Excerpt 3: A Memoir

These are men who made me proud and women who taught me to fight back. Studying their lives helped me piece together a quilt not too unlike the one my cousin Oscar Underwood described in a talk with me—one both ugly and beautiful. The differences between the two views are thin on some patches, with lines so stark they hurt your eyes.

These ugly parts did discernable damage to many of us—I know it did to me. Yet they also formed us into fighters and against-odds achievers. This book examines this racial tapestry through research and interviews with others in my family, to see if the events we lived through in the south— during America’s most openly racist past—helped condition our lives.

Maya Angelou wrote, “I hope to look through my life at life… I want to use what has happened to me—is happening to me—to see what human beings are like.” Unlike her, I had moved deliberately through my adult life, hardly giving my childhood in the south any hard glances. Now watching the media broadcasting words we thought relegated to the past—lynching, marches, protests, white supremacy—I felt I had to look again, for my future bloodline’s sake. How would they know that their own family fought and in many cases won victories against discrimination? Our children should have names and faces tying them to this tremendous social movement.

By looking back at the parts that I repressed for being too painful, I hope to make sense of these racial contrasts seen throughout my life. Racism, being such a bold statement of hate, looms as something monstrous to an innocent child. It is a poor representation of what being human is all about. The hate children experience in any form can shape the person they become. How they later process it as adults can even shape their family.

This book is only a memoir so far as it timelines my own coming of age with that of America’s through the era of racial segregation and the fight against it. It is also a chance for voices formerly buried in census records, old crumbling marriage certificates, obits, and photos to have a small say.

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