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.
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!