Coming back from the dead - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Coming back from the dead

Marsha Hunt's search for her ``phantom grandmother'' is a vivd tale of saving grace. Marianne Wiggins looks on

Repossessing Ernestine: The Search for a Lost Soul by Marsha Hunt HarperCollins, pounds 15.99

When Marsha Hunt wrote her autobiography, Real Life, in 1986, she didn't know what to call herself. In Europe, where she'd lived half her life, she had found she was described solely as an American, not as a black or an African- one. It was only when she was back home, in the States, among her fellow countrymen, that her identity was split by that discriminating hyphen. "My skin colour is oak with a hint of maple," she writes. "Of the various races I know I comprise - African, American Indian, German Jew and Irish - only the African was acknowledged...I was labelled `colored'."

Chafing against a definition that was skin-deep, she invented a word that she was comfortable with. "When I stumbled upon the French word melange, which means a mixture and also contains part of the word `melanin', dark pigment found in the skin, it hit me like fireworks. Melange. I am a Melangian." .

Now approaching 50, Marsha Hunt is still searching for a way to define herself, and - this being the decade when family has become the neo-conservative successor to the selfish habits of Eighties me-isms - she has gone in search of her roots. She auditions in front of us for a role in her real family's life.

Ernestine Martin was born on 15 August 1896, in an era when free blacks born in the American South were not issued with birth certificates which could document their ancestry or, for that matter, their existence. The first documentation of herself as a member of society fell to Ernestine in the US Census of 1906, where she is listed as a female mulatto. Although her mother's name and profession are listed, no details are given of her father.

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Ernestine was an intelligent, remarkably beautiful young woman who excelled in school and was greatly envied for her pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. Whether it was her intelligence or her beauty, or the combination, something about Ernestine captured the heart of one of her male teachers - and to the surprise of her fellow students upon graduating from high school she married a man 20 years her senior: Blair T. Hunt.

Blair Hunt, Marsha Hunt's paternal grandfather, was and is an icon in Memphis's black community. A son of slaves, a First World War veteran, he became Memphis's leading public school administrator.

Although she is mentioned as the mother of Marsha's own father, Blair T Hunt Jr, Ernestine's name does not appear among the eight Hunts in the index to Real Life, because - following the birth of three sons in rapid succession after her marriage at the age of 17 - she was made to disappear.

When Marsha Hunt met her grandfather shortly before he died in 1978, he was living a sedately seedy life in Memphis with his female companion of 60-odd years, and spoke obliquely about his "poor dear sick wife" whom he had had to "put away" many years ago. Marsha's own father had committed suicide, and her communication with his family was sporadic, at best. Ernestine she was told, had been sent to a state mental institution as a result of a violent psychosis - a hereditary illness, it was added - and, presumably, had died there.

It was Blair Hunt's insistence that the illness was "hereditary" that put the sting on the tale for Marsha, especially after she became a mother, herself, in 1970. Visiting her father's only surviving brother in Boston, Marsha couldn't resist opening the closet that held the skeleton. And as a result of saying that she wished she knew more about her phantom grandmother, the phone rang one day in 1991, and her cousin told her: "I met someone who says he saw Ernestine."

So begins the story of Marsha's repossession of her grandmother's dispossessed existence. "I was decades late," she writes, when she finally tracks down Ernestine at the age of 95, in a Memphis nursing-home where there is no soap and no loo paper in the single toilet shared by the residents. The story of how Hunt propels herself on to her grandmother's empty stage is one of almost superhuman persistence. Ernestine had had no contact with either family or friends for more than 60 years. "Her silence," Hunt writes, "had a density, like the constant hum of a furnace, and settled on everything like a layer of dust... she'd forgotten that talking was part of being."

The tiny, sweet husk of a woman that Hunt finds and falls in love with, contains not one symptom of psychosis. "Why had this happened to her?" Hunt keeps asking. What secret had the family hidden? Unfortunately - and it is a central failing of the book - that question remains unanswered.

Perhaps in the hands of a less irrepressible but more philosophical writer, the question of Ernestine's non-existence - as a black, as a woman, as a wife of a powerful man - would have served as the starting-point for a journey into the very nature of being. But that's not the book Hunt has written. There's an episode, late on, after Hunt has moved Ernestine to a nursing-home in (of all places) Folkestone, when Hunt asks Ernestine and her co-residents to describe something important that happened in their lives. When it comes to Ernestine, she says, "I got killed."

"I laughed," Hunt writes, "because I wasn't thinking. In fact it wasn't until I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about it that I understood the significance of what she had said. I wanted to cry, because of course she was right. Ernestine got killed."

But then - as if in a fairy-tale - a saving grace appeared and single- handedly did that age-old act that never fails to bring the house down. One time only. In a store near you. Marsha Hunt performs a miracle.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week