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Endesha Ida Mae Holland, 61; Writer's Life Inspired Students

January 30, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In 1965, a young Ida Mae Holland left Greenwood, Miss., her belongings packed in a borrowed suitcase, her shoulders weighted down with a terrible guilt.

Holland had been a prostitute until the civil rights movement came to town and transformed her into a foot soldier. She registered black people to vote, marched for equality, went to jail 13 times and earned the enmity of some of the town's white residents.

In retaliation, someone -- she always believed it was the Ku Klux Klan -- firebombed the family home, with Holland's mother, who used a wheelchair, trapped inside.

After her mother's funeral, a heartsick Holland left the South, but later she drew upon experiences there to write a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, "From the Mississippi Delta," and a similarly titled book that inspired audiences with themes of survival, transformation and remembrance.

Endesha Ida Mae Holland, who adopted her Swahili first name later in life, died Wednesday at a nursing facility in Los Angeles. She was 61. Friends said Holland, who suffered from ataxia, a genetic disorder, had also battled a virulent infection.

Robert R. Scales, former dean of the USC School of Theatre, a friend and executor of her estate, said Holland was "a stubborn, courageous, fearless, adventuresome, caring soul, who under any hardship found joy and pleasure in living."

Ultimately her life was a testament not only to perseverance but to the power and purpose of the story. Holland viewed stories as a redemptive tool, one that helped her move beyond her past and reach her goals.

Her message was clear: If I survived and achieved, so can you. It was a message she drove home to the small army of directors, writers and artists she mentored and to the students she taught at USC.

"She made us all feel that each one of us has a unique gift, and she dared us, challenged us, to go after that dream even though we were afraid," said Habibi Minnie Wilson, a friend who had been a clerk in a dead-end job and now holds a PhD thanks to the years-long mentoring of Holland.

Holland's gift of inspiration was a byproduct of her own pain.

In the years after her mother's death, Holland suffered, knowing that "Mama wouldn't have gotten burned up if it wasn't for me," she once told The Times.

In Minnesota, with the help of people in the civil rights movement, Holland tried to build a new life. She enrolled in the University of Minnesota and married. But she was burdened with guilt and memories and in need of mental health care.

"I didn't know how bad off I was," Holland said later. "All the trauma from the civil rights movement. It was like war. They let us all out without any treatment, without anything."

Though she was miles from Mississippi, the South -- the place and the perspective -- still had her in its grasp. It manifested itself in Holland as rage and hatred toward white people.

That rage might have lasted, but the source of her pain was also the source of her liberation. At the university she chanced upon an advanced playwriting class and began writing about her experiences in the South. It was there that she cried the tears for her mother that she had held inside for years.

One day a staged performance of her play drew a resounding ovation, and in that moment the bitterness and anger "evaporated into the air," she wrote in her memoir: "It was not that [Mama's] death didn't matter anymore, only that it now mattered to the world, not just to me. By freeing her of my grasp, I had finally freed myself."

Holland was born in Greenwood to an uneducated mother who picked cotton, took in ironing and worked as a maid for a white family; she was also a midwife to the town's black community. The family lived in poverty, but Holland's mother set high educational goals for her four children. Attaining that education was a way for Holland to be the victor, to make her mother proud.

On May 25, 1985, the day Holland graduated with a doctorate in American studies, black residents of Greenwood rented charter buses to Minnesota to cheer on the woman they all knew as "Cat." During the ceremony, when Holland was called to walk across the stage, the Greenwood contingent went wild, yelling: "Go on, Cat, walk that walk!"

"Somewhere in the hollering, I heard my Mama's voice: 'Step high, up yon'er wit de birds!' " she wrote in her memoir.

Holland helped found the African American studies program at the University of Minnesota. In the mid-'80s she joined the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she taught women's studies.

She saw her success as not hers alone but of people like her mother, who had never seen the inside of a university hall but made it possible for her to be there. She would live to see the South change in ways that neither they, nor she, could have imagined. In 2000 she was invited to speak at the University of Mississippi, where white students had rioted when James Meredith, the school's first black student, tried to enroll in 1962.

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