I want to write off the topic of art for this post. Literature is one of my passions; I majored in fine art and English in college. I hoped to write novels myself, sadly not a dream I have accomplished, but I LOVE to read.
I read two terrific novels recently, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I saw the movie versions prior to reading the novels, and feel they are good movies, but the books are superior, as books often are to the altered, shortened movie versions. (I listened to them on CD while driving to work and around town for several weeks...I highly recommend the CDs for the really great voice acting in both books.)
Both stories are set in the south in the early 1960's. Both focus on the effects of the civil rights movement on a small group of people, both black and white. And both are written in first person, which I always find compelling. We are drawn into the minds and hearts of characters that are experiencing the frightening, exhilarating, and uncertain consequences of a nation being forced to move past it's history into the future.
Conflict, violence, and fear surround the people in the story, but these characters are strong, decent, and caring. They are fictional faces representing the many real human beings who suffered from prejudice, racism, injustice, and powerlessness, who felt anger and fear, but held onto their integrity. There are moments of great humor, tear-inducing heartbreak, and moments of transcendence. I was so sorry to come to the end of both books.
The novels also led me to think about my own memories from that era. I was a child in the 60's, living in Clearwater. This was not the Deep South, with far more northern transplants than natives making up the growing population. My own family moved here from Pennsylvania in the 50's. The racial lines were not as sharply drawn or deeply entrenched as in South Carolina or Mississippi, where the stories in the novels are set.
My elementary school had all white teachers and students up until I started 5th grade. That year, I had a black teacher, Mrs. Boykin. She was a short, stout, businesslike lady with, I soon found, a soft heart. I don't remember ever feeling any uneasiness about her, the first black person I had ever known. There were still no black students in the school, and only one other black teacher.
I don't really remember what her teaching style was or why I became so attached to her, but I loved her. I once made her a little construction paper mouse, and thereafter she called me "Mousie," which I hope was the term of endearment I took it for and not a comment on my plainness! By the end of the year I was heartbroken to leave for the summer; in fact I wrote her letters, and I asked if I could come to her house and visit her. She agreed to it.
It was then that something new crept in. I don't know where it came from...was it a new consciousness of the world around me, or did someone say something to me about how different her neighborhood might be, how it might feel...wrong, somehow. But a shift took place within me, and I became afraid to go visit my beloved teacher, and I backed out. I probably did it awkwardly. She probably understood why. I carried shame about my withdrawal for many years, in fact I still do to a degree. She is still my favorite teacher.
I visited her in her classroom over the years as I went to middle school and high school, but of course things change. The closeness was gone, but at least for me the affection remained. I was incredibly fortunate to run into her about 10 years ago at the library where I worked. She said she remembered me, and despite her age I recognized her immediately. I got the chance to tell her what a great teacher she was and to thank her.
I wish I had had more time to talk to her. I wish I could have heard from her perspective what that time was like, the first black teacher in an all white school. How brave she must have been, and how difficult it must have been for her at first to deal with things I can only guess at. I only hope having at least one student who loved her unreservedly for that year made it a little easier.
The uneasiness between the races continued through high school, as I remember it. We were integrated but remained separate for the most part. In the years since, I have certainly had black coworkers and fellow college students and customers, but I regret that those relationships never grew beyond that level.
I'm sad to say I've never had a friend of another race; acquaintances, but not really friends. I know that is my loss. There is so much we all share as human beings, being so much more alike than different, but there is still so much we can learn from each other as we continue this journey into enlightenment. To me, we are all One in Spirit; separation is an illusion of physical existence that has no real meaning.
These wonderful books I read have left me with relived memories, and hope for the future still unfolding.