Coming back from the dead

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