Mary Othella Burnette is a bridge between two worlds — “an elderly member of a vanishing society,” she writes in her debut memoir, Lige of the Black Walnut Tree: Growing Up Black in Southern Appalachia, which she self-published in August 2020.
Born in Black Mountain in 1931, the 90-year-old author says she is blessed with a vivid memory and a knack for storytelling. Throughout her youth, “there were no TVs, no phones — people entertained each other by talking,” she explains. This oral tradition ingrained in her a deep appreciation for crafting compelling narratives. But oral history, Burnette notes, can be elusive. Self-censorship, especially during the Jim Crow era, influenced the types of stories people of color shared.
“Living concurrently under both vindictive racial oppression and within the buffered protection of a close-knit community … had taught my fore parents that a seemingly innocent word caught by the wrong ear and twisted by a malicious tongue could cause serious racial trouble, and that saying something negative about a neighbor could lead to unfavorable circumstances,” she writes in the early pages of her memoir.
Another “universal weakness” of the practice, the author notes, is life’s impermanence and death’s eternal grip: “Whatever is not written down is eventually forgotten and taken to the grave.”
By skin color, age and sex
These were among the reasons Burnette penned Lige of the Black Walnut Tree. But it was her paternal grandmother’s history that originally propelled the project.
Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden was born into slavery in 1858 in the North Fork/Black Mountain area. Living nearly a century, she died two years shy of her 100th birthday in 1956. A midwife and herbalist, Hayden told many stories to Burnette, including the time she heard the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud outside her slave dwelling around 1863.
In 2008, Burnette casually shared some of her grandmother’s accounts with her longtime physician. The doctor looked up at the then 77-year-old retired educator and said, “Do you realize how incredible it is to meet someone who has actually known a slave?”
Of course, slavery, notes Burnette, creates the greatest barrier for Black Americans attempting to research their lineage. “We don’t even know what part of Africa we come from,” she says of her family. “And for two centuries, our people were not allowed to read and write. That’s held us back tremendously.”
Meanwhile, in her memoir, Burnette discusses the additional challenges of researching enslaved relatives, including the difficulties associated with tracing last names, which were often changed when an enslaved person was sold.
Furthermore, she notes how many of the available slave tax records did not include names. “They list bondsmen, bondswomen and their children as they did the farm animals, by skin color, age and sex,” Burnette writes.
Lige of the Black Walnut Tree also offers readers insight into the insidious nature of white supremacy culture within the Black community itself.
“I was growing up in a community wherein Black people … striving to escape their visual kinship to Africa, tried to adopt a style of dressing that came from Europe, and at the same time, clung to a way of cooking, socializing and talking that was solely ours,” she writes. “We got used to scornful expressions of ‘Comin’ in here wid your nappy head, looking like a African,’ and ‘Comin’ in here trying to act white on me.’”
“It was like a dual culture,” Burnette says, reflecting on the passage. “We had to learn to exist in both to survive.”
Yet not all residents abided by these unwritten rules and expectations. In one of the book’s most powerful chapters, Burnette writes about a former neighbor known as Miss Emmaline, a laundry woman who resisted the cultural demands of the Jim Crow South. Embracing her African heritage, both in fashion and in practice, Miss Emmaline is remembered by Burnette for her sense of self-worth and tendency to carry laundry baskets atop her head as she walked through town.
“One of the last bits of graceful Africanness left in our village, Miss Emmaline was my only symbol of the goodness, the greatness left behind when our fore parents were torn from the shores of West Africa, driven aboard waiting slave ships and stored in tight quarters, sailing to slave markets in the Americas and Europe,” Burnette writes.
“To me, Miss Emmaline was the proud symbol of the past we heard nothing about at school,” the author later adds, “the past too many Black people of my childhood would rather not be reminded of at all.”
Fostering a deeper understanding of Black history and Black lives, says Burnette, was a major motivation for writing Lige of the Black Walnut Tree.
“I want people to see how intelligent freed slaves were,” she says. “Nobody would think of a slave as being intelligent. But they were. They were very intelligent and community-minded people.”
The work also serves to document her family stories. The “Lige” of the memoir’s title refers to her second cousin Elijah; though Burnette never met him, she grew up playing under the black walnut tree that grew on Elijah’s family’s property. Now living in Michigan, she still visits the site when she comes home.
Like the country’s broader past, Burnette’s personal history is riddled with obstacles and injustices, as well as individual triumphs and moments of joy.
One of the most memorable figures in the collection is the author’s father, Garland Alfred Andrew Burnette. Like Miss Emmaline, Garland Burnette is unabashedly proud of his African roots. Self-respect and self-reliance were traits he instilled in his youngest daughter.
“My father was 50 years old when I was born,” the author explains. “He knew he wouldn’t always be there to protect me, so he wanted to make sure I was a strong child.”
And though he only had a third grade education, Burnette continues, her father could explain anything to her, including the racial hostilities that dictated social norms in the Jim Crow South.
“But it was always explained with hope,” Burnette says. “When he spoke about this country to me as a young child, he might say something like: ‘This country has laws that aren’t being lived up to, but they’re good laws, and one day this country will stand up and uphold those laws.’
“That was something we always heard growing up,” she continues. “There was no bitterness or hatred in our hearts. [My father] would just say, ‘Be ready for that time when it comes.’”