Tag Archives: Patricia Stephens Due

Surviving President Tr*mp: Lessons from the 1960s & Octavia E. Butler

“Belief Initiates and guides action—Or it does nothing.”

–Octavia E. Butler, 1947-2006

Earthseed: The Book of the Living (Parable of the Sower)

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“History happens one person at a time.”–Patricia Stephens Due, 1939-2012

Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights

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Octavia E. Butler’s inscription to my civil rights activist mother

In the late Octavia E. Butler’s near-future novel Parable of the Sower, a teenage girl,  Lauren Olamina, is the only person in her thinly protected community who sees how fragile their way of life is, how susceptible to destruction—and no one will listen until it’s too late.

In a way, my late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who braved jail and teargas in the 1960s, was like Lauren Olamina: warning of dire consequences if communities and organizations didn’t work to stop the threats of Jim Crow, segregation and voting restrictions. My mother and father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due, were willing to die for a better future for their children. My mother forever warned of efforts to “turn back the clock.”

Well, the clock has turned. Now another Really Bad Time has come. It’s the time Butler warned us about, when even the fascistic presidential candidate in her novel Parable of the Talents (the second Parable novel) used the phrase “Make America Great Again.”

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The late Octavia E. Butler

Dystopia has been a reality for many families for generations, but many in the U.S. finally see our peril more clearly after the Nov. 8 election and today’s inauguration of Donald Tr*mp to the presidency. (I write his name as a profanity based on his hate-filled campaign and platforms, lack of fitness for the position, and other reasons worthy of a separate essay.) But many of us have seen it for as long as we can remember because we have been living beneath the storm clouds, and we tried so hard to tell you.

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Mom (front, dark glasses) at 1963 protest to desegreate a theater in Tallahassee, FL.    My father, John Due, is profiled between movie poster & police. PHOTO CREDIT: Florida State Archives

Black Lives Matter tried to tell you. The NAACP tried to tell you. Prisoner advocacy groups tried to tell you. Planned Parenthood tried to tell you. The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center tried to tell you: institutional racism and hate thrive in this country, masquerading as laws and policies meant to restrict human freedom. Scratch beneath the surface of the ideology of the extreme right, and we’re facing the same battles my parents, and their parents, fought.

And of course they deny they’re doing it. And tell us “Wait and see.”But those of us who are paying attention have seen enough.

My way of surviving this storm, at least emotionally, is to combine the lessons from my parents’ freedom movements of the past and the warnings from Octavia E. Butler’s fictitious future to help me stay steady on the path.

We must resist. To do that, we must believe we can create change.

Breathe 

First, breathe. Meditate. Journal. Dance. Hydrate. Get enough rest. If you’re an artist, CREATE. As I tweeted earlier this week, ask yourself what Octavia E. Butler would have written to confront this crisis…and create your version of that.

For information, turn off the circus of television cable news and subscribe to newspapers. Favor  investigative reporters over talking heads. For escape, find comedy, horror, thrillers—whatever helps you decompress. I write horror, I think, because my mother loved horror movies as her means of escape from her anger and fear. You need an escape too.

Jennifer Marie Brissett, author of the speculative fiction novel Elysium: Or, The World After, says, “I think this is a time to let the sadness in—to just feel this and not fight the despair. Soak your feet, wash your hair, take a nap, and eat the cheese cake. Be okay with feeling lousy. Then put all of your hurt and sorrow into making something beautiful.”

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Author Jennifer Marie Brissett

Each day will bring alarming headlines, and self-care is imperative. If you’re not OK, you won’t be able to help others.

Move away from numbness & denial

I felt numb in the weeks after the election. I was trying to protect my emotions, so I avoided processing my pain.  Numbness is a form of denial.

I was in mild denial before the election (I didn’t think Tr*mp could win), and many of us still are. The human capacity for denial is so strong that I suspect it may be rooted, ironically, in a survival instinct. Perhaps we lock away our fear of death so effectively that we have a talent for not seeing what’s in front of us.

So every plan and action must take denial into account. No matter who was “right,” we were all wrong—because we could not prevent the election of Trump.

We have to fix what went wrong. We have to be awake to fight.

Stop looking for heroes and heroines 

This last election should have taught us the vast limitations of our elected officials—they can’t do it alone. Heroic moments have emerged from congresspeople like John Lewis and Maxine Waters, and yet more will emerge in the next few months and years. But we cannot rely upon them.

Meaningful resistance is up to us, the People.

In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina is a mere teenager, but she cannot rely on the adults for her safety, including her own father (who is in denial)—she relies upon herself. Likewise, my parents and many of the activists from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were very young, like the young South African youth who helped bring down apartheid. Liberation movements are led by youth, not by the established Powers That Be.

WE are the heroes and heroines who will make the difference. Today not only marked a tragic inauguration—but large protests in Washington, D.C. and sister marches scheduled around the nation tomorrow. A portion of today’s otherwise peaceful protests in Washington grew violent, according to the Washington Post, and protesters were sprayed with pepper spray, with 100 arrests. (Although I want to learn more; Tr*mp’s team has a history of staging resistance.) My mother’s civil rights generation believed—and I agree—that protest is most effective when it’s nonviolent.

But just because you are nonviolent does not mean police will treat you nonviolently. Even reporters have been manhandled and arrested in Ferguson and Standing Rock, so always attend a protest with one or more friends. The American Civil Liberties Union also has a free app you can download to send video from your phone directly to the ACLU if you see a questionable police encounter.

Exercise common sense at a protest the way you should on social media.

But we must march—and actions beyond marches.

We are the heroes and heroines of this story.

Choose your spot and defend it 

So much is happening so quickly that it’s difficult to decide where to begin, which leads to hopelessness and paralysis. I’m trying to find the places that need me most. Where will children be most harmed? Who is under the greatest threat of injury or death? How can I take daily actions even if they are small? I’m also working to have an impact on issues like juvenile justice and mass incarceration, as I did pre-election.

Social media is a start, especially for people new to activism. I have scores of new Twitter followers (I can tell they’re new because they don’t have profile photos yet, still using “Egg” avatars) who were probably drawn to Twitter because Tr*mp uses it.  Social media is a great way to spread information (actual news), rally allies, find family and tribe, seek humor or comfort, and sharpen your messaging.

But it’s only a beginning.

Since the election, I have signed several petitions–including a WhiteHouse.gov petition to force Tr*mp to disclose his tax returns–and  set up recurring donations to the NAACP and ACLU, and other donations will follow. Even $10 a month can help. I have left messages for Rep. Paul Ryan about the ACA and emailed others in Congress to fight for the ACA and to urge non-confirmation for Jeff Sessions and Tom Price. I have donated small amounts to book drives for prisoners and supported other causes related to the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. I plan to attend a women’s march in Pasadena Saturday, joining other marchers around the nation.

Most of my actions take less than five minutes a day. We can’t say we don’t have time to take part in active resistance.

And action is an antidote to fear. For some people, “daily action” means volunteering in schools, attending local meetings, perhaps even running for office. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I spent seven years as a volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, spending a couple of hours every weekend with my Little Sister, whose mother had died.

Not only is daily action helpful in moving forward a political platform or minimizing damage from social spending cuts, but it limits the sense of helplessness that can leave us feeling paralyzed in the face of so much work to do.

Allies squabble — now get over it and build coalitions

“Kindness eases Change.”–Octavia E. Butler, Earthseed: The Book of the Living

Yes, it’s frustrating when people who might otherwise be allies fall short of expectations or don’t share our exact perceptions. During the civil rights movement, allies accused my mother of being a “publicity hound” when she used newspaper interviews as a tool for spreading a civil rights message. She navigated in-fighting between the major organizations of the time. She felt marginalized as a woman in the Movement. She had any number of reasons she could have walked away, but she didn’t.

Why? Because her need to fight for justice and equality outweighed the squabbles. Squabbles in political and movements often are centered on pacing: you’re moving too fast, you’re not moving fast enough. Either “my way” will work or no way will work. People tend to think in binaries rather than seeking common ground. It’s childish and ineffective.

Octavia E. Butler’s Lauren Olamina is forever defending her ideas from skeptics even as they rely upon her leadership. The leaders in Butler’s novels often do not feel safe even among the people they are trying to help. Sadly, this is also true in life, another reality of human nature.

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Not everyone you disagree with in the Tr*mp opposition is a phony, con or spy—or “hopeless.” Allies will have to implement plans in concert, so debate and correction are necessary for growth—but growth begins with SELF reflection, not in critiquing others.

Potential allies should approach each other with kindness.

“Unfortunately, this kind of constant familiar critique just makes us smaller when we need to be massive,” says Adrienne Maree Brown, author of the forthcoming Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press 2017) and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (AK Press 2015). Brown has facilitated for several activist groups and organizations.

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Author and facilitator Adrienne Maree Brown

“We in movement spaces need to notice the role cynicism, desperation and hopelessness plays in our conflict[s],” Brown says. “I see a lot of people fighting with each other because we are scared of the future and trying to protect our hearts.”

Instead of squabbling, teach.

Learn.

Science fiction author and television writer Steven Barnes (who happens to be my husband) says the squabbling on the left is natural because of the nature of progressive politics.

“The left seems chaotic because the right reaches toward the past, and there’s only one past,” Barnes said. “But there are infinite possibilities for the future.” But even if our exact visions differ, building coalitions will be essential in the years ahead.

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Author Steven Barnes

The narrative matters

Storytelling is persuasion.

The role of storytelling is even more important in a political world influenced by “fake news,” or propaganda, from both foreign and domestic sources. Repetition of lies creates a kind of truth in the listener, and potential allies can fall prey to lies just as many voters did. How can we drive the narrative of the story toward truth and social justice? What are the most effective ways to frame events to lend them importance and comprehension?

We’re weaving the counter-narrative with every Facebook update and tweet, especially when we use personal experiences or revelations. “I used to think, but…and here’s why….” may be an effective way to reach doubters who will not feel judged for their beliefs, whether it’s a position on Black Lives Matter or the viability of a third party. Sometimes simple debunking with evidence is the best approach.

Storytellers don’t attack their listeners: they create a world view that “overthrows a way of thinking,” as Walter Mosley has said of the revolutionary power of black science fiction.

Artists like Barnes, Butler, Mosley and other Afrofuturists create counter-narratives through their art, often using allegory (i.e. Steven Barnes’s alternate history novel on slavery, Lion’s Blood) to better illustrate the challenges we face, or to provide escapism for self-care.  The excitement over Marvel’s Luke Cage series and upcoming Black Panther film illustrate the power of fantasy and superheroes to electrify us—feeding our need for self-actualization, self-reliance and shifted power dynamics on screen.

We need to tell the story.

The establishment will fear and obstruct you 

If you’ve been following activist communities, you know that groups like Black Lives Matter have already been labeled as “thugs” or “terrorists,” and this isn’t new. But with advances in technology, protesters are now subjected to face recognition software and databases even when no crime has been committed. Beyond that, online harassment from trolls already bullies many people into silence.

One of Tr*mp’s first tweets as president-elect was to denounce protesters. We can all expect more of this—whether we protest in the streets or with our words, or both.

Watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix for a comprehensive overview of how presidential administrations have used “law and order” rhetoric to squash resistance and create a new kind of slavery in our system of mass incarceration. This is not theoretical. My parents both have thick FBI files simply for agitating for civil rights and voting rights at a time when critics labeled agitation as “communism.”

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My mother’s 1960s-era FBI file as a result of her activism

Power fights back.

One way to extend the reach of your tweets is to use hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #resist or #Notmypresident, but hashtags also invite trolls to argue with you. I do not engage trolls—I block them immediately. If you have a wide enough reach, you will be even more highly scrutinized or even threatened or attacked for seemingly innocuous posts. In this new reality, it’s not inconceivable to get a hate tweet from the president himself.

Hugo Award-winning author of The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin is an outspoken presence on Twitter, where she has been targeted and received death threats for her critiques of racism and sexism in fandom. But she still isn’t afraid to raise her voice.

“Mostly it’s just that I don’t want to live in the kind of world where people like that dictate what I say—so I keep talking,” Jemisin says. “I get louder when they fuck with me, because for me, anger pushes back fear.”

She advises opinionated people on the Internet to visit http://www.crashoverridenetwork.com, a website that specializes in fighting online abuse, whether it’s lists of resources or offering help managing a current crisis. (Like, say, your social media account has been flooded with trolls, etc.)

N.K. Jemison

Author N.K. Jemisin

Adds Jemisin: “But at the end of the day, the only way to shut Them up is to make it really, really clear that they cannot silence you. That takes away their power.”

We need to be smarter. Sometimes we need to create private chat rooms to talk rather than subjecting our emails or telephone calls to compromise.

We want our activism to be noticed, but getting noticed has its drawbacks.

Don’t be in denial about that. Be ready.

Resistance has always taken courage.

And courage is born of hope.

My father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney who came of age during the tumultuous 1960s. In the 1960s, he represented Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, and helped pioneer techniques to move civil rights cases from state to federal courts for a more favorable outcome. He often tells the story of fearing for his life while driving on dark Mississippi roads during voter registration campaigns, and the white sheriff who could have turned him over to the Klan, but instead let him go. He is a lifelong community organizer.

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Me (right) with Mom & Dad outside White House after the inauguration of President Obama

Dad has seen nearly a century of change, and, like Octavia Butler often said, he agrees that based on science alone, humankind’s future looks grim. Likewise,  the nation’s future looked grim in 1959, when my mother decided to join the Civil Rights Movement in Florida. Or in 1960, when my father moved from Indiana to go to law school at Florida A&M University to be closer to help the Movement as an attorney.

“Based upon the evidence, we are doomed,” Dad says. “A five-year-old can kill the whole human race, almost, if he has access to a button. I cannot categorize change in scientific terminology because based upon science, there is no hope, there is no future. But because we have a human capacity to feel and to believe otherwise, and to believe in hope, that’s what keeps us alive.”

Butler’s Parable of the Sower is set within a landscape of poverty, corporate slavery, racism, drought, violence and despair. And yet… within this dystopian framework, Butler gives us hope nestled in her protagonist Lauren Olamina’s new religion, called Earthseed – with passages that resonate deeply beyond the borders of the story.

All that you touch

You Change

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God Is Change.

And Butler helps us, through visualization and imagination, cross that membrane from fiction to reality—in a proactive rather than fearful way.

So begin with history—learn about successful protest movements of the past. Our schools teach shockingly little history, so what you don’t know will surprise you. All of us, no matter how “woke,” have remaining illusions. But we must begin the real-life worldbuilding our times demand.

We have so much to do, and the work is generations old.

We all need to learn, grow and create new approaches to replace our failed ones that helped usher Tr*mp win the White House. Like Octavia E. Butler and the resisters before us, we must agitate and create like our future depends on it.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter who teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has won an American Book Award, British Fantasy Award and NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter @TananariveDue.

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Selma, mighty Selma (2014)

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”  –James Baldwin

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David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

 

I was raised by two civil rights activists – attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due—so stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. were common in my house. My mother first met Dr. King at a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workshop in Miami in 1959. My aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who attended with her, is an activist. Our godparents were activists, black and white.

Even without an official holiday, my sisters and I got to skip school every January 15 for annual birthday celebrations that brought neighbors, activists and politicians to our home to reflect on Dr. King and the legacy of The Movement. We held hands, listened to Dr. King’s speeches, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” As an adult, I co-authored a civil rights memoir with my mother, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.

My parents always stressed two things about the Movement:

  • The Movement was not about a single man, but about the faceless marchers and activists who were willing to put their lives, safety and futures at risk.
  • King was only a single human being. Often, he was afraid for his life.

The most vivid family anecdote, to me, was how my mother’s German shepherd, Scout, lunged at Dr. King at a press conference in St. Augustine in 1964 and filled his face with fear. (I can relate. My earliest memory is that same dog glaring at me, and I am still afraid of dogs.)

Which brings me to Ava DuVernay’s masterful film Selma, starring talented powerhouse David Oyelowo as Dr. King. This film, shot in only 32 days, took fifty years to bring to the big screen—and DuVernay’s masterwork is worthy of the wait. Although my parents did not go to Selma, this stirring film captures the civil rights movement – and the Martin Luther King, Jr. – from my parents’ stories. It is the truest civil rights depiction I have seen on film.

Its timing is also remarkable, released in the midst of a growing #BlackLivesMatter national social movement underway to complete the civil rights work depicted in the film. And it offers its own potential history: Ava DuVernay, already nominated for a Golden Globe, could become the first black woman nominated for, or to win, an Oscar as Best Director.

Selma is so relevant that it’s almost uncanny—the police abuses, the tear gas, and the brave masses willing to risk their lives for change. Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography unfolds at times like a dream, at times like a nightmare, eerily reminiscent of so many images we see from protests here and now.

Selma is a film about Dr. King and the quest for voting rights—but it is also about politics, activist strategy, intergenerational divides, inter-organizational bickering, marriage strain and the heroism of young and old, black and white, to create that historic march. Selma depicts Dr. King and the civil rights era of my parents’ stories—a terrible and wonderful moment in history when, as my mother so often said, ordinary people did extraordinary things.

Some of my favorite moments are the most mundane, human ones: a husband and wife emptying the trash together, a man finding late-night solace in the voice of a gospel singer, comrades laughing around the table while they enjoy a meal prepared with love. But the film also doesn’t shy away from the Movement’s violence, pain and frailties. Part portrait, part love letter, part primer, part call to action, Selma is a singular film of its time.

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

Too often, black artists have seemed invisible to the Academy—or, when they weren’t, voters’ choices did not reflect our own sensibilities as viewers. Too often, we have been stereotyped and typecast or left out altogether, our stories relegated to the wings.

I have seen many fine films this Oscar season, but none as big as Selma.

When Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions hired Ava DuVernay to direct Selma, he got it right.

Ava DuVernay got Selma right.

With Selma, Oscar has a chance to get it right too.

*****

On Ava DuVernay

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The only people surprised by director Ava DuVernay’s storming of Hollywood are those who haven’t been following her on Twitter. DuVernay, a former publicist, is a leader who has built her own national grass roots network of supporters as a woman filmmaker writing, shooting and distributing her own films through AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement)—and leaving a social media blueprint for others to follow. She is an eloquent champion of independent artists. (See her on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” here.)

Before Selma, she wrote and directed two independent films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (the latter also co-starring Oyelowo, winning her Best Director at Sundance). The quiet scenes from Selma are reminiscent of DuVernay’s mature grasp of characters and relationships in her earlier films. Selma’s social justice message is subtly hinted in Middle of Nowhere, a love story set against our era of mass incarceration. (That film was presented before the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of prisoners fighting predatory phone rates.)

Ava DuVernay was the first guest I invited to Spelman College in 2012, at the start of my two-year appointment as Chair in the Humanities. I literally laid out a red carpet for her, introducing her as a future Oscar winner. (She brought a brief clip from Middle of Nowhere, but that film had not yet been released. She appeared with lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi.)

Even then, I recognized DuVernay as someone who could change the face of Hollywood, just as I recognized Barack Obama as a man who could be president when he appeared before my Los Angeles church as a U.S. Senator in 2007.

DuVernay is both evidence of change and its agent. Her film is an homage to past activists and a visual mission statement to today’s, who themselves are learning the burn of tear-gas and the horror of facing down police officers’ guns.

Ordinary People

Selma, after all, is about We the People.

Then, as now, the activists are the true stars of Selma: stalwarts in Selma and Birmingham and Tallahassee, Florida, and elsewhere who faced beatings, jail or death day by day, paying the price of our Constitution’s promise with their blood. It is impossible to include every face, every name, but surviving activists, their children and their grandchildren can see themselves reflected on the screen.

Many activists did not recover from the emotional traumas they suffered in the 1960s. My mother wore dark glasses her entire adult life because of teargas thrown in her face in 1960, when she was 20. She died at the age of 72, and I have no doubt that the Movement stole years from her life. My aunt agrees with me.

The Stephens sisters, as they were known as students at Florida A&M University, organized a campus CORE chapter and began staging sit-ins after the 1959 Miami workshop. Together, they were arrested and jailed after a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. Once, Tallahassee police officer kicked my aunt in the stomach at a protest.

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Aunt Priscilla fled the United States to live in Ghana in 1964 after a series of ailments she later recognized as stress: Hives. Ulcers. Temporary paralysis she suffered in a jail.

“We couldn’t allow ourselves to feel fear,” she says now. But her body felt it.

Activists’ PTSD went unnamed, and often untreated. Some were ashamed to tell family members they had been to jail. Some committed suicide. Some simply never came home.

Names you do not know. Movies that will never be made.

Selma captures the face of their sacrifice. My mother would have loved Selma, had she lived to see it. Like me, at times, she would have wept.

Today, on opening day, Aunt Priscilla, now 76, will see Selma with a group of friends in the city where she was first jailed. (After their Woolworth arrest, she and my mother were among a handful of Florida A&M students who spent 49 days in jail rather than pay their fine. During their time in jail, the students received a telegram of support from Dr. King.)

Aunt Priscilla knows the film will be painful, but she is eager to see it.

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

“People forget, and they don’t know what happened,” says the retired educator. “If someone can tell the story, it’s good for our children. We are losing our children left and right. They don’t know the importance of anything—Why is it important to vote? Why is it important to do your best? Why is it important not to go to jail? Our children are lost, and they think it’s always been the way it is now. They can’t compare, but we can. I know the struggle continues—it’s not over. But they don’t know what the Struggle was all about. They’re being prepped for jail instead of for life. It’s more dangerous for our children now.”

She recalls the first time she met Dr. King, at the same 1959 CORE workshop with my mother. The workshop ended with Dr. King leading the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” “He sang ‘We shall overcome someday,’ and I told him, ‘No, Dr. King, we shall overcome today.’”

Like the younger activists portrayed in Selma, she says she and other local activists groused about Dr. King’s tactics of swooping in and out of town. “That’s how they talked about Dr. King: He was getting all the publicity and we were doing all the work.”

Once, over lunch, she asked Dr. King how he kept his ego under control when he was lauded by so many. “He said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but you have to keep focused.’”

That, at least, is the way she remembers his words.

Selma and History

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

Selma has overcome so much and soars so high that the well-publicized complaints from some historians about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal are particularly painful. In the flurry of Oscar politics, the drumbeat will be: This film shouldn’t win because it isn’t the truth.

It also means that potential viewers might skip it. And some Academy voters might steer away, as they did when Denzel Washington was nominated for Hurricane.

I have both seen Selma and read the history, and this is my view: Historical films, like historical novels, are a form of fiction. Freedom in the Family, which was nonfiction, taught me that memory itself is faulty—so the notion of “truth” is always a bit slippery. Filmmakers could not get the rights to Dr. King’s speeches, for example, so those are fiction–reportedly penned by DuVernay, though the sole screenplay credit goes to Paul Webb.

In historical fiction, the “truth” lies in the essence of the story being told—the spirit of an event. Any historical film is the starting point for understanding history, not the destination. Selma is not a documentary, and even documentaries are subject to filmmakers’ interpretations. Historians can debate the actions and attitudes of President Johnson compared to his character in his film, and I would suggest, as I always do, that we all research the history ourselves for a fuller picture. The roles of some activists, too, are minimized while others are highlighted. All historical films have omissions, interpretations and scripted dialogue.

Selma King and Johnson

I believe Selma’s depiction of Johnson represents the Movement’s struggles with the White House through the 1960s civil rights era—the fight for change versus political expediency. A film called LBJ surely would have its own sensibility. Other civil rights icons are also worthy of their own films.

As DuVernay said in her interview with Jon Stewart, “We don’t paint anyone as a saint in this–we don’t paint anyone as a sinner.”

Selma sets out to mold a human character from an icon, but also to capture “The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Like No Film Before.” It’s a lot to ask.

Selma does that and more. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge come to vivid life.

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The march across Pettus Bridge: Selma film (2014)

 

Next month, when I participate in a speculative fiction conference on the Florida A&M University campus where my parents met and I was born, I will see Selma with my 80-year-old father, John Due.  Like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and a shrinking number of other activists, my father is a survivor of the civil rights movement. Like all people of advancing years, those activists wonder if their legacies will be remembered.

With my father, "Freedom Lawyer" John Due

With my father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due

My mother is no longer here, but my father is still a community organizer and lawyer with freedom on his mind and in his heart. In Florida, he inspired young activists who went on to help create the Dream Defenders.

Selma took far too long to get made. A decade ago or longer, so many more activists could have enjoyed the validation of seeing their contributions represented symbolically on the big screen. So many more young people would have gained a deeper understanding of how steep the price is for change.

But I’m so glad Selma is here today.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author, screenwriter and filmmaker. She is the former Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. She lives and works in Southern California. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com. See her 2003  book appearance with her mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Unburying the Lost Boys, Pt. 2: the real-life horrors at the Dozier School

AUGUST 2015 UPDATE: The remains of my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, were positively identified from the Dozier School cemetery. [Read more here.] 

MARCH 2014 UPDATE: The [Rof South Florida exhumed 55 bodies from the cemetery.

In 1937, my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, was buried at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, with perhaps up to 100 other boys who never came home after being sentenced to the notorious reformatory. Last September, I went to Marianna with my father, husband and son to observe the beginning of exhumations at the site. I started writing this post the first week of September in 2013, and I’m only completing it in January of 2014. This was hard to write.

 This is not only a story about the past. This story illustrates why our criminal justice system—racially biased and more and more dependent upon private prisons—is itself in dire need of reform.

Dozier School dorm (present day) PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Dozier School dorm (present day)
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

 “Having so few inmates makes the crops come in slow;

I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.”

–Dozier School Superintendent Walter Rawls

Letter to the Board of Managers,

Dec. 1, 1906

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013

The deputy sitting parked in his cruiser at the tree line gives us a slate with a form to sign, passes out badges we clip to our clothes.  Then he directs us to Boot Hill, the cemetery hidden in the woods on the former grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna—Florida’s most infamous reformatory.

“Follow the dirt road along the tree line,” the deputy says. “Turn left at the mudhole.”

And so my husband, Steven Barnes, drives on with a carload of us: me, our 9-year-old son, Jason, and my 78-year-old father, civil rights attorney John Due. It’s only ten-thirty in the morning in Marianna, but the day already promises to be hot.

We drive into the moss-draped woods.

We are puzzling over what the mudhole might look like when Jason spots it—a huge puddle of thick mud on the roadside. Suddenly we are at the site of unearthed secrets.  Makeshift crosses mark earlier visitors’ best guesses about where the dead are buried beneath the red soil.

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013, after a lengthy fight waged by families and survivors white and black, journalists, the NAACP, the Florida Attorney General’s office and the University of South Florida, researchers began their careful digging far from the crosses—where radar equipment used by USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle’s team found signs of unmarked graves.

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

One of the boys who died was my great-uncle Robert Stephens, who was reportedly stabbed to death by another boy in 1937. But in the fog of misery and mystery, how can we have blind faith in the claims made by Dozier?

Until the Florida Attorney General’s office called me in March, I had never heard about Robert Stephens, the uncle of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, whose name was listed in the Dozier School records as one of the boys who died there.  He was fifteen when he died.

My aunt, civil rights activist Priscilla Stephens Kruize, says she never heard about him or his death.  I do not know if my grandmother ever knew that her husband had lost a brother there.  Robert Stephens died two years before my mother was born.

Seventy-six years later, in 2013 Rev. Ronald Mizer of St. James AME Church, the Jackson County NAACP president, led a prayer with my family beneath the mossy trees as researchers paused their digging.  My father, husband, son and I held hands and bowed our heads.

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes PHOTO: Tananarive Due

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Afterward, my husband planned to take our 9-year-old son, Jason, to a nearby tourist attraction while my father and I stayed behind to watch the excavation. But Jason surprised us all: he chose to put on gloves to sift through the soil with researchers.

Jason picked up a shovel to try to unearth his family’s past.

“Look at that!” my father kept saying, watching his grandson at work.

This unburying has been a process of years. Of tearing down the woods.  Of digging shallow trenches. Of revealing long-held secrets. Of searching for anyone who might remember the dead—who might have heard a lost boy laugh or cry, or who lay awake nights in worry.  Some of the stories are so old, dating back to 1900, that no one is left to remember.

Jasondigging1

My son Jason (then 9) works along USF researchers to search for the remains of his distant relative, Robert Stephens, and the other Lost Boys
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

My father, husband, son and I came to mourn a stranger who was far from a stranger. Though we never knew of Robert Stephens, his loss had a ripple effect on my mother’s father and therefore on my mother.  That loss shaped attitudes, family dynamics, dreams.

What is any family’s incalculable toll when a child never comes home?  Has died violently?  Was likely imprisoned unjustly because of his skin color, like so many of our children still are today?

Last July, my father and aunt went to Tampa to witness the DNA swabs taken from surviving family members of the lost.  One of the men, named Robert Stephens after our long-dead relative, told the Tampa Bay Times that he volunteered a swab to help “find the truth.”

Not everything that’s buried is gone.

****

The stories from the Dozier School’s history are harrowing. The more you learn, the worse it gets.

The Dozier School operated from 1900 to 2011. It was finally closed in 2011 after a history of investigations and complaints.

A Dozier School building today. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

A Dozier School building today.
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

According to the Tampa Bay Times, which pioneered coverage of the story, in 2008 survivors came forward with stories of widespread physical and sexual abuse. In the CNN interview linked below, a family member alleges that her brother was murdered at the hands of school guards.  In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of foul play at the site.

But in 2012, USF’s Kimmerle used the ground penetrating radar she has used to investigate war crimes around the world for the United Nations—and she found traces of 19 more grave shafts than the FDLE.  There are more bodies than there are records for.  School records show that another 22 boys died at the school, but their bodies were never accounted for.  Kimmerle believes most of the boys buried there were black, though both black and white students died at the Dozier School.

Who are the dead boys, and how did they die?  Reports show that a fire claimed 12 lives. A flu epidemic claimed others.  But it doesn’t account for so many dead.

Ovell Smith Krell’s brother Owen Smith was sent to the school in 1940, and she told CNN that her family never saw him again.  School administrators reported that he ran away and later died of pneumonia, but a former Dozier student later told her Owen was shot and killed by Dozier school administrators when he tried to run away across an open field.  Dozier School survivor Robert Straley told CNN that other boys were killed there too.  HEAR THEM ON CNN HERE.

WhiteHouse

Fifty years later, grown men are haunted by the screams from the White House, where the beatings were dispensed.  Survivors have created their own website: www.whitehouseboys.com.  (In a moving Miami Herald video on the site, Michael O. McCarthy describes a brutal beating where he was struck more than 30 times: “They destroyed my childhood,” he says.)

Black survivors of the Dozier School have a Facebook page.

As one survivor, Charles Stephens, described it last April, two men held him down on a table while a third man lashed him. He said his back was so torn to shreds that his shirt had to be removed by a doctor.  His parents were unable to visit him that weekend.  He never told them about the horrors of his beatings, he said—he told the story for the first time in a room full of strangers meeting to advocate for exhumations at the school.

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. They traded accounts at a meeting near the school in April, 2013. 
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

“I stayed in the infirmary two weeks after my last beating,” said Stephens (no relation), who spent 18 months at the Dozier School in the 1960s, when he was 13. At age 61, the Panama City resident told his story publicly for the first time at the meeting last April.

“I ain’t never got over it, but I survived it,” he said, voice quavering. “I’m sure some little kids died of pure fear.  …Every time I went [to the White House], I made sure I got sent first so I wouldn’t hear the screams and hollering.”

Charles Stephens is white.  Other survivors were black—as are the majority of the dead, researchers believe.  But although the boys at the Dozier School were segregated by race, white and black boys suffered together.

Jacksonville resident Cocomo Rock, who is black and sports dreadlocks, was sent to Dozier in August of 1966, when he was eleven.  He lived there 22 months.  As he listened to Stephens recall his time at Dozier, he could relate all too well.

“I counted every day and every moment I was here,” Rock said.

Another survivor tells a story about how he found a single bright pebble to train his thoughts away from his White House beating, held it oh-so-tight to forget the pain—and still keeps the pebble in his pocket to this day.

Burials records at Boot Hill stretch from 1914 to 1952, although the report cites school-related Dozier deaths until 1973.

The culture of abuse, survivors say, lasted beyond the last recorded school death in 1952.

The reformatory was all wrong from the start.  According to the USF report, Florida led six investigations into the “school” in its first thirteen years. Boys in chains. Boys whipped mercilessly. Boys leased out for labor.

In Florida, prisoners were in a convict lease system.  (In the wake of bogus vagrancy laws, according to the USF report, Florida’s black prison population rose dramatically, with convicts turned over to labor agents.)  And the Dozier School was a labor farm—which, despite its name, never had desks in its early years, according to the USF report. Boys were put to work.

Dozier School History USF

In 1906, the school superintendent complained that the school had too few inmates to bring in the crops; the Board of Managers changed sentencing guidelines and eliminated fees, and the population of children grew. (I can’t help thinking about Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella in Pennsylvania, sentenced to 28 years in prison for accepting kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to privately run detention facilities in a “kids for cash” scheme.)

Were boys shot or mauled while trying to escape? Or was “trying to escape” a euphemism for random offenses at the jailers’ discretion?

Remember: the Dozier School is set against set against the backdrop of bitter racial hatred and oppressive Jim Crow laws of Florida’s past. A former juvenile inmate said at the April 2013 meeting that Dozier guards “set the dogs on you” if children tried to run.

And enough boys died at the Dozier School that it had its own cemetery.  Surviving records indicate that the institution tended to underreport the actual number of deaths.

KimmerleApril

“These are children who came here and died for one reason or another and quite literally have been lost in the woods,” Kimmerle told CNN.  “It’s about restoring dignity and if not putting a name to them, at least acknowledging and marking that they’re here.”  SEE KIMMERLE ON CNN HERE.

Ultimately, the state of Florida’s legislature approved $90,000 for the excavation. The U.S. Justice Department gave another $423,000 to match DNA from the remains to family members.

Said a survivor, Robert Straley, on CNN: “I’m angry at the state because they let this go on for 68 years and did nothing about it.”  He said he was beaten with a leather strap and that some school leaders killed boys and made them disappear.  “It’s important to find all the boys who were buried there. They’re practically crawling out of their graves crying, ‘Help remember me.’”

We hear you, children.  We hear you.

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

MY COMPLETE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201870003772295.1073741826.1249308782&type=1&l=226a980a4e

SEE THE FULL REPORT UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA INTERIM REPORT ON BOOT HILL CEMETERY AT THE DOZIER SCHOOL:

http://news.usf.edu/article/articlefiles/5042-boot-hill-cemetery-interim-report-12-12.pdf

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

2014: ABCActionNews.com: http://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-tampa/tampa-mans-uncle-identified-from-dozier-school-for-boys-grave

2009 Tampa Bay Times roundup: http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/dozier/

2013 Tampa Bay Times excavation coverage (with photos): http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/human-remains-found-in-shallow-hole-at-dozier-school/2139448

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/03/us-usa-florida-school-idUSBRE9820V020130903

http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/story/22088542/2013/04/26/state-funds-agreed-upon-for-unmarked-grave-search

http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/in-marianna-dig-for-truth-encounters-desire-to-keep-past-buried/2114932

http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/12/justice/florida-boys-graves/index.html?c=us&page=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/us/10dozier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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This Little Light: writing through pain and loss

Today is not the day.  It could be but it is not.  Today is today.

–Audre Lorde

Recently, my father and I spent most of the day at my mother’s bedside—him with his laptop and me with mine—and spun words to try to whisk ourselves somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I worked on my upcoming mystery novel; my father, a civil rights attorney, worked on his memoir on race and racism.

While my mother slept, we wrote to try to dull the pain of her dying.

My mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, is gravely ill with thyroid cancer.  After a two-year fight with ups and downs, advances and setbacks, my sisters, father and I are realizing that she will not be with us much longer.  Her moments of responsiveness are farther apart.  Her body is weaker and weaker.

Although in years past I found comfort in journaling during times of crisis, I have been unable to journal about the experience with my mother’s illness.  I wrote a column about her cancer fight for CNN.com [SEE STORY HERE] last June, but since then I have been largely wordless.

Holding my mother's hand

Instead, I am busy.  In addition to the time I spend with Mom, I teach my classes at Spelman College, I’m raising my 8-year-old son, Jason, with my husband, and I’m racing to finish a novel that has been competing against my mother’s illness since the day it was born.

But the novel, which I’m co-authoring with my husband, Steven Barnes, is far from a burden—now, my novel is my sanctuary.  When it is finished, I’ll be expelled from my world of imagination, left to face the reality of here and now.

Recently, I assigned my Spelman freshmen a literacy narrative, an essay recalling a significant encounter with reading and/or writing during their formative years.  As an example, I shared my experience as a 14-year-old during race riots in Miami, the day in my junior high school cafeteria I first learned that I could write to save my sanity.  My essay, “I Want to Live,” described a society without bigotry and hate, and writing it made a pain in my chest go away.  I remember my mother telling me how lucky I was that I have writing as an outlet.

Mom also taught me the power of writing as a tool of preservation.  In 2003, we co-authored a nonfiction civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which is oh-so-precious to me.  If we do not write our own stories, Mom always said, they will never be told.  We must write, she said.

And here is my old friend, yet again.

Over these past difficult years, months and hours, watching my mother’s decline, I often have reassured myself with the stanza in Audre Lorde’s poem, “Today is Not the Day,” which she wrote while fighting breast cancer:  Today is not the day. / It could be but it is not. / Today is today.

Those words have served not only as an inspiration through this season of uncertainty, but also as a reminder that Lorde herself found refuge from her cancer battle in her writing.  One day, I hope writing will help ferry me to the other side, too.

But I know that writing will not patch every hole, or stanch every tear.  I have heard about a writer I admire who reportedly could not write for a year after her own mother’s death.  Writing, like everything in life, has its limitations.

But as my father and I sat in my mother’s room together—each of us transporting ourselves to a different world—I remembered anew what a blessing writing has been in my life.

Today was not a good day with my mother medically, and I am writing.

Tomorrow, I will be writing.

We write.  We write.  We write.

UPDATED 2/8/12:  Patricia Stephens Due died on February 7, 2012.  From CNN’s “In America” blog:  http://wp.me/p1Ezur-1PM

For more information about Patricia Stephens Due, see Wikipedia.

Hear an interview with Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (2003)  LISTEN

(left to right) John Due, Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due outside of the White House after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009

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