Willie Mae, by Elizabeth Kytle

reviewed by Dennis Jones

Willie Mae, by Elizabeth Kytle.
Published by EPM Publications, Inc.
1003 Turkey Run Road
McClean, VA 22101 244 pp,
$12.95, paper. January, 1991

Willie Mae is a first-person biography which was first published by Alfred Knopf in 1958. And according to the blurb on the back of the EPM paperback, “it was listed by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year, and was widely reviewed as ‘a sweet book, a strong book, a laughing book, and sometimes a heartbreaking and infuriating book, but never a whining book.’” That truly wraps up the flavor of Willie Mae.

Elizabeth Kytle might more properly be called an editor of Willie Mae. Though Willie Mae had a limited education, she could read. But Kytle took no chances. In her introduction to the new printing she says:

Out of a scrupulous regard for Willie Mae’s sensibilities and to make certain that she had absolute knowledge of all that would appear in print, the manuscript was read to her line by line. She made no objection or correction, and expressed joy over what I had made from some of the things she had told me in our rambling exchanges.

There is a forward in the new edition by Dr. Joyce A. Ladner, a sociologist and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Howard University in Washington, DC. About the narrative of Willie Mae she says: “In the telling, she demystifies white people, something I now recognize as a major contribution of the book. I grew up believing that most white people were racists and therefore alike. Willie Mae was wiser.”

Dr. Ladner goes on to say two pages later: “Now, at a time when there is much talk about a ‘permanent’ underclass [a term coined by Dr. William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at the University of Chicago], Willie Mae challenges us to dismiss notions of permanence and inevitability.

She does indeed, and she would never accept the term “underclass,” even though she at times had to eat corn starch to keep from being “growl-hungry.”

Kytle was dismayed when, after Willie Mae was accepted, she was still asked occasionally if the book was written in dialect. Even after it was published and read, some referred to its idiom as dialect. She says: “Just in case there is anywhere some lingering residue of the same confusion: The speech in Willie Mae is not so-called dialect but is idiom common to blacks and whites in the rural South . . . . It’s apt, succinct, expressive, and it makes a little picture every time.” She goes on to explain that, “When Willie Mae says ‘I wouldn’t trust him behind a broomstraw,’ that’s idiom.” For the obtuse she would say that whereas “dialect looked like nothing more than bad spelling, idiom was Tennessee Ernie Ford (the then popular country singer).” Ford used to refer to a person in an uncomfortable position as being “as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

The following are a few of my favorite verbal vignettes of Willie Mae:

“I can’t study it out, and I know God has all the power—but sometimes it does seem God has pimps and pets.”

In church during a revival meeting when the evangelists were having a membership drive- “We’d whisper to each other—‘Is you really going to join?’ The mothers would be right down on top of us like a duck on a June bug. ‘Stop that whispering!’ And we’d always say: ‘I’m not whispering. I’m praying.’”

“Doug wasn’t even able to get up and down enough to go to the toilet, and he didn’t want nobody but Sister to help him. She said she wouldn’t go, but Poppa grabbed her up and said: ‘You go or I’ll kill you!’ Poppa never really hurt a one of us, but I know for sure he’d have knocked Emma stem-winding if she hadn’t gone. She knew it too, and off she went” (Willie Mae’s brother-in-law was dying of TB.)

After her mother died, Willie Mae’s father “was betwixt two feelings: he wanted to marry Miss Rachel, and he wanted us to be happy. But, same as Sister said, ‘there’s people in hell wanting ice water.’”

“... Miss Rachel threw her rump up on her shoulder and went on and got back in the hack and left.”

At Babe’s funeral—Babe being the eldest and most gentle of the siblings—“We buried her the next day, and my heart was heavy as a sad cake . . . .”

“One woman I worked for, I’d work all week and then she’d say: ‘Here’s a nice dress I’d like to sell for fifty cents.’ It’d be so big I could have flung a fit inside it and never popped a seam, but I’d be scared to say anything, so I’d get that big old wore-out dress and fifty cents for that week’s work. Regular, every week, she’d palm off things on me that way.

“I finally had to give up the job because I was scared. They both drank so much, and turned out she was crooked as a barrelful of bait worms.

“So I’d quit and go some place else, and sometimes I’d come to find out I’d done got out of the sandspurs and fell into the poison oak . . . .

Willie Mae got some exciting news one Sunday, and so “that Sunday they sure got their breakfast before Mass, because I was in their house at quarter to seven with my tongue tied in the middle and wagging at both ends.”

You have to go back a couple of generations to find a narrative as engaging as this one. In fact, there are moments one might swear it was Huck talking to us. This talk is refreshing, and one can only hope that it is still in existence in this day of midwestern prattle on the major media of television and radio. Bland has become the staple from fast food to language. Color has been relegated to curse words or worse. Godfrey Daniels!!

A word of warning here. This is a narrative, so your lips might get tired. I will close this with a statement from the forward by Joyce A. Ladner: “To the extent that blacks and whites still need to understand one another, Willie Mae’s story—which is to say, Elizabeth Kytle’s book—is as timely today as it was when it first appeared.”