On author’s second birthday, portrait of Lonnie Birch, author’s grandfather, who participated in the Elaine Race Massacre.
For over three years and a half years, I returned to live in the South, but in an increasingly different white South, one that constantly felt itself under growing and unsympathetic threats on manifold sides, a white South that recognized its many vulnerabilities but did not have an inkling how to combat or address them except through either outright surrender, which was unlikely and not part of the white South’s DNA, or perilous anger that frequently translated into unencumbered demagoguery and violence, the residual legacy of the region’s damaged heritage.
My mother had purchased a small Plymouth Valiant for me to trek back and forth between Cambridge and southeast Arkansas, but I would now employ it to travel roads, byways, and highways to towns and cities in the region of the South, hearing reactions to Freedom Summer, the incipient Racial Revolution, and how blacks and whites responded to the historical dictates that a people, African-Americans, would now be free, even in the American South with its codified Jim Crow regimens and habituations. I worked at a carpet mill and at organizing periodic pulpwood, hardwood, and pine timber cuttings off the family’s tree farm. Now and then, I attended classes at the University of Arkansas until I accumulated enough course work, together with my Harvard credits, to graduate.
Notwithstanding the seemingly hodge-podge nature of the exploration, I now conclude that this period probably constituted one of the most, if not the most, important and formative times of my life. While painful and uncertain to be sure, I learned about individual and societal adaption and reconciliation and forces affecting racial accord and discord I may not have acquired in any other way. It was filled with a multitude of challenges and storms, a journey that many friends and family members did not understand nor condone, a journey that eventually took its course change for north toward home, to New York City.
On occasion, I’ve used the phrase in this book, “north toward home,” the title for a book written by Willie Morris. However, I’m using the phrase differently than he did. . .That past I inherited informs and continues to shape parts of me. Nevertheless, it does not lessen the force I see as an obligation to examine and thereafter describe my own individual propositions on a region of the nation that has uniquely suffered, a suffering of its own making, yes, but a suffering also from external defeat, international economic dynamics, and conducive soil over which the region’s races have had little control. I faced the fact decades ago that this individual view, my individual view, could happen, blossom, and be harvested only outside the place of my birth and breeding, a place I cannot deny nor from which I can fully distance myself; for so much of what I’ve had to say about these matters embodies my own journey of “north toward home”.
My attention to race during those years back in the South after Freedom Summer ultimately evolved into a series of compositions on elements of the subject, both in expository and poetic forms. Several of these pieces are now contained in the J. Chester Johnson Collection at the Civil Rights Archives of Queens College in New York City, which is the alma mater of Andrew Goodman, one of the three civil rights workers martyred by white supremacists near Philadelphia, Mississippi at the beginning of Freedom Summer.