ACTING FOR OTHERS
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up there in a segregated, all-white suburb. In 1963, the year of the Easter demonstrations when Bull Connor attacked the peaceful protesters with dogs and firehoses, the year that the Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September, and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November, I was an elementary school student living “over the mountain.”
Even though I did not participate in the demonstrations, I consider myself a child of the civil rights era, for it has indelibly marked my life. The narrative of my childhood is bound up in this greater narrative. I am fascinated by the history of the movement, and, as I have grown older, I have sought to discover as much as I can about the period and the many, many people who played their part in bringing about such revolutionary social change. As Muriel Rukeyser famously said, "The world is not made of atoms. The world is made of stories."
It is perhaps hard for people born since the civil rights era to grasp how terribly difficult it was to change people's hearts and minds, and how very much courage it required. When I was teaching in public schools and colleges in Harlem, the South Bronx, and other minority neighborhoods in New York City in the 1980s, I realized that my students could not readily conceive of what it was like to be an African-American living under segregation even one generation before them, any more than I, a Jewish American, could imagine what it was like to be a Jew living in Nazi Germany. That’s a good thing, and yet it’s also important to be aware of what others sacrificed for our freedoms. As John Lewis said, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that [Pettus] bridge in Selma.”
I remember other children talking about “niggers” in such tones that my blood ran cold. And in fourth grade, when our teacher came to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot, I remember students actually cheering as they ran across the schoolyard to the waiting schoolbuses. I knew they had learned their behaviors at home. This was the backdrop of hate and the climate of fear I grew up in. I used to wonder, in those days, were I black, how much courage would I have?
My poem, Blessing XXVII, was inspired by the story told to me by one of the student leaders in that momentous year of 1963, who helped to bring about the University of Alabama’s peaceful integration despite Governor Wallace’s clownish “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The poem is a Blessing, because it has a happy ending despite the governor’s antics, and because it shows blacks and whites working together towards a common goal, and how two people, James Hood and Vivian Malone, rose to the challenges they asked of themselves and displayed heroism.
The student leaders at the University of Alabama
No one dared admit to wanting integration.
In preliminary talks with student leaders,
On June 11, 1963, personally escorted
“Segregation now, segregation forever!”