Drawn as if by a magnet, I enter a spacious room. An overstuffed chair sits in the corner, several boxes stacked by its side. A few crates, some of their contents lying atop them, rest in the room’s center. It’s as if someone is in the middle of unpacking. I walk over to a crate to sit and, as I do, a surprisingly reassuring and familiar sense settles over me. From my perch, I spy a doorway leading to other rooms and as I explore those rooms, I understand that all of them are mine. Curiosity fills me as I consider the expansiveness and possibility these chambers hold. And then I wake.
I’ve had this dream several times over the decades and each time upon waking, I feel the same intense curiosity. Why do I feel as if I know this place, yet am surprised by its existence? How is it I feel I’ve encountered something important, something significant, yet can’t quite touch what it is? A puzzle. A mystery. We all have them in our lives.
Recently, listening to a talk by poet David Whyte, I heard him speak of “the parts of ourselves we have yet to meet.” I thought of those mystery rooms, and something clicked, finally. The rooms are parts of myself I have yet to meet, to know, parts of a bigger me to be discovered and explored.
A similar feeling struck me when I first read The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. This project, conceived by Nicole Hannah-Jones as a special feature of the New York Times commemorating the four-hundred-year anniversary of enslaved Africans’ landing in what would become the United States, evolved into a book, published in 2021. So much I hadn’t known about our county’s history, and as a citizen of this country, part of my history, too, unfolded before me. A fuller, richer and, yes, more tragic history, yet not without perseverance touched by glimmers of triumph. To acquaint oneself, I thought, with this history is to know oneself better and understand our larger human family’s tragedies and triumphs more fully. These tragedies and triumphs are integral to the context that has a part in shaping us, in shaping me.
When I was invited to write a review of the book, I welcomed the opportunity to investigate further what this magisterial work had to teach me about my country. And myself.
In the reading, a number of significant themes took me, viscerally, to my own experience of growing up in the Jim Crow South and reignited an old elemental outrage over that hypocritical milieu and its residue. In that regard, three powerful themes stood out to me as I pored over each poem, essay, piece of short fiction, and photograph. The first was irony—that slavery and its progenies have thrived in a democratic republic founded on the premise “all men are created equal.” The second was contradiction—that people accused of being shiftless and lazy succeed, thrive, and then are punished horrifically for their success. And the third was a zero-sum game mentality—if those people have the same rights as White people, then the rights of White people are somehow diminished.
Again and again, these themes wove themselves throughout, just as I saw them in action in my everyday life, growing up in the Florida panhandle during those Jim Crow years. Just as, I’m afraid, they continue to do so in our world today. Unable to think in terms of themes, to name these actions as a child, I was confused by the strict demarcation of White and Colored bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools, churches, restaurants and more. And I became more confused when, beginning at age eight, and for a number of years after, our mother and we three kids spent our summer months in Colorado, where no such signs existed. I see now, a seed was planted. I was young, and it grew slowly, but it had found fertile ground. Over the years, that seed flowered into a deep commitment to social justice through my work in schools, universities and communities.
Other ideas in 1619 also stirred me deeply, providing new rooms of thought to explore. One, put forth in Ibram X. Kendi’s powerful essay, “Progress,” is how our idea that progress occurs naturally gets in the way of making progress. Coming of age in the 1960s when so many entrenched issues were brought into the open and grappled with, and with some success, I found Kendi’s explication of progress astounding in its candor and simplicity. His point, obvious today, given that progress on many of the social issues we sought to address in the 20th century is now being reversed. One need look no further than the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, enabling many red states to rush to ban abortion altogether, regardless of need. It leads me to think of my own ectopic pregnancy, decades ago. Discovered serendipitously when I was having another procedure, the doctor later explained that it was in a particularly hazardous place and, had they not found it, I would likely not have been there to hear about it. Had that happened to me in a different state today, I wouldn’t be here writing this narrative. And I think of the women who, for a multitude of reasons, including rape and unsafe pregnancies, no longer have the option of ending their pregnancies, ectopic or not, and how that disproportionately affects poor women, women in the margins, and women of color. The injustice outrages me, just as it should outrage us all.
In another arena, perhaps even more pertinent, some states are now passing laws to forbid teaching about race in our public schools. As an educator who spent more than forty years working for social justice and trying to bring the public purposes of education in a democracy to be more fully realized, I’m thunderstruck.
But as Kendi also illustrates in “Progress,” it’s when we think we’ve made progress that complacency and backlash step in to thwart it. When a significant step is taken, say, we elect a Black man president, then we no longer need to be concerned about racism. We become self-satisfied, and that is not acceptable. Richard Cohen, author of Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past, suggests, rightly I believe, we too easily become distracted by self-applause. Then those for whom that reflection of progress is anathema find a way to nullify it, say, by electing a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan in the next round. It’s clear to me that resting on our laurels doesn’t nurture progress, it only closes a door. As does overlooking the vehemence of those who oppose such manifestations of progress.
With a pang, I think of friends who, given the virulent backlash of what’s happening in society today, say, “That’s it. I’m done with this,” and tune out societal struggles altogether. In a way, I do understand this reaction. We all get tired. But, when I think of the people who contributed to 1619 and the people whose struggles they wrote about, I have a different reaction. For centuries now, the enslaved and the descendants of the enslaved had and still have the courage, the tenacity, the sheer determination to do the vital work of pushing for freedom, thereby helping us all to try to more fully realize the promise of our democracy. Their indefatigability inspires me and compels me to stay engaged, to do what I can.
I think of others, too, who have inspired me, shored me up, joined with me in our shared work toward truth and social justice. There are many, but one person in particular stands out because of our special bond created around the importance of origin stories.
In the mid-1990s, Mona Bailey and I found ourselves on a team of educators from across the country assembled to evaluate the Philadelphia Public School District. One day, on a lunch break between school visits and meetings with teachers, administrators, parents, students, and union leaders, Mona and I struck up a conversation and ended up having lunch together.
We talked about our impressions of what we’d encountered so far and the work ahead of us. In the process, I learned that she had been a science teacher, counselor, principal, deputy superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and assistant superintendent for Washington State. And all along, her passionate advocacy for equity and excellence for all students, and particularly underachieving students, had kept her active on boards and commissions dedicated to these purposes.
At that point, our conversation became more personal. She mentioned growing up in Apalachicola, in the Florida panhandle. Surprised, I told her that my birthplace was Marianna, and childhood home was nearby Sneads. Mona and I had grown up only miles apart.
We compared notes. Mona had been born at home. Her mother, because of the color of her skin, hadn’t been allowed in the hospital. Later on, approaching high school years, her father sent her to a Catholic boarding school in New Orleans so she could get a good education. My mother had given birth to me in the Jackson County hospital, and I had attended a Whites only elementary school in Sneads. Mona’s brothers had played basketball games in Sneads, but in the other school. All because of the type of melanin in their skin.
Our personal origins were rooted in the same part of the country, yet our stories were vastly different. Through the years we worked together on multiple initiatives, and at some point, Mona proposed our writing a book that would consist of our respective memories and our feelings about growing up in the same but different panhandle. Through this suggestion, Mona was opening a door to a new room for both of us to explore. And when tall, elegant Mona suggested to short, casual me that we title our book Sisters of the Panhandle, I felt awe in the possibility of sharing our stories that way.
Sadly, Mona passed away before we found the time in our busy lives to write that book. Our intention, had we written those up-close and personal stories, was to illustrate the common bonds we had, the fullness, for better or worse, of our range of experiences given our place of origin. Our purpose, therefore, differed significantly from the way origin stories are all too often used and written about. Nicole Hannah-Jones takes up the subject in “Justice,” 1619’s final essay, observing that, to some degree, origin stories serve “as myths designed to create a shared sense of history and purpose.” She says, “Nations simplify these narratives in order to unify and glorify, and these origin stories serve to illuminate how a society wants to see itself—and how it doesn’t.” Mona and I wanted to see ourselves and each other honestly and write from our hearts and our experience.
Another strong influence in my life, both philosophical and personal, has been poet, essayist, and dear friend, the late Gary Holthaus. Gary’s interest in sustainability crossed societies, politics, agriculture, economics and more. He believed that worldview influences our ability to have a sustainable culture. In his book Learning Native Wisdom, Gary wrote that a sustainable culture moves in two directions: “back, to learn the stories of the past and get them right, and forward, to transcend the past and create a more viable future.”
To get them right, the stories we tell ourselves must evolve as we look more closely into the unknown rooms of our history, the parts of ourselves as a country that we are only now meeting. Just as, on a personal level, the stories Mona and I shared about growing up in that part of the Jim Crow South gave us new ways of viewing our own experience then and during the rich two decades of our friendship.
In reviewing The 1619 Project, I felt hopeful realizing that awakening to truth offers the possibility of more consistent progress. That awakening offers a path for us to more fully realize our potential as a country, as well as part of humanity by making room for a richer, more complete story. I’m grateful to Nicole Hannah-Jones and others who write these truths, just as I will always be grateful to Mona and Gary and so many others for the wisdom and grace with which they opened doors and invited me to meet different parts of myself.