Her name is Almetter but people call her Tot, Miss Tot, or Tee Tot. Her brothers called her Lonnie. She also has a succession of surnames, McKinny, Lofton, Cole, the last two being the names of husbands, a subject on which she is vague. Miss Tot is not versed in matters of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but she has an inborn sense of her right to privacy. She did allow that the latter husband “got the hot feet.” If she once harbored hard feelings about this departure, she doesn’t now.
She keeps a photograph of him, hanging high on the wall up near the ceiling. You have to climb on a chair to look at him. He was good-looking and slight – a bantamweight – which suggests he probably was quick and light on his feet. In the photograph, he stands in a jaunty pose leaning against a fine, shiny car.
Tot herself is small and agile. Tot is 74. She does not look her age. It’s not so much that she looks fifteen or twenty years younger than her real age but that she looks ageless. This does not mean she has led a life of leisure or that she has not been sick or near the point of death.
She was born and raised in the Hills, the rolling, wooded section of Mississippi to the east of the Delta. She came here in 1951, with her two boys but without Evert Lofton, her first husband. She lives in a tenant’s shack at the bend of a gravel road that snakes west from Highway 61 off toward the backwaters of the Mississippi. Her house is in Tunica County, in the north Delta. Tunica County is a case of poverty raised to a higher power. In the poorest region of the country it is the poorest county. Roughly 7,000 people live in the county – the population continues to dwindle – 80 percent of them black. The white minority of Tunica County is particularly defensive on the subject of poverty.
There are fewer and fewer shacks like Tot’s lining Delta roads. With the mass migration of rural blacks from the South to the urban centers of the North, which began during World War I, their abodes, hardly built for the ages, have fallen down, been enveloped by vines, razed, or burned. Scattered around the Delta you can see squarish piles of rubble and blackened earth that have an eerie resemblance to scorch marks left by the rockets of departed spaceships.
Tot lives here with her bachelor son, whose name is William Henry but who goes by Jim or Jim Tot. Her other son lives with his family in Texas. The house and yard are tidy and decorative, though its flourishes – like the plastic pelican in the front yard – and the accretion of items of potential value are outlandish and cluttered by the standard of suburban America. In the back is a hen house, a bin for collecting aluminum cans (the earnings go to support her church), a woodpile, a shed, an old Thunderbird rusting next to a now-vacant sky-blue shotgun house, and Tot’s vegetable garden fortified from the chickens by a crude fence.
This island of domesticity sits in a sea of cultivation. The field to the east has just been leveled and compacted for the cultivation of rice. It is so flat and packed that it looks like a parking lot. No trees obstruct the view. You can sit on her porch and watch toy-sized cars and trucks plying Highway 61 a half-mile away.
This shack is the center of Tot’s universe. She knows the site of every pecan tree in a five-mile radius, the nuts of which she collects in the fall to sell. Her church, which she organized and maintains, is a quarter-mile up the road. She is a Samaritan, caring for the sick and afflicted in the vicinity. News consists of local events – the Mexican migrant worker stabbed by a black fellow; the couple asphyxiated by a leaky gas stove – and she is a proficient bearer of the news she deems important. On the other hand, she has no opinion on the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court because she has never heard of him. The most important vote she casts is for road commissioner because that is the person who keeps her gravel road in passable condition. Though she is a beneficiary of the achievements of civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer, who was born and died about forty miles away, Tot does not recognize the name. “Was she a church lady?” she wondered.
The only document she seems capable or interested in reading is the Bible. There is a Bible on the dash of her car. Bibles lie open on several of the beds in her house. A Bible sits on the window sill behind the dilapidated couch on her screened-in porch.
This is one chapter from a project funded by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University to support collaboration between writers and photographers. The grant, entitled the Dorothea Lange – Paul Taylor Prize, was awarded to me and photographer Keith Carter in 1990. I will post other chapters from time to time. And I recommend http://www.keithcarterphotographs.com/home.html to see Keith’s work. He is a wonderful photographer.