In a guest column in the Greenville News about the controversy of the Clemson University campus surrounding Ann Patchett’s book, “Truth and Beauty: A Friendship,” English professors Michael LeMahieu and Elizabeth J. Rivlin quoted the English writer Ian McEwan –
Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.
I thought about this quote as I finished Anne Moody’s book, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” and tried to see her, to understand who she was as she wrote her memoir. Though her own life was filled with struggle and suffering, from an early age Moody was able to imagine what it was like to be someone other than herself, especially others who were humiliated and killed in the Jim Crow South that was her home. Because of her imagination, because of her empathy, I see her as a compassionate, moral person. Because of her “praxis” (practical application of her theories about civil rights), her willingness to go to places like Canton, Mississippi, to struggle for the liberation of her oppressed people, I see her as an example of what it means to be human.
As I read this book I asked a question that I have been asking myself as I have read the books for our class and looked through different windows into the people, places, and events of the Civil Rights Movement in America. “What does this mean for me as a teacher who will shape the hearts and minds of children over the next years of my life?” A quote by Moody in the beginning chapters of the book helped me further reflect on my question. She said -
Now all of a sudden they [white playmates] were white, and their whiteness made them better than me. I now realized that not only were they better than me because they were white, but everything they owned and everything connected with them was better than what was available to me.
She came to this understanding of the world when she was a 6-year-old (the same age as my oldest son). Before this realization (and what a terrible realization it was for one so young) she understood the world in a different way, in a way that allowed her to know white children as friends. How can I be a teacher and do teaching that builds a classroom and a world for my students that will help them know each other as friends and destroys the theory that color makes one person better than another?
One question that surfaced inside of me as I read this book was, “How do socio-economic factors affect lives?” I thought several times as I encountered people in Moody’s life through her words, “Are there any good, black men in her life?” It seemed that most of the black men were bad. I came across these words spoken by her step-mother Emma after she was shot in the leg with a shotgun by her brother-in-law -
It ain’t Wilbert’s fault. Him and Janie wouldn’t be fightin’ if Wilbert could get a good job and make enough money to take care of them children. If these damn white folks ain’t shootin’ niggers’ brains out they are starvin’ them to death. A nigger can’t make it no way he try in this fuckin’ place.
I think Emma was correct in her observation. I have a deeply held belief that if people have good jobs that help them meet the needs discussed by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs then there is greater hope that they will become good spouses, parents, and members of society. I suppose I am asking the question, “Are people the way they are because of nature or nurture?” I lean heavily toward the “nurture” side (though I know there are many exceptions to my leaning). I do think that there would have been more good, black men in Moody’s life if socio-economic factors had been equal and just. As a friend of mine in Louisville, Kentucky, who worked with inner-city kids once told me, “If a person is trying to climb a flight of stairs and gets kicked down every time they get near the top then eventually they will stop trying to climb.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
(“Harlem” by Langston Hughes – 1951)
In a speech prepared for the 1963 Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, a gathering that brought together the leaders of nearly every religious body in America, Will D. Campbell wrote -
In our generation white children will be marched into gas chambers by dark-skinned masses, clutching their little toys to their breasts in Auschwitz fashion.
Campbell, who wrote about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in one of my favorite memoirs of that time and place, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” was astonished as a counselor to the Freedom Riders by the “saintliness” of black people and wanted to convey the idea that white people could not count on this saintliness to endure or always to dominate in the face of humiliation and death.
I thought of Campbell’s quote as I worked my way through the last chapters of Moody’s book and saw her feelings, thoughts, and actions as a surfacing of the undercurrent of truth behind Campbell’s hyperbole. I also thought of the words of the good, black priest Msimangu about Apartheid in South Africa in Alan Paton’s great novel “Cry the Beloved Country” when he said –
I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.
As I try to imagine what it would be like to be Anne Moody I hope that I would be “saintly” and overcome evil with good. I know, however, that I am a human being and that in the face of humiliation and death I could easily dry up, fester, run, stink, crust and sugar over, sag, or explode.
In our class discussion we talked about how Anne Moody was a poor black woman from Mississippi. In the other books that we have read the black folks have been from the black middle class. As I read the first 100 pages of Moody’s memoir, I thought that she could just as easily been talking about a poor white family as a poor black family. Was her race or was her class the determining factor in her life? Should she have worked on class issues instead of on race issues? Would her life have been different if she had poured out her mind and heart on class issues? I suppose, though, that the fact that she was poor, black, and a woman made her triply oppressed and were factors that were so intertwined they could never be separated and analyzed on their own. I just wonder, considering from where she came and for what she went through, that she could become such a noble person.