Amani Shakhete (right) talks with Author Sophia Jeffries (left) about Downhome Memories
Ten-minutes from downtown Atlanta in the city of Decatur a steady traffic of people flowing-in and out of a 10,000 square foot outdoor market; the inside jammed with slow-moving crowds of 50,000 people over Memorial Day weekend. The festival experience smelled of all-American hotdogs and burgers, pizzas, pretzels and assorted desserts set-off by music, poetry slams, workshops and cooking demonstrations. A mixture of races mingled, cutting across all four-corners of the market. Singles, couples and groups. Women and men (or maybe not the real deal). Inside the children’s interactive tent kids feasted on rainbowed snow-cones and cotton candy overwhelmed by crafts tables, storytellers, balloon makers and face painters. Despite the eclectic mix of activities, the primary reason for the event was stacked atop rows and rows of vendor tables. Those stacks featured thousands of fiction and non-fiction books promoted by old and new authors who coaxed attendees to buy, buy, buy at the 2018 Decatur Book Festival.
Although, as a writer, I have yet to experience the 11-year-old Decatur Book Festival, suffice to say, what I’ve shared about this popular literary venue was what I have been told by festival goers and also drummed up in my literal imagination. So, I’m even guessing some attendees stopped and chatted with the authors and even purchased a book. If not, why would any of the nearly 1,000 authors who show up each year, subject themselves to all talk and no sales?
According to one insider visitors explored the inside of a large green tent that featured a sampling of new writers dubbed as “emerging authors.” Once inside they had the option to gather in front of a tall white podium located at the front of the tent to listen to author presentations scheduled over the three days. Like at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, an intimate crowd of eight, sat in a row of chairs waiting to see author Sophia Litman Jeffries a playwright and poet who wrote the well-received stage play, “Washtub Filled with Prayers and Tears,” she wrote in remembrance of her late mother Marie Jackson Crittenden, also a writer/poet.
“What I found most annoying was the many White people who walked past the tent, looked inside, but chose to walk on by while Sophia was speaking about her book. Only our friends gave Sophia the attention she deserved,” explained Lyman. “Personally, I think it’s because of the time period in which Sophia’s book was written. As a historian, I believe that people are reverting to a time when races, here in America, were legally separated because of segregation,” he added.
Lyman’s perception may have had some validity. Take for example an article in Psychology Today online by Monica T. Williams Ph.D. William’s wrote, “Let’s face it, talking about racial issues makes a lot of White people, well… uncomfortable. Try it. I have. Some nod politely, some bristle, some change the subject, some launch into a disconnected political rant, and others just stand in stunned silence. We African Americans learn early that race is not the kind of thing we can chat about with just anyone. The message we typically receive is that White people don’t want to hear it (Ph.D.).”
In contrast to the noisy book festival, I interviewed Sophia Jeffries in a more intimate setting – her home – where she sat comfortably surrounded by remnants from her novel: a straw hat, stems of cotton and a burlap bag. The hat and burlap bag represented what cotton pickers used while picking cotton. Sophia said the book had its own original music she may use for a Downhome Memory stage play or movie, an idea she toyed with after hearing from her fans.
“Remember Lyman?” she asked her husband, a professional photographer and videographer, who created the cover art for Downhome Memories.
“Yes, I do,” said Lyman who is retired like Sophia. He also served in Vietnam and had lots of stories to share. When asking him questions about the book, he’d sometimes take a detour down memory lane but managed to bring it back to a pointed reference in Downhome Memories.
“You know I really enjoyed retirement,” said Lyman. “I had no idea I’d be helping my wife get her projects out there.”
Settled in the Jeffries dining room, I turned on the camcorder noting more than enough memory on the SD card for an hour interview that turned into two hours and then some.
Initially, we talked about our recent family reunion in Butler, Alabama. I asked Jeffries, “Is the Butler Reunion the impetus for the 1958 Wilson-Baker family reunion referenced in the novel as the Jones family’s most memorable reunion?”
“Fiction stories have some truth especially characters. They may remind you of someone,” she laughed.
Like the colorful outspoken cousin Fannie who showed up to the Wilson-Baker reunion for the first time in years. A lighted Pall Mall cigarette hung from her mouth as she spoke while holding up her purse intimidating the reunion members who knew of the 45-caliber pistol and switchblade in her purse. They remained quiet as cousin Fannie ran-her-mouth about private family matters until cousin Lucy, the reunion’s organizer, politely shut her up!
Despite the drama, the reunion was one of the highlights for the Jones family amid a tumultuous time of voter suppression, racial strife caused by white nationalists such as the Klu Klux Klan and defending civil rights. What happened then sounded much like today’s America causing African Americans to relive the angst of the 60s. Back when election boards would give blacks unpassable tests to register to vote or get a driver’s license. “Even blacks with PhDs couldn’t pass the tests,” said Sophia. “Tests like guessing how many marbles in a jar, and the number had to be exact.”
Sophia said she had no idea she’d be writing a 489-page novel, a compilation of many stories she started writing several years ago. A novel she did not write in a typical format but more like pieces of lovely prose pulled together into three chapters: I Know My Beginning; I Know My End; and I Don’t Know My In-Between, the longest section in book (137-489). Sophia said she formatted it this way to represent life.
“We all know our life begins at birth and ends at death, but we don’t know our life in between birth and death until it is written. I’m just glad I had Lyman to help keep me straight,” said Sophia.
Lyman added, “I worked closely with my wife. When she wanted me to read something I would, and had no problem giving her constructive feedback. Her finished product was a work of art.” Lyman applauded. “When Sophia writes she is a perfectionist.”
I Know My Beginning
The Jones family had a strong family bond. Spirituality or having a firm religious foundation was customary along with attaining a college education seen as crucial for a better quality of life. Sophia noted that the Black Christian church and education was a focal point for black families in the south. Education beyond primary school was the reason for the creation of Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Many white universities disallowed black students despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
As a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, Sophia gave credit to her Aunt Lila (her mother’s sister) who paid for her and her siblings college. She was the middle child among 7 siblings explaining that being in the middle was the best position to be in the family. “You learned from your older siblings and helped teach the ones after you,” she said.
All of the Downhome Memories characters have some of her, she admitted. Like Velma who was also a middle child saw and heard a lot of things others in the family may not have. She ended up having to share a room with her Grandma Pecolia when her two cousins Quinton and Tony came to live with them after their mother died. Sophia, too, had to share a room with her Aunt Lila. Velma was the first to receive an autograph copy of her grandma’s book she encouraged her to finish. Pecolia presented her book “When Black Voices Speak” to Velma on her high school graduation day.
Jimmy, Velma’s older brother, possessed what folks referred to as the “gift.” He could see and feel things, a reason for his ability to help his cousin Tony who lived with the guilt of not being able to save his mother. Tony finally came to terms with the fact he was not responsible for her death. Sophia said she also had the gift but the difference was she allowed “Jimmy to own it” and not be afraid of what he experienced or what others would think.
“My husband Lyman also had a strong family unit. Just hearing his stories helped me to define the Jones family and their community. I remember seeing Lyman’s father always dressed in a suit and tie – he had a master’s in social work. Lyman’s family often had those Leave it to Beaver moments. Like his family, mine and many other black families, we were certainly not the stereotypical destitute families you see and hear about in the news.
I Don’t Know My In Between
“Picking cotton for lunch money was more for fun than necessity,” said Sophia, who also picked cotton for lunch money. “I was a good picker, and paid 2 cents a pound making enough to pay for my own 25 cent lunch.”
The Jones children and neighborhood kids gathered after school and on weekends, in the middle of town, waiting for Mr. Berry the plantation owner to pick them up in his big truck.
“Getting with friends, singing, laughing and gossiping was the highlight of the trip to the fields.”
Sophia explained, “We actually owned land near the cotton fields in Tuskegee where we were raised not far from where some of the Tuskegee Airman lived.”
“The spring water creek I mentioned on Mr. Berry’s cotton farm, that was real. It was located on our land and that spring water was so good.”
The Chinaberry Tree in the Jones’s backyard was also symbolic, a sanctuary for Velma as it was Sophia who also had a China Berry Tree in her backyard. It was a great place to think through life’s challenges and fantasize about having sex with boys.
When it came to sex among teens, Downhome Memories didn’t hold back. In fact, it became a rights-of-passage for all the teens once they reached senior year in high school.
Sophia said “Just because it was the 60s didn’t mean that teens were not sexually active. They were just careful and knew of the consequences. They practiced safe sex.”
Lyman explained that parents back then put the fear of God in you. His parents warned him not to get a girl pregnant or face the consequences like getting put out of the house. Lyman also said when it came to sex scenes in the novel, he was the expert. “The language Sophia chose to use was different than how I worded it,” Lyman laughed. “I didn’t sugar-coat it. I kept it real.”
Unlike Sophia who wrote about the teen’s sexual encounters with sensitivity. In a scene with Velma and her boyfriend Tom, she wrote: “Tom wrapped his arms around her back… I saw passion in his eyes… there was an explosion of emotions as we explored the newness of each other’s bodies… I felt my fingernails digging into his back…I knew we were quickly getting to the point of no return.
Mary Mitchell was also influential in helping Sophia finally bring Downhome Memories to fruition. Mary invested $5,000 into Sophia’s work to push her to finish a project started in 1999.
“I told her I only wanted the money back when she started selling lots of books. But right now, I wanted her to know I believed in her, and she had to write her story.”
Mary said Sophia was one of the most compassionate people she knew which was why Sophia was able to write the book from her heart. In the book, the horror of a lynching rocked Mary to her core. She said she found it most disturbing.
“The lynching scene was hard for me to read,” said Mary. “It was so graphic, I could see it.”
In the lynching scene, Sophia wrote about Klansman tormenting and torturing a Black man and a Jewish man before wrapping nooses around their necks, letting them dangle and hang until death captured their souls. The seemingly peaceful passing of one of the men angered a Klansman who wanted him to suffer more. He even attempted to revive him by spewing curse words at him and the infamous “N” word.
“In my earlier years, I was considered militant. I didn’t take stuff from racists. Reliving scenes like the lynching would spark a fury in me I would rather forget.”
I Know My End
Sophia’s Aunt Lila was definitely her hero much like Grandma Pecolia in the novel. Pecolia was the matriarch of the Jones family. She never married her true love and was saddled with a family secret that caused quite an upset once it surfaced. It turned out that the Jones family was linked by blood to the town’s prominent wealthy white family, the Baileys. The notorious Sheriff Leland Bailey, famous for looking the other way when Klansman attacked and killed black residents, had a long-standing relationship with Pecolia. They were cousins (but didn’t know it) all the while growing up in Tylersville. The Bailey plantation was where the secret began with a 16-year-old slave named Effie who was forced to birth the elder Bailey’s children – Leland’s great-great grandfather, Shelby Bailey—original owner of the plantation where the secret of this lineage was buried at the Bailey Family Cemetery.
“The secret of Leland being “colored” was a secret he couldn’t risk anyone finding out,” said Sophia. “His wife Daisy knew and she helped him live that lie until their only son, Bobby Lee fell in love and married Suzy, a black woman.” Sophia explained, “They had a baby and named her Hope Lucille. It was Hope who brought healing to the family and forced Leland to own the family secret.
Sophia’s Downhome Memories: Picking Cotton for Lunch Money offered insight into the past with lasting implications for what it means to be African American. As the story wrapped up, it showed quite a few significant changes for blacks during that time. The civil rights movement brought about advances that included the Mississippi town voting in its first black sheriff and black school superintendent (Velma’s father). The Jones children all graduated college with honors, many went on to marry and have children. Like Velma. She graduated from Hampton Institute in 1972 with her Bachelor of Science degree. She split with her first love Tom and established a successful career in radio – New York City radio! She later married a boy named Kyle, had a baby girl and named her Lu-Lu.
In the words of Grandma Pecolia who lived to age 92, “When all is said and done, family is like a cracker jack prize. Whatever you get is yours!”