Summer’s Lease and the Freedom Riders

posted in: Poetry, Literature | 0

I’ve been noticing a shift in heat and days, the congregation of birds at the free-standing feeder, now full of chickadees and red and gold finches, as the fledglings forage for themselves and parents fatten up for the cold. Summer’s lease, in Shakespeare’s wonderfully evocative phrase, is slowly expiring, mornings dawning later, and we in the northland even lucky enough to have cool, as compared to those poor creatures in Texas, sweltering through yet another day over 100.

Faulkner’s Light in August has just run itself out on my disk player. I’m noticing how the master of Southern storytelling shifts from focus on his three main players, using omniscient narration to depict each one in shifting perspectives, to broader, more anonymous and briefer renditions. The one who survives is Lena Grove, pregnant and walking from Alabama to Mississippi at the beginning of the book, in search of the man who “knocked her up,” as we used to say in my Carolina teen years. “Passed on” by the end are the two men, Reverend Hightower, that flabby dechurched preacher whose failure is rank with sweat and solitude, and Joe Christmas, the reputedly half-Negro, orphan now 33 years old, a Christ-like figure whose childhood of hateful treatment has made crazy. He has killed a white woman who was his lover and by the end is hounded down by various incarnations of Southern militarism. Lena survives, walking again after pausing in Jefferson, Mississippi, to acquire a protector and give birth to her child. The voice who describes her at the end is that of the small-town truck driver who provides a ride into Tennessee for her and her protector, Byron Bunch. The driver, returned home, lies in bed and relates to his wife how Byron finally had enough gumption to present himself as her consort. The narrator is amused by Byron’s “indefatigable”–along with “outrage” one of Faulkner’s favorite words–attentions to the serene, madonna-like Lena, and so are we, amused and grateful that Byron has finally found declared himself.

Writing in the early 1930s, Faulkner depicts an “unreconstructed” South–now we’re hearing my North Dakota mother’s voice. Though far from an out-and-out liberal, my mother rarely mouthed any racism nastiness, as opposed to my father who often could not shut up about it. (I’ve decided he was co-opted by racism, and prepared to be so by a childhood in Pittsburgh where as a Protestant Italian he and his missionary family were hazed every Sunday by their Catholic compatriots. But that’s another story.) The Southern story is about the change that swept over the South in what we call civil rights.

This summer is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when young black “agitators” (my father’s term, but he was not alone) rode interstate buses into the South to prove that the Supreme Court decisions desegregating interstate transportation were not upheld. Calvin Trillin has a fine essay in the July 25th issue of The New Yorker describing his experiences covering the south for Time magazine during this year of 1960-61. When reporters like him contributed to regular national coverage of civil rights agitation (and success and murder) in the South, they helped widen national thinking. Public opinion shifted from considering segregation as he puts it, a “regrettable regional problem” to seeing it as “a moral wrong that had to be addressed.”

Many histories have been written of this crucial period, but most of them focus on the brave people, black and white, outsiders and Southerners, leaders and followers, who either challenged the segregated system or opposed that challenge. But the story of the civil rights era should also include the by-standers, those black and white Southerners–or Northerners living out their lives there like my parents. As Faulkner’s novel makes evident, racism in the South twisted everyday life into extremes, imbuing the already rigid divides in Protestant Christianity with extra fiery force, and tainting the average white person’s ability to “see” black people’s poverty and lack of freedom and opportunity, not as something they deserved, but as something the white people themselves promulgated (one of my father’s favorite words).

To quote Trillin again, civil rights preaching (think Martin Luther King) toward love and equality “seeped through the defenses” of good Southern white people and taught them that supporting segregation was not “independent and enlightened” nor was agitation caused by “meddling outsiders.” In fact, we date the beginning of change to the sit-ins conducted by black college students wearing suits and ties, heels and hats and gloves–bright and determined Southern blacks. Though my father never overtly admitted how wrong and hateful his language had been during the civil rights era, he eventually simply talking that way, either too tired to continue, or (what I like to hope) finally understanding the justice of equality under the law.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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