Black Like Me: What I Learned by Listening to Black Voices Then and Now
Even though no black students were enrolled at Warwick High School in Lititz, Pennsylvania, 1962-1966, the years I attended, I was not completely unaware of the Civil Rights Movement.
I had Mr. Price for my American history teacher. He urged us to read about injustice and imagine what it must be like to deal with it on a daily basis. He made me feel empathy and admiration for the courageous people in the headlines — Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, James Meredith.
At age 15, I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and Martin Luther King’s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
I didn’t read them because they were required in any class, I read them because Mr. Price wanted me to be aware, even though I was a Mennonite and couldn’t watch the news on television and lived a sheltered life on a farm. He understood something that poet Gwendolyn Brooks would say about the time we lived in:
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
Because of these words of Gwendolyn Brooks, another great woman, Dr. Joanne Gabbin, of James Madison University, a poet herself and a lover of poetry, created a conference in 1994 that led to two more conferences and later a center, called Furious Flower.
Dr. Gabbin’s first impulse was to honor the elders, especially to honor the work of Gwendolyn Brooks. In 1994 she called for poetry. Last week, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, she played the role Ralph Waldo Emerson played in his famous 1844 essay “The Poet.” She called for poets:
“Now I’m calling for poets — peace poets, justice poets, love poets.
–Dr. Joanne Gabbin
And how the troops rallied to her side!
As I listened to poets, to musicians, and to critics, last week, I felt so grateful to my friend Tina Glanzer, who introduced me to Joanne Gabbin. I’ve been a Furious Flower fan ever since. I wrote this post in praise of Sonia Sanchez and after Gabbin and Nikki Giovanni organized another elder event, I also wrote about Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
I was unaware, as a teenager in the 1960’s, of the Black Arts Movement, a movement I would eventually teach. The poets who arose then created two things: words that endure and a foundation for future poets.
I’m not a poet myself, but I have a voice. I left Furious Flower 2014 determined to find better ways to use it in support of the same issues my African-American brothers and sisters face. I don’t want to be silent when my voice is needed. I’ve not forgotten this challenge from Jesus Girl Osheta. She wrote this challenge to her blogger friends who are white and who are silent on issues of race and injustice:
because you’re white, you need to talk about it. Because you haven’t had to think about it, you need to think about it now. Because you’re in your homogenous bubble, you need to hear my story as a black woman in America.
One of the things I learned from Mr. Price in 1964 is that white people can play a part in the creation of a more just society when they educate themselves and speak out. Memoir writers, black and white, who lived through the sixties, can reflect upon the meaning of their location in that time and help to increase understanding today when we face the legacy of racism in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and wherever we live ourselves.
Poet Marilyn Nelson inspired me with her poetic memoir method. She read poems from the same time period I covered in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.
I felt so grateful to sit at the feet of the great African-American poets of our time.
But I don’t want to just sit. I want to stand up also.
When I go back to the box in the basement, searching for myself in the 1960s, I hope I will find evidence of my little piece of participation in the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements. But regardless of what I find from the past, I want to be accountable to the present and future. I want racism to end. And I want to begin with myself.
Do you have memories of the Civil Rights period? An African-American poet you want to honor? Please use the space below to do so!
Shirley – Thank you for introducing me to Furious Flower. I love what you said, “…I want racism to end. And I want to begin with myself.” I stand up next to you in this pro-active desire, for I, too, have a strong voice.
My mother taught my sister and I that we are all one color and that racism is a pigment of the imagination. I have never forgotten those wise words.
A voracious reader (and avid follower of book awards, children and adult alike), I thoroughly enjoyed “The Way a Door Closes,” written by Hope Anita Smith. Here’s what Booklist has to say about this poetic book recommended for 5th-8th graders:
“In the voice of a 13-year-old boy, a series of clear, lovely poems tells a contemporary family story, and Evans’ strong, realistic paintings show the deep feelings and connections in an African American home.”
It would make a lovely holiday gift for anyone who has children on their gift-giving list.
Laurie, your voice is always strong and clear. Thank you for standing here and for offering this suggestion for Christmas gift buying. The book sounds wonderful.
I love the words your mother taught you: “racism is a pigment of the imagination.” May it be so. And may more writers add their voices to this chorus.
Hi Shirley, I’m in. My best friend in high school was a year younger than I and black. We lost touch when I graduated (and with name changes et al). And just a few months ago I found her, thanks to FB. And we plan to get together next month when I’m down in Virginia, where she now lives. I surmise from the photos she shares that she takes her African-American roots seriously and I hope to find a way to speak out more effectively on racism as she and I reconnect. It’s been far too long. Thank you, thank you for broaching this important topic. And thank you for sharing your very strong voice.
Thanks, Janet, for adding your own strong voice.
I’m so glad that you and your high school friend have found each other. And that you plan to visit her. Let me know if you are coming close to Harrisonburg. I’d love to meet you in person too.
Both you and your friend took risks to become friends back in the day (was it the 60s?). Even if you lost touch, you can learn so much by sharing your joys and sorrows in life.
Blessings on the both of you.
One of my all time favorite memoirs is Colored People – Henry Louis Gates, Jr, whom I’d never heard of him until he and Barack had to sit down and discuss some things over a beer.
Hi, Diane. Good to see you here again. I haven’t read Colored People, but I love your description of the beer discussion. I did read Gates’ The Signifying Monkey, however. I was in Ghana when I read it and sent him a note, including a correction to the way he described Elmina Castle in Ghana. Some slight error. He actually returned my letter. I was honored.
Now I’m off to see what you’ve been up to. It’s been too long!
Great comment about the conversation over beer. I thought I’d add a little background. It was a conversation with three. Obama, Gates, and a white policeman. Seems Gates had locked himself out of his house (wherever he lived; don’t recall. Boston?) He was climbing in a window and was seen by the cop who assumed he was .. Well, you know. Gates explained who he was, offered some sort of proof, but the cop was unmoved. Things got heated. It made the headlines. This was Obama’s attempt to bridge the divide of fear that underlies so much of racism. Unfortunately, he got flack for that too.
President Obama handled that one and other racially-charged issues during his administration with grace. Many, including me sometimes, would like to see him speak out more, but he is keenly aware of being president of all the people. It’s hard to bring healing and hope when the history of racism is so long and deep.
Indeed it is. I’m consistently struck by the unprecedented set of tethers he’s working under. And also frustrated he can’t just break free of them. SpiderMan at large. Remember his speech on race during his campaign against Romney? It was brilliant. Too bad he can’t do more of those. I wish I had a copy. Hmmm I’ll bet it’s available on the web. Thanks for the nudge. 🙂
Here is a link to the events happening at the University of California – Berkeley 50 years ago this week pertaining to students standing up (and sitting down) in behalf of free speech and civil rights:
Barbara, I missed this report on NPR, but thanks to you, I enjoyed it this morning. I was 16 years old in 1964 and living in a totally different environment. Yet people like Mr. Price prepared me to enter my version of the free speech and civil rights movements a few years later.
Shirley … a lovely piece, that took me back to my college days when I was one of many marching for civil rights, but in the relatively safe environs of the University of Chicago, rather than a southern city. I saw Obama’s election as a watershed moment in American, but I am beginning to think that it moved us in the wrong direction … fomenting a steadily rising torrent of anger from those for whom race continues to be a defining measure of value.
Mary, I can see you as a young woman marching and I can feel your heart that longs for justice. I still think Barack Obama’s election was a watershed moment. I agree that it has drawn out some ugly hatred, but it has given a whole generation an image of a black man in the white house. That has to make a difference at a deeply unconscious level. The vitriol hurled at him is undeserved. I wish he had truly extricated us from the wars. I wish he hadn’t used drones so freely. I wish he had somehow been able to break the gridlock in congress. But the people who hate him aren’t just disagreeing with policy. I can only hope that visceral racism comes to an end, and I want to do my small part to help that happen.
Hi Shirley, this is Jon Price. I have read your book and really enjoyed. Thanks for the kind words about my dad J. Lorell Price. Like my dad, I teach history and political science at Penn State York. He always inspired me to make the world a better place. As a young kid our whole family watched pbs eyes on the prize show and we learned how to fairly treat and respect people of all races and religions. I worked in the PA State Capital for the House of Representatives for 17 years before I began teaching.
Jon, thank you for this visit. I met you one time, when you were a sleeping infant! Thanks for letting me know that you are carrying on the family tradition of working for justice and teaching the next generation to do the same. We are moving back to Lititz in a few months. It would be lovely to connect with your family.