I’d become positively angelic if I were hosting a preacher in my home. I would change not out of fear of getting in trouble with God – my higher power supports cards and earthiness and good times – but because I make assumptions. I assume the preacher and I could never really be close: I am naughty, he is nice; I err, he does right; my language, my lifestyle, my beliefs would offend him; he would judge me; he would want to change me. Better to just pretend that I am other than who I truly am rather than create a situation ripe for discomfort, that would create awkwardness, that, God forbid, might inspire a lecture or a sermon.

I have a recovering alcoholic in my life. As my friend recovers, I too am recovering through the Al-Anon program. I am learning what sorts of my behaviors did not serve either of us, and one of those behaviors was to insulate my friend (and myself) from conflict. I pretended his drinking wasn’t as bad as it was, I avoided calling him out on his blame-games, I dispensed advice when he needed to own his life and make decisions himself.

I practice similar deflection behavior with my husband. Rather than accept a party invitation, I might decline on our family’s behalf thinking my husband will probably be tired that night and he won’t want to go, even though, Wow, I think it would be fun. This exasperates my husband.

“Why did you say no if you wanted to go?” he asks.

“Well, I thought you’d be tired. I didn’t think you’d be up for it.”

“Just ask me,” he says. “I’ll tell you if I don’t want to go, but give me a chance to make that choice myself.”

Over time, and as this behavior pattern pops up again through Al-Anon, I’ve come to realize these deflection tactics are disrespectful and, frankly, insulting. My stepping in robs my friend of a chance to learn from his mistakes. By insulating my friend from the consequences of his addictive behaviors, by stripping my husband of the opportunity to make his own choices, and by acting angelic in the presence of a preacher or a church-goer, I’m saying to these people, I am assuming, “You can’t handle this, so I’m going to handle it for you.”

And we all know what they say about assuming.

When you ASSUME you make an ASS out of U and ME.

All of my assumptions could be wrong. How do I know my husband won’t want to go to the party? How do I know the preacher or my church-going friends will be scandalized, will mind alcohol, will want to convert me? Maybe my realness would be a welcome change: maybe my church-going friend likes to swear, maybe the preacher likes gin, maybe we could disagree about the nature of God and still be friends (gasp!).

Though I began to recognize the disrespect of my behavior through Al-Anon, it was only when came across Swan’s 11 year-old observation that people hide their true selves from a preacher’s family that I realized the isolation these protective behaviors cause. Denying a situation’s gravity, avoiding a discussion, and faking a persona shield our vulnerabilities and protect our raw edges, but such insulation, by definition, denies opportunities for connection, for true closeness with another person:

1538, “make into an island,” from L. insulatus (see insular). Sense of “cause a person or thing to be detached from surroundings” is from 1785.

Insulation puts us on opposite sides of an invisible wall built of fears and vices. It is terrible to think of the loneliness a preacher’s child might face because nobody wants to reveal their true selves: the bad words they use, the forbidden music they listen to, the whiskey flask in the cupboard. Folks who say to their kids, as I have to mine, “Be good around these children, watch your language. Their family might be offended.” It is impossible to be close with someone who retreats out of fear of judgement, who hides things in the name of protection, who does not reveal their vulnerabilities and vices.

By insulating, we end up hurting the very people we are trying to protect, alienating the people we would like to be close to, and disrespecting the people we claim to admire. I see this now, thanks to my husband, to Al-Anon, and to 11 year-old Swan Lake. I don’t want to hurt, or isolate, or insult. It horrifies me that my well-intentioned behavior could have such damaging consequences. After years of deflecting, it is not easy for me to change, but I am trying.

And we all know what they say about trying.

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda