Graduation Day–57 Years Ago


ErnestGreen3_fToday marks the 57th anniversary of Little Rock Central High School‘s graduation ceremony for the Class of 1958. It’s a shame that it might pass unnoticed by some, as it might have for me had I not been doing research for Broken Dreams, the working title for my sequel to The Red Kimono.

What made May 29, 1958 special? It was the day Ernest Green walked across the stage for his diploma in front  of a stadium filled mostly with whites. What makes Ernest Green special? He was one of the Little Rock Nine, and the first African-American to graduate from the previously segregated Little Rock Central High School.

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In my research I’ve found several interesting facts I didn’t know about the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School and other civil rights activities, most of which made me ask myself if I could be so brave.

Excerpt from Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965, by Juan Williams:

The mostly white audience applauded enthusiastically as one by one the students came up to receive their diplomas. Then came Ernest Green’s moment. “When they called my name, there was nothing,” he said, “just the name, and then there was eerie silence. Nobody clapped. But I figured they didn’t have to…because after I got that diploma, that was it. I had accomplished what I had come there for.”

I also recently read that Martin Luther King Jr. attended the graduation ceremony.

I incorporated much of this information into a scene that is a pivotal turning point for Sachi, who is 24 years old in the sequel.

Here’s an excerpt from that scene:

As the sun set behind the stadium, the warm humidity of the day turned damp and cool. Sachi buttoned her sweater as she watched the long procession of graduates begin to cross the stage.

Adams, Anderson, Avery…Baker, Bevins, Brown… Cheers came in waves through the audience, led by family and friends of each graduate. Carver, Cassidy, Clayton…Davis, Decker, Draper…More whistles and cheers. Eckhardt, Edwards, Evans…Fenton, Flanders, Franks…Sachi sat up straight, excited to see history made.

Gavin, Gotwals . . . more cheering. Sachi prepared to cheer for the only person she’d come to see.

“Ernest Green.”

She stood to clap, but Terrence grabbed her arm and pulled her down. Silence shuddered through the night and she felt a thousand eyes upon her, even as she watched Ernest Green cross the stage, head held high as he accepted his diploma and became the first Negro to graduate from Little Rock Central High School.

She glanced across the bleacher to where his mother sat watching, as if she and her son were the only two people in the world.

The cheering resumed with the call of the next name, and Sachi again felt the loneliness of being in a group of those not wanted. The only comfort she found was in the congratulations being whispered up and down the row of Negros with whom she sat.

The rest of the ceremony dragged on, from H through Z. She only clapped because everyone else in her row clapped, perhaps to be polite. Perhaps because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t.

When at last the graduates sang “On Tigers!” and tossed their caps into the air, Sachi had never been so happy for an event to be over.

As they turned to leave, Terrence touched her arm. “Sachi, Jubie, wait. There’s someone else I’d like you to meet before we leave.”

Sachi turned around. The man who had been sitting next to Daisy was standing next to Terrence.

“Sachi, Jubie, this is Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King, these are my friends, Sachi Clark and Jubie Franklin.”

Dr. King extended his hand, first to Jubie, then to Sachi.

Jubie’s eyes widened with each word she spoke. “Sure is nice to meet you, Dr. King. I’ve read a lot about you.”

As Sachi shook his hand, she could hardly believe this man—the man she’d thought was Daisy Bates’ husband—was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Recalling what she’d read about his involvement with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, she chastised herself for thinking she’d seen him at a grocery story.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. King.”

Though her mind filled with a dozen thoughts, it was all she had time to say to Dr. King before, like a small pebble in a rushing stream, she was pushed with the flow of people headed out of the stadium.

As she drifted in the current of whites and coloreds, she thought again about where she fit in. Was she “white?” Or was she “colored?” She’d gotten “the look” plenty of times for sitting in the front of a bus. And in the silence that came with the announcement of Ernest Green’s name, more than ever, she felt“colored.”

How might her life might have been different if Japanese Americans had protested their internment? Instead, they went along with what the government ordered, believing it was their duty as loyal American citizens. What if they had stood up for their rights? What if they’d had their own Dr. King?

She was tired of wondering if she could be as brave as Ernest Green and the other eight Negro students. Tired of admiring people like Daisy Bates and Dr. King. Admiration wasn’t going to get anyone anywhere. It was time for her to stand up to Nobu. Time for her to join Terrence. Time for her to finally remove her mask.

# # #

I think it’s important to remember historic events and where possible, to put ourselves in the places of the people who lived this history. I’ve done this as I’ve read about this era, and as I said, I’ve asked myself:

Could I have been so brave?

Probably not. But, as Sachi realizes in the excerpt above, nothing would have changed without the courage shown by those involved.

NOTE: Based my research, I’ve done my best to capture this event as realistically as possible, so that hopefully I can “put the reader there.”

However, I’m still in the draft stage. So, if you’re familiar with Little Rock Central High School or this era and catch any glaring errors, I’d be most grateful if you’d point them out!

 

 

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The Other Side of Hate


As I continue working on the sequel to The Red Kimono, (tentatively titled Broken Dreams) I’ll be sharing some of the things I’ve found in my research for this historical fiction that takes place from 1957 to 1963.

My story opens as the Little Rock Nine attempt to enter Little Rock Central High School on September 25, 1957. So, I’ve done quite a bit of reading about the event and those who were involved.

It’s hard to say who I found most fascinating, but probably the person most recognizable is one of the nine black students, Elizabeth Eckford.

Eckford

Photograph by Will Counts/Indiana University Archives

Two thoughts enter my mind as I look at this photograph:

  • I’m in awe of Elizabeth Eckford’s courage, and ask myself if I could have been so brave. As I wonder how fast her heart must have been beating, the knots in her stomach, how she must have wanted to cry, but forced herself not to, my answer is, probably not.
  • I’m saddened by and in disbelief of the pure hatred expressed in the face of the white woman screaming at Elizabeth Eckford. I wondered what became of her, and what kind of life she led after the photograph became famous worldwide.

Today, I found an article titled “The Many Lives of Hazel Bryan.” That was the name of the woman yelling in the picture. This article discusses her later years. She and Elizabeth Eckford actually met and became friends. However, you may wish to read the article (and perhaps too, David Margolick’s book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock) to read the rest of the story.

long shadowI’ve also been reading Daisy Bates’ memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, (republished in 1988 by the University of Arkansas Press, which also published The Red Kimono.) As you may know, Daisy Bates was President of the Little Rock Chapter of the NAACP and led the nine students into Little Rock Central High School with the help of federal troops sent by President Eisenhower.

In her memoir, she recalls a conversation she had with Elizabeth Eckford, about that day forever captured in the photograph. As I read the passage, I felt once again, the cruelty of the day, and the courage it took to get through it.

Elizabeth Eckford told Daisy Bates:

I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob, someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me. They came closer, shouting, “No nigger bitch is going to get in our school. Get out of here.”

It’s true, we are capable of hateful acts. I’m grateful for books like The Long Shadow of Little Rock, not only because they help us to remember. They also help us to experience–even if only through words–the hurt and fear on the other side of hate.

 

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Sayonara


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From left to right: Uncle Fizzer, Mom, Auntie Sue, Uncle Randy

My Uncle Fizzer (Harry Sasaki) passed away last night, only six weeks after my mother, (his baby sister) died. This leaves only one Sasaki sibling left out of nine.

He was a simple man, and I know he didn’t want a fuss made upon his passing. So I only want to say how much I admired his spirit–a quiet, gentle spirit that stood quite strong when necessary.

I have many memories of my uncle–his weekend visits when we were little and he brought us paper to write and color on, his unfailing ability to remember details even into his 90s, his dedication to a healthy lifestyle, (and the way he used to scold my mother because in his eyes, she didn’t take care of herself), his ability to do tasks (like his taxes and investments) even when I refused to do my own.

But my favorite and most lasting memories of Uncle Fizzer will be those of him with his 35mm camera around his neck. He seemed always ready to take a picture until the time came to actually take it. Then, we’d laugh about how long it took him to focus. Even today, with our iPhones perched and ready to snap, if someone takes too long, we say, “Come on, Uncle Fizzer, take the picture.”

In our own quirky way, it’s one way we’ll continue to remember and honor our dear uncle.

So, to both my mom and Uncle Fizzer, we don’t say “Goodbye,” but “Sayonara.”

For Sayonara, literally translated, “Since it must be so,” of all the good-byes I have heard is the most beautiful. Unlike the Auf Wiedershens and Au revoirs, it does not try to cheat itself by any bravado “Till we meet again,” any sedative to postpone the pain of separation. It does not evade the issue like the sturdy blinking Farewell. Farewell is a father’s good-bye. It is – “Go out in the world and do well, my son.” It is encouragement and admonition. It is hope and faith. But it passes over the significance of the moment; of parting it says nothing. It hides its emotion. It says too little. While Good-bye (‘God be with you’) and Adios say too much. They try to bridge the distance, almost to deny it. Good-bye is a prayer, a ringing cry. “You must not go – I cannot bear to have you go! But you shall not go alone, unwatched. God will be with you. God’s hand will over you” and even – underneath, hidden, but it is there, incorrigible – “I will be with you; I will watch you – always.” It is a mother’s good-bye. But Sayonara says neither too much nor too little. It is a simple acceptance of fact. All understanding of life lies in its limits. All emotion, smoldering, is banked up behind it. But it says nothing. It is really the unspoken good-bye, the pressure of a hand, “Sayonara.”

― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, North to the Orient

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Fifty Years Later: Just How Far Have We Come?


As I reflect on the meaning of today, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I can’t help but wonder just how far we’ve come.

Here’s a brief re-cap of that day.

Martin Marches

On March 7, 1965, the first of three marches that were to start in Selma and finish in the capital of Montgomery, took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marches were organized to bring attention to “the desire of black American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote.”

selma3This day later became known as Bloody Sunday when 600 unarmed marchers were attacked by state troopers using billy clubs and tear gas.

The sequel to The Red Kimono takes place from 1957-1963, and although that precludes the story of these marches, the backdrop to the book is the Civil Rights Movement.

In my research for the book, I’ve read about many historical events such as Bloody Sunday, and it has caused me to look at current events and wonder about how far we’ve really come.

I admit to being a naïve optimist. Before I started paying close attention, attempting to see current events in the eyes of others (as I try to write through the eyes of others) I thought:

“What are you complaining about? Look how far we’ve come.”

Then, a story like Ferguson comes out. The recent Justice Department findings were a real eye-opener for me–again, forgive my naïve optimism. One might be able to justify away the statistics reported by CNN by attributing it to the high percentage of African-Americans living in the area:

  • Ferguson is a town of 21,000 that is 67% African-American.
  • From 2012 to 2014, 85% of people subject to vehicle stops by Ferguson police were African-American, 90% of those who received citations were black, and 93% of people arrested were black.
  • In 88% of the cases in which Ferguson police officers reported using force, it was against African-Americans. From 2012-2014 black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, but 26% less likely to be found in possession of contraband.

But there is no way you can justify away the emails that were found as part of this investigation, and that’s where my eyes were opened. According to USA Today, here is a summary of just a couple of those emails, written by two police officers and a court clerk:

  • A November 2008 e-mail stated that President Obama would not be president for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
  • A May 2011 e-mail stated: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.'”

In reaction to these emails, a recent guest on CNN stated that the exchange of such emails on the city’s email server is proof of the city’s tolerance of such attitudes. In other words, those sending such emails had no concern that they’d be disciplined. Excellent point. Sickening point.

So, my conclusion is, yes, we have come a long way. We elected our first black president. Many wondered if it would ever happen. Though admittedly, I was one of those disappointed that my candidate didn’t win, I remember feeling a reverence for that day in history.

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But, there is no doubt we have a long way to go. There are still too many who are truly prejudiced, even racist, and there is a difference. When I see photos or watch video of the terrible violence against other human beings, solely because of the color of their skin, I’m horrified that we treated (and sometimes still treat) fellow Americans–fellow HUMAN BEINGS–that way.

Maybe someday, I’ll look at words such as those in the emails sited above and think, “I can’t believe we ever thought of fellow human beings that way.”

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First Snow


It’s snowing in Dallas and has been since about 9:00 this morning. People all over the country are likely tired of it, but snow in any appreciable amount is a rarity here, and I’m loving it.

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Although this wasn’t my grandson’s first experience with snow–he recently played in the Colorado snow with his cousins–today was the first time I’d get to experience it with him, so I carried him outside for just a minute to experience snow through Tommy’s eyes.
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As I watched tiny snowflakes land in his hair, as I felt him gasp tiny breaths when they landed on his skin, it reminded me of a scene I wrote in The Red Kimono about Sachi’s first snow. The scene takes place on the anniversary of the death of Sachi’s father. All day, she’s been trying to escape a voice inside that tells her it’s her fault Papa was killed. Then, snow begins to fall.

EXCERPT:

Everything was still and quiet, as if the cold air had frozen the world. She hated the quiet, especially today.
What if . . .
There it was again, ramming its way into her consciousness. Unease rippled inside, and she searched for a distraction, a place to hide. But the street was empty.
Quiet.
She started running, as if she could escape the thought. But it was too strong this time. There was nothing to drive it away. It burst into her mind, full force. She stopped. Breathless. Overcome.
If I hadn’t begged Papa to take me to the park, he might still be alive.
Tears burned her eyes. It was her fault.
She covered her face with her hands, hoping darkness would hide her from the bitter realization. Mama had warned them that it wasn’t a good idea to go to the park that day. Papa had probably agreed, but with Sachi begging day after day, he’d finally given in and ignored Mama’s warning.
It was her fault. If she hadn’t dragged Papa there, if she had left when Papa said it was time to go, those boys wouldn’t have found him. If Mama and Nobu blamed those boys, surely they blamed her, too.
I’m sorry, Papa.
Something cold tingled on the top of her head, trickled down her collar. Goose bumps? No. It was colder. It prickled on her hands, too. She opened her eyes and watched white flakes drift all around her. They landed on her eyelashes, her nose, her tongue.
She stared at the delicate flakes that landed on her jacket, lifted her arm to her eyes to see them better, the tiny, tiny crystals, shaped like the ones she cut from paper, each different from the others, but all clinging together.
Falling, falling.
Softly.
Gracefully.
Unbelievably quiet.
Snow! Her first snow.

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