Thursday, May 15, 2008
Way Opens: A Spiritual Journey. Patricia Wild. (Warwick House Publishers 72 Court St. Lynchburg, Virginia 24504) $15.
Some people live with blinders on. They are afflicted with tunnel vision. They block out the light of the plight of others and are members of the cult of “me” or their immediate circle of friends and family. Now these are not necessarily bad people. It is hard enough to keep one’s own head above water in these troubled times. And, if one is living in the envious environs of middleclass White America, then it is easy to be blinded to what’s happening behind their sheltered gates.
Well, Somerville journalist, novelist and playwright Patricia Wild to some extent, counted herself among these people. But for years something bothered her, nagged her, and goaded her. She wondered what happened to two African American who desegregated her high school in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962. Wild, spurred on by her questioning nature and the activism of her Quaker faith found these two people: Dr. Lynda Woodruff (a college professor) and the Rev. Owen Cardwell, a Baptist preacher. Wild takes a good hard look at not only these people, their trials and travails, but also takes an unflinching critical look at herself.
Wild starts the book off with a posh family vacation in the isle of Jamaica. This effectively sets the tone of the book; lighting up the large divide between Black and White. Here Wild thinks about the inequity while being served a gourmet meal by ironically “white”-uniformed Jamaicans bustling in the kitchen:
“ I remembered that White men and women eat and laugh, lit by soft candlelight, while dark-skinned people cook White people’s food and serve them wine. …I remembered that every day, faceless and nameless dark-skinned people labor for me and my family, as dark-skinned people have been doing for generations.”
Wild did the hard work of research, tracking people down, the flights back and forth from Lynchburg to Boston, and the endless interviews. She examines the incredible pressure on these two young people in 1962, who were labeled with the kudos;” You’re a credit to your race.” Imagine, if you will, Woodruff and Cardwell, as two young, green sapling, adolescents integrating an all White high school. Woodruff tells Wild:
“ “My whole race was being judged by my success or failure. That’s too much of a burden for anybody.”
Wild explores the grating texture of life for these kids: the taunts from their White peers, the angry indifference of their teachers, and throws a metaphorical Molotov Cocktail at the notion of Southern gentility.
What really surprised me was the resentment that Woodruff and others felt towards certain aspects of Martin Luther King. In some respects they felt manipulated by King, and coerced to be less than honest about the difficulties they endured. Woodruff says:
“We were trained, we were dictated to. “We were told, “ You will not respond, if the media asks you anything, it’s ‘No comment or everything is fine,’ and we did exactly that. Whenever we were asked by anybody how things went, the answer according to Martin Luther King was: ‘Everything went well. It is fine.’”
Years later the approach had its repercussions. Woodruff explains:
“That was published in the media. And twenty years later, the idiots who are now leaders instead of asking either one of us, as if we were dead, for the truth, they read the paper and were known to take national stands, and be on television, discussing civil rights and the desegregation of the schools, and how wonderful and nonviolent it was. They didn’t ask me if it was nonviolent.”
In the process of her research and travels, Wild had to confront herself. She had to put the breaks on her own ego, her impatience, her need to insert herself in the story to the detriment of the true story she was after. In this book Wild is not afraid to expose her own warts, which gives this accomplished memoir an air of authenticity. In this passage of enlightened self-criticism Wild questions the hunger of her own agenda when she encounters unexpected resistance from Woodruff around an interview:
“Did I try to understand why this handsome woman was so incredibly busy? Did I wonder what kind of experiences Lynda Woodruff might have had in the past with writers and journalists?
Wild, to use a cliché, comes away from all of this as a “better person” She realized she had to confront the complacency of her past, and her comfortable and privileged background that excluded African Americans. This whole process spurred Wild on to new heights of activism back home, and perhaps, and I am sure this is her hope, that it will lead you, dear reader, down a new road.