By Martin Northway
It was a chance encounter that blossomed into a rare event—one of the kinds of experiences that have fueled a lifetime of frequenting coffeehouses. She was sitting alone reading, and though she was dressed down in sweats, without makeup, hair frazzled and a little flyaway, there was no hiding her ebony beauty; but there was no welcome mat out either.
We were at Kopi, A Traveler’s Cafe, in Andersonville during a pre-lunch lull. I had just sent a visiting friend back off to Indiana with a cuptigo and was contemplating a trek back down Clark Street to my spartan third-floor walk-up in north Uptown, when I noticed the title of the young woman’s large photo book, “Women of the West.”
My passion is history, so I interrupted her gently but with honest curiosity. I mentioned that for a spell my great-grandmother had been a deputy sheriff in Sedalia, Missouri. She said she was an actress absorbing background for a part in a play about former slave women on the frontier, “Flyin’ West.”
My journal records: “We cut through hello-how-are-you quickly and got to the essentials of our lives and values.” She was currently struggling with her vocation, wondering what it “means” to be an actress—how she had discovered it was no longer enough to have a “part” in a play without meaning for her, not the case with “Flyin’ West.”
Her friends in Chicago didn’t seem to understand. She bemoaned the unwillingness of people to learn where they had come from and examine hard truths honestly. She had been “born down South” in Detroit, she said, and was grateful for parents willing to sacrifice to see her through a parochial-school education and the University of Michigan.
At this point I felt obliged to fess up that my grandmother’s family had been slaveholders in central Missouri, whatever wealth they had had gone with the winds of war. This registered but barely fazed her. Her family had come from New Orleans and Tennessee and had long had land in central Arkansas, where she lived with grandparents during the summers of her youth.
In this, we found many commonalities. Wherever my family lived in my childhood, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ farm in Missouri, enjoying extended family and rounds of visiting.
“My people,” my new friend said, “did not experience racism to a significant degree.” The Depression had barely registered with them in Arkansas, though her ancestor had nearly lost his land to taxes. Determined that his son would “learn, so they can’t do to you what they do to me,” he took both his shotgun and the young man to Little Rock and enrolled him in college.
One summer, she and her visiting cousins decided to walk the length of a road running through the property, encountering an old blind relative who summoned them to her house. One by one, the woman ran her fingers over the children’s faces and named their mothers. When they returned home they ran to their parents shouting, “Mama, Mama, we met a witch!”
Our conversation ranged widely, thoughtful but uncensored. I remember we even talked about Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate military hero but a deeply problematic figure, as a man who had earned a fortune trading slaves and who is believed to have been the Grand Wizard of the postwar Ku Klux Klan. A ferocious leader, he was so dangerous that General Sherman once said that if it cost 10,000 lives and drained the Federal treasury, Forrest had to be killed.
Her reaction was not politically correct horror, but an appreciation of how the culture of the time could produce such a man. Our exchange confirmed her willingness to explore “hard truths” honestly.
Five hours passed like five minutes. She invited me to a reception for the play, and I walked her out of the cafe toward the bus stop. When we parted, she gave me a big hug. “Thank you,” Michelle said, “I was just wanting to be understood.”
The Onyx Theatre Ensemble took top honors from the Black Theater Alliance for its production of “Flyin’ West.”