Thursday, August 7, 2014

Francoise Hamlin Receives Lillian Smith Book Award for 2013

Francoise N. Hamlin is the Hans Rothfels Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Brown University. She earned her Ph.D. at Yale, a Master’s Degree at the University of London, and a Bachelor’s Degree at Essex University. She is the recipient of a C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize along with two other notable prizes for her graduate research and is the 2012 recipient of the Berkshire Conference Best Book Prize. 

 Dr. Hamline’s book is entitled Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II.  She begins her introduction with a quote from civil rights leader Aaron Henry, who said in 1963: “Ours is one hell of a story, but freedom is worth every adversity.” Dr. Hamline tells Henry’s story alongside that of a very different kind of activist. Vera Mae Piggy’s work as a beautician gave her both the economic independence and the opportunity to organize. “Two kinds of work were occurring,” Dr. Hamline writes: “the work of creating beauty, and the work of creating a movement.” Dr. Hamline weaves together themes of race, gender and class that flow through a compelling and illuminating narrative. She concludes her book with a personal and very moving epilog that brings Clarksdale’s history up to the present.

Crossroads at Clarksdale is excellent scholarship. It is important work. But it’s also beautifully written and really a great read and we recommend it to everyone. 
In receiving a Lillian Smith Book Award for 2013, Dr. Hamlin remarked as follows:   

I was a British high school exchange student in Clarkdale Mississippi - not the place that I had chosen to be, but the place where the organizers of the exchange program thought I would feel at home. I was the first and perhaps the last black exchange student to come to Clarksdale from England, and it’s clear that the American based exchange company didn’t know what to do with me. So rather than place me in a home in a city similar to London, where I grew up, I ended up in the Mississippi delta and lived with an amazing black woman who worked as a domestic worker her entire life.  That experience changed my life.

Upon my return to England, I forfeited a guaranteed spot to read law at the University of London and instead took up U.S. Studies in an effort to understand what I had seen, what I had experienced, and what I felt. That first degree led to a couple more, and this book is a culmination of that experience. It narrates the black mass movement in Clarksdale from the founding of the local NAACP branch following the rape of two young black women to the turn of this century when President Bill Clinton toured Clarksdale as part of his New Markets Initiative.

That year as an exchange student taught me about race, how it was a social construct, and how I was an anomaly in the U.S. racial system. I also realized that the history taught in the schools didn’t reflect the history that I knew to be true just by living there, and from the U.S. History that I had learned in the British classroom.  Moreover, my peers had no clue about the extraordinary activities of the people in their own community.  No sense of outrage existed in what I could see then as inequality of opportunity.  Lee Academy, the private school created soon after the public schools desegregated in 1970, was literally up the road and we would pass it every day on the school bus, and I seemed to be the only one who was horrified by the irony.

We had to study Mississippi History, as it was a requirement for all Seniors, and I remember my confusion at the insufficient treatment of slavery, particularly the fact that slave labor had cleared the Delta land which the County occupied.  Rather than focusing on the founding of Coahoma County, our studies pretty much focused on the leading white families.  As the curriculum moved into the 20th Century, the history of the Civil Rights Movement focused, albeit too briefly for my liking, on Dr. Martin Luther King.  The students, including myself, had no clue that a vibrant movement had happened in Clarksdale and that all of the organizers of that movement were still alive. In fact Dr. King came to Clarksdale only a handful of times during his activist career, and he never stayed overnight. 

None of it sat well with me, even then when I really didn’t know very much.  I always felt uncomfortable with the over attention I received from the teachers and even the local press, but at the same time I really fell in love with the place. Mississippi is a beautiful state with all its ugly scars and wounds that still fester. I love it so much that I now take students there every Spring Break, so that I can share with them what I learned about the U.S. and Mississippi and then guide them through their own self-discovery. Mississippi transformed me and, for that, I am forever grateful.

This project on the Civil Rights Movement kind of snuck up on me. The experience during my exchange year made me want to learned more about race in the U.S., but I thought I was finished with Mississippi. It was only in graduate school that an oral history project brought me back to the Delta. It was only then that I started reading more about the movement in Mississippi and realized that very little scholarship existed about Clarksdale and that the local story varied from the SNCC-centered narrative that I had read. I the late 1990s there was already a huge amount of movement scholarship so, as a graduate student I was very hesitant to add more. But the story kept coming back, and the oral history project developed because I started talking to people in Clarksdale. From there I learned about Aaron Henry and Ms. Vera Piggy.  So I would like to believe that the story chose me to be its narrator.

This book started as a dissertation and I made one decision straightaway. Even though I was writing it for a committee that demanded a certain academic sophistication in language, I wanted to make sure that the people I wrote about would be able to understand it, accept it, see themselves in this book, and claim it as theirs.  Too often I’ve talked to movement participants and veterans - particularly African-Americans - who have complained about how their stories were distorted or that no one had ever talked to them about their own experiences.  We have this huge cache of movement scholarship and more keeps coming, but these veterans only endorse a small portion of the work. And I wanted mine to be accessible. I wanted my host mother, Ms. Corrine Bradley, who lived and died in the Delta with an eighth grade education and a Ph.D. in common sense, to be able to read it. She died in 2005 and never got to see the book.

Validation came from movement activists. Validation came from the academy and from professional organizations, and this has helped me to do my work and be very successful and I’m very grateful for that. But having movement activity confirm the stories, the tone, the general framework let me know that I was on to something. Ms. Vera Piggy’s daughter is a principal character in the Clarksdale story and she’s very reluctant to re-live that past buy she read the entire manuscript and called me when she was finished and told me to sit down while she read to me her scripted response about how much the research meant to her.  Charlie Cobb, a SNCC worker who is an author himself, read the book and has supported it. My work on this book took a while for many reasons, but first among them was the time it took to invest in people’s lives so that they could tell you their truths and trust you with their stories.

This prize means a lot to me too because it reflects the accessibility of the book beyond academic circles, and that was my goal. Oral history became the main way to understand Clarksdale. Archival documents might pinpoint dates, times, people, but voices and memory adds meat to these bones, and that was also the hardest part of the project.  These voices complicate movement history. They sometimes contradict long-held notions, like the notion that African-Americans desired the integration of schools, when in reality they desired equal funding, equal resources, equal respect, equal representation on the school boards. With the local history I cover many themes, like black leadership, particularly juxtaposing the leadership of Aaron Henry (a World War II veteran and pharmacist who spearheaded the formation of the local NAACP branch and went on to head the local state conference and moved into public office) and Vera Piggy (a beautician, a mother, secretary of the local branch and the state youth council advisor). That juxtaposition reveals the variety of leadership and the consequent strains and tensions.

Through Mrs. Piggy I also discussed “women’s work” – “activist mothering” - not a feminist model of women’s work, but a way in which some African American women activists extended notions of “mothering” to their civil rights work and exercised great leverage from within their gendered social status. I also And then at the end I considered notions of success: how is it that President Clinton stopped in Clarksdale – one of only five stops in a national tour of economically depressed areas?  After a rich story of activism and organizing that I was writing with these valleys of defeat and peaks of success. How do we define success? Can we define success?
As we are in the midst of 50-year anniversaries of many of the popularly-perceived landmarks of the movement - we have just crossed the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and next summer is the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer – my book feels very timely, but perhaps that’s just coincidence. It celebrates, challenges, and complicates. There is definitely a lot more work to be done.

This project has brought many full-circle moments for me. The most important one is that I am able to explain what I saw in the 1990’s. I have some answers I have a lot more questions. I have something to give back to the community that gave me a home for a year. This award provides another full circle. The dissertation from which this book emerged is titled The Book Hasn’t Closed, the Story Isn’t finished, Continuing Histories of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a title I had used almost from the beginning because it said what I was trying to do: not a history that had a triumphant end, but an ongoing story of human interaction and conflict, failures and successes. At the end of my dissertation research, as I read more secondary sources to incorporate and enlarge the range of voices and opinion s in the South, I found a quotation which I incorporated into the original epilog as an epigraph: “I have not ended this story, for there is no end.”           

It was the perfect quote that supported the title that I already had. Lillian Smith wrote those words in 1964 in her book Our Faces, Our Words. The quote didn’t survive the re-write or make it into the book. Neither did the dissertation title.  But Lillian Smith’s her sentiment is definitely a part of it. Winning this award in her name brings me full circle.  


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