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MY SELMA

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MY SELMA: STORIES OF A SOUTHERN CHILDHOOD AT THE HEIGHT OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT by Willie Mae Brown, Farrar Straus & Giroux, January 2023, 240p., ISBN: 978-0-374-39023-1

 

“Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round,

turn me 'round, turn me 'round, 

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round 

I'm gonna keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', 

Marching up to freedom land.”

– Traditional, sung in Selma by the Freedom Singers

 

“The thing that people call white supremacy is not some marginal thing. You have to look back and say, ‘How can we change so that we really can be a republic, or can be a democracy?’ If we’re going to be a country in the future, then we have to have a view of our own history which allows us to see what we were. And then we can become something different. We have to become something different, if we’re going to make it.”

– Timothy D. Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, quoted in Ken Burns’ documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust”

 

A look back at our country’s history can get really ugly. As Professor Snyder explains, white supremacy is not some marginal thing. We’ve gone from founders with slaves, to sundown towns, lynchings, and “white” water fountains, to cops shooting without hesitation, and a knee on a Black man’s neck. Hundreds of years of American history constantly reveal how bad and widespread racism has been, and how far we still have to go. 

 

A portion of that ugly history took place in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s. The dogs, batons, and tear gas of the police, and the hate-filled faces of everyday people who had bought into white supremacy filled the TV screen of my childhood. Sixty years later, memories of those news reports and the accompanying images are still vivid.

 

”I sat down but couldn’t take my eyes off this well-dressed, short, stocky man. He was there! Right there in front of me. His face was brown and smooth, and the collar on his white shirt was whiter than the ones we soaked in lye soap for Dah.

‘Look, baby! Hundey! That’s Kang!’ shouted Mama. ‘There he is! Whoo! Whoo-wee! Yes, suhh! Thank you, Jesus! Kang! Kang! Kang!’

Clapping, more jumping. ‘Lord! Oh, Jesus, it’s going to be all right now! KAAANG!’ These were the chants and feelings and cries of the people in the church that evening. All the people, young, colored, white. And the children, so many children. As the old people say, we ‘tore the church up’ with all our jumping and shouting.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked slowly across the dais, took his position on the pulpit, and, looking out on the crowd, raised two well-cleansed palms. The people sat down and became quiet. Only the rustling of fabric on the church benches and the shuffling of shoes could be

heard.

Then Dr. King began to speak, and the voice and the words were not on the TV or radio. I was in front of him, and my mother was there. I heard him say: ‘We have the right to vote. Just give us the ballot.’ So surreal was his voice, which mesmerized me, and the charisma of the time, with the unfolding of events and this giant of a man stepping forward to bring justice at any cost to the people, hypnotized me.”

 

Willie Mae Brown turned twelve in 1965. Over a dozen chapters, she shares memorable tales of her childhood family and neighborhood in Selma, Alabama. Her memoir of growing up in that time and place provides readers a sense of the stunning breadth and depth of the racial inequalities that existed during the 1960s. 

 

There are chapters in MY SELMA in which the family’s domestic scenes seem so fun-lovingly similar to those of happy families we meet in fictional stories. But such feelings are instantly shattered every time a white man comes knocking on their door, or a family member or friend has to suddenly deal with a white police officer. It’s not just an inconvenience. Life sometimes stopped dead–literally–because of white men knocking at the door. It’s no surprise that the author left Selma as soon as she was old enough to do so.

 

This is a notable and powerful debut. I’m inspired to get MY SELMA into the hands of every young person I can. It’s essential for them to understand our history, if they have any chance of moving us forward to a better America with liberty and justice for all. 

 

Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com

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richiepartington@gmail.com 

 

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