Looking South, Toward Home
updated 12/02/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 12/02/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST
It was Greenwood days of a very different sort that Holland, 47, drew on to achieve her remarkable success. The daughter of the local midwife, Holland was raped at age 11 by a white man, cruised the streets as a hooker at 13 and at 21 saw her mother die when the family's shotgun house was fire-bombed, apparently by racists. Almost unbelievably, from those beginnings Holland went on to earn a Ph.D. in American studies and write an autobiographical drama, From the Mississippi Delta, which opened off-Broadway last month to admiring reviews. The play, during its development, even caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey, who signed on as a coproducer. "To me, this play is a celebration of all the names that never made the history books," Winfrey says.
Growing up in segregated Greenwood, Holland never knew her father, "though there were three men who would come by and say they were my daddy," she says. "My Easter daddy, my Christmas daddy and my Thanksgiving daddy." In her own profession, her mother was so respected that locals called her "the second doctor." Ida Mae accompanied her on calls. "I was queen of the block because I could explain where babies came from," she says.
At 11, Holland was caring for a white toddler one day when the child's mother led Ida Mae into her husband's bedroom and left her to be raped. "It happened to a lot of girls," says Holland. "There was a saying that a white man didn't want to die unless he'd had a black girl."
That being the case, Holland knew enough to charge whites twice what she charged blacks when she quit school and took up prostitution. Turning tricks helped pay the rent for her mother and three siblings, she says, "and I felt good because I could go out and buy me a dress. I guess I wanted to be somebody, but I didn't know how."
In 1962 Holland pursued a stranger down the street, hoping to turn a trick, and ended up following him to an office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the civil rights organization. It impressed her to see black women working at typewriters, and she began volunteering at the office. "I felt a sense of pride from that very day," she says. "I remember getting up the next morning and hurrying down to Freedom House, not taking time to walk my usual walk—because I walked real sassy deliberately."
Holland married a local man in 1963 and spent the next three years crisscrossing the country for the civil rights movement, earning $14 a week. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and was jailed 13 times. Her mother disapproved. Says Holland: "She was scared"—with good reason. One day in 1965 Ida Mae returned home to discover her mother's house on fire. She watched in horror as her mother's flaming figure staggered out the front door and collapsed. "Neighbors saw who did it but were afraid to say," says Holland. "I think the firebomb was meant for me."
Too heartsick to remain in Greenwood, Holland headed for Minnesota, where she had friends from the movement. (She left her son, Cedric, 4, with relatives temporarily, and she and her husband divorced the next year.) She had completed her high school equivalency degree, and she found work in a department store. Three months later she was accepted at the University of Minnesota.
Holland was at the threshold of a new world. In college, in addition to marrying and then getting divorced from one of her professors, she helped start an African-American studies department and founded a prison-aid program called Women Helping Offenders. WHO eventually paid her a salary and took up so much of her time that she didn't finish college until 1979. She began writing that same year, almost by mistake. Looking for an easy credit to complete her degree. she blundered into a play writing seminar. "I was scared," she recalls. "But I wrote Second Doctor Lady, about my mother. After I read my play in class, everyone was weeping."
Second Doctor Lady was eventually expanded into From the Mississippi Delta. Meanwhile Holland began work on her Ph.D. When she finally completed it, in 1985, she made sure all the street people she had met in her travels were invited to graduation. "The whores and pimps and junkies were there, she says. "When they called my name, the entire auditorium rose to its feet."
A professor of women's studies at the University of Buffalo for the past six years, Holland is a popular teacher whose courses are oversubscribed. "She creates an electric atmosphere in the classroom," says Prof. Elizabeth Kennedy, chair of Holland's department. Married and divorced a third time in the late 1970s, Holland lives with Cedric, now 30 and in college, in a large Victorian house near campus. On sabbatical this year to pursue her theater work, she is eager to get back to the classroom. "I love sharing my stories with my students and hearing theirs," Holland says. "I tell them about me and let them know that no mailer what barriers are put in their way, they can make it."
TOBY KAHN in New York City