In two weeks, I am heading down to Alabama for an NEH Civil Rights Landmark Workshop. I am incredibly excited about attending the workshop although I am slightly overwhelmed by the amount of reading I have to do. Part of the problem, I think, is that a couple of the books are waaaaay too academic. In the world of academia (college professors as authors) sometimes the message gets lost in the pretentiousness of the language. How annoying is that, right? When a great story on the Civil Rights Movement reads like a textbook. It's sad because the information that would be extremely valuable to the masses moves in a small, circle of people who already have access to the information. But that, alas, leads us to another discussion that I will save for later.
Today, I must discuss one of the books that I'm reading that is accessible and is, like Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, a life-changer. Apparently Howell Raines wrote this book--My Soul Is Rested--back in the 1970's and somehow I didn't know that it existed. I was, in every way that matters, completely and totally robbed. How could I not have known about this book? So I have completed the pages assigned to us, but I haven't been able to set the book aside, which certainly highlights the power of first-hand accounts.
Raines, a former New York Times editor, interviewed dozens of people involved in the Civil Rights Movement down in Alabama and Mississippi and then published their stories in a single oral history. How wonderful it is to hear the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer or John Lewis! Women and men who were ready to give their lives to the movement. Their words help me to form a more complete picture of the movement and I am, truly, humbled.
If I wrote for the rest of my life in both poetry and prose, in fiction and in truth, I could never capture how deeply I am affected by those people who looked into the eyes of a domestic enemy and somehow found the courage to rise up in battle. Black men disappeared for registering to vote, but still others followed. Homes were bombed to frighten people away from education and economics, but still people sought to change a segregated America. When I think of how many public facilities were built with taxes that black people paid even as they were denied the rights of full citizens, I am humbled by the warriors who rose from that discrimination without hatred.
I am caught up in My Soul Is Rested because each story is one of strength and perseverance and triumph. Not every battle was won but, my, how soldiers were forged. I read that in Leflore County, down in Mississippi, there was one registered black voter but no one could find him. Can you imagine how terrifying it had to be to live in a time where death came for such insignificant reasons? Just sympathizing with those who demanded equality brought a death sentence. And we have the audacity to take our rights for granted!
How did any of them withstand it? Black people who were denied an education past the 6th grade, an education that only prepared them to clean other people's homes. Filing into separate schools and drinking from different fountains as if they were subhuman. I can't imagine investing thousands of dollars into stores that won't let you try on clothes and refuse to feed you at lunch counters. No wonder so many children wore handmade clothes, no wonder my siblings and I did. I can't imagine what if must have been like for women like my mother and men like my father to suffer these indignities every single day and still try to raise their children to be unapologetically Black.
As I read My Soul Is Rested, the desire to do more burns so strongly inside me that I struggle to breathe. This leads me back to Alice Walker's essay. For years, our mothers (our ancestors) were denied the opportunity to flourish. They were denied possibilities and you can hear it inside every story that Raines published. Millions of black people were robbed of the chance to become and that tragedy is one that can never be rectified. Pioneers like Ella Baker, James Meredith, Vivian Malone set the stage so that my generation and generations following mine can become, can flourish, can be all that America said they would never be.
But each civil rights activist from SCLC to SNCC, every determined student, every Freedom Rider, every rebel Reverend, every Black Panther proved that even though they were ordinary people, they were gifted with extraordinary powers. They changed America and no matter how often or in how many ways we tell their story, we can never do any of their stories justice. But, by GOD, we better try!