Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Handsome Twosome

I keep thinking about how much time this whole project has taken away from my “real” life.  What’s my real life?  My real life is spent hiking and picking flowers with two little boys who are the very definition of handsome and cuddly.  In my real life I cuddle on the couch with my kids and read book after book without ever wondering how much time has passed.    

Watching and listening to my kids play is a true high for me.  To say that I love the sound of their laughter is to put it mildly.  Their laughter is a beautiful music that’s the soundtrack of my life.  When they smile their skin is taut over their plump brown cheeks and their bright white smiles glow only slightly less than the whites of their eyes against their stark black pupils.  They are truly beautiful and I miss them. 

“But you home school, how can you miss them?”  Teaching my boys to read, write, and do arithmetic is not the same as what I described above.  In my “real” life the days flow together like endless amounts of unsegmented time.  At any given moment we could be jumping on the trampoline together, going for an impromptu walk, playing chase at the park, or eating ice cream in bed. 

I wanted to give my sons the gift of heritage which is what this work has been about.  Even more than that though I wanted to give my sons the gift of a relaxed, unscheduled, carefree childhood on which they could look back upon and recall days spent riding bikes, climbing trees, and hiking mountains.  Even more than this idyllic childhood, I wanted to give them me. 

I remember as a girl that I loved riding my bike on the tree lined streets of our suburban neighborhood, I loved eating chocolate ice cream from 31 Flavors, watching Tom and Jerry, and chasing boys.  But most of all I loved my mom.  No matter where I was or what activity I was engaged in, I would always be willing to give it all up to be able to spend quality time with her.  I can still recall the joy I felt whenever her eyes smiled at me.  Having her listen to me, talk with me, and go places with me was always the highest of highs.

I hate how much time I’ve been spending away from my kids.  Writing, researching, and homeschooling leave very little time for impromptu dates with my boys, leisurely strolls to the lake and so on. 

I feel a bit of conflict about this season in my life.  Some days (like today, obviously) I feel like I’m running out of steam.  I’m writing at a Paradise Bakery and I am not with my kids.  I schooled them this morning and then quickly had to leave them with their dad so that I could run errands and write. 

Hopefully, this detour in my life will not last forever.  Maybe one day they’ll read this and they’ll know that while they were missing me I was missing them too.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

I'll Shut-Up Now

I'm an idiot.  A selfish, self-consumed idiot.  After causing someone I love dearly immeasurably deep pain, I finally get it.  Not only do we all deal with the past differently, we remember it differently.  As a mother I'm sure that I'll look back one day and need to believe that all went relatively well in the raising of my kids. Whether it's the truth or not, it's something that I'll probably need to believe so badly that I'll just believe it anyway.

For me, looking into the past is therapeutic.  For other people it can be like a death sentence.  Someone I love is hurting.  This work, these conversations, this research has really hurt someone who I love and who I never intended to hurt.

A very smart friend told me once (actually she tells me over and over again) that non-fiction writers should never write about the living relatives in their family.  It can cause too much damage.  I didn't completely agree with her.  It worked in "The Glass Castle", right?  But it's not working here.  Knowing that I experienced pain and hurt as a girl is too much for some of my loved ones to bear.

I thought that since it was "my story" I should be allowed to tell it anyway I want anywhere I wanted.  But my story, almost every piece of it, is always intertwined with others.  I wasn't alone then and I'm not alone now.  It's more than a courtesy to leave out the bad things that other people may have done when I tell my story.  It's a great kindness.  It's the ultimate act of forgiveness.

If you're reading, I'm sorry.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sound Bites Bite

So, I’m going to be interviewed by a well known national news program.  I always knew that there was a chance that at some point all of this stuff (making the movie) would get to a point where it just felt so weird that it was surreal.  The details would get so “out of this world” that I would become numb – experiencing my life as an observer. 

I think we’re there.  The “awe” the “wow” of the whole national news program thing is completely lost on me.  I’m just watching now and waiting to see how it all shakes out.  Every now and then my girlfriends ask me for updates on the movie and the book.  We meet for coffee or have quick calls.  That’s when I check in.  Otherwise, I am completely and utterly checked out. 

I think a part of me doesn’t want to get too wrapped in all of this.  In my normal, every day life no one asks me to write books or to be interviewed by national news sources.  People ask me for sandwiches and to glue dearly loved toys back together.  I have a simple, rich, lovingly chaotic life that I will be returning to when all of this is over.  On some level I want to stay connected to my simple life and not get overly wrapped up in all this other stuff.  This is one of the main reasons I’m not bouncing off the walls with excitement.

There are two others.  Race and family: the themes that seem to being chasing me when I’m not chasing them.  Maybe it's race, or maybe it's class, or maybe labels don’t matter.  In my pre-interview with the news program’s producer he asked me if I thought things had changed in Greenwood since the airing of the 1966 film.  I never know how to answer this.  I usually say that I can’t answer that because I’m not from Greenwood and answering that is arrogant or somehow insensitive.  Who am I to go around shouting my California girl opinions from the rooftops?

One of the questions presented during my first filmmaking trip to Mississippi was, “Did desegregation work in Greenwood?”  Someone on the production team encouraged Raymond and I to start asking this in interviews.  We did.  It turns out that a lot of people have questions about how well desegregation worked in that small town.

I don’t think anyone would say that Greenwood should go back to an era of segregation when a white cop could beat up my grandfather and his partner could shoot Silas McGhee in the face, both without consequence.  Some people would say that the work wasn’t taken to completion.  Whites were allowed to open private schools, they moved to the other side of the bridge and on and on.  But can we really legislate hearts and minds?  If you disgust me and I resent you, what laws are going to make us live peacefully with one another? 

I home school my kids partly because I think the public school system is in serious trouble.  But I don’t go around criticizing the schools because I really don’t have any solutions.  How does one adult meet the educational needs of 30 kids for seven hours?  I don’t know.

I feel the same way about Greenwood.  There is something otherworldly about it – at least for someone like me who grew up in a large city.  Some parts are beautiful.  Other parts are blanketed in hopelessness like an LA fog.  It permeates every orifice, every door, every home, and every heart.  It’s the kind of place that would make you believe that there is no way out.  Of course (the pundits would say) there is always a way out.  A football star can pump his legs, push against the soil with his toes, stick his neck out and run like hell to get as far as he can from the house he grew up in, the one that was a stone’s throw away from the home where Emmett Till slept on that fateful night.

Desegregation’s impact on Greenwood, MS is delicate and painful to talk about.  When white businesses were integrated almost all of the black businesses eventually closed.  Then many of the white businesses started to shut down or moved to the “white” side of town.

The other thing I feel apprehensive about when I anticipate this interview is the story of my family.  I still haven’t come up with the perfect, empty, yet provocative sound bite to give to the press about why I needed to find Booker Wright in the first place.  I don’t want to throw my family under the bus, but I also don’t want to lie.  Were we a success story or did the stench of their fear-filled Greenwood past follow us to the West Coast, haunting my parents to the point that they simply couldn’t properly parent us?  I’m not supposed to say that.  I’m supposed to say something else.  I’m supposed to walk a verbal tightrope that keeps my soul clean and honest but that also appeases my entire family, including my abusers. 

“You have to respect and honor your family.”  “Alcoholism is a disease, you have to treat them like they’re suffering from a disease…” even if their suffering left you on the edge of sanity.  “Think of them first.  This is not a time to dishonor your family.”  Think of the abusers. 

How did I get nominated to be the spokesperson, again?  Oh yeah, I wanted to learn a little something about my grandfather?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Today I spoke with the woman who oversees Cork's unit and she agreed to shred the visitation forms for me.  Honestly, I hate even writing this post.  I feel like a total wimp.  Pursuing Cork, however, just makes me feel too exposed.  Yesterday my kids were playing in the backyard and I kept wondering what I'd do if, at that exact moment, an ex-con knocked on my door with an unfriendly message for me from the man who murdered my grandfather.

The odds are slim that he would get his hands on my home address.  The odds are even slimmer that he'd be able to somehow "get" to me.  But I just feel a little less safe knowing that my personal data is in the same building with him.  Actually, I feel a lot less safe.

This is a hunt, a real journey, an honest search for me to get as close as I can to the truth of my grandfather's life and death.  But this journey is not and never will be the center of my life.  I have a family that moves and breathes regardless of what happened 38 years ago.  I've been blessed beyond my wildest dreams with an amazing life.  I don't want to put even the smallest portion of it in jeopardy for what really amounts to a hobby that's lasted for four and a half years.

I'm sad.  I'm feeling quite reflective about all of this.  I've devoted so much time and so many hours and so many resources to this journey with the hope that it would yield something rich for me.  In many ways it has and it many ways it hasn't. Making that call today brought me relief that I could protect my info from a murderer, shame for being so fearful, and a sadness because I was closing a door that I'd hoped for so long would open.

I don't know how much longer I'll continue to post here.  I thought I was finished "making the movie", but the producer mentioned the other day that we need to shoot just one more on-camera interview of me.  There are a few moments that need to be explained more clearly, and then Raymond is trying to work out some final moments to sum up my thoughts on Booker's life.  That's the hardest part.

It used to be that whenever I thought of my grandfather I swelled with pride.  Now it's different.  I picture a man who smiled for everyone.  He protected and taught his children, all the while showering them with joy and good times.  But this same man was beaten by the police and possibly harassed by them more than I will ever know.

Just before he died, my grandfather told my aunt that if anything ever happened to him she should know that he'd lived a good life.  Who says things like that when they're only 46 years old?  I keep wondering whether or not he endured continual harassment from the police.  Was he receiving threats?  Did he think someone was coming for him?

He just strikes me as lonely.  I wish I could find someone who he talked to about the beating.  I wish someone could tell me that he'd made peace with it all.  But if he never talked about these things, if he just kept them inside, could he have ever really found peace?

I often think of him as someone who was given a life of sour lemons (separated from his mother, raised on a plantation in poverty, working full time at 14, living in a town where whites took a hard stance against integration), but he took those lemons and he made lemonade.  Whenever I try to stop my summation of Booker Wright's life there, another voice always seems to echo back to me, "Who could he have been had he been given something besides lemons?"

This brings me to another thought.  Not that my grandfather was necessarily a civil rights hero - he was an everyday guy who simply did the right thing.  But, I think the danger of focusing so much on the heroes of the civil rights movement is that we forget the reason why there even had to be a movement in the first place.  We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. for his accomplishments, but maybe all he wanted out of his life was to watch his children grow up.  Or maybe he would've been the first black president.  We will never know.

I am proud that Booker Wright owned his own business and was able to spend the last several years of his life working for himself.  Booker's Place was on one of the roughest streets in town.  My grandfather did his best to ensure that it was the nicest place on that street.

What kind of a place could he have opened if banks back then lent money to blacks?  What could Booker's Place have been if all restaurants were integrated? Who could Booker Wright have been if more than two jobs (waiter or cotton picker) were available to him in Greenwood all those years ago?

He was a big fish in a small, black pond.  But who could he have been if the pond had always been integrated?