Fear in Writing: What Responsibility Writing Brings

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Monday, February 1, 2010

What Responsibility Writing Brings

Welcome to February.  In eight days I turn 30.  In 14 days love is in the air.  It is a month for remembering others and the love that binds us, or doesn't, I suppose.

It is also Black History Month in the U.S. and Canada.  Here in North Carolina a monumental event is taking place in honor of this: the opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.  A little lunch counter in Greensboro, NC became a hotbed of civil rights controversy on February 1, 1960.  Four black college students (Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond) entered the Woolworth store on that day and sat at a 'whites only' counter.  They were "denied service, ignored, and then asked to leave."  The next day, 29 black men and women returned to the store and sat at the counter.  They were teased and refused service, but they sat there for FOUR hours while police and news crews watched.
Four hours might now sound like much, but it got things started.  The idea hit the nightly newscasts and "students across the community embraced the movement."  Demonstrations continued and the NAACP fully supported this highly organized group of students.

On the third day of sit-ins, the number of participants had grown to 60.  They took up every single seat at that lunch counter.  Members of the KKK turned out to heckle them.  By the fourth day, 300 studenst were protesting by 'sitting in,' three of them white women from a local women's university, and the protest had spread to a second store, S.H. Kress & Co.  Still the stores refused to integrate as long as "other downtown facilities remained segregated."

On Friday, Feb. 5th, white segregationists seated their own at the counters in hopes of displacing the protests.  Sit-in participants filled in the remaining seats and the standoff continued.  By Saturday, more than 1,000 people packed the Woolworth's in protest.  A bomb threat was called in and the store was closed.  Protesters moved to the Kress store, which was immediately closed as well.

On Monday, Feb. 8th, students in Winston-Salem and Durham held sit-ins to show solidarity with the Greensboro students.  The movement spread to Raleigh, Charlotte and High Point, then beyond to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and "even Woolworth stores in New York City."

Talks and public votes showed support for integrated lunch counters, but, when it hadn't happened by April 1st, students began sitting in again at both the Woolworth and Kress stores.  The next day, both stores officially closed their lunch counters.

Nearly six months later, on Monday, July 25, 1960, "F.W. Woolworth employees Charles Bess, Mattie Long, Susie Morrison and Jamie Robinson are the first African-Americans to eat at the lunch counter. The headline of The Greensboro Record read 'Lunch Counters Integrated Here.' The Kress counter opened to all on the same day."

(All information and quotes taken from the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.)
I am a woman.  I know my history is as oppressed as African Americans, but I don't feel it as strongly as I feel theirs.  I continue to feel shame for the ignorance that guided our country so recently in the laws and treatments of people who are our equals.  I have never paid much attention to Black History Month before.  However, with the opening of this new museum right down the road from me, my eyes are a bit more open.  1960 was before my time but it wasn't so long ago.  And it is still 1960 in many places around the world.  What do we do?  We are all writers.  We all have a pen that is, it has been said, mightier than the sword.  Read I, Rigoberta Menchu or Revolutionizing Motherhood and you see how words brought change and safety to the oppressed.

So I ask you, do we have a responsibility?  Do we have a job to do?

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  1. Best wishes on your soon-to-be birthday. Oh, to be 30 again.

    Sometimes looking back at our history as a nation, it's hard to believe we were like that and yet we were (and still continue to be in someways). You're right, each of us (writers and non-writers) have a responsibility. We can hope, pray and work for the next generations to be in a better place than we are. Very inspiring post.

  2. Thank you, Mason. People kept skipping over it and going straight to the Shelfari post and I was beginning to wonder if it was invisible! Or maybe to serious for a Monday. However, it struck me today and I had to write it. I don't know that I'll change the world, but I hope to at least reach and help SOMEONE. I wonder how?


  3. Those were brave people!
    Shame such ignorance still exists.

    And my article is ready! Where do I send it?

  4. I am covered in chills, Michele. Awesome, awesome post. The people who sat in peaceful protest fill me with awe. Such courage. Such dignity.

    Prejudice in nonsensical at best. As writers we weild some power and influence (as a group). We need to tell these stories, make sure we understand them. And make sure craziness like this is eradicated.

  5. Alex- It really is. It really is.

    Jemi- Thank you and I think you nailed it as to our responsibility. I hope we each find a way to do that. I believe you do it every day through teaching, and will do so more as a writer and blogger.

  6. I've given you an award!!! Check it out here!!

  7. Michele, found your email address and sent the article earlier.
    And I noticed I'm down for Wednesday. Thought I'd said Thursday? I won't be able to get to my computer until late afternoon on Wednesday...

  8. Loved hearing the history. It is amazing how much things have changed. I'm 37, and I grew up in the 70's with Wonder Woman and Mary Tyler Moore as my heroes, but even they were portrayed with certain prejudicial views of females. It was still more common for women to be secretaries than doctors (and I had a big argument with my grandmother when she bought me a red nurse toy bag when I wanted the black doctor bag--and she said the doctor bag was for boys!). I always found the way media (books or TV and movies) portayed things to be hugely influential in how people thought. That's one of the reasons I'm a fan of sci-fi: Rodenberry showed blacks, women, Asians and even Russians (this was the middle of the Cold War) working together. In 'Alien', Sigourny Weaver was the first female action hero I can remember, and the Xena/Buffy era in the 90's really did alot for showing that women could be more than just the love interest. I wonder if 'Deep Impact' with Morgan Freeman as President as well as other movies and shows with black presidents helped us more easily picture Obama in the role? I wonder what actress we need playing the part before we finally see a woman president?

  9. Great post!

    I'd have loved to sit with McNeil, McCain, Blair, and Richmond.


    from the desk of a writer

  10. Fantastic post Michele.

    As you say it isn't just your country.
    Here in Australia, Aboriginal people were not recognised as citizens until 1967.

    As you rightly point out prejudice and bigotry are not dead. In fact in some circles I think it is worse than it was ten years ago.

    To answer your question: Yes, we definitely have a responsibility; if articulate people don't speak out then who will?


    Publish or Perish

  11. Alex-- My mistake...I'll change it!

    Lorel-- What wonderfully appropriate stories! I fight little inborn things like that with my son. Some of it comes naturally--separating the sexes in his mind is just a way of making the world orderly. So I have to show him that making men and women different by their power is not okay. Thank you for their post! I was just thinking about you!

    Corra- I thought that when I read about the three white women who (finally) sat-in at the lunch counter. I pray to God I would have had the strength to stand up (or sit down) and be with them!

    Al- That is exactly what I meant. People automatically think of women in places like Afghanistan, but it is much more widespread than that.

  12. It's unorthodox to do this, I know, but I was so taken with your post that I Googled and now paste here below a copy of this song which I first heard in my adolescence. It has stayed with me since. Joan Baez sings a version. It's haunting and so memorable. Thankyou.

    Lyrics as reprinted in Guy and Candie Carawan, Sing for Freedom: The Story of
    the Civil Rights Movement through its songs, Bethlehem, PA, 1990, pp. 122-123.

    Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song.
    I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
    On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
    And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
    That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun,
    And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one.
    At an old Baptist church there was no need to run.
    And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,
    The clouds they were grey and the autumn winds blew,
    And Denise McNair brought the number to two.
    The falcon of death was a creature they knew,
    And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,
    The church it was crowded, but no one could see
    That Cynthia Wesley's dark number was three.
    Her prayers and her feelings would shame you and me.
    And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
    Young Carol Robertson entered the door
    And the number her killers had given was four.
    She asked for a blessing but asked for no more,
    And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
    On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.
    And people all over the earth turned around.
    For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.
    And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
    The men in the forest they once asked of me,
    How many black berries grew in the Blue Sea.
    And I asked them right back with a tear in my eye.
    How many dark ships in the forest?
    The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone.
    And I can't do much more than to sing you a song.
    I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
    And the choirs keep singing of Freedom.

  13. I love unorthodox! And I love that I moved you! That really moves ME, Elisabeth! Thank you!


  14. I heard the NPR story on the sit in at Greensboro. Very inspiring. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the follow up info on this.