A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Freedom Summer

A writer's first job is to observe, then to make connections. Then to work, work, work, researching, writing, revising, over and over until the result looks like a simple, elegant, seemingly effortless production. As though it couldn't have been written any other way. This holds for poets, novelists, diarists, biographers, and yes, even journalists. I'm a journalist myself, and nobody but me knows what goes into even the most superficial piece of fluff I write.

Tonight I walked over to the library for an interesting presentation. Editor James Kates, whom I'd met on Saturday at the publishing panel, was going to be talking about a book his Zephyr Press had just published, Letters From Mississippi. I wasn't sure why a press which specialized in translations would have that on their booklist, but I was excited about the topic, so I went.

Turns out that Kates and the small group he brought along with him had all been participants in the Freedom Summer program of 1964, which sent idealistic (mostly white) college students down to Mississippi to persuade blacks to register to vote and to educate Mississippi students for social change. According to some reports, only a handful of blacks had been registered up to that point, and the bizarre and difficult registration requirements (such as reading and deconstructing difficult passages from the Constitution, administered by white officials who were themselves illiterate) had been momentarily lifted, leaving a small window in time to get the numbers up. Letters from Mississippi, originally published in the 60s as a collection of letters home from those students, had gone out of print in 1970. Kates thought a reprinted and expanded version would be timely, and since as co-director of Zephyr Press he had the wherewithal to do it himself, he did. Now he's pushing his new book.

Kates and his cohorts read some of the letters from the book, their own or others', and put them into context for the audience, many of whom had not even been born in 1964. The effect of those naively idealistic words coming out of the mouths of these aging, greying suits was eerie.

A couple of reporters were on the scene, and a TV cameraman. I spoke to the reporters, to James Kates, and to the reference librarian who introduced the group. Did they know, I asked, that Charles Cobb, Jr., a then-SNCC activist who had conceived the idea of Freedom Schools as a component of the Freedom Summer project, was from Springfield? That his father, Charles Cobb, Sr., executive director of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, had been pastor of St. John's Congregational Church in Springfield, and had run for mayor in the 60s (in part to protest the teaching of ''Little Black Sambo'' in reading classes)? That his mother, Martha Cobb, had taught Spanish at Classical High School, right across the street from this library where we now stood?

No, nobody knew (although all knew CC, who's still a tireless activist and who, himself, has just published a book about that era). And that's probably why less than a couple of dozen people showed up for a fascinating presentation. Very little, no matter how "important," makes an impression on people unless there's a personal connection. Civil rights in Mississippi, circa 1964? Ho-hum. Whereas half the congregation of St. John's, plus a roomful of boomer-era Classical alums, might have showed up--and learned something about their own history--if some reporter had alerted them ahead of time that one of their beloved native sons was going to be in the spotlight.

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