Tag: Clarion-Ledger (Page 1 of 4)

Pioneering conservationist Fannye Cook was truly a Mississippi hero

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion Ledger Sunday print edition (November 27)

fannye cookFor many outdoors enthusiasts in Mississippi, Dorothy Shawhan’s book Fannye Cook might be described as one about the most influential person you never met.

The term “hero” is often overused, but in this case, Cook lives up to the label, as Shawan details.

Approximately 150,000 people (mostly children) annually stream through the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, says former director Libby Hartfield, who contributed to the book. And that is directly due to Cook, who founded it and served as its director until her retirement in 1958.

Of import to hunters, fisherfolk, birders, conservationists, and others, however, Cook was instrumental in creating what is now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Her impact goes even beyond that.

As Shawhan describes, Cook, a graduate of what is now Mississippi University for Women, began her lifelong study and promotion of Mississippi’s natural resources in 1926. The wildlife population in Mississippi—including its most popular game species—was threatened by lack of habitat, overhunting, and overfishing.

“The forest resources that had covered 95 percent of the state in 1800 were practically gone by 1930,” Shawan reports.

Cook, with the help of the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration, conducted a comprehensive plant and animal survey in Mississippi that she designed. Traveling across the state speaking to local groups and schools, she spearheaded a successful effort for public education and scientific research of wildlife resources.

The results of her efforts were twofold:

  • After her pushing for seven years, the state Legislature approved creation of a state game and fish commission in 1932 to regulate and conserve natural resources;
  • To house the enormous data she amassed, she was instrumental in opening the state’s first natural science museum in 1939 for the survey’s “28,732 fish, reptiles, birds, plants, amphibians, and mammals collected.”

It was an incredible turnaround in the public’s appreciation and support for habitat that lives on today.

Subtitled “Mississippi’s Pioneering Conservationist,” the book delves into the obstacles that stood in Cook’s path both personal and professional, as a woman in a “man’s” field, as well as her achievements and friendships along the way.

It’s full of recognizable names, including author Eudora Welty, with whom she lived as a boarder in Welty’s Jackson home, and Aldo Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife ecology in the United States, with whom she collaborated.

Cook serves as a role model not only for women, but for all who have a dream and are willing to work tirelessly to achieve it.

Cook’s work and memory live on with the museum, the state’s largest, that now houses more than 1 million scientific specimens, along with creation of the 2,600-acre Fannye Cook Natural Area in Rankin County soon slated to open to the public. It’s the brainchild of Wildlife Mississippi, which also helped underwrite this book.

Shawhan, a Delta State University professor, died during course of writing the book and the manuscript was completed by Marion Barnwell, professor emerita at Delta State, and Hartfield. It’s a fascinating account of a most extraordinary Mississippian.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books, and serves or has served on numerous state, regional and national boards involving wildlife conservation, forests, agriculture and food.

Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield will be at Lemuria to sign and read from Fanny Cooke on Sunday, December 3, at 11:30 a.m.

Author Q & A with Carter Dalton Lyon (Sanctuaries of Segregation)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 26)

A strategic program that was begun to awaken Jackson’s segregated white churches to the idea of opening their doors to their African-American Christian counterparts in the 1960s will be commemorated with several public events next weekend that will honor that struggle.

More than 50 years later, that effort has been documented in Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign, published by University Press of Mississippi.

sanctuaries of segregationWhat began for Lyon as a doctoral dissertation while he was a history student at Ole Miss more than a decade ago eventually resulted in his debut book, which unfolds in meticulous detail why activists and students at Tougaloo College acted on what they believed was a necessary element in advancing their goal of racial integration in the capital city.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Lyon now teaches and chairs the History Department at St. Mary’s Epsicopal School in Memphis. He and wife Sally Cassaday are the parents of two daughters.

Your new book, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign closely examines a 10-month effort by Tougaloo College students and activists who set out to integrate what you called “the last sanctuaries for segregationists” in the city–white churches. Why was this an important goal of the civil rights movement in Jackson in the early 60s?

One thing that I found early in my research was that segregationists throughout the South had been worrying about the potential desegregation of their churches for many years and that organized groups of students had been testing the attendance policies of white churches as they were challenging other segregated spaces. They would, in effect, conduct a sit-in at lunch counters on Saturday and try to attend white churches on Sunday. This had been done in other cities in 1960, but not in Jackson until 1963.

The idea for these “kneel-ins” was to tug at the conscience of white Christians, especially those moderates who favored a more voluntary approach to desegregation or who didn’t really appreciate the immorality of segregation. Being barred from church would make visible the reality of racial discrimination in the house of God. Activists in Jackson in 1963 had a more specific reason as well: they had tried mass marches and sit-ins, but the local movement had fractured a bit, and there were those, like Rev. Ed King, who wanted to give the Jackson community another chance to shift course–and appealing to white Christians seemed like a logical approach.

Although the participants in this movement faced a great deal of resistance from congregants and church leaders, the effort slowly began to gain some ground with white ministers and members. What was the trigger that finally broke through the resistance?

For the churches that were “open” to black visitors during the campaign, it took a combination of ministerial and lay leadership to sustain that. Even if the minister had ordered the doors to be open or favored open doors, the extent to which they would in fact be open really had to do with logistics–who was at the door and who was organizing them. The minister really needed the backing of a majority of lay leaders to make this work.

For those who began to change or who opened the doors in the years after the campaign ended, it would be nice if I could say that i was because of a change of heart, but there’s really little evidence to that effect. The Jackson church visit campaign forced their regional or national denominational bodies to clarify the open-door policies of the denomination, and so these churches needed to consent to this, especially if they wanted to call a new pastor. Some church members didn’t and formed break-away churches and, in the case of the Methodists, formed a new denomination.

Ultimately, what did this movement accomplish?

The Jackson church visit campaign made the reality of racial discrimination visible in these sacred spaces and forced white church people to confront the essential question of these activists: was racial exclusion following the will of God? These visits sparked internal debates within congregations throughout the city and certainly led to turmoil and division in many churches. But I see the church visitors as exposing a fatal flaw in these churches. They had retreated into these sanctuaries of segregation, but their practices contradicted their faith and were in defiance of the stated beliefs and policies of their own denominations. As a result of this campaign, you see denominations moving to clarify their attendance policies and become more deliberate in examining segregation within their bodies.

You write that many ministers secretly agreed with the students and activists who attempted to join in worship services in their churches, but believed they could not share their feelings with their congregations for fear of losing their jobs and/or causing a split in the church. From your research, how did these ministers ultimately deal with their mixed feelings?

Each minister dealt with it differently and there really isn’t a general way of answering this, but I can say that all of the ministers who fit this description certainly battled with the feeling that they had been called by God to this particular church and they were determined to remain. Some had been at their churches for at least a decade and even when their lay boards voted to bar African-Americans, the real moment of truth came when black visitors were in fact blocked at the church doors. For those who held onto their positions as activists were being rejected outside, I see a real sense of exasperation on the part of these ministers, that their message, and the Gospel’s message of inclusion and brotherhood over the years, had not gotten through to their congregations.

As a Kentucky native, why did you decide to bring this topic to light about Jackson’s past now, and how is it relevant in today’s social, spiritual, and/or political climate?

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon

This book has been germinating for a while, but when I began researching this, I frankly noticed a dearth of analysis on the white church response to the civil rights movement on a local level. In the last decade and a half, historians and theologians have been doing great work filling in that gap, and I hope my book adds to that body of scholarship. The great Mississippian Ida B. Wells once wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and my hope is that this book helps in some of the truth-telling that is happening in Jackson.

Your research for this book is extensive–with 65 pages of notes and bibliography. How did you go about your research, and how long did it take to put this book together?

This book grew out of my thesis and dissertation work in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so the bulk of the research was conducted during those six years, and I’ve spent the last six years of so refining and getting it into book form. I should say that it was very important to me to try to capture all sides of this struggle and to track down as many people who were a part of this effort as I could. I realized early on that there were folks who wanted to sweep this story under the rug or deny it outright, so I aimed to be as careful and extensive as I could in documenting this and getting the story right.

Although you mention several Catholic and Protestant houses of worship, much of the book is devoted to how the “closed door” policy was carried out by Methodists. Why was that?

In the early months of the campaign, the visitors cast a pretty wide net and attempted to attend churches from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Unitarian, Church of Christ, and Catholic. For those that routinely barred their entry, such as First Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, they reasoned that they would have little hope of cracking open those doors, so they began to focus more on the churches with regional or denominational bodies that they could use as a potential wedge against these churches.

Then about midway through the campaign, the police arrested three students outside the Capitol Street Methodist Church, and made a total of 40 arrests on subsequent Sundays, and that suddenly brought national attention on the problem of segregation within the Methodist Church ahead of the 1964 General Conference. Methodist ministers and, later, two bishops from across the country began joining students on their weekly visits for their own reasons, but certainly to expose a problem that they hoped (the conference) would solve.

Carter Dalton Lyon will appear at Lemuria to sign and read from Sanctuaries of Segregation on Thursday, November 30, at 5:00 p.m.

Author Q & A with Mark Helprin

“Mark Helprin’s Lifetime of Writing” 

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

Bestselling author Mark Helprin’s fluid, lyrical writing spills forth again in his newest novel, “Paris in the Present Tense,” a grand tale of music, regret, passion, and family love that finds its writer once again borrowing from the people, places and circumstances of his own experiences to flesh out a solid and relatable plot that, in essence, draws the reader into his own world.

A New York City native who grew up in a nearby suburb of the city, Helprin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, and completed post-graduate work at Princeton University and Magdalen College, Oxford. A prolific writer, he has authored five novels, three children’s books, three short story collections, and many essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, the National Review and many other periodicals.

mark helprinYou’ve enjoyed a full life — world traveler, family man, would-be farm hand and at times you’ve turned your attention to politics (mostly through your deep interest in policy), journalism, the military, and your own formal education, not to mention an amazing career as a writer. How have you managed to fit so many interests into your seven decades?

Seven decades is a long time, and I started early. My first job was manufacturing sealing-wax-and-ribbon medallions for a women’s clothing store. It was an assembly-line process to which I devoted part of my weekends, piece work at 25 cents per medallion. I would earn about $500 per annum then, or, in today’s dollars, $5,000. I was eight. I used to dictate stories to my third-grade teacher, and Simon & Schuster wanted to publish them, but my father didn’t allow it, because my mother had been a child star and he thought that it had near ruined her.

Also, if you keep busy, you can do several things at once. When I was in college I wrote my first stories for the New Yorker, continuing to do so in graduate school and during military service. If you live on a farm, the farm tells you what to do, not vice versa.

The irony is that I hate to be busy, and have been too busy all my life in the hope that it would enable me not to be busy. And please don’t call me a world traveler. I hate to travel, and it reminds me of the magnificent line of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, when she says to Vinny, “So whata you, a _____ world travelah?”

Your fiction is known for its robust, adventurous plots and its lyrical syntax, always with a bit of romanticism, fantasy and autobiographical hints. Reading your work, it’s obvious that you not only enjoy writing, but you love your characters and your storylines. Tell me how you developed your literary writing style – and what drove you to become a writer in the first place.

This question requires a book-length answer, but I’ll be brief. I do love my characters, most of them. What’s the point otherwise? From my very first book, my motto has been taken from Dante, “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare, (Love moved me, and made me speak)”. If I may paint with a very broad brush, what ails so much of modern fiction is its detachment from and hostility toward that which it depicts. If a writer wants to be a prosecutor, he should go to law school and apply to the Bronx DA.

paris in the present tenseYour newest book, “Paris in the Present Tense,” is another fictional work presented on a grand scale. In this story of an aging man consumed with worry about his grandson’s serious illness, main character Jules Lacour is keenly aware of his own inability to offer much in the way of financial support. A deep thinker with strong convictions, he looks back on his own life with his share of regrets and fears. In many ways, most of us have a lot in common with Lacour. Can you share your reflections on him? 

Ah! My reflection on him runs to 400 pages, and I can share all of it with your readers if they buy the book, or get it from the library. So many contemporary novels are politicized, sexualized, and sensationalized. And although this tends to result in narrow treatments of one subject – kind of like an expanded magazine article – as a means to deliver a single message, I think a novel should be about many things, with many themes running along and across many strata, so that in the end the book becomes more than just the sum of its parts, as are a man or a woman, as is Jules Lacour. Like all of us, he is so complex that I hesitate to dwell on one or another of his characteristics. The object is to portray as much in full what God has made not fully portrayable.

As usual, your characters are intensely developed, tying their perspectives together in the end. You’ve spent your career creating these “people” and their far-reaching (and often far-flung) circumstances. How do you stumble upon these characters and their situations?

Though they may think they do, writers and painters don’t create anything, they rearrange elements of the creation of which they are part. That’s why Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and even the French Impressionists had models, whether people or nature. The entire structure of Western – indeed, universal – art, is based on observation and interpretation of reality, and even the most abstract painters can only use colors that are a gift of creation. ‘So with writers, who must use models as a basis of their characters. As a newborn, even Shakespeare, had he magically been able to write, could not have written before he had observed the world.

All the characters to which you refer are based, even if loosely, on real people. For example, in “Paris in the Present Tense,” Louis Mignon, the French baker in Rheims, his wife, and son, and what they did during the war, are based on Louis Mignon, a French baker in Rheims, and his wife Marie, who did in the war exactly that, and with whom I lived (their son Jacques had grown up and left) for four years. In (my book), Winter’s Tale,” Peter Lake was based on Peter Lake, aka Grand Central Pete, a thief who lived in New York at the turn of the 19th century. Of course, one is wonderfully free to exaggerate, play down, add, subtract, and imagine characteristics and situations per need.

You’ve also written several children’s books. Is it difficult to switch to a different mindset and writing style to create authentic stories for children?

Not at all, in that one should never talk down to children. In fact, if any adjustment need be made, it is in simplifying language and thus purifying it rather than making it cute-sy. The best children’s books are just as attractive, meaningful, and beautiful to adults as they are to children. If you can reach the soul of a child, you will also reach the soul of an adult. As Wordsworth wrote, “the child is father of the man.” If one cannot, even in the darkest hours, retrieve or at least remember the innocence and goodness of childhood, then, really, what’s the point?

Making another shift, you’ve long filled a role as being somewhat of a statesman, and have advised politicians at the highest level on matters of policy. Tell me about your experience in that role, and how it came to be.

Quite simply, I knew from the second grade that I was a writer, but being a practical sort – and having a very practical sort of father – I understood that I’d have to have another way to support a family. So, I studied what might be called war and diplomacy. This led to many adventures, and, somehow, to being a newspaper columnist, a defense analyst, and occasionally – when the muckamucks I was advising realized I could put a sentence together – an always unpaid speech writer. That’s mostly frustrating, and I try not to do that whenever I can, which these days I hope is forever.

Being a person of your many talents, is there anything you want to accomplish in life that you haven’t attempted yet? And what did you do before writing became your job title?)

I was a kid. I had a dog, a 22., skates, and a hockey stick. There were a thousand acres around my house on the Hudson, and when I wasn’t doing homework I disappeared in them and was perfectly content. At 70, what I want to accomplish most is to remain alive, write some more books, and sit in the garden. I have no more ambition. Nor at my age would it be seemly. That’s astoundingly liberating and the cause of great happiness.

Can you share any info about your next book or other writing projects?

I’ve been thinking about it, making notes, and studying the milieu in which it takes place, for about a year. When this book tour is over I’ll have to spend about two weeks repairing fences, cutting up fallen trees, hogging down fields, and fixing stuff. Then, with winter, I’ll enter the paradise of writing every day in – I hope – wonderful tranquility.

Mark Helprin will sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

Enjoy this article? Let the Clarion-Ledger know by sending them an email, so we can keep providing you great locally-written content.

‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is an ode to love, remorse, and hope

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5).

If you love language, as most book readers do, and thrill at the precise delineation of thought, emotion, and the paradoxes and challenges of the human condition as expressed in the saga of a single life, you’ll love Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense.

paris in the present tenseIt helps if you’re a hopeless romantic who thrives on the razor’s edge of hope and despair, not caring if ultimately successful in the target of your desires, for having experienced the compounding joys of the attempt, even if it’s dashed.

A tall order, yes. But Helprin has produced a symphony of a novel that provides any sensitive, thoughtful reader great joy and sorrow, often in the same page.

The plot revolves around Jules Lacour, 74, a cellist who teaches music at the Sorbonne. A Jew, he survived the Nazis in World War II as a child, but his parents did not. That epochal event rules his life, with grief, survivor’s guilt, and an appreciation of the small miracles of daily life.

Jules falls in love easily and with virtually every attractive woman he sees. Pages are devoted to their walk, perfume, the line of neck and jaw, the easy, carefree way they comport themselves on the streets of Paris—the city of love.

But his one true love, Jacqueline, whom he met immediately after the war, has left him a widower in the beginning of Paris. The world is different, and all too much the same. Angry crowds march the streets chanting “Death to Jews,” oblivious to the city’s past.

In this strange world, he becomes party to a crime, then hatches another of his own devising in hopes of saving his young grandson from a life-threatening disease.

But, then, he meets Elodi de Challant, a beautiful, young student, and they fall in love—immediately, longingly, through the touch of a hand and the meeting of eyes.

The fear, desire, anticipation, hesitation and forthrightness between them is delicious, enthralling, ticklish and agonizing—like the initial unfolding of love itself. For a man of many summers, it offers hope, remembrance and remorse

Doomed, he believes, by the separation of their ages, she offers him a question that is searing in its simplicity: “What if you’re loved in such a way that it doesn’t matter how old you are, or if or when you die?”

Paris is a book of paradoxes, like the city, like life itself, as the title suggests, of past and present tense. “Half of humanity’s troubles arise from the inability to see that contradictory propositions can be valid simultaneously,” Jules notes. It’s a fact that makes him not afraid or bitter over the killing of his parents and the Holocaust.

“We have what was denied to them,” he explains. “We would betray them were we not happy to be alive.”

Age itself has beauty, he notes, for “you learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason,” even if you can’t find your reading glasses.

Each page of Paris is a philosophy lesson on how to live, see, love, from someone who lives “in the present tense.” It is a world where capricious fate causes hopes to rise, which may turn to naught, creating new realities.

Enjoy this article? Let the Clarion-Ledger know by sending them an email, so we can keep providing you great locally-written content.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Mark Helprin will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense.

‘Goat Castle’ revisits Natchez murder

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for an author to go back in time to solve a mystery, often with shocking results. Less common is for a nonfiction book to do the same, but with a searingly honest view that’s sadly revealing today.

Karen L. Cox does so with her book Goat Castle (University of North Carolina Press).

LogoAddressing the Aug. 4, 1932, murder of Natchez heiress Jennie Merrill at her antebellum home Glenburnie, Cox peels back the layers of sensationalism surrounding the case to reveal the hard truths of racism and Jim Crow justice of the time.

Subtitling the book “A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” Cox details the lurid aspects of the case that transfixed the nation with its depiction of a South in ruins and the remnants of Southern aristocracy in squalor in the decades following the Civil War.

The headlines of the time focused on Merrill, called an aging recluse, allegedly killed by a black man and her black housekeeper, with her white neighbors as possible accomplices.

The neighbors lived in a falling down mansion they shared with goats and other livestock wandering the halls (hence, the name “Goat Castle”).

“Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats,” Cox notes, “these were the subjects more likely to be found in a Southern Gothic novel, and in fact journalists immediately drew parallels to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and later, William Faulkner’s novels about the social decay of old Southern families.”

It was the type of news story that kept Depression-era Americans grossly entertained.

But Cox dives deeper than the headlines, through excellent historical and journalistic investigation, to bring to light a horrible injustice.

Whereas, Merrill’s white neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery (she, the daughter of a Confederate general; he, of a family of a famous authors and journalists) got off scot-free, the two black suspects were either killed or imprisoned.

Cox details the lives of Merrill and her alleged paramour and cousin, Duncan Minor, who discovered her body. And she recounts the often bitter and ongoing disputes of the aristocratic Merrill with Dana, called the “Wild Man” who was known to wear only a burlap sack while living in the trees on his property, and Dockery, called the “Goat Woman,” who was glib, clever, and vengeful, albeit living hand to mouth.

The new knowledge of the case is Cox’s painstaking research into the lives of the two black suspects, Lawrence Williams, the alleged triggerman who was gunned down in Arkansas while making his way home to Chicago, and Emily Burns, who received a life sentence at the notorious Parchman Prison farm at Camp 13–the Women’s Camp.

Burns’ sentence was indefinitely suspended after eight years because even in the Jim Crow South that saw black men imprisoned or killed for allegedly improperly looking at a white woman, Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. said he was “thoroughly convinced of (her) innocence” and that she was convicted solely upon “circumstantial evidence.”

As Cox details, Burns’ treatment was based on a coerced “confession” and included the belief that unless someone was held accountable for the crime in a court of law, white citizens might have taken matters into their own hands and she might be lynched.

“Emily was presumed guilty because of her race.”

Filled with astonishing photographs and copious notes, Goat Castle is sure to invite attention anew to an old crime in the Bluff City and reinvigorate current debates about racial justice.

Jim Ewing, a former Clarion-Ledger writer and editor, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Karen L. Cox will appear Wednesday, November 15 for the History is Lunch series at the Old Capitol Museum at 12:00 p.m. She will appear at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday to sign and discuss her book, Goat Castle.

Author Q & A with Gene Dattel

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5)

reckoning with raceCultural and economic historian Gene Dattel, who grew up in the small Mississippi Delta town of Ruleville, tackles questions about what he calls “America’s most intractable problem–race”–up close and in depth in his newest book, Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure (Encounter Books).

The biggest and most necessary part of bridging the racial divide, he said, is “economics–which means jobs,” a goal he believes is possible with what he calls “the right kind of assimilation.” To Dattel, that means avoiding what he believes is a harmful separatism while at the same time allowing for full expression of one’s cultural heritage.

Dattel’s lifelong interest in racial history, and its ties to economic history and colonial nationalism, was launched in the early 60s when he was entering Yale University at the same time James Meredith was entering Ole Miss.

After his early years in Ruleville, located in what he calls “the heart of the majority-black cotton country of the Mississippi Delta,” he graduated from Yale, and then Vanderbilt University Law School. Of his 21-year career in finance as a managing director at Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, 15 were spent in London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. He has done advisory work for the Pentagon, major financial institutions, and cultural organizations from the New York Historical Society to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

His previous books include Cotton and Race in the Making of America and The Sun That Never Rose.

What prepared you to write this book, (as in, I’m curious–what exactly is a “cultural historian,” and how did you become one?) and what do you hope your book will accomplish?

The small-town dynamic of my youth mean that I had to adjust to people–old/young, middle class/poor, black/white–regularly. Beginning at age 13, I worked in my family’s dry goods store on Saturday night when most of the customers were black. I entered Yale at the same time James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. This triggered my profound interest in racial history, economic history, and colonial nationalism.

A career in finance brought home the importance of economics in the lives of people. My 11-year stay in Japan was transformative; there, I observed the first major economic challenge to the United States by a non-white, non-Western nation. For eight years, I performed a “Parallel Lives” Program with black author (and businessman” Clifton Taulbert about my growing up Jewish and his growing up black in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. My book Cotton and Race in the Making of America (2009), a description of the fateful intersection of the power of cotton and the African-American experience, was the stepping stone to Reckoning with Race.

My definition of a cultural historian: one who examines the impact of a broad range of topics–literature, art, movies, music, tradition, communication, values, rhetoric, humor, and fusion in a society. It is my sincere hope that this book contributes to a frank discussion about the hardest of all hard topics in America–race. I believe our goal should be to concentrate on access for the mass of blacks into the American economic mainstream.

In your book, you present a great deal of historical research that most of us never heard in our school history classes about the open hypocrisy of Northern and Midwestern states–dating back as far as the 1700s–of extreme racist attitudes toward blacks. Instead, the history that has captured the nation’s interest has, for the most part, emphasized the racial atrocities of the South. Why has this discrepancy largely remained a well-kept “secret”?

One has only to look at the quotes at the opening of the book’s chapters to recognize how white Northern racial attitudes have frequently been overlooked:

  • White abolitionists “best love the colored man at a distance.” – Samuel R. Ward, Black Abolitionist, 1840s
  • No free Negro, or Mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of this constitution shall come, reside, or be within this state. – Oregon State Constitution, 1857
  • The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1865, in the text: “The negro race…would exist side by side with the white for centuries being constantly elevated by it, individuals of it rising to an equality with the superior white race.”

The white North has almost no exposure to its true historical racial attitudes. White Northern racial hypocrisy and self-righteousness has resulted. Historians extol the abolitionists but neglect the anti-black attitudes that doomed Reconstruction, created a containment policy of keeping blacks in the South, and trapped them in combustible urban ghettos. The drama of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was particularly visual and suited for television; millennials have seen countless clips of Birmingham hoses and dogs, etc. I have found that “going local” is effective in creating awareness for Northern audiences. When in Connecticut, include Connecticut’s past.

You state that, despite decades of political advancement, economics gains and the passage of civil rights legislation, “the practical task facing America is the economic elevation of the black community–desperately for the underclass and significantly for the fragile (but growing) middle class.” To that end, you emphasize the importance of personal responsibility and assimilation into American society. Explain why you believe this idea is so important.

America’s unique strength, its ability to foster the “right kind” of assimilation, allows its people to retain their cultural heritage. We are the only grand experiment of a multiethnic country that does not resort to tribalism. At the same time, we have seen no successful large scale self-sufficient economic group within America, able to function outside the economic mainstream. The acceptance of common values–color-blind middle-class norms–is a prerequisite for mass entrance into the economic mainstream.

In a competitive global marketplace, individuals must aspire to resiliency, a byproduct of personal responsibility.

You cover many government programs that have been implemented through the years to help African-Americans raise their standards of living, often with little progress. Why do you think it’s been so difficult to find lasting solutions toward economic progress?

Gene Dattel

Gene Dattel

Large government programs are plagued by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and most importantly, lack of accountability. I would argue, if a program is not working, change it or reduce it; if a program is working, expand it. I describe several small programs that are successful but cannot be replicated on a mass scale.

We need to understand and speak about the currently taboo topics of black culture and structure. The only way to move forward economically is to develop viable structures for family, church, and community. Education, the portable credential for employment, largely depends on these influences. Education provides the skill set and thought process for success. Or, in the words of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: “My mom and dad were constant mentors, my first and greatest teachers….[From my father] I learned the connection between hard work, discipline, and reward.”

Part of America’s problem in finding racial unity, you say, has been a “hypersensitivity” to real or perceived “slights” that seem to be arising more frequently, especially on college campuses. Why is this, and how can these be dealt with constructively?

Today’s iteration of multiculturalism fosters and encourages differences, to the detriment of what Americans have in common. Our inability to discuss real or perceived sensitive topics further inhibits dialogue and promotes separatism. Greater contact and discussion in a responsible, objective way is the best way to achieve trust. College is supposed to be the proper venue for challenging and preparing students for life and exposing them to a diversity of ideas. The interaction with different opinions promotes resiliency and should be pursued on an individual basis.

Despite hopes that an Obama presidency would help heal some racial divides, you state that “racial divisiveness is more evident now than it was when Obama took office.” To what do you attribute this change?

The racial divide had already been set in motion before the Obama presidency. Powerful forces–multiculturalism, frustration at the ineffectiveness of many programs, social media, separatism as expressed in identity politics, economic recession with a weak recovery, and the lack of a frank racial discussion–were at work. President Obama’s leadership could not produce the necessary unity given these factors.

You speak of a racial mindset in this country that seems to be heading more toward separatism than the defining goal of integration in the ’60s. Explain what that ultimately means, and what your hopes are for our future.

As of the end of 2016, the overall numbers for black progress in education and economic well-being were disheartening. The poverty level of blacks has remained three times that of white for the last 45 years. Also, 32.9 percent of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty. Only 38.7 percent of black children under 18 live in a two-parent family. Black Americans’ college majors, according to a 2016 Georgetown University study, “tend to be low earning.”

As we move int a stage of self-imposed, heightened racial identity, the goals of integration and assimilation become loaded terms with negative connotations. This separatism is highly detrimental in accessing a proper education, combating poverty, and attaining economic parity.

As for the future, we must remember America’s strength. Where else could a man, whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American, become president?

Gene Dattel will sign copies of Reckoning with Race on Monday, November 13, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

Author Q & A with Beth Ann Fennelly

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi, once again stretches her literary abilities with a new release she calls “a true hybrid.”

The Oxford author who has netted a considerable number of writing awards and accolades as a poet and novelist captures the attention of readers in a fresh, new approach with Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, with entries that range from one sentence to five pages.

heating & coolingThe micro-memoir, she has said, “combines the extreme abbreviation of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction, and the truth-telling of creative nonfiction,” in works that include “memories, quirky observations, tiny scenes, (and) bits of overheard conversations that, with the surrounding noise edited out, reverberate.”

Writing micro-memoirs, she said, was “liberating” after she had co-authored The Tilted World, a novel that required extensive research, with her husband Tom Franklin. “After living in the heads of characters, now my own thoughts, my own experiences, seemed newly fresh,” she said.

Additionally, Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, and a book of nonfiction Great with Child. She’s won grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission (three times), the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and was included three times in The Best American Poetry Series. She was also the first woman to claim the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Griffin Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Writing.

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Fennelly said her first love was poetry, which she studied at the University of Notre Dame, earning first a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1993; and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas in 1998.

An English professor in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She and Franklin, also an English professor at Ole Miss, are the parents of three children.

At what point in your life did you discover that you were a writer?

I was always an artistic kid, loving the theater and music and reading and writing, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I got to college. That’s where I experienced my first truly great teachers and was exposed to contemporary poetry. In my high school, we only read the classics. I think that’s one reason why I take my job as a college professor so seriously–I know how an engaged teacher can turn a student’s life around.

Poetry is a different kind of writer’s challenge. How were you drawn to poetry?

Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction–how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was, and still am, in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to take a poem into your body through memorization and release it back into the world with the air that rises from your windpipe.

Your newest book is a nonfiction collection of brief personal thoughts, idea, and memories, along with several short essays. They deal with family, marriage, fears, triumphs, nostalgia, and hopes. Was this a collection you have gathered through the years, or did you write these specifically to be published as a book?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: We spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from our book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.”

Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-embedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing.

So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, “What if this ‘not writing’ I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

Today, you and Tom are professors in the English department at Ole Miss, where you teach poetry and nonfiction writing–and where you have been named Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I really like working with young adults–I think they keep me young in certain ways, because I’m always getting exposed to new ideas. I love the feeling of being in love with a book or an author, and not just conveying my own passion, but kindling that same passion in my students.

Books have been such important companions to me, and reading has schooled me in empathy and reflection. These are skills the world isn’t encouraging in our young people. I’m honored that I get the chance to share the transformative power of literature with them.

In 2016, you were named poet laureate for the state of Mississippi. What are your duties that go along with that?

I’ve just finished the first year of my four-year term, and I’ve had a blast. I’m interested in getting poetry in front of as many Mississippians as possible, especially children. The position is honorary in that there’s no salary involved, and therefore my “duties” are probably more “suggestions,” but I’m traveling to a lot of libraries and schools, and I’m deeply involved in our state’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I think every high schooler should be a part of.

Beth Ann Fennelly will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 9, to sign and read from Heating and Cooling. The signing will begin at 5:00 p.m. and the reading will begin at 5:30.

‘Live from the Mississippi Delta’ provides a front row seat

By DeMatt Harkins. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

No matter how well one may know Mississippi, more layers, subcultures, and haunts appear. They prove endlessly fascinating from a historical, literary, culinary, or musical perspective. In her first book, Live from the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), photographer Panny Flautt Mayfield shares her snapshots encapsulating all of these in the greater Clarksdale area.

live from the ms deltaWhile the Coahoma County seat may not be a booming metropolis, the camera-wielding Mayfield frequently found herself in the right place at the right time, during culturally significant events and times over the past 30 years. Her casual stream-of-consciousness photo journal lets the reader in on the energy, with the perspective only a local could provide.

Clarksdale functions as one of the more important blues towns in a state filled with many. Famous native sons include John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke.And Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, and Robert Johnson lived there as well. On those shoulders stands a world-renowned musical legacy that supports an enduring local music scene and pilgrimage destination.

This is what Mayfield documents. She exhibits the role Clarksdale and surrounding radius palys in blues past and present–intertwining people, events, and locations, decades and miles apart.

Two excellent sources of material prove to be the town’s Sunflower Blues Festival and King Biscuit Blues Festival in neighboring Helena, Arkansas. Mayfield’s tome displays excellent shots of stalwarts Bobby Bland, Albert King, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, Junior Kimbrough, and Honeyboy Edwards–each pictured in the throes of performance.

But Mayfield has also witnessed another level of visitor to the vicinity. She covered John Fogerty and Pop Staples attending Charley Patton’s headstone dedication in Holly Ridge. When famed Smithsonian archivist Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale after years and years, Mayfield captured him sitting down to hear a picker. She was also on hand for sitting President Clinton’s walking tour of downtown Clarksdale. ZZ Top invited the national press to Mississippi. They were kicking off a million-dollar campaign for the Delta Blues Museum. Guess who was front and center?

Perhaps most stunning of all is Mayfield’s friendship with Robert Plant. The Led Zeppelin frontman’s academic fascination with blues music has manifested in a series of trips to Clarksdale. Throughout the book, Plant pops up, letting the golden locks hang low in practical anonymity. His rapport with Mayfield eventually landed her at his band’s 2007 London reunion concert, depicted in the concert film Celebration Day.

While undeniably interesting, global luminaries are not the appeal of Live from the Mississippi Delta. As Mayfield demonstrates, the magic is in the local mainstays. As the first black disk jockey in Mississippi, Early Wright’s Soul Man Show on WROX–replete with impromptu ads and PSAs–endeared listeners for decades. When he wasn’t opening NAACP chapters across the state, WAde Walton cut multiple generation’s hair. Mrs. Z L Hill ran the Henderson Hotel boarding house for 53 years and even hosted John F. Kennedy. The after-school blues students of Johnnie Billington flew to Washington, D.C. to play at the White House.

However, Mayfield provides more neon than neoclassical. She places the reader in the middle of Clarksdale’s finest music venues. From the dance floor, one can observe the likes of The Jellyroll Kings, Super Chikan, or Bilbo Walker playing Smitty’s Red Top Lounge, Margaret’s Blue Diamond, or the Bobo Grocery. And as the photos make clear, the stars of the evening are not always on stage.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, Mayfield serves as her own acoustiguide. Sometimes the narrative explains the picture, other times the photo illustrates a point. Regardless she delivers an engaging look into multidimensional Clarksdale and the pleasure it holds.

DeMatt Harkins of Jackson enjoys flipping pancakes and records with his wife and daughter.

Panny Flautt Mayfield will be Lemuria on Wednesday, November 1, at 5:00 to promote her book, Live from the Mississippi Delta.

Jennifer Egan’s ‘Manhattan Beach’ oceanic in its mysteries, allure

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

manhattan beachThe plot of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel Manhattan Beach is straightforward enough: Anna Kerrigan, an adolescent girl in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, struggles with a dysfunctional family to find her place in the world.

The characters are sufficiently intriguing: the father, Ed Kerrigan, is a union bagman, once relatively wealthy, who lost it all during the stock market crash; her mother, Agnes, transfers her love, loyalty and care to Anna’s sister, Lydia, who suffers from a catastrophic birth defect that leaves her unable to talk, sit up, or care for herself.

But the characters all knowingly or unwittingly revolve around the mysterious Dexter Styles, a wealthy, high-society gangster and nightclub owner. Once Anna’s father crosses paths with him, he disappears, leaving the family in disarray, spiraling into dissolution. And Anna becomes fixated with Styles as the plot jumps to the World War II years.

Anna takes a job at the Naval Yard in Brooklyn, frequenting Styles’ nightclub. The plot transforms into a growing-of-age novel, with the mystery of her father’s death lurking ever present. She finds love, she finds happiness, she finds loss.

Anna is endearing as a resourceful individual who is strong-willed but vulnerable to her own self-doubts and the formidable barriers of living in a paternalistic man’s world.

Egan’s art is her ability to capture complex emotions, leading toward mysteries and unexpected turns, like life itself, that at the end leave us ravenous for more.

The underlying power of Beach is its ability to relate on a subconscious level. Anna’s sister Lydia, for example, is a cipher for incomprehensible beauty, of wishes and dreams that are too beautiful—and flawed—for this world.

Her mother, Agnes, fawns on her; Anna holds her as close as a talisman. “A vibration seemed to emanate from inside Lydia, as if she were a radio tuned to a distant frequency. She knew all of Anna’s secrets; Anna had dropped them in her ears like coins in a well.”

Indeed, she is a goddess as well as a curse. All who come into contact with Lydia either adore her or despise her, not seeing her as she is, but as their own best or worst reflections.

But Lydia is only one of many beguiling characters that constantly raise questions, potential problems, solutions, or disappointments, like those we find in our daily lives.

Egan is a highly accomplished author of four previous novels and has won a Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. Beach doesn’t disappoint.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ is a vital addition to nation’s racial conversation

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1)

8 years in powerIn Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book of essays We Were Eight Years in Power (One World), he recalls that he felt at odds with himself when penning the first one for The Atlantic in 2007.

Barack Obama was running for president but, as a black man, was hardly thought then to be a full-on contender. Coates’ feeling of being adrift was shared with young black men and women across the country. They were “lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America.”

Obama’s election changed that, he writes. But it also changed the nation’s dialogue on race, one that continues with an urgency underscored by the headlines of the day.

The book is composed of the eight essays he wrote for The Atlantic during each of the eight years of the nation’s first black presidency, along with current commentary. But it is Reconstruction in the South that the title of the book refers to, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, that: “If there was one thing… (whites) feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

With the rise of Donald Trump after a period of “good Negro government,” it can be argued we are witnessing from Washington and much of the country that frame of mind today. It’s manifested in displays by sports figures taking a knee in solidarity against police brutality against blacks, racial profiling, social inequality, disparities in education and opportunity, fueled by a president who finds no qualm in siding with Nazi protesters while calling those who demonstrate against it “sons of bitches.”

Before Obama, the idea of a black president lived as “a kind of cosmic joke,” Coates writes. “White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president.” Witness, Emmett Till’s audacity to look at a white woman, the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “turned the other cheek, and they blew it off.”

Lincoln was killed for emancipation, Freedom Riders were beaten for advocating for voting rights, Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway “like a dog.”

“That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation for citizenship would elect a black president,” Coates writes, “is a victory. But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured.”

It encapsulates a paradox: America couldn’t elect “a black man,” but it could elect a qualified man who was black–as long as he didn’t evince blackness.

Coates’ outstanding previous book, Between the World and Me, was as much a plea for understanding race consciousness as a denouncement of racism in America.

The question it raised in 2015: Is this plea heard? By whom? And are the intractable problems of race solvable by a society founded on centuries of racial and economic inequality?

In Power, the pleas are gone. Instead, with its contextualizing commentary, it’s a questioning odyssey throughout the Obama years and now of the fact of racial polarization and misunderstanding that colors all attempts at recognizing progress or reversal. It’s an indictment of a nation where even black citizens who hold conservative, mainstream values are turned away from the party that espouses them because of its open appeals to people who hate them.

Power is an exploration in many ways to explain how a society based on Enlightenment values could ignore its essential white supremacy, that the foundational crimes of this crimes of this country are to somehow be considered mostly irrelevant to its existence, as well as those excluded and pillaged in order to bring those values into practice.

Through troubling to read, the aggregate is a journey of wonder, even when topics are troubling, for the deep mental explorations they offer, often without road map or easy conclusions.

Power is an exemplary, perhaps even vital, addition to the national dialogue on race in America.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén