The Well – by Mildred D Taylor (1995)

The Well

If you have read any of this author’s books, you are familiar with the Logans, an African-American family living in Mississippi in the early 1900s. This book is a prequel to Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry, the author’s most well-known novel. All her stories, though fictional, are based on events that actually happened to her father’s family.

In “The Well”, it is 1910 and a severe drought has hit part of Mississippi. As wells dry up, everyone becomes desperate for water. Eventually, the Logans have the only well that still has an adequate supply of water. Neighbors – both black and white – come by with barrels, and the Logans share with all.

Unfortunately, young Charlie Simms is determined to harass and belittle any black person who doesn’t submit meekly to him. Ten-year-old David Logan tries to appease Charlie, but his older brother Hammer gets in a fight with Charlie. The situation quickly escalates to the point where someone could be lynched.

For anyone born after the days when it was not uncommon to hear of lynchings of black people, this book is a bird’s-eye view of the degradation and abuse of African-American citizens. Appropriate for ages ten and up.

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Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 1

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(This is a re-print of one of my favorite book reviews)

An old proverb says you cannot understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. In 1959, John Griffin decided to do just that. Born in Texas in 1920, he went to France as a young man, and studied both literature and medicine. He also interned at the Asylum of Tours, using experimental music therapy on the criminally insane patients. During his stay there, World War II broke out. John used his medic skills to treat wounded French Resistance fighters, and helped move Austrian Jews out of France. When it became too dangerous, John returned to the United States.

From there he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific for about three years. A bombing attack damaged his vision, and by 1946 he was totally blind. In his years of blindness he experience a spiritual revival, and became a devout Catholic. He also wrote a number of stories, using his trusty typewriter. In 1953 he married Elizabeth Holland, and together they had four children. A few years later, his eyesight was restored, and John developed skill as a photographer.

By 1959, racial tensions between the whites and the Negroes were at an all-time high. This bothered John greatly, as Negroes had been treated as equals in France. He devised a plan to “become” a Negro for a month or so, then write his impressions of what it was like to be a black person in the southern states. A dermatologist gave him prescription medication to darken his skin. Skin creams and hours under a sun lamp intensified the effects. John also shaved his head so that his hair would not give him away. And so he “became” a black man, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The things he experienced changed the course of his life.

Excerpts from page 54-55 of 35th anniversary edition:

With almost an hour before bus departure, I turned away and looked for a place to sit. The large, handsome room was almost empty. No other Negro was there, and I dared not take a seat unless I saw some other Negro also seated.

Once again a “hate stare” drew my attention like a magnet. It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light….

A Negro porter sidled over to me. I glimpsed his white coat and turned to him. His glance met mine and communicated the sorrow, the understanding. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked him.

He touched my arm in that mute and reassuring way of men who share a moment of crisis. “Go outside and around the corner of the building. You’ll find the room.”

The white man continued to stare, his mouth twisted with loathing as he turned his head to watch me move away.

In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFE, presumably because of interstate regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting.

Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry – by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry

This classic book is about a black family living in Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. There’s Big Ma (the grandmother), David Paul and Mary (the parents) and their children – Stacey (12), Cassie (9), Christopher-John (7), and Little Man (6). Not far into the story, Uncle Hammer joins them, as well as an unemployed man named Mr. Morrison The Logan family owns a 200-acre farm, which was purchased after the Civil War from a northern carpetbagger. The white family that used to own the land wants it back, and will go to great lengths to get what they want.

The story is told by Cassie, the only daughter of David and Mary. Through her eyes you see the tightness of the family , as well as the harassment and prejudice that they experience from the white community. However, there are several whites who are portrayed in a positive light – Jeremy Simms, a classmate that does not share his family’s racial prejudices, and Mr. Jamison, a lawyer who supports the boycott against the local grocery store.

I greatly enjoyed reading this book. The conversations between Cassie and her three brothers were very authentic, and sounded like any other siblings’ squabbles. But my favorite part of the book had to be when her brother Stacey came up with a plan to get back at the bus driver who was always humiliating them. I also found Jeremy’s relationship with the Logan kids interesting. He was trying so hard to be their friend, but there just wasn’t any way to have a bi-racial friendship work for them.

You should be able to find this book in just about any public library or school media center. It is also available as an audiobook, with an excellent narrator. I listened to her smooth voice read the story perfectly as I drove to and from work. It was hard to turn off the CD player and get out of the car. When I reached the end of the story, I found myself wanting to hear more stories about the Logan family. And indeed, there are more stories! Stop at your local library and check out one the books written about the Logans:

Song Of The Trees (1975)
Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry (1976)
Let The Circle Be Unbroken (1981)
The Friendship (1987)
Mississippi Bridge (1987)
The Road To Memphis (1992)
The Well (1995)
The Land (2001)

Having Our Say – by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (1993)

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This exceptional biography is the story of two sisters – Sadie and Bessie Delany – whose lives spanned more than a hundred years. The sisters were born in the late 1800’s to a father who was a former slave, and a mother who was light enough to have passed for caucasian. Eventually the sisters had eight siblings. Despite the struggles that were common to African-Americans, Sadie and Bessie worked hard and had very successful lives. Sadie, the older sister, was a school teacher in New York City, and Bessie became a dentist. Neither one married, instead devoting their lives to their careers and each other.

This is not your usual biography. It’s not a dry, chronological account of where they were and what they did there. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of their lives, they focus on just the things that they felt passionately about – their family history, getting educated, the oppression of Negro citizens, being working women, helping those around them, and the Civil Rights Movement. The books sounds as if they orally recorded their memories, then transcribed it into print. Bessie and Sadie alternated telling their story, with an occasion summary section written by Amy Hearth. By the end of the book, I was wanting to hear more Sadie and Bessie stories, and that is how a great biography should end!

Here are some clips from the book, in their words:

Excerpt from page 117-118 (Sadie speaking):

I got my first teaching job in New York in the fall of 1920. I think I was paid $1,500 for the year. It was at P.S. 119 in Harlem, which was an elementary school, mostly colored. This was a typical assignment for a colored teacher. They most certainly did not want us in schools where the children were white. The parents would object. One way that the principles kept us out was to say they could not hire anyone with a Southern accent because it would be damaging to the children. Well, most of us colored teachers at the time had Southern accents. So it was just a way of keeping us out.

When my Southern accent was considered a problem, I found a way around that. I signed up with a speech coach – a woman in Manhattan. She was a white woman, a lovely woman. I don’t think she had too many colored clients. I remember that when I would go to her apartment for the lessons, the doorman made me take the freight elevator. I didn’t make a fuss because I wanted those speech lessons.

You had to decide: Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, just by changing me? If I can get ahead, doesn’t that help my people?

Excerpt from page 124 (Bessie speaking):

There were so very few women dentists at all, never mind colored women dentists. Why, I was only the second Negro woman licensed to practice in New York. I was also only the second Negro woman to get a dental license in North Caroline. (I got my license there, think I might go back someday.)

It was bad enough to be discriminated against by white people because I was colored. But then, my own people would discriminate against me because I was a woman! Two times I remember that men patients of mine insisted that Hap come and pull their teeth. I remember one man said to me, “Can you pull teeth with those little hands?” and I said, “Do you really want to find out?” It made me mad. I could take those forceps and pull just as hard as any man. That sexism was a nasty thing to deal with. But once a person had been my patient, they’d always come back. The word got out: That colored woman dentist has a gentle touch.

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) Part 3

John Griffin books

Part 3:

The third time I read “Black Like Me”, I read the 35th anniversary edition. It contained some additions that were not in the earlier printing. I was especially struck by John’s observations about racism not being limited to any one race.

 
“The Negro does not understand the white any more than the white understands the Negro. I was dismayed to see the extent to which this youth exaggerated – how could he do otherwise? – the feelings of the whites toward Negroes. He thought they all hated him.

The most distressing repercussion of this lack of communication has been the rise in racism among Negroes, justified to some extent, but a grave symptom nevertheless. It only strengthens the white racist’s cause. The Negro who turns now, in the moment of near-realization of his liberties, and bares his fangs at a man’s whiteness, makes the same tragic error the white racist has made.

And it is happening on a wider scale. Too many of the more militant leaders are preaching Negro superiority. I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance.

If some spark does set the keg afire, it will be a senseless tragedy of ignorant against ignorant, injustice answering injustice – a holocaust that will drag down the innocent and right-thinking masses of human beings.”

(from page 159 of the 35th anniversary edition)

 

John Griffin was right. People of any race can become convinced, sometimes wrongly so, that everyone of a different race hates them. This belief builds walls between groups of people, and keeps them from understanding each other. When hearts are ruled by hate, no one wins.

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 2

John_Howard_Griffin

link to “Black Like Me – part 1”:
https://alwaysreading1.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/black-like-me-by-john-howard-griffin-1961part1/

I have read “Black Like Me” three times now, and am moved each time by John’s 1959 experience as a Negro in the deep South. John had been born in Texas in 1920, when prejudice and segregation ruled, then lived in France, where whites and blacks enjoyed the same rights. Upon returning to the U.S. later, he must have thought to himself: Why would white people hate Negroes so much?

John was one of many people in the 1950’s and ’60s who acted on their beliefs that all men were created equal, and deserved to be treated as such. His book was published two years later, in 1961. John became a much-sought-after speaker about civil rights. Wherever he went, his speeches made people angry. John wrote:

“In my own case, if I stayed more than three days in any large city, I usually tried to change hotels or else move in with some black family. In one city in Louisiana where I lectured, I could not even stay in the city because all the lodging places had been threatened with bombings if they accepted me as a guest.

This kind of thing continued throughout the early and mid-sixties. We led strange, hidden lives. We were advocating only one thing: that this country rid itself of the racism that prevented some citizens from living as fully functioning men and as a result dehumanized all men. We were advocating only that this country live up to its promises to all citizens. But since racism always hides under a respectable guise – usually the guise of patriotism and religion – a great many people loathed us for knocking holes in these respectable guises. It was clear that we would have to live always under threat…”

(from page 167 of the 35th anniversary edition)

Finally, the death threats became too great. John, his parents, his wife, and the four children moved to Mexico for awhile.. Sometimes when you follow your conscience, life does not reward you. Instead, you may find yourself rejected or even harmed. But in the end, you have to live with yourself. Thank God for people who persist in speaking the truth and standing up for what they know is right, even when it costs them dearly.

Black Like Me – by John Howard Griffin (1961, 1996) part 1

Black Like Me

(cover of 35th anniversary printing, 1996)

An old proverb says you cannot understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. In 1959, John Griffin decided to do just that. Born in Texas in 1920, he went to France as a young man, and studied both literature and medicine. He also interned at the Asylum of Tours, using experimental music therapy on the criminally insane patients. During his stay there, World War II broke out. John used his medic skills to treat wounded French Resistance fighters, and helped move Austrian Jews out of France. When it became too dangerous, John returned to the United States.

From there he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the South Pacific for about three years. A bombing attack damaged his vision, and by 1946 he was totally blind. In his years of blindness he experience a spiritual revival, and became a devout Catholic. He also wrote a number of stories, using his trusty typewriter. In 1953 he married Elizabeth Holland, and together they had four children. A few years later, his eyesight was restored, and John developed skill as a photographer.

By 1959, racial tensions between the whites and the Negroes were at an all-time high. This bothered John greatly, as Negroes had been treated as equals in France. He devised a plan to “become” a Negro for a month or so, then write his impressions of what it was like to be a black person in the southern states. A dermatologist gave him prescription medication to darken his skin. Skin creams and hours under a sun lamp intensified the effects. John also shaved his head so that his hair would not give him away. And so he “became” a black man, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. The things he experienced changed the course of his life.

Excerpts from page 54-55 of 35th anniversary edition:

With almost an hour before bus departure, I turned away and looked for a place to sit. The large, handsome room was almost empty. No other Negro was there, and I dared not take a seat unless I saw some other Negro also seated.

Once again a “hate stare” drew my attention like a magnet. It came from a middle-aged, heavy-set, well-dressed man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light….

A Negro porter sidled over to me. I glimpsed his white coat and turned to him. His glance met mine and communicated the sorrow, the understanding. “Where am I supposed to go?” I asked him.

He touched my arm in that mute and reassuring way of men who share a moment of crisis. “Go outside and around the corner of the building. You’ll find the room.”

The white man continued to stare, his mouth twisted with loathing as he turned his head to watch me move away.

In the colored waiting room, which was not labeled as such, but rather as COLORED CAFE, presumably because of interstate regulations, I took the last empty seat. The room was crowded with glum faces, faces dead to all enthusiasm, faces of people waiting.