Monday, May 21, 2007

WARRIORS DON'T CRY: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High School

I've been accused of liking and reading mostly memoirs. Maybe so, but I'm cautious because I always wonder how honest a person is writing about one's self. What to include about yourself and what to leave out? I think about what Jill Ker Conway had to say at the beginning of one of her memoirs. She wrote, "Memoirs are the most popular form of fiction today." (Her first memoir was The Road From Coorain.)

Melba Pattillo Beal's book, Warriors Don't Cry, is a powerful story of survival with lots of public information to back it up. Melba was one of nine black students to enter Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, following the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to integrate the public schools. Melba Beals described that year in moving detail. What courage it must have taken for this sixteen-year-old girl to enter that building each day not knowing what would or could happen to her! When the State National Guard failed to protect those nine students, President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division soldiers. Melba described how one soldier guarding her saved her eyesight after a student threw some chemical in her face. Danny doused her face over and over with water, which the doctor later declared had saved her eyesight. In discussing Melba's experiences, those of us in the Book Group wondered whether we would have had the courage to face every day what those nine students had to fear as they entered that building!

Melba found encouragement at home from a loving family, a mother named Lois, who taught English in a Black school, a grandmother who stayed close to her and encouraged her to write her feelings and repeatedly reminded her that "warriors don't cry." Melba Pattillo Beals has written a sequel to her book, called White is a State of Mind. I have read it yet. Her website tells me more of where she is now and what she is doing.

Several in our Book Group felt this book should be required reading in our high schools.


Friday, May 18, 2007

The Avenger Takes His Place

When I walked to the library yesterday morning to pick up a book on hold for me, I surprised myself with the book I brought back. Browsing through the New Books display, one book on the nonfiction shelf caught my eye. The cover first and then the title caused me to pick it up and decide I wanted to read this book: The Avenger Takes His Place, with the subtitle Andrew Johnson and 45 Days That Changed the Nation. Howard Mean's book was published in 2006, but was in our library for the first time.

Walking home, I pondered this president I knew so little about....or more honestly...nothing. Reading the preface I found some consolation that historians had all but ignored him. Johnson is mentioned only in passing in Ken Burns's PBS series The Civil War. The preface states that Shelby Foote pays little attention to him. The only President Andrew I knew was Andrew Jackson. Now I found it interesting that while Andrew Jackson was our 7th president, Andrew Johnson was our 17th president. His presidency followed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Also of interest to me was that when Johnson became President there was no one in line to take his place if something happened to him. New details kept me wanting to know more: that he was drunk and loquacious when he was sworn in as Vice President, and that here was a southern senator who cared passionately about preserving the Union and made enemies in the South because of his "thunderous denunciation of secession."

To add to my interest, browsing the New York Times this morning, Wednesday, the 16th of May, a footnote caught my eye: "On May 16th 1868, the United States Senate failed by one vote to convict Andrew Johnson as it took it's first ballot on one of 11 articles of impeachment against him, (Johnson was acquitted of all charges)."

See where the cover of a book, and a dramatic title, can lead you?