Exclusive Interview with Dr. Sybil Estess
Dr. Sybil Estess on Transiting from Poetry to Prose and her Upcoming Memoir, Mississippi Milkwater: Found and Lost in the Twentieth State: 1940s-50s
Dr. Sybil Pittman Estess was born and raised in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s before she left her hometown to study at Baylor University. This formative period is what makes up her memoir, Mississippi Milkwater: Found and Lost in the Twentieth State: 1940s-50s. A talented and accomplished poet, Writer’s Life asked Dr. Estess about her first narrative work, how her skills as a poet aided her during the drafting process, and what she would like readers to take away from her story.
Dr. Estess vulnerably opened up about the issue of endemic racism, what it looked like when she was a little girl, how it shaped her views, and when she came to realize the magnitude of the problem. Inspired by the recent movement, Dr. Estess is eager to share a snapshot of the period she grew up in, thus revealing the apartheid nature of its culture.
Writer's Life readers may be familiar with your work as a poet. What drew you to write this first narrative work?
The fact that I am seventy-seven years old and have fantasized writing this life story for twenty years, especially to help educate younger generations of the apartheid system of racism in the deep south of the US in the 1940s and 1950s. Now, at last, it is coming to light: the endemic racism that was built into the American system. I wish for my story to be a small part of it, to also chronicle how a lower middle-class white girl, who was bright and brought up in the best public schools of her small city, placed always in advanced classes, lived. I also very much wanted to incorporate into the end of the story the unsolved lynching in my very small town where we moved when I was ten years old. Not many remember the "Mack Charles Parker" lynching of April 1959.
Did you always want to write a memoir?
I have not always wanted to write a memoir, only this one -- for twenty years. I worked on it for six years.
What skills do you think transferred from writing poetry to this work?
This work is a memoir told in the third person, from a girl named Sam's life. My skills as a poet, a teacher, a worker with language for fifty years surely helped me. And I received much feedback from other writers.
Mississippi Milkwater provides a snapchat of the 1940s American South. What was it like to revisit your childhood in this book?
Often very warm and nostalgic. Those days are gone. Many were more carefree, in fact all, than, say, the life my forty-year-old son had growing up in Houston, TX. I could ride bikes all over the small city, or skate. I could not let my mother know where I was, until dark. I could take the public bus from age eight either uptown to the YMCA for swimming classes, alone, or I could take the same bus to the wonderful, huge library, which I did for a couple of years, from age eight to ten, alone, to check out a week's worth of books. I could walk with or without my best friends to my school. My mother and I could walk uptown to shop, to the grocery store, or anywhere in town to visit her friends.
There are few stories that I knew I wanted to include in the book that really depict what my childhood was like. When I was young, I stayed with my grandmother alone on a dirt path in the middle of Jasper County, 70 miles from my home. No running water or electricity, or bathroom, even an outhouse was too far away. The bathroom was a place on the ground.
I watched men, including my dad's brother, dig a well for a new house. They purposely put my dad's cousin who had untreated epilepsy into the hole and watched him have a grand mal seizure and laughed. I ran home to my grandmother Lola, age six, and she only said there was nothing she could do about it.
Then I watched her, from the ground, climb stairs to the ‘corn crib,’ where she kept dried corn to feed chickens. She encountered one of her many rattlesnakes, she was used to dealing with. Barefoot, in hot summer, in a feed-sack dress she had made, she picked up the snake, pinched its head off, and threw it out to me. I was usually terrified of most things there.
My grandmother did her washing with fire under a big black iron pot, every Monday. Barefoot, both she and I, were standing there while she stirred the pot with a stick (like a witch, I thought), and she stepped in hot coals with her right foot. She screamed for me to "git hep."
Terrified, I ran two miles down the dust road to her sister's house. They also did not have a telephone but they had a car (my grandmother only had a wagon, which she quit using when my grandfather died when I was three), but somehow they managed to call someone to come and get me, and got her to a hospital 30 miles away.
Her foot never healed, and she nearly got gangrene and had to have it removed. She hobbled the rest of her two-year life, dying of a stroke at age 52, a week after she had gotten electricity from the RDA (Rural Development Association).
I don't remember anything after that run to "Lottie's house." My parents came to get me, and we never talked about the incident at all: how I got the help, how scared I was.
When it came to recalling the lynching when I was sixteen, I re-read Howard Snead's book, “Blood Justice.” I did not know the perpetrators, but I knew most everyone else in the book. That part was extremely painful. Some of the persons are still alive whom I have seen in recent years. No one discusses the lynching at all in my hometown. I have some friends who are over eighty there who do not admit that it even happened.
Recently, the issue of racism has shifted to the forefront of the national dialogue as a result of police brutality. Can you describe what racism looked like when you were a girl growing up in Mississippi, and when you began to have a greater understanding of the magnitude of the issue?
The recent movement has affected me deeply and allowed me to reflect on my upbringing. I know persons who grew up on farms who had Black servants, even nannies, who do not feel as I do. (One was handed over to a black woman when she came out of the womb, and her mother could not even hold her.) This family had an illegitimate Black uncle (one of eleven children), born of an older Black woman in the country who lived on the grandfather's land, and given the first name of the white man.
My parents did not teach me to be racist, especially not my father. He owned a small business and several Black men worked for him in a gasoline filling station and a car repair shop. They liked me and I liked them. They never failed to ask how I was, and I felt close to them.
In my book I describe the friendship I had with a Black girl who used to help my mother with house chores since my mother stayed ill for a while after she had my sister. The girl and I played together in the back yard for several months.
In my small town, Black people lived "across the railroad tracks" and that area was totally different from the white area. It had no paved streets, the sewer ran openly down the sides of roads, and when they shopped at white stores, they had to use the back doors of the stores. The merchants kept those doors open for them.
I began to have a broader understanding of race when I went to Baylor University. A group of students invited an outstanding young minister from Houston, Rev. William Lawson (who pastored at the last of his functioning career, a very large church about four blocks from my Houston home). We were naive and had not realized that for the week there was no place for him to stay (motels would not take him in) nor anywhere to eat (restaurants in Waco, TX would not serve him). One of the students remarked to him, "Bill, when your four kids are grown, they can attend here. Things will be different." He answered, "All my four children are going to Harvard or Yale." They all did.
What would you like readers to take away from reading your book?
A vision of what white life was like for a middle to lower-class child in Mississippi during the 1940s and 50s. And an understanding, or more of it, of the apartheid nature of the culture.
Are you working on any other writing/poetry projects at the moment?
Yes, I have another poetry book being collected of around eighty poems - a few published, most are not. My future writing, I expect to be all poetry.
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Estess, her poetry, or her upcoming book, you can visit her website here. Mississippi Milkwater: Found and Lost in the Twentieth State: 1940s-50s will be available on September 15th, 2020.