What I’d Do Different Now

[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]

Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.

These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?

Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?



May 26, 2009: What gets lost

In today’s Boston Globe, there’s an article about Hobson City, Alabama, a “small town which once thrived as a rarity: a place where black people were in charge in the midst of the Jim Crow South.” Now dying, this historic community, incorporated in 1899 and governed by African Americans, once supported businesses, restaurants, a skating rink, and “a vibrant culture centered on the all-black vocational school.”

“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have gone out and done all that marching if I realized how much we were going to lose,” Mayor Alberta McCory is quoted as saying. Her (complicated, bittersweet) comment re the civil rights movement and its aftermath—Hobson City’s all-black vocational school integrated in 1972—of course reminded me of Lynchburg’s all-black Dunbar High School and that city’s “vibrant” cultural center. After Lynchburg’s schools integrated, Dunbar was razed. And, sadly, something absolutely vital to Lynchburg’s African American community was irrevocably lost.

Because I knew about the Dunbar-demise story, I could instantly understand Mayor McCory’s comment. And, I realized, that immediate gestalt just might be pointing me in a new direction.

To connect the dots:

Dot 1) Because Lynda Woodruff insisted I learn “CONTEXT!” I discovered  the Dunbar-demise story.

Dot 2) Some days I’d emerge from my house, having just spent a few hours reading about Lynchburg history, and realize, “Oh! I live here!”

Dot 3) There are thousands of comparable Somerville stories I know nothing about.

Dot 4) Because I’m currently working on a novel, I have zero interest in researching such stories.

Dot 5) But have enormous interest in reading them; learning more.

Dot 6) A group of writers and activists here in Somerville are looking at community-based journalism, i.e. when interested readers pledge money in order for a journalist to research and write a particular article.

Dot 7) Maybe other writers, from Somerville’s immigrant community, perhaps, could be paid to research and to write such stories.

[I know. This is pretty vague. But, as I’ve learned from following a leading this far, this kinda/sorta stuff is EXACTLY how something eventually happens. Whatever that something is. Like “A Chorus Line” ‘s Michael Bennett said of that amazing Broadway production’s earliest, earliest iteration: “We have something here.”]

Meanwhile, while this sorts itself out, let us mourn Dunbar High School’s death and let us pray that Hobson City’s unique history isn’t lost.