Archive for April, 2014

Jackson Mississippi 1963

April 20, 2014

 

In 1954, I was three years old. In that year, my parents moved from Louisiana to Jackson Mississippi. Our family of four, soon to be six souls, stayed in Jackson until I was in the sixth grade, 1962. Then we moved back to Louisiana.

All around us at that time the world was changing big time. I was, of course, clueless, being just a kid. Living in a humble, GI-bill enabled suburb, l and my whitey neighborhood playmates were quite insulated from the maelstrom of civil rights-fueled social change that was gathering momentum in Jackson and in the whole state of Mississippi and the South, and later the North.

I was in a Catholic school; it was nice enough, and I had some good friends there. Although the US Supreme Court decision,  Brown v. Board of Education, had established a legal  path toward school desegregation in 1954, I never saw a black classmate until I was in junior high school in Baton Rouge a few years later.

My first impressions of black folk in Jackson came mostly through our maid, Aleen. She was a very nice lady. Many an afternoon, my sister and I would accompany my mother as she drove Aleen home from her day-job at our home. Aleen’s home was what we would politely call the “other side of town,” although it wasn’t really in town, but seemed to me to be out in the country somewhere nearby. The vivid image in my child’s mind was of a dirt road lined by houses that I later learned are called “shotgun shacks.”

In 2011, Dreamworks released a movie about what was developing in Jackson at that time. You’ve probably seen it: The Help. It is an excellent film, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and it absolutely confirms all my juvenile impressions and memories of Jackson in the 1950s. But of course, as I said before, being a kid I had no idea of what was really going on behind all that docile southern comfort status quo.

Recently, I have decided to write a fictional historiography about growing up in the South during that time, and about how being a born-n-bred southerner interfaced with what the rest of our country was becoming. This novel, my fourth, is tentatively named King of Soul. (Preview: I am not “the King.”) The book being written  follows the novel Smoke, which I have just published.

I do a lot of historical research. Learning about history is what propels me as a writer. I turn the research into fiction that, I feel represents a certain time period or zeitgeist. Finally I am doing one now on the actual time and place of my growing up.

My daughter Katie, who nobly attempts to be my editor, tells me that my protagonist’s depth suffers in the midst of all my fictionalized history. She is of course correct in this critique. Certainly I will learn the lesson of satisfactory protagonist development in this next project, instead of obsessing with making the history itself the main character.

To begin research I have picked up several books at the Belk library, Appalachian State University, here in Boone NC where I live, where Pat and I have raised our three grown young’uns. This researching will be my modus operandi. Before King of Soul is finished in a few years, I probably will have consulted with a hundred or more sources from that library, as well as our local Watauga County library.

The Kindle, and Wikipedia, and real historians posting online, and so forth are also major components of my publishing projects.

To get into the King of Soul, I am reading, among other things, Michael Vinson Williams’ opus of history research, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, and also A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg.

So, by doing, I am finally getting the back-story of what was really going on while I was growing up in Jackson Mississippi in the 1950s and Baton Rouge Louisiana in the 1960s.

I graduated from high school in 1969. What does that tell ya? Should be a fascinating period to reflect upon.

All of this to say: at the present moment I am here to share with you three of the most interesting historical facts I have learned in preparation to writing the fictional historiography.

1. From Williams’ book on Medgar Evers: When Medgar returned to the USA after soldiering to defending our country and Europe in 1946, he had to “go to the back of the bus.”! What kind of a welcome was that for a man who had survived D-Day and World War II in Europe? Mr. Evers went on to do very persistent, determined work in voter registrations in Mississippi in the ’50s and ’60s, and became a great leader in the civil rights movement before he was shot down in the dark of night by a white supremacist in his own front yard in Jackson in 1963. That was just a few months before they got Kennedy.

2. From Greenburg’s book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC):  Through volunteering in the civil rights movement in the South, empathetic activists from other areas of the country learned how it’s done. For instance: after working with the blacks down south, Mario Savio took his SNCC experience back to Berkeley, where he lead the Free Speech Movement that soon initiated protest against the Vietnam war. Also, after working with blacks down south, Tom Hayden returned to Michigan and authored, with his SDS comrades, the Port Huron Statement which was the beginning of Students for a Democratic Society.

3.What I am seeing now about the time period is this: As the civil rights movement gathered steam in the mid-’60s, a rift developed between the moderates (such as Medgar Evers, the NAACP, Dr. King, SCLC, John Lewis, Julian Bond, etc.) and the radicals (such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, SNCC, Panthers, Malcolm X, etc.) This parting of ways is similar to what happened among the anti-Fascists and also among  the anti-Communists in Europe of the 1930s, a subject of my new novel, Smoke. The peaceful v. violent disagreement is also, I believe, indicative of protest movements generally, such as the two biggies: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Probably the next revolution, too, whatever becomes of that.

As for me, the kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, well. . . shut my mouth, I’m a child of the South. But I’m a commencin’ to write about it. Thank ye for your time.

Glass half-Full

 

The Economist Illumination

April 13, 2014

I never really understood much about international finance and economics until this morning, when I read a special, long article in this week’s The Economist. In the printed edition, the text begins on page 49; it is entitled The slumps that shaped modern finance.

I’ve been subscribing to, and reading, that “newspaper” (as their editors call it, while we Americans think of it as a magazine) for several years. But I have always labored to figure out what the hell they are writing about. In surveying many past issues, I have contented myself merely to check out the obituary, which is always on the last page. Then I would thumb through in a backwards, right to left, fashion to glean a little from what’s going on in the literary and arts world.

Perhaps my years of reading The Economist with so little comprehension have prepared me, unbeknownst to my cognitive mind, for the light-bulb moment I had this morning while reading their concise, 6-page history of financial crises. Be that as it may, the light of understanding finally shone in my head when I read, on pages 51-52, their explanation of the Panic of 1857.

“I think I understand . . .” Joni Mitchell had sung long ago, “fear is like a wilder land.”

Long story short, when investors think they are going to lose a lot of money they are overtaken with Fear, so they go hog-wild. Maybe that means the bulls retreat while the bears gather, but the hogs go crazy destroying the place.

Or, as the ’60s radicals use to call them, the “pigs.”

But I wouldn’t call anybody a pig. Maybe . . . a walrus.

Anyway, here is what’s interesting about the Panic of 1857: America was at that time an “emerging nation” that had expanded its explorative and technological frontiers beyond its ability to keep all the accounts straight and well-balanced. Consequently, the Brit financiers panicked, and all the money people around the world followed suit, including us.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. We Americans are like the well-established powerhouse that the Brits were in the 19th century, while today’s “emerging” powers, the so-called BRICs and a few others, are in a position similar position to where we were in 1857, or 1907, or 1937.

Maybe the other shoe is about to drop, maybe not.

If you want to know something about how this plays out historically, I recommend you check it out. If you want to read it online, here it is: http://www.economist.com/

Smoke 

The Work

April 5, 2014

I have worked all my adult life, beginning with that first job, at a Burger Chef, while I was in high school. After flippin’ the burgers for awhile, I did the bag boy thing at an A&P, where I moved into the big time of running a cash register.

One high school summer I did an  internship in an office at the Louisiana State Capitol.

Then moving on to LSU, I did part-time gigs: selling ladies shoes, dippin’ ice cream at a little off-campus storefront from which I got fired for leaving the doors open one night; also, servicing vending machines at the Student Union building in between classes and chairing a committee of the student Union.

As chairman of the student National Speakers committee (a freebie job, but great experience), I introduced Dr. Benjamin Spock and comedian-activist Dick Gregory to our assembled student/faculty audiences. After that, the Young Republicans complained about the lefty speakers with no conservative balance. They wanted somebody to represent their side. I told them that was understandable, but we had, alas, blown the budget on Spock and Gregory. I told them we could go halfsies on paying William Buckley, if they could get him for us, which they did. I always thought that was mighty civil of them; maybe that’s why I’m a Republican today.

I have fond memories of that time, which include hearing Dr. Spock talking about two Maoist girls who heckled him on some other campus somewhere, and Dick Gregory requesting a bowl of fruit be delivered to his hotel room and then making people laugh at his speech later but then impressing upon them the urgency of our racial problems. Then there was meeting Bill Buckley at the airport, escorting him to his hotel room and watching him tie his skinny tie as he smiled and talked to me like I was one of his New Yawk buddies. Bill had a very winning smile.

After a couple years of English and Political Science and intermittent cannabis distractions, I managed somehow to graduate, in December ’73, I hit the trail with my “General Studies” sheepskin from LSU University College. Now this southern boy gravitated over to the epitome of southern exotica, a place called “Florida,” where I sold  debit life insurance for awhile in a black neighborhood, then moved on over to selling classified advertising for Mr Poynter at the St. Pete Times. But then I lost my license on points, but continued to drive and got nabbed by a highway patrolmen. When I went to court on  the infraction, a judge named Rasmussen  told me that if people disregarded the law in the way I had done, there would “anarchy in this country, so therefore I sentence you to five days in the county detention center.”

“Detention center? What’s that?” I asked the judge.

“That’s the jail son,” he replied.

“When does it start?” I queried.

“Right now,” he said.

When I got to the jail, it was an alien environment for this university boy with wing tips, and so I decided to take control of my situation by getting involved in a poker game with these hardened criminals, but then I made the mistake of winning. I say “mistake,” because my little stack of quarters or whatnot motivated one of the incarcerated fellows to ask me a for a dollar to get in the game, but I told him No.

So later that night, since he was in the same bunk with me, he punched me out.

I did, however, survive it.

Four days later, I’m out of the Pasco County jail, and I didn’t get run over by a train or get drunk or nothin excitin’ but I did happen to go to a movie filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains; it was Where the Lilies Bloom.

The setting in that movie seemed so absolutely beautiful to me that I thought I’d like to just get the hell out of Florida and go to that place depicted in the movie, and so I did, and I’ve been liven’ in these mountains ever since. That was about forty year ago.

After settling in Asheville, a place far more mountainous and wintry than this Louisiana boy had ever known, I got a job selling printing for a printshop. That turned into about five years of good work, but it came in two stints that were punctuated by a detour to Waco Texas in 1978. ‘T’was there I got saved.

After meeting Jesus I returned to North Carolina and the print shop for awhile.

Then I drifted into the building trade and spent the lion’s share of my working life as a carpenter building houses and a few other structures, including a bridge at Grandfather Mountain that completed the missing link of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which them WPA boys had left hangin’ back in the ’30s, either cuz they ran out of money, or the War came on, or the jagged mountain was just too craggy for a man to build a bridge on it at that time.

I married Pat; we had three young’uns, now grown. Which brings me now to the main point of this here blog: work. When a man gets a family, he manages somehow to motivated to go out in the wide jungle world and make a livin’, by hook or by crook. And this is, I think, a very important part of what makes work for folks and what makes the world go ’round: Family. A greater motivator than ideology or guv’mint.

Last weekend, this mountain boy and my wife, Pat, were in San Francisco, at the upper end of Silicon valley where our son works amongst the high-flyin’ v.c.-fueled startups of our day. I spent a lot of time walking through that amazing city, and on the last morning there I found this interesting sight in the Mission district where our son resides.

So I snapped it for you:

MissionHeroes1

I found this really interesting. It’s a great work of art, painted lovingly and precisely on the face of a small business, which appears to be a hairstylist’s shop, probably a family business, but not run by Papa because it’s more likely run by Mama, with Papa working over on Mission Street with his grocery or some such enterprise.

You will notice, on the painting, some great people–true heroes of working people. The heavy hitters among them include: Gandhi, Dr. King, Cesar Chavez. Also identifiable are a few whose legacy and life’s work was questionable, tainted with revolutionary violence: Che, Sandino. Sitting Bull is in the very middle. I wrote this song, Sitting Bull’s Eyes, about him a long time ago.

The other persons in this mural are worthy of historical consideration. I checked out all those names, which are written beside each face. I cannot remember them all, but perhaps you will visit the Mission in San Francisco someday and see this great work of art for yourself. Or you may recognize them from the photo.

Worth noting in the artwork is an omission: amongst this collection of lefty heavyweights, the two theoreticians Marx and Lenin are not included; nor are the bloody tyrants, Mao and Stalin.

Some of those leaders pictured are not totally honorable in my Christian world-view, but they are obviously heroic in the eyes of the artist, and that says something significant about the perpetual struggle between, in this world, them that have, and them that have not. As for me, I respect them that are willing to work hard for what they do get, such as I, by God’s grace, have done.

Smoke