In the Land of Cotton
by Martha A. Taylor
Outskirts Press, 2009
Martha Taylor was a young white girl living in segregated Memphis, Tennessee when the story opens in 1956. A variety of stereotypes about African Americans had been taught to her as facts. Fortunately for Martha she was very observant and also quite curious. Martha had enough moxie in her to question every thing she was taught. She weighed what she was told against what she observed and formed her own facts.
One day her mother went back to work and hired Lucy Boyd to work as maid/housekeeper/babysitter. Lucy was “colored folk” and it was the first time Martha actually met an African American. She soon loved Lucy. Being curious, Martha wanted to know all about Lucy – her family, where she lived and so on. But Lucy would not tell Martha much about herself. She told Martha she was hired to keep her mouth shut and just work. So Martha follow Lucy home one evening.
Deep in the woods, called the Cypress Grove, Martha discovered a huge extended family, a whole new way of life. As Martha continued to visit she was loved and accepted by the entire clan. She was treated by the Boyd family as one of their own. Martha developed a special friendship with Silas, a boy three years older. Martha kept her visits a secret because she knew her parents would not approve.
Martha learned so much from this new family. She began to see the world from a different perspective. She saw first hand what it meant to be born with your skin a darker pigment.
“You don’t gets it do you, Miz Martha, slavery’s more than chains and shackles, it’s a state of mind; it’s how you feel ever’ day of yo’ life. It’s how you feel ever’ time you sees a sign that says, No Niggers Allowed, or ever’ time some white man call yo’ daddy ‘boy‘. It’s bad when the white folks treat you’s worse than they would their dog. They works at keepin’ us ignorant. That’s why we has as little contact with the white folks as we do. Kinda bad for all the little children here, they thyinhks all white folks is like you. Gonna be bad for them when they finds out different.”
Then in 1959 everything changed. Martha’s father took a job in Texas and she was forced to move. She continued her friendship with Lucy and Silas, still in secret. They exchanged letters and telephone calls on the pay phone. She managed to see her friends on rare trips back to Memphis. The remainder of the story covers the events in the lives of Martha, Silas and Lucy in parallel with the political and civil rights issues and events up through 1968.
Because I lived through the same time period, reading this book was like meeting a new friend my age and reliving those times. Most everyone my age remembers exactly where they were when they heard about the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. We can talk about Little Rock and Selma and Watts and Vietnam. All of our lives were touched by those events. As I read I found myself shaking my head and saying, “My, how far we have come.” I shed a few tears as well remembering friends we lost.
I recommend the book to anyone interested in walking back through those years.