Monday, June 16, 2008

An Anniversary

Forty years ago this month my first trade book was published, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama! (I had published a prior book, The Twelve String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, but it was an instruction book based on teaching records Pete Seeger had done, so I don't count it as my book.) To mark this anniversary in my life I've decided to read all 46 of my books.

I never read my books from cover to cover when they are published. It can be a year or more between my turning in a manuscript and a book's publication. By that time the book represents where I was and not where I am.

Look Out, Whitey! was the first book published on Black Power, and I still remember the morning I picked up the New York Times, and to my shock and surprise, there was a review of LOW, a good review. The book placed Black Power in the broad context of American history as well as the history of blacks in America. What made it different was the language. It was, in essence, a scholarly book, well-researched and with footnotes and a bibliography but the language was passionate, provocative, and its tone was the music of the street. The opening paragraphs:

"In June of 1966, James Meredith, the first Negro to graduate from the University of Mississippi, began what he called a "march against fear" through his native state....With this announcement black people across the country began crossing Meredith's name from the list of those in the land of the living. Hustlers began checking whether they could take out insurance policies on his life, naming themselves as beneficiaries. Ministers looked through their files, searching for old sermons about martyrdom. In a few places florists hurriedly placed orders for funeral wreaths, to be sure they would have enough on hand. They weren't being cynical. They were black and they knew. Mr Meredith had announced his death.

"On the second day of his march, surrounded by state troopers and FBI men, Meredith was shot. Fortunately, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnimerciful Lord God Almighty took pity on this man from Kosciusko, Mississippi, and selected the poorest-shooting white man in three counties for the job. Mr. Meredith was not murdered. He received superficial wounds and a telegram from [Vice-President] Hubert Humphrey."

Recently I read LOW for the first time. I have vague memories of sitting in the basement of the Atlanta office of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil rights group for whom I worked as a photographer from 1966-68, cold, trying to see how many cups of tea I could make from one teabag, and pounding away on a typewriter at this book. But I remembered little else, and it was as if it had been written by someone else, which, in many ways, it was. I found the book to be surprisingly good, and I wondered how I had written it. I had never studied writing non-fiction, had never even written a decent paper during my four years in college.

I still agree with much of what I wrote, but I’m sorry that once I referred to women as “bitches” and I used “nigger” a lot more than I wish I had, though both words were used casually in those days. At times I was uncomfortable with the angry voice in the book. I wrote the book in the voice of all those blacks who could not speak for themselves and be heard, but I was never as angry as the book makes me appear, and I was never anti-white. However, I still chuckle when I recall the headline of the review that appeared in a newspaper in Indiana: "Lester Out To Get White Mamas." (Little did they know.)

As a description of the mood of young blacks of the time and an explication of black nationalism in the guise of Black Power, it’s a good book. Much of what I wrote is still true, unfortunately, but my view of people and events is more complex and nuanced now, the result of age and experience and reading.

In 1968 I had youth and anger on my side, and that was a good thing. It makes me wonder why aren't Americans angry today? Well, they are -- over the price of gas. I'll save that for later in the week.

Anyway, I’m enjoying becoming acquainted with myself through my books. I'll let you know how the reading goes.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

1 comment:

Cloudscome said...

I have been reading your blog here for about a year and wishing I could comment. I read it in bloglines and come to check if you have comments turned on every once in a while. I am so glad you do now because I want to tell you how much I love your blog.

Congratulations on writing so many great books. I read How Many Spots Does the Leopard Have? every year in my library to first graders. They cheer at the end of the stories.

I am going to look for more of your books this summer and read along with you.