This column was originally published in 2003. We feature it this week in honor of a very special mama. The first issue of the JFP was published on Sept. 22, 2002, Miss Katie's birthday.
I read and write because my mother couldn't. I learned my mother was illiterate when I came home from school one day in the third grade, and demonstrated my new and rather clunky cursive writing skills to her. She hugged me and, to my surprise, started crying. Then she sat me down, swallowed hard and said, "Donna, I can't read or write. I didn't go to school a day in my life." She added, "I need your help."
This shocked me. I had seen Mama looking at mail, magazines, even books. I had watched her sign her own name lots of times. But, it turns out, she was faking the reading part, and she had learned to write certain words by copying them hundreds of times. As her nieces and nephew were born, I would later watch her fill pages with the shapes that made up their names. Back when she was growing up, she had to stay home to cook, clean, pick, peel and hoe while her brothers attended school. In Neshoba County at that time, schooling was on a "need to know" basis. As a girl, it was thought, she didn't need to know.
So I started doing Mama's "business," as she called it. My father—whose literacy was only slightly better—had died the year before. I also became her cover: She was painfully ashamed of her deficiency, and wanted nobody but me to know that she hadn't attended any school. She had managed to keep it from my two older brothers, who already lived away from home. I kept her secret, grabbing papers people brought her to look at and reading them out loud. They probably thought I was precocious or rude, but it helped Mama.
As I grew up, I watched my mother struggle to understand the world from inside a shell of illiteracy. She didn't have basic job skills, so she had to iron pants in a factory to make a living. She couldn't read newspapers, and asked me to read the Neshoba Democrat and the Meridian Star to her. She hadn't studied history or geography, so it was hard for her to comprehend the world outside Neshoba County.
She understood life inside the county well, though. Despite my mother's illiteracy, she was the wisest and most intelligent person I've ever known. She taught me basic values that go far beyond the political "values" rhetoric of today. Everyone is equal, she'd tell me, no matter what "the idiots" in power told us. (And there were some idiots in power in the 1960s.) Having money don't make you no better than anyone else. (We didn't have any.) The government, simply a collection of all of us, is supposed to help people who need it. (That often included us.) Black people and Indians are the same as you and me, just darker. (This was often whispered in my ear right after somebody white had disparaged black people, using that horrific N-word that—by elementary school—would make me fist-shaking angry every time I heard it, and I heard it a lot. Choctaws didn't have it much better.) Mama had grown up amid race hatred, but unlike too many around her, had learned to reject it and its language.
Mama wasn't the only person in Neshoba County with her values, but like her, those good people couldn't always speak up about it. There was a power structure waiting to shut them down, every way possible. But she kept whispering her values to me, and her words got louder and louder as I grew up. By the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, she was more daring with her ideas, often challenging the status quo in her own way. She fantasized about the country singer Charlie Pride, an African-American from Mississippi. "I'd marry that black man if I could," she'd proclaim loudly in friends' living rooms and at her job at Garan, following up with a defiant loud laugh. Her friends soon started laughing along and nodding. Revolution can take many forms.
My mother taught me the power of community, although she wouldn't have called it that. She loved people, and believed people tended toward goodness, "if they had a chance." Despite a life including breast cancer, two alcoholic husbands and regular poverty, she liked to dance, laugh, and tell jokes, and cook, and eat. Her friends, who were all different ages (and later when it was permissible, different races) would walk into her house unannounced, yelling, "You home, Miss Katie?" They'd help themselves to what was on her table.
I learned how to communicate with people from Mama, who loved anybody but the hateful and the "uppity." "Just talk to them like they're human beings," she'd say of young and old people alike. She'd add about older people, "Just cause they're near deaf dudn't mean they're stupid. Just talk louder." As I do now, she hated social cliques, though she wouldn't have called them that. "Folks need to learn to mix up," she'd say. Those are words to live by.
My friends loved Miss Katie. Often, they could talk to her when they couldn't talk to their own parents. She understood that young people were going to experiment with dangerous habits, so she'd try to explain the problems they would face, rather than just lecture or condemn them for making mistakes. She respected young people as much as she did adults. Sometimes more.
Most enduringly in my life, my mother taught me to revere the written word. I wasn't read to as a baby, and she had no idea what fine children's literature was, but she'd buy me those little Golden Books at Fred's Dollar Store any chance she got. When I started school, she started pushing. "Learn to read and write, girl. Learn everything. That's your ticket. You don't have to stay here. If you read and write, you can do anything, or go anywhere, or talk to anybody. They'll listen to you." She encouraged me to have opinions and to express them. "Learn about the world, Donner-Kay. You need to know more than your dumb old Mama."
So I read anything I could get my hands on, and everywhere. I started clipping magazines and hanging out at the library. I started a journal when I was in elementary school: "Prejudice is wrong," led one of my first essays. (The essay itself was only about three more sentences.) When I was in the 5th grade, Mama bought me a set of white Book of Knowledge encyclopedias—on a payment plan—from one of those door-to-door salesmen. "Read them," she said. I did. In 1983, when she tearfully sent me out into the world beyond Mississippi, armed with all she had taught me, she said, simply, "Don't forget where you came from."
We published the preview issue of the Jackson Free Press on Sept. 22, 2002, the day Mama would have turned 78 had she not died of a heart attack in 1990. My only regret in returning to Mississippi now, and using this magazine to celebrate reading and writing and questioning in my home state, is that I can't read it to Miss Katie.
This "Winter Reading Issue" is dedicated to the memory of Miss Katie.
I love this....... this article was the highlight of my day. " Folks need to learn to mix up" ..... yes, those are words to live by. Thank you Donna for sharing that story... and thank you Miss
Katie.... I honor you. Turry
- Turry Flucker
Beautiful story. Choked me up when I heard parts of this in a recent speech of yours. This sheds much more light on Miss Katie and what a great mother she was!
Cheers to Miss Katie (Mama) for being a wonderful, supportive mother!
- Knol Aust
Thank you, Knol. She is, quite simply, my hero and the source of my strength. If she could face a life of illiteracy with humor and courage, I can face anything, I believe. Yesterday, a photo of her in a bright red suit with a big red flower in her hair laughing wide sat right next to my Mac as I worked on the next issue. It wasn't a bad way to spend Mother's Day -- doing Mama's business, so to speak.
I hope everyone reading this had a wonderful Mother's Day, too. And thank you all for reading, if I haven't said that lately.