Transformed Through Activism
By Kathryn L. Nasstrom
Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 33-34
Constance Curry, Joan C. Browning, Dorothy Dawson Burlage, Penny Patch, Theresa Del Pozzo, Sue Thrasher, Elaine DeLott Baker, Emmie Schrader Adams, and Casey Hayden, Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2000).
Deep in Our Hearts, which features essays by nine white women who participated in the southern civil rights movement in the 1960s, is a much needed book. The authors’ recollections help redress the relative absence, in both personal accounts and scholarly treatments of the movement, of women of their race and generation. We have had, up to now, one significant memoir (Mary King’s Freedom Song) and a very few scholarly works (Sara Evans’s Personal Politics being the best known); these have had to carry a great deal of interpretive weight-more than such a small number of works can bear-in representing complex personal and social worlds.
The genre to which Deep in Our Hearts belongs is memoir/autobiography, and the central issue is the compelling and eternally fascinating question of selfhood: who is this person and how did she come to be the person she is? The authors’ collective answer is that they became anti-racist activists and they did so through the southern freedom movement and especially through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to which all were connected in some way, for some time. All were young at the time (in their late teens and twenties), and all were transformed in significant ways by the experience as they aligned themselves with a black-led movement. “That experience remains at the core of who I am,” Penny Patch writes, and all the essays are narrative expositions on this theme.
Deep in Our Hearts works well as a collection of essays because the pieces are sufficiently similar in general content and purpose to reside between the covers of one book, yet sufficiently different to make each piece worth taking up on its own merits. The rough template for the essays is that each addresses the author’s growing up years, followed by her experiences in the movement, and closes with a reflection on the years since. There is familiar ground here, as a number of the essays touch on hotly debated issues in the history of the movement, such as the question of interracial sex, gender and leadership, and the demise of SNCC. There is also much that is new, such as Emmie Schrader Adams’s experiences in Africa prior to her involvement in the Mississippi movement and Theresa Del Pozzo’s subsequent involvement with the interracial jazz world. One of the volume’s greatest contributions is the discussion that each contributor undertakes, although in varying degrees of detail and self-revelation, of the fragmenting of the student movement in the mid- to late-1960s and the impact of the shift from interracialism to black power. For some, the feelings of estrangement and loss were intense; for others, a personal history of activism that continued to evolve and prove meaningful, combined with a philosophical and political understanding of the significance of black power, eased the transition. The period from 1965 to 1970 is the least understood phase of the civil rights movement and is most typically viewed as a time of precipitous decline. These essays, as partial and particular as they are (and as all memoirs must be), offer clues to a more nuanced interpretation and serve as reminders that sweeping generalizations will not suffice.
These are stories of coming of age in a transformative social movement; they are also retrospective accounts, written from the vantage point of middle age in late twentieth-century America. Because the movement was such a life-defining experience, the task of the ensuing decades has been one of coming to terms with the past. The
vitality of these essays derives from how engaged the writers are in establishing the meaning of the movement in the present, both for themselves as individuals and for the social issues of our day. In much of this, the tone is confident and decided, reflecting beliefs formed in early lives of activism and maintained, even amplified, in subsequent years. On other matters, however, there is a tentative quality and even a certain fragility. Readers picking up the book are likely to expect the passages on the movement to be riveting-and many are. What is surprising is that the greater emotional weight and the most moving passages concern the descriptions of present-day lives and feelings about the movement today. Casey Hayden writes, “Even now when I give talks about the movement I weep, sometimes breaking down completely. My tears are for that loss and for the innocent girl I was.” The sense that present lives are still unsettled by events four decades ago lends an air of unfinished business, sometimes painfully so, to these memoirs. The presence of the past in the present is the emotional center of these autobiographies, and the meaning of the freedom movement is not fixed but still in evolution. These essays speak at once to two times, the past of idealism and action and the present of memory and reconciliation.
A collection of memoirs is an unusual undertaking in the genre of autobiography, which more typically narrates an individual life history. In their preface, the authors nod to the novelty of their endeavor, but they might have told us more about why they decided to work collectively and how that decision shaped the final work. What did they hope to accomplish together that could not be done singularly? To what extent did they prompt, shape, and edit each others’ memories and essays? How did they come to write a book that reflects one segment of the movement (young, white, and female) when the mixed-race, mixed-sex, and multi-generational world of the movement was so significant to them? The question of how an autobiographical work is crafted is always significant, but all the more so here because the contributors participated in a mass movement in which individual identity and action merged into a larger collective consciousness and purpose. Moreover, decision-making within SNCC was a constant source of discussion and typically a group process. This may be a case where literary form reflects the distinctive activist form of SNCC, and the volume can be read in part as a search for an appropriate collective voice with which to remember the movement and comment on its meaning in our own time.
Kathryn L. Nasstrom is associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco and is author of Everybody’s Grandmother and Nobody’s Fool: Frances Freeborn Pauley and the Struggle for Social Justice (2000).