Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"My wound is geography." - Conroy

Sometimes I don't blog because I feel like I can't tell the whole truth.  I try lots and lots of different ways to write things that are provocative but that won't get me in trouble, but I really don't know how to write like that.

I am leaving soon to go to New York City for 11 days.  Our film is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.  I'm doing TV, radio, and more.  I did a one hour interview with the NY Times a few weeks ago and another with the Amsterdam News last weekend.

But there is that pesky little problem, that theme that just won't rest.  Whenever I think I have a handle on it, it snaps back and knocks me in the face.  Family.

The Times reporter wanted to interview my Tornado.  When I called to ask her if she was interested in helping tell the story of the first man to ever love her, the man who met her every day when she walked home from school and swooped her up and swung her around and around in the air, when I asked her if she wanted to tell his story to the Times she said no and hung up on me.  Last summer she learned for the first time that I was molested.  Her only response was to accuse me of using that revelation to tarnish her image.  I know, she's broken.

It's always been like this.  I've had years and years of counseling over this.  It still hurts like hell.

So, why am I downcast tonight?  Because I am going to the premiere of my movie alone.  None of Booker Wright's children are coming.  I tried.  I cajoled.  I was turned down.  Dateline will be there to film me walking into the theater......alone.

This is the story, right?  It's because of stuff like this that I have a story at all.  My family is broken.  I honestly believe that members of my family experienced horrors in Greenwood that left them almost beyond repair.  By all appearances they look fine.  We all do.  But there is something in our family that alters us, traveling like a mark on an unsuspecting chromosome.  It makes us act like enemies when really we desire nothing more than one another's company.

Over and over again I ask myself if I'd lived their lives and the lives of my ancestors, what kind of a parent would I be?  If I was a man who knew that he could not protect his wife from rape or his children from being sold into slavery, could I ever give my heart to them?  Would I ever look into their sweet, unknowing eyes?  Would I ever even smile at them?  Would they be able to give their hearts to their own children? How many generations would have to pass for this to heal?

What if I was a black woman living in Greenwood where the only way out was for the right man to get me pregnant?  What if romantic love was a luxury that only white people got to indulge in?  What if I couldn't look for love, I could only look for economic security?  What kind of a family would I form with that man?

What if I lived in Greenwood in the 1960's as a sharecropper with too many mouths to feed?  My oldest children miss school to work the fields, their younger siblings miss school to care for their even younger siblings.  It's all I can do to make it through the day before falling into bed each night.  Every morning I wake up in a panic, wondering how I will feed my children.  I don't read books to them at night. We can't afford books and I don't have the energy.  When they do go to school, I don't understand their homework.  I don't think about how to create complex, deep character in them.  I don't teach them to love Sinatra or fret over which piano teacher will be best.  I just pray that the boys don't end up in jail and that the girls don't get pregnant.  That's all I've got, because I'm black and I'm from Greenwood.

This is the mark that stains us.  There's more of course.  Alcoholism, incest, and the like.  Children robbed of the innocence of their childhood, only to have it replaced by fear.  Then they grow up and have children of their own.  But no matter how far we stray one thing will always be true: We started out in Greenwood.

I left there when I was two, but I still seem to wear the mark.  Will my children wear the mark?  Will they read this and understand that each day that I parented them I was inventing it out of thin air?  Like trying to write a symphony with only a few music lessons to call upon.

Most of us have never contemplated or meditated on what it would feel like to be a grown black man who is called "boy" by a white child.  Most of us have never considered how a black waiter might feel every time he adopts an awkward high pitched voice and smiles the smile of the jolly negro so that he can keep his job. Consider this:  How does one live a humiliated life and then go home and give gifts of love and character to their children?

When I first learned that my grandfather was an unacknowledged civil rights figure, the first person I called, with tears and excitement, was someone in my family.  The next call was someone else in my family.  So was the next one and the one after that.  I felt so excited and so honored to be able to gift my family with a kind of celebration of him.  I felt like I had been called to tell his story.  Last year when we started making the film it felt like something bigger than me was making this whole thing possible.

For months I have imagined attending the premiere.  I always, always, always imagined that my dad, my mom, my aunt, my brother, and my children would all be there with me.  I imagined that we'd be high and giddy with joy - unable to contain our smiles.  I imagined that we'd feel special, together.  I am trying to hold onto the specialness of this vision, while letting go of everything else.  It's in moments like this that I wish celebrity and media meant more to me.  But they don't.

I long for my family.  I am 37 years old and I am still listening like an eager child for their congratulations.  But they won't be there.  I will be alone to celebrate a man that I never met who loved them desperately.  I guess it's fitting.  Booker and I started this journey alone - no one in my family knew about his appearance in Frank's doc - so, I'll finish it with him alone.  I will imagine myself holding Booker Wright's hand, while he whispers his thanks and congratulations to the little girl in me.

But this is the point, right?  This is the story, right?  It's entertaining, right?


  1. Hi Yvette! I have so loved reading your blog and learning your story. I heard about the movie, googled Booker's name and found your blog. I am from Greenwood. I don't live there anymore, but I grew up there and I have loved reading about your conflicted emotions about my hometown. At times, I feel the same way. I have watched the trailer for the movie and I am very excited to see it and hear about all that you have learned about Booker. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Shelby, I love that you can relate to some of those conflicted feelings about Greenwood. I treasure it and am so proud to be from there, but I also feel so grateful that my parents moved me away from the Delta. No matter what, Greenwood will always be home.

  3. I just listened to your interview on WNYC. I then went to the web find out more and discovered this entry. I am sorry that you must do this alone. But be proud of what you accomplished.

    My heart goes out to you and your family. I look forward to seeing your movie.

  4. I heard of your story for the first time today on WNYC also...and googled around to find your blog...wow...what a great post...know that you are not alone on this journey...I'm of your generation...and I too am curious about my family...a family that was deeply rooted in South Carolina for over 200 years...but, no one of today's family will talk about life in the south...I started researching my family on my own and I can't believe what I've found...I try to talk about it with family members...and no one's interested...sigh. I just wanted you to know that I know how you feel...and I agree that your grandfather will be holding your hand at the premiere...It is your journey...and it will be you who changes things with your kids...we can't forget...we must tell our stories to our children...and they will tell their children...and their children...enjoy!

    1. Soul Pretty, I can totally in terms of people not wanting to talk about the past. The thins I've learned about my family's past have rocked me, but also provided so much understanding and healing. I read this before the premiere, but I just figure out today how to respond to comments! So, thank you for your encouragement. I took your comment and the others "with me" to New York!

  5. Thank you so much for your blog and all the interviews you've done in support of your movie. I can't wait to see it - and - to learn more about your family and your grandfather's restaurant. The more interviews you do and the more you write about this experience - the more people will learn of an era and all the individuals that lived through it and how they coped and did things to change our future. Thank you!!!!

  6. Hi Yvette -

    I'm a producer for the Tom Joyner Morning Show and have been trying to reach you concerning your documentary. If you could email me, I would appreciate it - Nikki.Woods@ReachMediaInc.com. I look foward to hearing from you!


  7. Stephanie C. HortonApril 30, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    I so admire your courage, your strength, your beautiful vulnerabilities...You are a shero...a modern day Harriet Tubman leading Black people all over the world out of emotional, psychic shackles through the power of a singular act, a life-alternating story...the dark swampty underworld personified by Toni Morrison's Beloved. I am Liberian and your journey, your emotions, your wounds, your ancestor, move powerfully within me. Thank you for being the portal and vessel and channel for this healing.

  8. Your family should be ashamed of not supporting you. I guess the must still be in Mississippi. Your grandfather gave Jesus an extra thank you hug for his story finally being told. He and God are happy.

  9. Thank you for your comment. For the record, things with my family are complicated. I'm sure that if they had a platform like this they would have a very different version to tell. I don't know exactly why I was there alone, but I was. In the end it was fine. But I do appreciate your support! Thank you!

  10. Thank you Yvette for introducing us to such a wonderful man. This movie about your grandfather reminded me that there were and are beautiful souls in this world. I fell in love with your grandfather. Your grandfather made this world a better place.

  11. Life is always a struggle, it is precisely why things like prejudice don't make any sense. Even though we are individuals we are all connected, what one of us goes through is felt by each and every one of us in so many ways. It is good to remember that our memories are ours alone, like fingerprints they can never be duplicated, no matter if they change with each telling or not. Also if the memories are too damaging our minds will cover it up as if it didn't exist. This is why love is important if you understand your own hurts you can see the pain in others, pain is acted out in many ways mostly they are ugly no matter what color your skin. But Love opens up these hurts and soothes them with continual acceptance courage hope and care. I pray that you find patience with your family especially your razor tornado, she needs your love now more than ever.

  12. I watched dateline yesterday and I was very moved on how a man with so little did so much.
    Here we are talking about him today and this story took place so long ago.

    Yvette sometimes others will never see our vision and that is okay we are here to Serve no matter what.

    I would like to know more ignorance is the lack of knowledge and we all carry a little.

    The story is a reminder to me I have no excuse for not giving and being my best I shall push myself harder and use my GOD given gifts to serve.

    Thank you
    You Don't need others to keep your Fire burning just continue to be the light.

  13. I've read every single blog of yours, watched the Dateline series, the original documentary, and ordered your book. You are an excellent writer, and this is my favorite blog of yours. So eloquently articulated-- the questions about how would you be if you were in those shoes of our ancestors/relatives' circumstances... a very important one indeed, because we need to remember not only what the "Greats" did during the civil rights movement, but how each and every one of them coped to survive, so that we may have today...so very moving, I'm so proud of you, your family, and Booker Wright!! Thank you, thank you, for doing this!!