‘Walking from the Tombigbee’ An Introduction to Minnie Bruce Pratt
By Kim Whitehead
Vol. 17, No. 1, 1995 pp. 23-27
In the mid-1950s, Minnie Bruce Pratt’s mother worked as a social worker and sometimes took her daughter along when she visited the homes of impoverished, mostly African-American, women and children in rural south Alabama just outside Selma. Pratt’s father, a sawmill clerk, often spent his evenings reading John Birch news-papers and railing against the Catholic-Communist-Jewish conspiracy he believed was attempting to overthrow segregation. On summer afternoons, the young girl herself rummaged through closets and attics, looking for books that would explain the tangle of freedoms and oppressions she witnessed and experienced in her deeply racist and sexist Southern society. In the end, the best solution seemed to be to get out.
Over the years, however, in her own writing, Minnie Bruce Pratt has always gone back home. Her poetry–the chapbook The Sound of One Fork (1981), and the volumes We Say We Love Each Other (1985) and Crime Against Nature (the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1989)–and her collection of essays Rebellion (1991) serve both as profoundly autobiographical revelations about the life of a self-defining lesbian feminist who defies Southern custom only to have her children taken from her and remark-ably complex forays into the hidden recesses of Southern
attitudes toward race, gender, and sexuality. She traces her personal transformations through her journey around the South: from the University of Alabama, where she wrote briefly only to give it up when she married a young poet who emulated the Fugitives, to North Carolina, where she received her Ph.D at Chapel Hill, taught at a historically black college, and bore two sons, to Washington, D.C., where she lives after discovering her love for another woman, losing the right to live with her children, and finally claiming her writing self.
Pratt has in many ways found herself exiled as a Southern writer, whether because of fear of the challenges she poses or critics’ tendency to assign one label per writer (one may be “lesbian” or “feminist” or even “African-American,” but then not also “Southern”). How-ever, while she is clear about the discrimination she has faced as a lesbian mother, she never refuses to deal with her own heritage of racism and the ways that the op-pressed woman can also be an oppressor. She claims as ancestors white Christian-raised feminists like Nelle Morton, Anne Braden, and Lillian Smith, whose Strange Fruit Pratt came across as a child but did not read be-cause she somehow knew “it was too dangerous to pick up and read that book and be the one alone with the secret: that there was another way to live” (Rebellion 155). At the same time, Pratt reveals both the suffering and the blindness of the women in her own family. She both commemorates the work and vision of Ida B. Wells and explores the contradictions inherent in her own relation-ship to the African-American domestic worker who helped raise her. While she reexamines the history of the KKK to discover that its policies of hatred extend to any white women (and especially lesbians) like Pratt who refuse to act the role of obedient, chaste wife and mother, she also deals straightforwardly with the history of her predecessors, who took land from the Creeks and later interacted with African-Americans only across the lines of Jim Crow.
While Pratt is an eloquent essayist, she carries out these cultural explorations most daringly in her poetry, where her concerns with race, gender and sexuality, autobiography and history, and lyric and narrative con-verge. She alternates between long, prosaic lines that indicate her desire to simply get the story told, and more lyrical passages, swollen with her reflections on the powers by which cultural meanings are assigned.
She relentlessly searches through her history–her family’s, rooted in pre-Civil War Alabama, and the official history of the South, as well as the bounty of untold stories–in her effort to understand how these heritages have shaped her experience and how she might in turn transform them. In the poem “Reading Maps: Two,” Pratt tries to reach back into the past, looking for the buried stories of the women in her family and Native Americans and African-Americans trying to survive in the Southern context. She longs to know what the women in her family thought about the roads leading to and from their houses and the now hidden roads crisscrossing their property, roads that carry the histories of the Native Americans who once occupied the land and the African-Americans who traversed it during slavery and segregation. She remembers that as a child sitting with these women in their communal space on the front porch, she herself did not see
the one made
by the feet of Choctaw people walking from the Tombigbee
to the mound of the great mother, walking to the west
with the little cry yaiya ishkitini, with the big cry
yaiya chito, driven out of their woods;
made by the feet of Ibo people stolen
from the land where they hoed their sweet yams, beans,
walking to shop cotton in strange fields at dawn…
As an adult, Pratt longs to believe these older women had “hidden ways / that they used to change how things were”; she longs to “tell them I want / to alter the pattern we were born into, to ask them / to help me…,” but they are all now buried at the end of their own “unwinding grey thread” of a road, unable to divulge their secrets (We Say We Love Each Other 38-39).
Pratt most fruitfully confronts the past by seeking self-understanding, by relentlessly exploring and fearlessly recharting not only the literal and symbolic terrain of her homeland the South, but also the landscapes of her own body and the impact of cultural configurations of gender, sexuality, and the “natural.” In her poem “Down the Little Cahaba,” images of a river’s force, sexual plea-sure, and the sensuality of childbirth merge in the poet’s imagination as she and her two young sons float in inner tubes on a hot August day. In this and other poems throughout Crime Against Nature, Pratt furnishes a new map of these landscapes to resist the cultural and legal
dictum that lesbianism constitutes a crime against nature, and therefore that the “unnatural” expression of lesbian desire cannot coincide with the “natural” expression of maternal love.
Pratt’s story resonates with the meanings of woman, wife, and mother that have deeply informed Southern culture. As Pratt maintains, poets and apologists for the Old South “named Woman and the Land as the same” (Rebellion 43). They believed that the land, the slaves who worked it, and Southern women were at base potentially uncivilized, “wild,” if not controlled and led toward what landowners and ministers called their higher instincts. Southern women were thought to reach a higher natural state only through serving as obedient wives and focusing all their energies on the maintenance of their husbands’ power, the order of the household, and the passing of this order to their children. As the planters understood it, civilization could survive only if women accepted their rightful positions. As Pratt understands it a century later,
I had expected to have that protected circle marked off for me by the men of my kind as my “home.” I had expected to have that place with my children. I expected it as my right. I did not understand I had been exchanging the use of my body for that place. (Rebellion 44)
Of course, though patriarchs adopted and enforced this ideology on the Southern woman, and though the wives of wealthy landowners across the region attempted to live up to this “ideal,” as the historian Anne Firor Scott has pointed out, the everyday realities of women’s lives belied the myth in numerous ways.1 Certainly, African-American women and the wives of yeoman and poor farmers did not even have the opportunity to pursue the myth. But nevertheless, as Pratt asserts, the ideal of the Southern “lady” and her hallowed relationship to the land has persisted. Living under the vestiges of the myth, Pratt recalls, “I…learned that I could be either a lesbian or a mother of my children, either in the wilderness or on holy ground, but not both” (Rebellion 43).
Against this configuration of the land as either sacred or wild and corrupt, Pratt reckons with traditional images of “wild” women and challenges these through her own body and the landscapes of the South itself. But this first involves confronting the images of the lesbian, and especially the lesbian mother, which circulate in Southern culture. After she asserts her lesbianism, her mother refuses to assist her, her ex-husband uses legal statutes against her, and Pratt finds herself cast as the serpent, the unredeembable creature of the earth according to Christian tradition: “. . .a thing, scaly sin, needle teeth / like poison knives, a monster in their lives who’d run / with the children in her mouth, like a snake steals / eggs.” She understands that her ex-husband and her mother abhor her, her “inhuman shimmer, the crime of moving back and forth / between more than one self, more than one end to the story.” But she also realizes that they are culturally privileged to name her–“the one who tells the tale gets to name the monster…”–and that she really threatens the cultural order by insisting that she does not have to live by the duality that structures gender relations, at least partly through telling her own story (Crime 114-115).
In the poem “No Place,” Pratt’s husband demands that she choose her family or life as a lesbian:
One night before I left I sat halfway down,
halfway up the stairs, as he reeled at the bottom
shouting Choose, choose. Man or woman, her or him,
me or the children. There was no place to be simultaneous, or between…
After her husband discovered her relationship with another woman and threatened to take Pratt to court to gain full custody of their children, a lawyer advised her that under North Carolina sodomy laws she would not stand a chance in court, so she knew leaving her children was actually her only hope for seeing them at all. Nevertheless, neither in “No Place” nor in any other of her poems about her separation from her husband does Pratt succumb to any kind of domestic panic; even though she deals with turbulent feelings of grief and shame that she had to leave her sons behind, she does not mourn losing the privilege of the white heterosexual woman in the South, nor does she posit herself purely as victim or victor. Instead she develops a vocabulary of loss and anger to speak of what she calls the “in-between,” the sites from which she can challenge the strict division between the “natural” and the criminal which has seemingly guaranteed stability to the identity of the white, Southern mother. Pratt refuses to be a “mother-woman,” the figure Kate Chopin used in her classic novel The Awakening (1895) for Southern women, who are expected to be mothers first and foremost.
Ironically, natural environments serve as these in-
betweens from which Pratt can question these essentialist positions–not only the equation of maternality with moral virtue enforced in the South, but any complete or valorized version of lesbian identity. In the poem “No Place,” Pratt and her sons travel on weekend visits because her husband won’t let them stay at her house; they cross creeks and rivers, caught between their old life and an uncertain future (Crime 18). However, they soon identify these natural settings as a kind of free territory where the old definitions no longer apply and Pratt can relate to her sons freely as she attempts to invent a surviving self. For example, while with her sons on the bank of a river, Pratt points out a “…snake, with a silver fish crossways in its mouth, / just another one of the beautiful terrors of nature, / how one thing can turn into another without warning” (Crime 119) . Rather than threatening ordered society with death, the “serpent” here points to the ability to cross and recross patterns of self-definition and to the value of difference. In the in-between of natural environments, Pratt both inscribes the “wilderness,” undoing the heterosexual domestic arrangement in order to proclaim her lesbian body, and travels through and exceeds it, so that “lesbian” evades categories of good and evil and “mother” may be heterosexual or lesbian.
Inevitably, this exploration of how “woman” and “mother” may surpass traditional Southern definitions leads Pratt back to the women, the mother figures, in her past. In “The Mother Before Memory,” she writes of both her birth mother and the African-American woman who took care of her from infancy through early childhood. In the first section of this poem, she remembers being close to the domestic worker:
No story, no picture of the first memory,
what I’m not supposed to remember: being held
by her, dark in a darkening room, face unseen,
but it is her. I am safe. I never called her my mother…
More than a few writers have tried to describe this kind of memory only to succumb to the temptation to portray the nurturing caretaker without acknowledging the brutal forces of racism that separate woman and child. But Pratt is aware that this is something she is “not supposed to remember”: she should hide such a strong attachment to this woman, for in the racist ideology of the South it potentially erases the rightful place of the white mother. In fact, as Pratt reckons with her memories of her birth mother in the poem’s second section, she places the two women side by side, undoing the expected separation between tributes to the white mother and recollections of the African-American mother figure.
And in another section of the poem, Pratt recognizes the ways both she and the domestic worker have been abused by their culture–precisely because as women, one African-American, one lesbian, they have been stripped of the right to motherhood. When she and her sons visit the now elderly woman, whose personal narrative and racial history is marred by the loss of children by force,
She inclines her head to signify us two
in the long story of women and children
severed. With a nod she declares us
not guilty, and begins to give advice.
Pratt understands the history they share, and takes words of wisdom and help from the old woman: “Bind them to you, bind them while you can” (Crime 57).
In the whole of Pratt’s work, however, she never represents this connection with other oppressed women as an easy affiliation, for indeed she does always again return home. She understands that the in-between that frees her also means she can never finally assert her difference from her white father which, in the words of Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty, “would (and in much feminist literature does) exempt the daughter from her implication in the structures of privilege/oppression, structures that operate in ways much more complex than the male/female split itself.”2 She always acknowledges her own feelings of loss only within the larger context of racist violence that has pervaded her native region. When one of her sons asks about Southern history, her thoughts immediately go to the lynching of young African-American men in south Alabama, and she says of her son, “I am ready to / tell him all I know” (Crime 75).
Indeed, one of Pratt’s chief revisions of Southern motherhood lies in her desire to pass on to her sons a different vision of what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be a Southerner. She speaks to them, hoping “..you’ll remember / you come from dirt and history; that you’ll choose / memory, not anesthesia…” (Crime 14), hoping they will participate in her story of who a Southern woman may be: self-defining, lesbian, unafraid to challenge racism and sexism at every turn. And, as she relates in the poem “Another Question,” they do. When her youngest son reads her poems, Pratt writes, he likes “that I get in the middle and tell it all, / grab people and tell them, just say it” (Crime 98). In his tribute to his mother’s defiance, Pratt’s son himself becomes a sign of the immense possibilities for reconfiguring the mother-child relationship and the place of women in the South.
Kim Whitehead graduated last May from the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University in Women’s Studies and American literature.