Last Updated on August 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218
Momma forced her grandchildren to wash themselves thoroughly every night at the well, even in bitterly cold weather. She had a habit of pulling the quilts off their beds after they had fallen asleep to check that their feet were clean and beating the children if they were not. Impudence was punished with the same harshness. The only children in the neighborhood who did not respect these rules were the “powhitetrash,” some of whom lived on Momma’s farmland. The powhitetrash would sometimes come into the store, where they angered Marguerite with their disrespectful behavior, calling Uncle Willie by his first name, and rudely ordering Momma around.
Once, when Marguerite was ten, she had carefully raked the yard outside the store and was standing quietly with Momma, contemplating the tranquil scene, when a disorderly crowd of powhitetrash children came towards them. They mocked and imitated Momma, calling her by her first name, and one of them did a handstand, her dress slipping down so that her pubic hair was clearly visible. Momma softly sang hymns and ignored the children, bidding them a polite farewell when they left. Marguerite was furious and began to cry, but Momma seemed happy and serene. Marguerite realized that whatever contest had taken place between the powhitetrash and Momma, her grandmother had won.
The Reverend Howard Thomas was the presiding elder of the church district that included the town of Stamps, and visited every three months. Marguerite and her brother disliked him intensely, mainly because he always took the best parts of the chicken at every Sunday meal. However, they were interested in the church gossip he discussed with Momma and Uncle Willie, to which Marguerite and Bailey would manage to listen surreptitiously while Momma thought they were learning their Sunday school lessons. Marguerite recalls how the Reverend Thomas droned on until the food was cold when giving blessings at mealtimes and was similarly prolix in his sermons at the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
On one occasion when the presiding elder was not in church, a woman called Sister Monroe “got the spirit” and started screaming, “Preach it. I say, preach it.” The minister, the Reverend Taylor, had ignored her and continued with the lesson, even when she grasped his jacket and swung him from side to side. The church officials who ran to rescue him were similarly affected by the spirit, and they all ended up tussling on the floor. The minister took advantage of his already recumbent posture to ask the congregation to join him by kneeling in a prayer of thanksgiving for the “mighty spirit” that had visited the church.
Later, when Reverend Thomas was preaching, Sister Monroe repeated her performance. She started crying “Preach it!” and ended by hitting the presiding elder on the back of the head with her purse, so that his false teeth fell out of his mouth. Marguerite and Bailey were overcome with laughter, rolling helplessly on the floor, after which Uncle Willie administered “the whipping of their lives.”
Momma had been married three times, though Marguerite only saw her third husband, and then only “a fleeting once,” when he came to stay one Saturday night. On the following Sunday morning, Uncle Willie stayed at home with him while Momma took the children to church. Bailey said this was to stop the man from stealing from them. Momma had been very pretty when young, but by the time Marguerite knew her, the main impression she gave was one of power and strength.
Momma was always very circumspect and careful in her dealings with white people, as she thought any other approach was very dangerous, even deadly. However, there was a legend about her in Stamp—that she was the only Black woman ever referred to as “Mrs.” This had occurred years before Marguerite’s arrival, when Momma had sheltered and assisted a man accused of an assault on a white woman. When the man was captured, he said that “he took refuge in Mrs. Henderson’s Store.” Mrs. Henderson was duly subpoenaed, and everyone in court was amused when the woman granted this honorific “Mrs.” turned out to be black. White people in the town laughed over this incident for a long time, while “the Negroes thought it proved the worth and majesty of my grandmother.”
Marguerite describes Stamps as a typical segregated town, examples of which could be found in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and many other Southern states. The Black people there regarded the whites with an attitude of “fear-admiration-contempt” at their wealth and wastefulness. People in the Black community were often generous but never wasteful. Momma, who had much more money than the “powhitetrash” who lived on her land, was always frugal, making all the clothes for the family except Uncle Willie from two bolts of cloth she bought from Sears & Roebuck each year.
At first, the Great Depression made no difference to the Black community in Stamps. It was only when the owners of the cotton fields lowered the payment for picking cotton from ten cents a pound to eight, seven, and finally five that the economic situation became apparent to everyone. Momma kept the store going by accepting food from the welfare agencies from her customers in lieu of cash.
One Christmas, the children received gifts from their mother and father, who had separated years before. Marguerite had always thought of her parents as being dead, and the arrival of the Christmas presents was a traumatic event that made both children cry. Marguerite’s mother had sent a doll and a tea set, and her father, with a vanity she was later to regard as typical, gave her a photograph of himself.
The contrast between the poor Black people and rich white people living in different parts of town and barely interacting is complicated by the introduction of the “powhitetrash” in chapter 5. Momma is much wealthier than the powhitetrash and even owns the land on which they live. The powhitetrash, however, treat her with overfamiliar contempt, calling her “Annie,” while she politely addresses them with the honorific “Miz.” The same issue of respect arises in chapter 7, when a judge from out of town issues a subpoena to “Mrs. Henderson” and the entire courtroom is astonished to find that this respectful form of address has been applied to a Black woman. The white community later regards this as a great joke, while the Black residents see it as a sign of Momma’s “worth and majesty.” Both agree in seeing it as an amazing and incongruous event that a Black woman has been addressed in a respectful manner by a representative of the law.
The long narrative in chapter 6 focuses exclusively on the Black community, as it takes place in church. Religion is both completely segregated and entirely central to the life of the community, and particularly that of the pious and ultra-respectable Momma. Although the story ends with a savage whipping for Marguerite, and contains the unlikeable figure of the Reverend Thomas, it has a lighthearted atmosphere, descending into hilarity when the visiting elder loses his false teeth. This provides a respite from the racial tension in the other chapters, echoing the provincial comedy of the church and Sunday school episodes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
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