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With her exotic African-American and Cherokee lineage, her passions and prejudices, and the vivid, lurid tales she told her children at bedtime, Maggie Connolly was a fiery soul. It’s no wonder she could give spice to the most elemental food. In Maggie’s pot even a stewing raccoon smelled delicious, recalls her grandson, the actor James Earl Jones. And the white beans she cooked on top of the wood burning stove in her Northern Michigan farmhouse were so gratifying they prompted the young Jones, who was raised with the large Connolly brood, to say that he “probably loved them more than a wife.”
To his grandparents and 10 older aunts and uncles, the fact that the boy uttered anything at all may well have been as unexpected as what he’d said. James Earl, the boy who would grow up to lend his voice to Star Wars’ Darth Vader, to the Lion King’s Mufasa and whose power of expression would shape an acting career that has spanned Broadway to Hollywood and characters as diverse as the boxer Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope, King Lear and the author Terence Mann in the Field of Dreams, was a silent child. Jones hadn’t talked, really talked, since he was 5, except to call in the animals or answer family members. That was the year his grandfather, John Henry Connolly, sold his homestead in Arkabutla, Mississippi, to move his family to Michigan, where he’d heard African-American children could get a decent education. Jones’s mother, Ruth, didn’t come, and the move was so emotionally stressful to the child that he began to stutter, and eventually lapsed into almost complete silence. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the big family took note of his brief ode to beans and would tease him with the words “Wifey is on the stove,” when beans were for supper.
It was not, however, something Maggie cooked, but rather the grapefruit a teenaged Jones ate in her kitchen that he now sees as a catalyst to his rich career. In the winter of 1945 and ’46 the government sent surplus grapefruit north to help rural families stave off rickets. It was either John Henry Connolly or one of the older uncles who picked up a load of grapefruit at the train station and brought it back to the family farm in the tiny Manistee County hamlet of Dublin. Jones ate his grapefruit halved, scooped out with a spoon, and most likely sprinkled with sugar, though he says it didn’t need it. The sweet citrus smell that spoke of Southern warmth and sunlight mingled with the onion and woodsmoke scent of the small farmhouse. Jones was so moved he wrote a poem about it. Although he only recalls the last line—“and my belly full of grapefruit”—he remembers well that he set the poem to the same meter as Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, which Longfellow had based on the meter of the epic Finnish poem the Kalevala.
Jones had learned the poems from Donald Emerson Crouch, his English teacher at the Dickson Rural Agricultural Consolidated High School he attended 13 miles from his home in the town of Brethren. The two-story, cinnamon-colored brick schoolhouse was the heart of a community woven from European immigrants, Native Americans, African-Americans and, like Crouch, Mennonite Brethren. Disparate as their backgrounds were, most of the families who lived in Brethren and its surrounding towns, which included Dublin and Wellston, wound up in this lumbered-over, sandy landscape because they’d been duped. The Native Americans had seen their traditional hunting and gathering grounds give way to small allotments through a long history of broken promises and questionable treaties. The other ethnic and religious folk were lured by dishonest real estate agents looking to sell off the lumbered-over wasteland that covered Manistee County in the early 1900’s. In John Henry Connolly’s case, the lie was that he’d be buying fertile soil in a suburb of Grand Rapids.