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Kathleen O’Toole: Small Comfort — Writing Across Race

A voice on the radio back in 2001 started me down this road—the voice of Sarah Collins, whose sister Addie Mae was one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Sarah Collins was being interviewed on the occasion of the belated conviction of Thomas Blanton Jr., one of the church bombers, then in his eighties. That voice on the radio—recounting the shards of glass she’d carried, her eye blinded by the washroom mirror in the explosion—gave me the first lines of a poem:

How will we settle such a score, heal a scar

still leaking toxins like those train cars

in an old tunnel under Baltimore?

Thirty-eight years, and still the pure


terror of that September day in Birmingham

returns in voices that flutter and land

like acid rain on my skin.


Later that year, I hesitantly read an early draft of that poem in a circle of writers. I could feel the silence of the others looking back at me. As a poet, I had always struggled to find an authentic place to stand as witness to—or interrogator of—history. I had often stopped myself: What right have I?

But the leader of the circle, the poet Lucille Clifton, spoke up at once: “I am so glad you wrote that poem,” she said. “This is your history too.”

I was then a fifty-something white woman who had worked for decades as a community organizer in African-American communities. I had listened to stories of elders in those communities, and I could hear echoes of that struggle as though it were running beneath the very streets. Once, when I encountered a bigoted police commander who looked directly at me—but not at the African-American leaders standing right next to me—that history served to amplify both his racism and my privileged status.

What right have I?

Lucille Clifton had silenced that question. She had anointed my work as a poet and suggested an authentic place to stand as witness to—and interrogator of—a history that was mine, too. Her words felt like a charge, commissioning me to go deeper.

In graduate school I had studied Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” as an example of what I had called “complicit witness.” Similarly In my own first attempts —“Small Comfort” and “At Kelly Ingram Park”—I found my voice and place by acknowledging elements of my own complicated history. And thus began a series of poems that return to the unpunished crimes or unrecognized heroes of the Civil Rights era. A visit to Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, a headline in the newspaper, an obituary of an organizing colleague —each occasion prompted me to probe the unhealed wounds of that history flowing just beneath the surface of my own life.

In the last two years, the fifty-year commemorations of Civil Rights battles have collided with repeated killings of black citizens by police and armed bigots, and with the deaths of many who played key roles in winning rights and protections, serving to resurrect their stories. At the same time, voting rights are cynically challenged as white supremacy again bares its teeth. Mistrust leaks from America’s original sin into the groundwater of our attempts at public discourse. We are in great need of voices to reach across race in a compelling way, not seeking an easy absolution but to claim shared space.

Against this backdrop, I have been working on a poem that wrestles with the burden of witness in the person of Willie Reed, who “… at the age of eighteen // told an all-white jury what he saw // that night in Money Mississippi…” – the kidnapping of Emmett Till. Willie Reed died in obscurity in the year of so many other remembrances. Do I link the courage of that Mississippi teenager—“Emmet was fourteen,” he said. “I couldn’t have walked away”—directly to today’s victims of racism and our timidity? Or do I hope that juxtaposing Reed’s grit and the failure of public justice will resonate against current events without overtly connecting them?

A second poem in process attempts to probe the resistance, fear, and rage of white supremacists in the person of the state trooper who shot Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young martyr in the early days of the Selma Voting Rights campaign. Can I even begin to mine the story of Bernard Fowler, recently deceased, the state trooper who gunned down Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1963 (and only served six months on a misdemeanor manslaughter charge in 2010, after revealing himself to a journalist in order to blame Jackson) without asking myself:

Where was I, three days past my thirteenth birthday,

when the lights went out in Marion Alabama?

Was I engrossed in history homework or dreaming of boys

when an Alabama Trooper slammed Jimmie Lee Jackson

against a cigarette machine in the darkened café

where he and the other marchers sought refuge?

Was I rehearsing for the school play

when Trooper Fowler fired the fatal shots . . .

I have been thinking lately that in my case “privilege” cuts two ways. Though I was only eleven when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, and thirteen when Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered, I was protected in a modest but safe, white suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, far from the racial violence of the South. Later, in 1968, I was shielded from the 9-month National Guard occupation that black residents of my own city had to endure after Dr. King’s death. But for four decades I have also been privileged to work in broad-based, multi-racial community organizations, principally those created by the Industrial Areas Foundation, in which genuine relationships of solidarity were built from the mud brick of leaders trading their own stories: the events and places and people who molded them.

That’s how I began to understand Baltimore: through the perspectives of leaders like Marion Dixon and Irene Mallory, who resisted the segregation in their Church and community from a young age, or Civil Rights warriors like Rev. Vernon Dobson who opened the doors of his church to organizers who could help him revive the fervor, and refine the effectiveness, of organized action and aim it at those responsible for schools and lending institutions that continued to exclude black families from the opportunities they needed to realize their aspirations.

Once in a while that “privilege”—the trust experienced among these and other leaders—allows me to stand among them both as outsider and as ally. On the Sunday before the 2008 Presidential election I stood among the members of a Black congregation in Dayton, Ohio and recognized and named “…that palpable hope..” in a line of my poetry..”: the long, slow burn of pent up desire.”

Still, it has not been easy to navigate toward the right language and perspective in the terrible wake of the riots in Baltimore this past spring. But as a poet I take heart in the encouragement of Lucille Clifton: This is your history, too. In the end, it is the crucial relationships in my public life that convict me to live in this tension, to carve out a place from which to name—and claim—the story we all must own.

Copyright 2015 Kathleen O’Toole. The poems quoted here are from Meanwhile by Kathleen O’Toole, published by David Robert Books.

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2015 by in Personal Essays, Poetry, Social Justice and tagged , , , .

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