The writing of Arthenia Bates Millican opens a window to a world that is hidden from many, unless you were alive in the southern United States in the mid-twentieth century, and even then, you may not have experienced it. The lives of “Black folk” were the subjects of her creative, yet authentic pen, as she faithfully transcribed into fiction the unique stories that she observed and heard among some of her friends, relatives, and neighbors. Raised in a family that valued education and standing in the community, as she grew into adulthood, Dr. Millican found that listening to, and learning about, the values, work, and passions of the laboring classes revealed a stronger fabric of community and spirit than perhaps some had realized. For many first-time readers of her work, the voices of the people may initially appear quaint, perhaps even unintelligible, but the earnestness and fragility of their everyday circumstance is unmistakable. You are drawn in, you hear the click of knives chopping vegetables, you smell wood smoke, feel the sweat of a dusty walk to town in the heat of a summer day, hear the swish-swish softness of taffeta as your neighbor settles into the adjacent pew at church. And the most troubling of circumstances can be ringed with a wry observation amid laughter in spite of heartbreak.
These are happenings that all but the most jaded can feel, and to which most can relate at least on some level. The value that Dr. Millican placed on the black experience is one of authentic realism, and few capture it with the deft selection of words that she has. She has been compared, rightly, to Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Thomas Hardy, in the way each has given a microphone to voices of the everyday experience of folk who may be forgotten in the faster, more urban places of civilization. Dr. Millican knew and recognized that these experiences are a vital part of our human language and understanding, and to ignore them would be a grave injustice – not only to them, but to us. Her stories cut right to the heart of what it is to be a part of a family, a neighborhood, a village. Her characters care about one another even when they are at odds; they pierce directly to the point without artifice or “beating around the bush.” Life is short and precious; people can be mean or sordid, but that doesn’t make them worthless; beliefs can be hard to bear but sometimes they are the “warp and woof” of a community, the very thing that brings people together, in spirit and reality.
The latest collection of stories published by Propertius Press is The Bottoms and Hills: Virginia Tales, by Arthenia Bates Millican, to be released on the occasion of the author’s 99th birthday, June 1, 2019. We are proud to be a part of this project, in conjunction with the Arthenia J. Bates Millican Literary Foundation. Pre-order your copy today at http://bit.ly/virginiatales and check the Facebook page frequently for updates at https://www.facebook.com/thevirginiatales/.