In 1964, for my senior English class, I wrote a short story called “Created Equal.” More than 50 years later, I still have the original (slightly yellowed) handwritten copy, complete with an A grade and the comments “Excellent” and “Powerful theme.” The story is written in the third person omniscient point of view about an African-American family forced out of their home because of white protests and the family’s struggle to find another home.
By choosing that topic, I violated one of the fundamental principles of writing: write what you know (or research thoroughly so you learn to know). I didn’t have any personal experience with the topic, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any research. At the time, I was living in a lily-white neighborhood, attending a white school and church, did not personally know any African Americans, and just two years earlier had returned from living in racially segregated colonial Africa (albeit on mission stations surrounded by black people). What in the world motivated me to write such a story in the first place, and what made me think I could do it with any integrity?
To answer that, I think you have to put my story in context. We did not have a television in our home, but we did listen to the radio and my parents subscribed to Time magazine, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Man of the Year for 1963 and appeared on the cover on January 3, 1964. My social studies class during my senior year in high school was called “Problems of Democracy,” and while I don’t remember much of anything from that class, we probably discussed current events, and 1963 and 1964 were tumultuous years in the civil rights movement. For example: April 1963, King was arrested during protests in Birmingham and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; June 1963, Medger Evers was murdered; August 1963, March on Washington; September 1963, four young black girls were killed when a church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. I’m thinking all that was in my mind when I chose the topic for my story.
I am impressed in retrospect that I cared enough about racial injustice when I was 16 to write about it, but I wish I had been able to write out of some base of knowledge gleaned from what people like Drew Hart call “those on the margins.” My church just finished a month-long series on racial reconciliation, using Drew’s book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, as a resource. (Drew is an African American assistant professor of theology at Messiah College.) In the final chapter of the book, Drew lists seven “Jesus-shaped practices for the antiracist church.” The third item on his list is to “see the world from below,” which includes his suggestion “that Christians from dominant culture change their reading habits so that those on the margins become the main stage.”
When I was 16, “those on the margins” were definitely not the main stage of my reading habits. In the years since, my reading habits have broadened, and I have enjoyed reading books by non-white authors, including African Americans and writers from other countries, especially Africa. Two of those authors, whose memoirs I read recently, are John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, and Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of writing at Columbia University.
John Lewis’ three-part graphic memoir of his leadership in the civil rights movement, March (co-written by Andrew Aydin, Lewis’ communications director, and illustrated by Nate Powell), taught me so much more about the events that must have inspired and shaped my short story than I ever knew at the time. I already had a great deal of respect for Lewis based on his current role as a congressman from Georgia; reading these books increased my esteem for him. He is often referred to as a “civil rights icon,” and his three-part memoir firmly establishes why that label is not an exaggeration.
He is the only surviving member of the “Big Six,” the heads of six prominent civil rights organizations who collaborated on many of the big events of the 1960s and fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the other five were Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young). He writes honestly about the conflicts between the leaders and their organizations regarding the methodology and philosophy of the movement despite their common goals. Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides, marches, and numerous sit-ins and protests to desegregate restaurants and other establishments and to secure voting rights for African Americans in the south. He is the only surviving speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was arrested more than 40 times, jailed repeatedly, and beaten viciously (fractured skull) by white police in Selma on Bloody Sunday in March 1965. Despite all that, he maintained an unwavering commitment to nonviolence as the instrument of change.
The three parts of March describe how and why Lewis joined the civil rights movement, and then cover his participation in and leadership of the movement until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Interspersed throughout the three books are flash-forwards to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president on January 20, 2009, a continual reminder of what a seminal event that was in black history in the United States. Near the end of Book 3, before the account of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Lewis describes meeting Obama after the inauguration and receiving an autographed copy of the inauguration program on which Obama wrote, “Because of you, John.” (Tears ran down my cheeks as I read that, by the way.)
Most people who came of age where and when I did remember the tumult of the 1960s – not just the civil rights movement but also the Vietnam War. I often characterize myself as a child of the 60s, explaining some of my current bent toward activism and social justice as having been honed during those years. The news was full of protests, and you had to have been living under a rock not to be at least somewhat aware of what was going on. I suspect, however, that a steady diet of news about civil rights protests ended up distorting my views of black America. While I commend myself for having lamented in my story that “[u]ntil things were better, Rosie and Caleb [the mother and father in the story] would have to live as two of the many that were ‘created equal,’ but not treated equal,” I also cringe at the stereotypes I perpetuated of poor desperate blacks who worried that all the protests were not going to help them (yes, I actually had Rosie expressing her frustration about how the protests were going to hurt more than they helped, words that were more likely to have emanated from all the white people I knew than from many African Americans).
Those stereotypes were again shattered by the second memoir I read recently – Negroland, by Margo Jefferson. Jefferson was born a year before me, and thus came of age during the same time I did, in the 1960s. Her story, however, is worlds away from mine, or that of John Lewis. She was born into an upper class black family in Chicago, and lived a life of relative privilege. Absent from her memoir is much mention at all of the marches and protests going on in the southern United States. Her struggles were different, although certainly very real, and she did not actively participate in the civil rights movement as we usually think of it, but her story nonetheless illustrates the racialized nature of American life. Consider this comment about the nature of privilege: “Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege….Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident but not obliging; dignified, not intrusive” (p. 91).
The book as a whole is an interesting exploration of the intersection of class, gender, and race, as Jefferson figures out how to negotiate the world as an upper class woman where race seems more important than either gender or class in determining one’s status in the U.S. And just as Lewis interspersed his civil rights memoir with scenes from the Obama inauguration, Jefferson intersperses her own story with some of the history of upper class and wealthy blacks, dating from before the Civil War. To my shame, I knew practically nothing of this history.
Who knows how that high school short story would have been different if I had written about what I knew. Perhaps it wouldn’t have tackled the issue of race at all, or maybe it would have been about a white teenager just beginning to learn about issues of race in the country she had been living in for only two years. I can’t go back and change the story (or stop cringing in embarrassment every time I reread it!), but I can continue to enlarge my reading habits so that I am better able to see the world from a point of view that is different from that of my dominant white culture.
Postscript: Other recommended books by African American authors I’ve read during the past year:
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson; about racial disparities and discrimination in the criminal justice system and Stevenson’s legal efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative
Between the World and Me, by Ta-nehisi Coates; a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, confronting race in America and how it has shaped American history
The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; a novel about a black slave-owner in Virginia before the Civil War
The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore; the true story of two black men by the same name who both grew up in Baltimore but ended up in very different places
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson; a memoir in poetry of her childhood in South Carolina and New York City
And of course, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, parts of which I re-read recently.