Recently, I re-read One With Others, C. D. Wright’s braided narrative about segregation, racism, Black students’ militancy, the State of Arkansas’ brutal response and how one white woman took the unusual stance of siding with the Black Folks, this done in and near my hometown of Forrest City, Arkansas. Arkansas is a dangerous place for Black people especially in the Delta. And during the Civil Rights Movement, the danger increased. Whites were either Klanned up or in deep denial of their complicity in what can only be called a feudal economic system (cotton) and the utter suppression of Blacks in civil life. What C.D. Wright does in this book is loop the life and death of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, a white woman from eastern Arkansas who took action in support of Black activists in the 1960s, into that chain of martyrs created by the Civil Rights Movement. It is linguistically fascinating, but more importantly it is emotionally complicated. Wright is very, very good with the emotionally complicated.
I, on the other hand, am not that good with complicated emotions. The stereotypical Black person is always in motion, loud, crying or laughing or hugging all the time—at least on bad television shows or in the movies. But I grew up in Forrest City, Arkansas, where being loud and demonstrative could get you fired from whatever job you had, make it difficult to run whatever business you ran, or in some circumstances get you killed. Blacks in my hometown were not silent. We were not passive, but we practiced restraint. We understood where to be and how to be so that when we needed to be ourselves, say in marching band, on the basketball team, at a spelling bee, or in our own businesses, we could be.
I became a writer out of that restraint. Smart and chubby and socially awkward, I was the one on my way out of Forrest City because as much as I loved my family, I wanted a world that I did not know. I loved writing myself into places I’d read about in Life or Look or Ebony or that I’d seen on television: Malibu, Paris, New York City, San Francisco. I read Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in The Saturday Evening Post—I was most likely 17. I wanted to go to San Francisco. There was so much violence raining down on Black people in my hometown, home county, home state. But, who knew this? Who cared? The other side of this sustained terror was our utter isolation. Reporters went to Mississippi; they rarely came to Arkansas.
When “V,” the nom de guerre Wright gives McHugh in One with Others, removed herself from the White norms, she disrupted a finely wrought, close to impenetrable social fabric in which Whites could brutalize and “hold the niggers back,” while claiming no such understanding of these activities. White women were and are often despised for their conduct in this matter. And yet, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black students’ militancy on the one hand exploded the myth of passivity that restraint is seen to be, while on the other hand, it allowed the status quo the opportunity to move forward, change its ways. In the midst of meetings and organizing and trying to comprehend what people were trying to do or not trying to do, poems were being born, plays were germinating, whole novels were taking place, black holes were opening.
Fifty years after the true events that inspired One with Others, integration remains a terrifying social stance in this nation. Many Whites continue to believe that they are the norm, that others are trying to take their stuff. It’s funny—a bitter funny. American women know too well the jokes made about our capacity to work with each other, to integrate our personal and public selves, to get on with the business of creating narratives that do not solely rely on brutality and passivity. Because we have buried too many – I think of my high school classmate “suicide in county jail,” childhood friend murdered by ex-husband, Christmas 1974, all the dancers, poets, actors dead from AIDS since the mid 1980s – we all have our own list of the lost. And now C. D. Wright has joined a cacophony of poets who left behind their noisy, wondrous words, reminding each of us to keep writing, louder and larger—to curtail the brutal and not allow their complicity, their comfort. Every woman writer worth her weight in words irritates somebody in some way—pearl makers, if not of wisdom, then of needed truths.
I thank C.D. for her kind words in One With Others about my work, about my family, and my community; our “ordinary courage” kept many of us alive during horrific times. And I, years later, am glad to have found some way to measure in my imaginative work the many ways it took to unrestrain the voices of my youth and to find the one that I write from day in and day out.