by Eleanor J. Bader
“All I ever wanted to do was write,” says 39-year-old National Book Award nominee Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock. “But I didn’t know how to make the connection between high school and college writing and making a living. After I graduated from Oberlin college in 1975,1 sent letters to 20 newspapers and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). I never heard from the newspapers but I was accepted by VISTA.”
Savannah pressed itself full-length against my windows at night, palm trees blowing, cicadas whirring, cars honking…
Greene was assigned to Georgia Legal Services (GLSP) and in no time flat became a skilled paralegal and community organizer. “Legal Services was part of the whole social justice movement,” she recalls. Her assignments were complex and varied: Representing clients who were erroneously denied welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and disability; attending administrative hearings as a client representative; teaching public-housing tenants their rights; and organizing a coalition to stop cutbacks in health care. “It was wonderful work,” she says, eye-opening, meaningful, rewarding. She did it for three years, one as a VISTA volunteer, two as a GLSP staff paralegal.
Greene’s contentment during this period, her near total immersion in the lives of her clients, her increased sense of self-worth and joy at being on the side of racial and economic justice, was enhanced by geography, for Greene had long hoped to return to the state of her birth. “I went to Georgia every summer to see my grandmother and I’d always wanted to return there to live,” she says. “I have vivid early childhood memories of it, the lushness of it, the dirt streets, the red clay, those childhood connections of loving the land, the mix of people, the accents. My main interest in school had been history, Southern history and intellectually understanding slavery. There were no longer “colored” water fountains in Georgia. But in our GLSP office area, 18 counties, there were still segregated movie theaters. When our office came upon Mclntosh County (the subject of Praying for Sheetrock), it was so isolated, so beautiful, it looked like Hilton Head, North Carolina, must have looked 100 years ago.”
But the look of untouched, undeveloped community had an ugly underside: “An old and isolated Black community lived in a sort of pale outside a century of American progress and success. The Black people survived by raising vegetables and keeping chickens, by working menial jobs in Darien (the county seat) and by fighting the network of tidewater rivers and backwater swamps. They lived without plumbing or telephones, some without electricity or heat, well into the 1970s. They saw their children bused to an all-Black school with used supplies and outdated textbooks. Few voted.”
Georgia Legal Services had been called in to Mclntosh by three local Black men, Thurnell Alston, a disabled boilermaker; Rev. Nathaniel Grovner, and Sammy Pinkney, a disabled, former New York City detective. Sick of business as usual, the three initiated a lawsuit to end the institutional racism at the core of area government.
Convincing longtime community residents to sign on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit was no easy task, but Georgia Legal Services staffers gave it their all. One particular meeting at the Calvary Baptist Fundamental Independent Missionary Church is still vivid for Greene. “At one point the minister invited me to stand up front to help lead a hymn. I thanked him but declined, explaining that on top of being unable to sing, I was Jewish. Welcome to you,’ he cried. ‘The Blacks and the whites, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all children of Jesus.’ He saw me as an outsider like them. It helped us communicate.”
The service was a heady experience for Greene and other GLSP staffers. “People were there, packing the pews, singing and strategizing afterwards. It was the Civil Rights movement I had read about in other places. Here, 10,20 years later, I was participating in it.”
By this time, however, Greene, was living in Savannah, was experiencing a powerful, simultaneous, call to her original vocation – writing. “I began to work on full-length, nonfiction articles in the evenings after work,” she wrote in an article called “On Writing Nonfiction.” “It was as if the city, Savannah, pressed itself full-length against my windows at night, palm trees blowing, cicadas whirring, cars honking, and rather than keep it at bay in order to create fictional worlds, I opened my notebooks to it. I interviewed people I’d met through work – elderly Black and white clients, mostly – and wrote portraits of them, reconstructing, through their memories, Savannah in the 1930s, the 1910s, the 1890s. My oldest subjects were still immersed in worlds now all but extinct.”
Those worlds spanned much of the state, and introduced her to a wide range of people. In Mclntosh County, for example, there was Miss Fanny, one of the area’s most colorful and respected Black matriarchs, who spoke her own brand of English seasoned with Gullah, an oral language whose masters have, until recently, eschewed recording it. “She would talk about going into places that had this thing, a piccolo, which meant a jukebox. She would scream with laughter when I asked what particular words meant. Then there were the stories involving buckets of guano,” which Greene eventually came to understand as chickenshit fertilizer.
“I had done the research, interviewing people in Mclntosh County, when I was single and childless. I worked on it on and off. I did it originally to capture the voices, and the moment I took them down I knew I’d get them out into the world someday. I knew I had a treasure of interviews stored in boxes in my basement,” she says.
My main interest in school had been history, Southern history and intellectually understanding slavery
Still, by 1988, when Green started to pull together the material that would eventually become Praying for Sheetrock, she was a wife and the mother of three daughters. (She is currently pregnant again, due in late May.) “I really like the chaos of children underfoot, the constant creativity, but at the same time writing is a way to straighten things up, a way to order the chaos, away to sweep the Legos under the bedcovers.
“The children have forced me to focus. Before I had children, I used to read poetry and slowly build up to the moment of writing. Now, the minute they’re out of the house I sit down to write. It’s kept the writing fresh for me, it’s the work I can’t wait to sit down and do, a race against the clock.”
Now that writing Praying for Sheetrock is behind her, Greene devotes her time to articles and more manageable, shortterm projects. Meanwhile, she maintains regular contact with the many women and men whose stories make Sheetrock such a memorable, important book. Recently, in fact, when she and her children were paying the Alstons a visit, the entire Greene clan got another lesson in the ways of Mclntosh County. Warning Becca Alston that her oldest two children had just been exposed to chicken pox, she was shocked to see Becca lead her three daughters into her chicken coop. There, she proceeded “to scare the daylights out of them by shooing chickens at them. The country cure for chicken pox, it seemed, was to cause a chicken to fly directly over a child’s head. It proved to be an ineffective cure, although diverting.”
Sharing life experiences, getting past race and class and truly communicating, truly listening, is what Greene’s work is all about. And while Mclntosh County 1992 is still far from an idyllic place to live, the capturing of the voices and ways of its residents provides a living testament to human resilience and the struggle for dignity.