“[Georgia] had married an older man when she was just thirteen and later married James Edwards ‘in a cotton field.’ We had a terrible time getting her record straight so that she would be able to get Social Security after James died. We finally traced her birth record and established that but could find no record anywhere that she was legally married to James, even though she was sure in her own mind that she was, saying that the preacher took the piece of paper to town (though she wasn’t sure which town) to record it. She was upset because she didn’t want anyone to think she had been living in sin.
“Russell went to towns where she thought it might have been recorded and searched court house records but to no avail. We knew James had cancer and that if he died she might not get anything. Russell had already helped her get on welfare and become eligible for food stamps. We finally told her that since she could not prove she had been married to James, the only thing they could do would be to let Reverend Valentine, their preacher, marry them. James balked and said he would not do this, but after much persuasion he did finally agree, and Reverend Valentine went to the house and married them. Before they could get married, however, they had to have a blood test, and James balked on that too. So Russell and Georgia tricked him by taking him to the Health Department and not telling him that was what they were taking the blood for.
“Sometime around 1970 James died, and we were asked to go to Stanley’s Department Store and buy white gloves for him to be buried in. We went to Fred’s and bought a plastic spray of flowers for the grave. After ‘leaving him out’ for a few days, which was their custom, the day of the funeral arrived, one of the hottest days of the summer. We went to their little church out in the area where they lived. We were the only white folks there. James’ sister and his children by a former wife were there. Georgia looked like she could have killed them because they had not paid him any mind and were crying and moaning and carrying on at the funeral.
“The open casket was at the front of the church. It was sometimes hard to understand what Reverend Valentine was saying with the noise being made by the family. Russell nudged me and said, ‘Reverend Valentine just asked you to get up and give a eulogy.’ I nearly panicked because James had not lived the most Christian life, and since I was the first one called on I did not know what was expected. I stood and very quickly got out the words, ‘James was a fine person. We will miss him.’ Then I asked the Lord’s forgiveness for being so hypocritical. All I could think of was Georgia saying if his girl friend came around she was going to get a gun or a knife after her.”
This would be sad if it wasn’t so funny. Or funny if it wasn’t so sad. In the Mississippi Delta, there are two very distinct and different cultures which glide alongside each other, overlapping in more spots now than was historically the case, but still separate and often strange, each to the other. And the courts and the social scientists can prod and push and coerce and demand all they like, but those two cultures are simply never going to merge when it comes to such essential issues as birth, death and proper behavior on Sunday morning at 11 o’clock. And that’s just fine, because no one who lives it is the least bit bothered by it. It’s choice and comfort zones, not discrimination or racism, for goodness’ sake.
Black funerals are a cultural phenomenon, one that is much more familiar to most whites now than they were when Russell and Sara slipped into Reverend Valentine’s church to pay their last respects to James Edwards. It would have been considered a high honor to be asked to come and of course they wouldn’t have dreamed of saying “no.” But Sara never saw that eulogy request coming. She barely tolerated James and his shenanigans, because he kept Georgia upset and aggravated. And Russell’s trek around the state, looking for a scrap of legalese that likely never existed, was a true pilgrimage undertaken for a woman he cherished. That, and the indisputable fact that he would be Georgia’s sole financial support if he couldn’t get her married before James faded away. If he had had any hair by that time, he would have been pulling it out as he wandered through courthouses and cajoled two old souls and pleaded with the inimitable Reverend Valentine to make it all work. I remember Georgia huffing and puffing, mumbling under her breath, “We’s married, we done been married all this time, little ol’ piece of paper don’t mean nothin’.” And who’s to say she wasn’t right? In the end, it all worked out for the best, but Sara never went to a black funeral after that without at least the bare bones of a potential eulogy in her mind.