A college student from Michigan finds her calling and her voice during the Mississippi Summer Project.

Part 1 – Getting There

There’s a feistiness about people from Detroit that my friends in California recognize. “Oh,” they exclaim, “those Detroit women are bad!” The life my brother and I experienced growing up in Detroit was enriching and strengthening. As youngsters, we saw black people in positions of responsibility and authority: teachers, lawyers, doctors, and police officers. Then there was the music, not just Motown, but extraordinary jazz, also reinforcing a black culture and aesthetic.

My father used to tell us stories about his youth in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He often talked about the Detroit race riot of 1943. He told these stories with humor, saying the white boys tried to do x, y, and z to us and we did x, y, and z to them. What he was teaching, without saying it directly and without preaching, was a way of being in the world that you don’t allow people to do certain things to you with impunity.

At the University of Michigan, I heard other stories, stories of southern student activism. Even though Michigan was a white campus with just a few black students, there was enough information coming in to keep us up -to -date about what was going on in the South. Michigan was (and still is) a very sophisticated campus, idyllic in appearance, but hardly isolated. Tom Hayden was there; people like Stokely Carmichael came to speak on campus. There was an active NAACP branch in Ann Arbor. My very political friend Martha Prescod and I helped to set up a tutoring project for local elementary and high school students designed to get them on a college prep track. Coming from a place like Detroit and going to college in Ann Arbor, when I read and heard stories about what was happening in the South, that other black people were being denied certain things and being pushed down, it just got me going.

Another highly provocative incident that I never forgot was seeing as a very young girl the Jet magazine photo spread of Emmett Till. Those images were branded on my brain and remain there as if I’d seen them only yesterday. When I was doing research for my novel, Freshwater Road, I went to the library and looked at that issue of Jet to see if my memory was true. It was.

hands-on-the-freedom-plowEverything coalesced for me when I took a semester off to go to New York in 1963. Going to New York–without parents–was a necessary rite of passage for some students. New York was the mecca. We had to go to New York, just as other students had to go to Florida. While in New York, I went to a party where I met Gil Moses and other students who had already spent time in Mississippi and were talking about basing a touring theater there. Gil wrote music and played the guitar, spoke French fluently, and talked about movies I had never even heard of. He had studied at the Sorbonne and had also worked with Jean Vilar in his French touring theater. Gil believed that this kind of theater would work in Mississippi: take the theater to the people. Infuse that theater with a historical and political point of view and, at the same time, keep the artistic conventions of traditional theater. That’s basically the foundation of the Free Southern Theater.

I had no interest in acting when I went to New York. Running into Gil and the other theater people at a party was just happenstance. At that time, I had two career plans: plan A was to go to law school, and plan B was to teach. That’s what we were told as women in those days, “If all else fails–teach.” Then I was at that party and Gil Moses was talking about the movie, Black Orpheus. Here was this brilliant black man who was an artist. And I thought, “What is this?” It was so extraordinary to me that he was an artist and he was political, a new kind of person to be in the world. I didn’t know what that was. I hadn’t been exposed to that kind of person in real life or in my reading. Although I was always a reader, very much interested in writing and literature, I thought of these kinds of things as hobbies, not careers. I did have fantasies about being a person of the whole world. I could see myself in the Foreign Service, in the Peace Corps. I didn’t know at that point that I wanted to be an artist, or a person who lives through the arts, but it was pulling me. At school, I found myself taking more art history than political science and going to cultural events on campus.

That there was a way to be politically involved and also be an artist was very important to me. I don’t really know how much I understood at the time. These were feelings, impressions. There was something grand about the idea of the Free Southern Theater, something idealistic and so romantic. Someone will play the guitar; we’ll sing, we’ll play, and we’ll bring the people in. This was like something out of a dream and was the final pull for me. I was absorbing all of these things, trying to find myself, too, when I went back to Ann Arbor, right after Kennedy was killed. I did another semester of school, and in June 1964, I took the train to Mississippi from Ann Arbor by myself, with a little green book bag. I went to Chicago on the train, changed trains, and went south to Jackson, which is the opening geography of Freshwater Road.

When I first arrived, alone and scared–my first time in the Deep South–it almost felt as if I had landed on another planet or stepped back in time. Then I began meeting all these other young people from all over the country, which quickly helped build up my strength and courage. Then I met local people. Pretty soon I was in it. I was home.

(Excerpted from Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, University of Illinois Press 2010)

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