Friday, March 21, 2008

In the Air

I was thinking more last night about all the things I have felt over the last few months watching Barack Obama's success in his quest to become the next President of the United States of America. I feel proud of Americans who have been able to look at him and see beyond color. Not to say that people who vote for Hilary automatically have a problem with race. I am sure that most people who vote for her do not.

But even Ed Rendell, the Governor of Pennsylvania said "you've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate." So clearly, there are some who are running away from Obama simply because he is not white.

There are even websites devoted to trying to prove that he is anti-christ or that he is trying to become President so that he can turn the country over to the blacks, whatever that means. Whenever people say stuff like that I always think they must not know very much about Presidential powers and the roles of the Congress and the Supreme Court. We don't live in a dictatorship.

But there are those who are stepping out and defying the odds. There are those who are listening without prejudice.

The last few months I have been reminded of something Eldridge Cleaver said in "Soul on Ice":

"...America is slowly coming awake. It is not fully awake yet, but there is soul in the air and everywhere I see beauty."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On Obama

I keep thinking about Obama’s speech. I feel as though I want to write something, I want to say something, but really I am just filled with musings and awe. Different thoughts keep going through my head. So I am going to write and hopefully sort some of it out here.

I watched Obama’s speech live Tuesday morning. I am a huge fan, even with my five classes and two kids I did a little campaigning for him before the Arizona primary and I attended his rally. I am beginning to realize why I feel so strongly about Barack Obama. I trust him. Not because he is black. He seems honest and good. He seems slightly naïve in a way that is refreshing in a climate of cynics who don’t know how to hope. He actually seems to believe that all in all Americans are good, that this is a good place and that our wildest dreams can come true. He believes that honesty and transparency are best. Because of this hope, this purity of purpose a black man with a middle name of Hussein is running to be the President of the United State of America. He is bucking the odds and changing the world as I know it.

I think another reason why Obama is important to me is because last semester I spent a lot of time learning more and more about the dark history of hatred towards blacks. I read about men who will not be listed in the history books who died because of honest mistakes that were deemed offensive. Many black men and women lived day in and day out hoping not to get on the wrong side of a white person, because it could cost them their lives.

I learned from my aunt Vera that blacks could not get loans. She explained that this was why Booker worked at Lusco’s for so many years, saving every penny, so that he could open Booker’s Place. How many people today can say that? How many people save every penny to pay cash for anything? How many people have no choice?

One of the ideas that has sort of rocked my foundation is that blacks today are not playing on a level playing field because we come from those who had little opportunity. Maybe I should have gotten this before. But I didn't. I am not looking for a handout or a leg up. I am not hunting for affirmative action to solve all of my problems. I just don’t want to be put down either.

The point I make with all this is that I came into 2008 weighed down by the hate I’d been reading about and the absence of a level playing field. Discouraged about the damage that has been done to the national dialogue on race, I was burnt out and feeling bitter. I found myself seeing racial inequality everywhere, even when maybe something else was at play. I have always been one of those people who never thought that race was a factor if I didn’t get a job or didn’t get invited or wasn’t taken seriously. I never “played the race card”. My research taught me that maybe I had been a little naïve.

I came into 2008 needing something to believe in. I needed to believe that there was hope in our nation’s views and our dialogue on race. Then, on January 3, 2008, Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus. Iowa. Do they even have black people there? He had to be offering something more than the “color alternative.” I got on the net, started watching the debates, started listening and learning and I realized that I believed in him, more than I could ever believe in Hillary. I realized then what I love the most about him is that I respect him. It is not a stretch to do this; I am not ignoring some obvious flaw. I can believe he is good and that makes my soul smile.

In Malcolm X’s eulogy Ossie Davis refers to Malcolm as “our Prince – our own black shining Prince.” I don’t know if I will always feel this way, but this week, since I heard that speech I realized that Obama embodies this for me. He is the hope that maybe the past is behind us. Maybe we can come together, regardless of color, and work together. He is the hope that whites who only see blacks in the crime section of their local paper will understand that we too can be great and that Oprah is not just a fluke.

The pain is still there. But in pain, we have to work together. Our problems are no longer limited to racial lines. There are whites who have been taken advantage of and who have lost their pensions, their healthcare, and their homes. The story of racism in America was always about power. Whites used to have all the power. Now, corporations and politicians have all the power. Whites, blacks, Mexicans, and all groups of people need to stand together. Our pasts are not the same, but many of our grievances are.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Another Encouraging Day

I finally got ahold of M.W. today, she was Booker's wife when he died and she kept Booker's Place open until last year. She was very kind and wanted to do all that she could to help me. She confirmed the date of his death as 1973. She thinks that the incident when Booker spoke to the news media occurred in either 1964 or 1965. I explained to her about the African American National Biography and how I am trying to get Booker listed. She asked for my number and said that she will ask her daughter if there is any additional information that she can remember about Booker that may be useful to me.

I emailed this info to Donny this morning, he emailed back that he will look for both items on microfilm and will get back to me. He is wonderful. He said that if they are there, he will find them even if it takes him a long time. It is so nice to finally have someone in Greenwood who is taking up this work with me.

Donny also mentioned that he found someone who knows someone who worked for Booker and who knew him. That person is supposed to give Donny a call. It feels as if, finally, the ball is slowly beginning to roll.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17

Had two great conversations this afternoon, one with Amy Evans and another with Donny Whitehead. Donny has created a website It has pictures and some interesting information about the town. He had not heard of Booker, but he was sure that he had at least heard of Booker's Place. He acknowledged that many of the things that had to do with black history in Greenwood had not been recorded. He was very interested in Booker's story. He knows a few elderly blacks in the community who he feels should have a recollection of Booker or the establishment.

Donny is also going to search for the news story about Booker's death. I feel excited and a little sad. I still catch myself at times longing to meet Booker, wishing he could have known me. Thinking about his death brings some of this back.

Amy Evans encouraged me to contact Karen Pinkston. I reread some of the interview that Amy did with Karen. It is probably the best lead I have so far about what Booker said to the news program. I am hoping that Karen will be able to get me in contact either with customers who may remember Booker or with people in the community who may have known him. She mentioned that I should speak with Senator Jordan. I shared with her how my first interview with him went and her feedback was helpful and encouraging. She told me that he went to Booker's funeral, this was something I didn't even think to ask the Senator about. So, I am going to be following up with him and asking him as well if he knows of anyone else who can tell me about Booker. I also want to ask him about the funeral, what he remember, who was there, is anyone who was available for me to speak with.

I feel so handicapped here. I wish I was there and that I could just jump into a car and head down to this place or that. Technology is great but it is not the same as being able to look these people in the face and listen with more than just my ears.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Whites Only

I have said that I was the only black kid in my classes until the sixth grade. I was thinking about this when I remembered that there was one boy of color, whose name I still recall, in my fifth grade class. His name was cool, I wish I could reveal it, but I’ll try to make up an equally cool pseudonym: Stephen Azo. He was black and Filipino mixed. I think I learned a lesson about race and class from my experiences with him. He was amazingly good looking. He had beautiful skin, soft eyes, and he seemed to drip with confidence and humor. I adored him. The problem was, so did everyone else. The most beautiful girls in my class were all in love with him and he dated most of them. He liked me. His sister and my sister were best friends for over a decade.

I have never been good at hiding my true feelings. Everyone, including Stephen, knew that I was madly in love with him. I don’t know if it was because he was black and I assumed that we would be allies or if it was because he was so wonderful, but my heart ached every time I saw him. When we talked I could barely keep myself from sweating and stuttering and I had a hard time looking him in the eye.

Stephen didn’t have a lot of money. He was probably one of the poorest kids in class. His pants were a little too big and he folded them and curled them under in a way that looked hip. Having less than the rest of us made him seem risky, like he was hardened and knew a little more than the rest of us about life. There was a girl in my class who was gorgeous. She always wore really, really short shorts and I can remember hoping and praying that Stephen would not fall for her. Of course, he did. But not before telling my sister that he liked me but he couldn’t date me because I was black. He had a rule that he did not date black girls because he thought they were bitches.

Stephen turned his poverty into an asset. His worn out clothes made him look deep and experienced compared to the boys who only wore Guess and Izod. His blackness was like a magic touch. His skin was the perfect balance between white and black, his hair was eternally shaped into effortless curls. As a black boy from the wrong side of the tracks he could choose to date whoever he wanted and he chose whites only.

Uncle Charlie

On page 275 of "Weary Feet Rested Souls" I found the following sentence: "The first black sherriff's deputy in Leflore County, Charles Cooley, was hired in 1971 and he went on to a twenty-five year career in law enforcement". Uncle Charlie was my mother's uncle. I remember him being mentioned many times when I was young. He and Doris, my grandmother, were incredibly close. My grandmother died in late November of 2002. That December I traveled to Greenwood with my mother to attend the funeral. I can't recall exactly how long it was after the funeral, but I think it was only a matter of days, when the following events occurred. One afternoon Uncle Charlie was at home with his children, his wife and his grandchildren. He got up off the couch, went into the bathroom and shot himself in the head. He died instantly.

Week of March 10 – March 16

Here’s how things shook out this week and the outlook for the week to come:

As far as the African American National Biography goes, I went to the website and read some sample entries. From what I know so far of Booker, I do think that his story would be compelling enough to include in their listing. So, basically I need to get some solid sources and I would like to have the major pieces of the story relayed to me by more than one person. To that end I have been working on some leads that might be able to provide these different perspectives.

There is a book called “Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement”. The book focuses on people and places that were important during the Civil Rights Movement and that were still around when the book was written in 1995. It mentions Booker’s Place and refers to it as a “Movement joint”. About a month ago I tried to reach the author of the book, Townsend Davis, by contacting the publisher, but I never heard back. I spoke with someone in the marketing department, but as I was flipping through the book today I noticed that Davis names his editor at Norton in the acknowledgements, so I may try him as well and possibly Davis’ agent if he mentions him. I am basically trying to reach Davis to see if he can recommend other sources to me.

There are a few people listed in the Greenwood section of “Weary Feet” who I am hoping may still be around. One of them is Reverend Aaron Johnson. He worked at the East Percy Street Christian Church. I have a phone number but there has not been any answer so far. I will try again tomorrow. Maybe they will answer on Sunday. I am also trying to reach Simon Garrett. He worked at the Century Funeral Home and handled the body of Emmitt Till. I am wondering if he knew of Booker or if he frequented the establishment when Booker owned it.
I also sent an email to Amy Evans; she interviewed Karen Pinkston the owner of Lusco’s. She was out of the office for Spring Break.

I contacted the Greenwood Library; they pointed me in the direction of a man named Donny Whitehead. They said that he has studied Greenwood history extensively. They also said that they have all of their newspapers on microfilm, but I would have to know what I was looking for – which of course I don’t. But hopefully I can use that resource when the time comes.

Lastly, I am still trying to hunt down someone from Endesha Mae Holland’s family. She wrote a book called “From the Mississippi Delta” about growing up in Greenwood and her involvement in the civil rights movement. She wrote a play that was performed Off Broadway, it was partially financed by Oprah Winfrey and it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Her son lives in Buffalo, NY. His number isn’t listed. I may be able to get his address and mail a letter to him; I just need to think it through a little more. Endesha Holland frequented Booker’s Place with friends and I would love to hear from one of them what they remember about Booker and his restaurant.

I am also going to be interviewing my “unofficial” aunt this coming week. Her name is Nadeen Cooley, she is my mother’s cousin but they grew up like sisters, living in the same house. In our short conversation the other day it was clear that she remembers Booker fondly and that she is eager to share interesting information. One of the things she shared that I found fascinating is that they could not afford dolls so they made their own out of old soda bottles and caps. They used sea grass for the hair and hammered the lids back on to make the hair stay in its place. The hair was always “blond”. It was long and they would comb it and style it. Interesting.

I am doing two interviews with Nadeen, the first will be Monday night and the second will be later in the week. Hopefully, she will also be able to provide some leads for sources outside of the family. I also put in a call to my aunt Vera asking her to be thinking of people who are still living that may have known Booker or went to his establishment. I will also try to find some sort of historical society that may be useful. Lastly, I have yet another aunt named Dani who still lives in Greenwood. She may have a better knowledge of older people in the community who may remember Booker.

It’s going to be a busy week.

Monday, March 10, 2008

March 3 - March 9

It is the middle of the semester and I am picking up where I left off towards the end of the fall. I have been doing some research on how whites viewed blacks, how whites felt about race relations and what life was like for blacks in Greenwood before and during the civil rights movement.

I never knew that Charles Darwin said that savage races (this was a phrase regularly used to describe blacks and other tribal based groups) would most likely be exterminated through the process of natural selection. I read it myself in The Descent of Man on page 193. I always thought that most of the ugliest racist propaganda came riding into town on a horse wearing a white hood with a plan for burning crosses and killing innocents. I did not know that the full title for Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species was actually On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. I was sick to my stomach.

Finding this thinking in the mind of a man whose work we as a society lean so heavily on is disturbing to me. I know that a lot of the heroes of the past had problems with blacks. But it seems as if Darwin had something worse than a lack of comfort with blacks or a belief that white’s were superior, he seemed to have a scientifically based belief that we were not going to last. Lucky for me he was wrong.

I have read a little about how in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s many whites suffered from Negrophobia and they believed that blacks were akin to beasts. Who would want a beast living next door? I think some of these things will get more of my attention when the semester is over. I can only take this stuff in small doses. It is interesting, eye opening, and irritating to the soul. Each time I read one of these shocking passages it is like sustaining a blow. I need some time to recover.

I am still reading about what life was like for blacks in Greenwood. I am continuing this work so that I can further document and understand what Booker was up against and what he was living through. Some of the leaders in the white community during the 1950’s actually described the relationship whites had with blacks as harmonious! Sometimes I think this was just rhetoric to keep more liberated whites at bay. But I am sure that many of these whites were blind, or allowed themselves to believe that they were blind, to the challenges and the lack of opportunities for blacks. They believed that the blacks must be happy in their rundown houses, what would a Negro do with a big house anyway? They believed that blacks must be happy using their own substandard bathrooms and ill equipped dentists, they were used to living this way.

It reminds me of Barbara Bush’s statements on Marketplace when she was speaking about Katrina victims who were living in the Houston Astrodome. She said “and so many of the people in the area here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working well for them.” Yes, they are poor anyway so they don’t mind sharing a bathroom with thousands of other people who they don’t know. This type of thinking boggles my mind.

As far as my work goes, this first week was one of assessments. I would like to present Booker as a subject for the African American National Biography. In order to do this I need to learn a little more about the project itself, I need to identify informants who can give me a clearer view of what Booker did in the early 1960’s. I also think that some of the people mentioned in Endesha Mae Holland’s book may be useful if I can figure out how to reach them. She mentioned going to Booker’s Place many times, it seems as though it was a favorite hangout spot for her and her friends. So, this week I am going to try to make calls and contacts in an effort to come up with a short list of possible informants, I am also going to read some of the bio on the African American National Biography to make sure that Booker's story would even be a good fit, then I need to find out what their timelines/deadlines are.