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Mary Lee Bendolph - Gee's Bend, Alabama

When we found Mary Lee Bendolph, she was raking the wide cut field that stretches out in front of her home.

This is perhaps not the expected way to meet a major American artist.

But art wasn't a word that Mary Lee or other Gee's Bend quilters ever thought to apply to the work they do.

But what words do you have for work like this?

Mary Lee was forced to stop her schooling when she was fourteen. She deeply regrets this.

When we look at her quilts, we regret that our own schooling didn't end then, too.

I've cut alot of brush in Big Sur. Mary Lee's son has just cut and cleared this beautiful open field.

So we had alot to talk about.

This is one of Arthur Rothstein's photographs that he took in Gee's Bend in 1937. Mary Lee was born two years earlier. Her future husband Rubin is one of the small boys in the right center of the photo.

Mary Lee's own Roosevelt home is in the background behind her. It was built in the very spot of that clapboard cabin that Rothstein photographed above. When he took the photograph, he wasn't standing far from where Mary Lee is now.

And Mary Lee's current home is also the same spot where Rothstein took this iconic photograph of young Artelia Bendolph.

One blustery rainy night in February 1965, a preacher drove up slowly in a caravan of cars along the mud roads of Gee's Bend. "They had a little prayer," Mary Lee says. "They sung a song. And then they turned it over to him." The preacher had a virus and had been losing his voice for days. It was after midnight by the time he spoke. But that night, he made the walls of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church shake.

Mary Lee had never heard anyone speak like this before.

"He told her that she might not speak with perfect grammar, might not own more than one dress, might not be more than a dirt farmer descended from slaves, but she was every bit as good as those white folks across the river. Tears filled his eyes as he shouted, 'I come over here to Gee's Bend to tell you--you are somebody.'

"No one had ever said that to Mary Lee before."

Mary Lee met the preacher again across the river in Camden and gave him a big hug. She saw him in Selma, too, and watched in awe as he drank from a "whites only" drinking fountain.


"I never saw a black person do a thing like that!" she says. "I was so glad. I said, 'I'm going to get me a taste my own self.'"

Mary Lee has dreams of the future that she always trusts. So when she kept hearing the preacher say that he had a dream, Mary Lee understood.

"I have them too," Mary Lee thought.

Many Gee's Benders were in Selma when the Voting Rights march began on "Bloody Sunday" in March 1965. Marchers stopped and knelt and prayed when they came to a phalanx of state police who blocked their way at the foot of Edmund Pettus bridge.

Then the police rushed at them and beat and drove them back.

And Gee's Benders were again among the marchers three weeks later when an outraged America forced Lyndon Johnson to send federal troops to protect the march.

When you drive from Atlanta to Gee's Bend, you re-trace that same journey through Selma and Montgomery yourself.

You can stand on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery yourself.

You can remember when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.

And you can re-commit yourself even if you haven't yet paid the price that others have.

When the preacher was killed, they found two mules to pull his hearse, as symbols of the man's humility and commitment to the poor.

They found the mules in Gee's Bend.

Sometimes in Mary Lee's dreams, God visits her.

Wait until you meet her before giving assurance to your skepticism about that.


Gee’s Bend, Alabama

“I do not know much about gods,” T.S. Eliot writes in “The Dry Salvages,” “but I think the river / Is a strong brown god…”

The Alabama River curls and winds and unwinds itself. It’s got a mind of its own, “sullen, untamed, and intractable.”

“My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” Langston Hughes says.

And then at one point, the Alabama River decided to bow itself into a great U-shape just so that it could enclose a bulb of land on three sides and create a virtual river-island that would come to be called Gee’s Bend after an early plantation owner.

Mary Ann Pettway had invited us to come stay with her. We slept beneath one of her own quilts. She made breakfasts of grits, sausages, bacon, eggs, coffee for us – and regaled us with stories and photos of her family. That is, she laid out before us, like in the piecework of a quilt, the history of Gee’s Bend.

That history is too complex for us to piece together for you here. But that’s already been well done anyway – and we highly recommend to you J.R. Moehringer’s series on Gee’s Bend that he wrote for the L.A. Times in 1999. The series received a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s also a portrait of Mary Lee Bendolph, whom we’ll introduce to you tomorrow.

Mary Ann Pettway is the president of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective. The quilters were having a meeting our second day in Gee’s Bend.

The meeting began with a spiritual and a verse, led by China Pettway and Mary Lee Bendolph. The rhythms of their faith are as ever-present as the river. I’m listening to these rhythms right now as I type. It’s one small way to try to keep these people with us.

Gee’s Benders keep the dead with them, too. If you pay attention, you see commemorations everywhere.

“For generations, their secret art – created in slavery, perfected in solitude – had kept them warm…”

“…now it promised to set them free.”

Until recently, most quilts in Gee’s Bend were made from old, worn work clothes. In Gee’s Bend, these are the clothes of everyday life. Mary Lee Bendolph still works with this worn cloth, feeling the spirit and “warmth of lovely people” in her hands.

Our last morning in Gee’s Bend, we crashed through brush with Mary Ann and her sister Julia to find the nearly forgotten tombstones of slaveowner Mark Pettway’s family.

When Pettway bought the plantation in Gee’s Bend, he brought his hundred slaves from North Carolina with him. He made them walk all the way, except for his cook. He wanted her to be “fresh” to cook his family’s meals.

Solomon, Mark Pettway’s son, died as an infant in 1850.

Even though Gee’s Bend is a small place, Mary Ann had never been here before.

Like the North Carolina slaves he brought with him, the slaves Pettway acquired with the Gee’s Bend plantation took his last name. More than half the residents in Gee’s Bend still have this name.

The old Big House, Pettway’s plantation house, has been knocked down now and is buried in brush.

But the memorial to his two daughters, both of whom died at age 24, nine or ten months after their marriage, in turn, to the same John E. Jones, still stands.

Which left me feeling like Ike McCaslin reading old ledgers in Part IV of The Bear.

In the (last) Depression, cotton prices plummeted from 40 cents a pound to a nickel. Gee’s Bend sharecroppers and tenant farmers relied on credit to buy seeds and supplies, and the main creditor across the river in Camden warehoused their cotton until prices would rise again.

But he didn’t keep proper records, and when he died, his wife sent henchmen across the river to go from cabin to cabin to take everything they could: “tools, wagons, plows, furniture, eggs, hogs, mules.” Then the armed men “wended like a funeral procession back to the river,” taking with them everything a farming community needed for its survival.

That winter Gee’s Bend survived on plums and wildberries. They killed squirrels with slingshots. Fished some.

At times in its history, Gee’s Bend – and the whole of Wilcox County – has been recorded as being the poorest community in the United States.

But Roosevelt’s New Deal came to the rescue. The farm administration bought the land in Gee’s Bend and “granted 100 families in Gee's Bend low-interest loans to buy modest farms and build new houses, with real glass windows and hardwood floors, the first some Benders ever set foot on.”

And these poor sharecroppers in Gee’s Bend became that rarest entity: black landowners in rural Alabama.

These “Roosevelt houses” are the predominant architectural feature in Gee’s Bend. Here’s young Julia running out from her own Roosevelt house to greet us.

In Gee’s Bend you can’t help looking out on scenes like this and reflecting bitterly on how for fifty years Friedmanian “trickle down” economics has been trying to tear all this down.

Maybe now, though, we can see more clearly where these economics have gotten us.

But even if I think bitterly of the ravages of “trickle down” economics, Debi and I don’t see a hint of bitterness anywhere in Gee’s Bend. We’ve never been in a community of more spontaneously kind and lovely people.

Given the history of Gee’s Bend – and even taking into account the community’s deep, genuine faith – we don’t have any idea of how to explain this.

We weren’t savvy enough at the time to spend enough time with this old pickup truck or with other piles of old farming implements on this farm. But it’s quite possible, we realize now, that this is actually an “assemblage,” a deliberate commemoration to the father who once farmed here. You see the pine shoot growing right through the floorbed of the truck. This is actually a common theme: how from old, apparently discarded things, new life can come.

And this is Allie Pettway, Gee’s Bend’s oldest quiltmaker.

And one of Allie’s quilts.

Tomorrow we’ll tell you about Mary Lee Bendolph. Your homework assignment is to read Moehringer’s essay on Mary Lee and Gee’s Bend. If you can find the time, we promise you that you won’t regret it.


On the road – Atlanta

So we’re off. Our journey has begun. And this time it’s not just a preliminary jaunt to British Columbia.

“Has it sunk in?” I asked Debi on the plane.

“No. Not really. How about with you?”

“A little bit. I imagine we’ll only realize it in fits and starts.”

The final weeks at home were such a whirlwind of activity that we’re still carrying some of that whirlwind as a personal weather around our heads. And how do you say goodbye to so many people you love? The night before our flight –- that is, the night before last -- a few friends stopped by to say goodbye and share a beer or glass of wine.

In the morning we couldn’t find Ana Maria anywhere. Her room was already locked up from the outside. She told us today by phone that she deliberately left her room early because she couldn’t bear to say goodbye. She watched us leave secretly instead – from a window across the street, as she cried.

There was sweetness and irony in saying goodbye to Nate and Caitlin at the airport. This time it was they who stayed and waved and waved until we rounded the last corner and passed out of sight. This time it was the parents who left a mess behind that their children would have to figure out what to do with.

“It’s like you guys are going off to college this time,” Caitlin said.

We’re in our friends’ Allison and David’s loft in Atlanta, not far from Ebenezer Baptist Church and the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We’re listening to Bill Evans as I type.

Tomorrow we drive to Gee’s Bend, Alabama, to stay with Mary Ann Pettway and to visit with her and other Gee’s Bend quilters.


“Disaster capitalism”

(For today, a voice quite different than what’s come before.)

You don't have to plot a disaster (although sometimes that comes in handy, too). You just have to be prepared to exploit it. When the moment comes of that glazed, traumatized look in the victim's eyes, your focus isn't on how to provide some compassionate relief – but rather what you see is the exact moment for pushing through your whole agenda.

At the heart of the problem is the fiction/idol of a "free market." My God, how successful that brainwashing has been. I can't think of one more successfully virulent. I suspect most people "believe" in it without even asking themselves what they're believing in. They think it's just another law of nature.

And since it's a law of nature -- not arrangements worked out by hardscrabble boys on a playground, not humanly composed at all -- there is no ethical dimension to it. And since it's not humanly composed, entities within it, like corporations, are just bounding billiard balls following laws of nature. And the one central law is profit, or greed. This isn't a humanly decided value; it's not something composed and inculcated into an institution -- and thus no one is responsible. Of course, your company profits (as much as possible) from a disaster. This isn't anyone's personal decision. It's a law of nature.

Step 1 is to assume that a company has no moral responsibility towards the commonwealth within which it is embedded and dependent.

Step 2 is to assume that the government doesn't either. That in fact it twins the corpocracy.

"Disaster capitalism" becomes more than piecemeal corporate greed when the government becomes its unifying focal engine. That is, when instead of protecting the commonwealth, it makes the most penetrating assaults upon the commonwealth itself, opening the body so that the smaller predators can have more intimate access to the flesh, organs, and marrow.