Finding a Way to Pay Tribute

How do you try to atone in a situation where atonement can’t truly be made? After years of asking himself that question, PRUMC member Jeff Upshaw decided to tell a story. And that story, which also dramatizes some of the painful history at the core of our racial conversations today, became a book he recently published. In September we spoke with him about his novel, Twelve Days in Sunset, and the events in his life that compelled him to tell the story.

His internal struggle began with a funeral. “On September 11, 2000,” Jeff remembers, “I went to the funeral of a dear friend, Willie Bell Ford.” She had been, as he later detailed, a fixture in his family for decades. “Willie Bell’s funeral was in Mississippi, in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny Black church that you could say was about as far as you could be from Peachtree Road United Methodist and still be in a Christian place. It was wonderful and also foreign to me in just about every way. At one point, the minister invited the congregation to come up and express their feelings for Willie Bell. A lot of people did. I wanted to, but I didn’t. Because I was uncomfortable. Out of my element. I just sat there.”

Regret ate at him for years. Willie Bell had worked for his grandparents and been a part of his father’s life as well as Jeff’s childhood visits to his grandparents’ home in the Mississippi Delta. She had helped his grandparents manage their farm, managed their home, cared for them as they aged and been present at their deaths. His failure to publicly acknowledge her importance was an ongoing guilt. “How could I make up for that?” he asks. “I thought about all kinds of things, but none of them seemed right. It was eight years before the concept of writing a book coalesced in my mind. This book, for me, became a love letter to her.”

The journey from that conclusion to writing a fictional story, however, was not straight, and it was long. “I thought about an article, a memoir, a biography, a series of short stories,” he says. The decision to write a novel was based on “my coming to grips with the fact that as much as I loved this lady, I didn’t know her. There was distance between us, and I didn’t feel adequate. So I decided to write a novel and include a character inspired by Willie Bell who would carry my feelings about who she was and how she talked, what her sense of humor was and her moral code and her mannerisms.”

His novel is based on the point of view of a 12-year-old boy visiting his grandparents in a small Mississippi town in the summer of 1967, a story with a raw accounting of some of the best and worst in people of that time and place. The characters and events are fictional, he says, but represent truths he saw. “Someone once told me that you write what you know, and generally speaking, you do. I drew on things that I had seen and experienced to write this book, but the novel’s story is not true.”

He notes that it may seem strange for some that the Willie Bell-based character is not the narrator of this story. “She’s not the lead character, but that would be very typical of Willie Bell. Instead, this character leads from behind. I’ve never met anybody in my life who was a better example of leading from behind than Willie Bell.”

Willie Bell’s actual story, he says, seems almost mythological to him now. “She moved from the hill country of Mississippi to my grandparents’ small town when she was 14. Her family share-cropped on my grandfather’s farm. She was very smart, and she had charisma. It’s a painful truth that unlike many of her community at that time, she could read and write. My grandfather recognized all of that and put her in charge of assigning his farm workers which rows to work. She quickly became an authority figure. Then a few years later, she married my grandfather’s right-hand man. Then she became involved in the little company that was the business side of the farm, and she was put in charge of payroll. Then she began running my grandparents’ house. It wasn’t a big Southern mansion or anything, just a modest, one-story farmhouse. But she ran the kitchen, ordered the food, kept things running.

“She was intimately involved with the family and nursed my grandmother all the way through her death. When my grandfather wanted a last trip to New Orleans before he died, Willie Bell went with him. There were no secrets from her. After my grandfather died, my relationship with Willie Bell blossomed. We talked on the phone multiple times a year. She came to Atlanta to see my daughter’s Christmas pageant. I’m rambling, but the depth of that relationship is hard to describe straightforwardly.”

On being asked whether this is a story he feels comfortable to tell now, given the hard conversations we are having with respect to racial history and justice in the United States, he answers reflectively. “I’ve thought about that quite a bit. I have come to grips with everything you’re saying. The story of the book is not soft-pedaling life at that time. It’s not an overly romanticized view of what it was like, especially for African-Americans in that place at that time. But how accurate am I? I’m as accurate as the point of view of a 12-year-old boy from outside that place can be. I do not editorialize in this book. I don’t talk about what should be. I just talk about what a 12-year-old boy saw and thought.

“If someone reads that and is offended by what that boy saw, I accept that. I understand that people may be offended by what he saw and thought, and by the behavior of some of the people in that community. The evil of some and the redemptive quality of others. It’s one reason that I told the story from his point of view. If I tried to write it from the perspective of an adult looking back, it would have been radically different. It would have been a sermon, a lecture. I’ll let the reader look at that and make their own judgment about what’s good and what’s not. The moment you publish a book, it’s no longer yours, someone once told me. It now belongs to the reader, and they can do anything they want.”

With this book, does he feel he has atoned? “I don’t think so,” he responds, “and I’m ok with that. I don’t ever want to feel like I get too far away from that regret. The book does not replace my regret over not telling Willie Bell how I felt about her. It does not. I’m glad I wrote it, but it doesn’t replace that.

“There was a comment on the book, maybe it was on Facebook, from one of the people I most respect here at PRUMC, Gloria Woodard. She’s got a social conscience that is remarkable. She said, and I haven’t forgotten this, ‘This is a story about a strong black woman teaching a young white boy how to be a man, and doing it with love and discipline.’ I had worried so much about how an African-American would react to this story. How would Willie Bell have reacted? So when Gloria put it that way, it was just like a burden was lifted. If that was what she took out of this book, then I’m a happy man.”

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Jeff Upshaw, 64, is married to Ann and has two children, Jeff and Jennifer, and five grandchildren. Jeff and Ann have been members of PRUMC and the New Beginnings Sunday School class for over 30 years.

Twelve Days in Sunset, by Jeff. D. Upshaw, is available here on Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff;
    Lanie told me about hearing you wrote this book, and I was very pleased to be able to see and read about it when I went to see what Tamara Witt had written and published about my memoir. Great story!

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