One day this week, the front page of the Memphis newspaper featured a photo of the encroaching Mississippi flood waters. An elderly black woman sat on the front porch of her little house, watching as the river swallowed her yard and her front steps. "Two more bricks," she said, pointing to the corner of the house. "If the water gets over those two bricks, I may have to do something."
The accompanying story explained that safety officials and members of her family had already pleaded with her to evacuate to a shelter. Her refusal was firm. "This house may not be much, but it's all I've got. This house is full of memories. I've lived here all my life. I raised 12 children in this house. A little bit of water ain't gonna drive me away from here. This here house is my life, and I'm staying put."
As I read the article, I kept hearing echoes of the past. 150 years ago, the slaves of South Carolina watched their plantation owners flee from the invading Yankee army. And just as stoically as that woman on the front porch, they refused to budge when the chance to flee was offered to them. The soldiers, missionaries, and teachers who came to help them were puzzled by their reactions. After all, didn't all slaves want to be free? Of course they did, but to them, freedom meant being free to choose to stay in the homes they had always known.
What I was sensing here was not an attitude exclusive to one group of people or one occasion. Rather, it seems to be a universal trait of the human condition. Home is where we live and love and fight whatever small battles come our way. Home isn't a building or a particular town. It's a feeling of belonging, of being connected to something bigger than ourselves. And human beings everywhere will fight to cling to what they consider home, no matter how humble or threatening it may be.
A story of triumph appeared on the same day, in the same paper. Booker T. Washington High School was named the winner of the "2011 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge". The school is located just a few blocks from where that elderly woman sat on her porch. That morning, the school's principal had received a call from Vice President Joe Biden, telling her that President Obama would be delivering this year's commencement address. What a success story lies behind that announcement!
A few years ago, BTWHS was one of the lowest-achieving schools in the country. The neighborhood suffered from poverty, crime, and demoished buildings. Students floundered and quit school. Now, thanks to a concerted effort by their faculty, and supported by a federal grant, they have turned around not only the school but the neighborhood and the lives of those who live in South Memphis. To see all the facts and figures, watch the video they made.
Once again, as I read the article, I compared it to the story I am currently researching -- the development of the Penn School on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Like BTW, Penn set out to prove that all people can learn and grow into useful citizens. Penn, too, had a dedicated faculty, led by Miss Laura Towne. Laura believed that in a safe and supportive environment, all children could achieve a high level of academic excellence. She took small slave children and turned them into life-long learners. Her goals exactly match those of the faculty of BTW.
As I consider these similarities, I am more and more convinced of the value of the kind of writing I do. Through the stories of the past we can better understand the challenges of the present. People who lived 150 years ago faced the same sorts of problems we do and found the same kinds of solutions that work today. There are no hard lines of "then" and "now." We are all part of a continuum, sharing the same human condition. Historical fiction is one tool for strengthening our bonds to the human community.