Thankful for their stories

Perhaps more than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is family time. There's the food, the new babies passed around (and sometimes over) the table, the inevitable (uncomfortable) questions about new boyfriends or the state of some relative's marriage, the football arguments, and just the sheer joy of families spending time together. But amid this familiar bustle, we may miss the opportunity Thanksgiving provides to elicit from our elders stories about our history.

Case in point: After Barack Obama was elected president, I struck up a conversation with several of the elderly women in my church. These women — affectionately referred to as "seasoned saints" by our congregation — are the faithful "mothers" that are the heart and soul of so many black churches in our country. They are present for every service, carefully and sharply dressed with scarves and brooches to match each tasteful ensemble. They are ardent participants in the prayer ministry, and they enthusiastically support ministries that fall far outside the traditional. Their faces show that they have endured much but come through it with grace and dignity.

I wondered what it was like for these women to witness the election of the first black president. And I wanted to ask them about the first time they voted, back when Franklin Roosevelt was on the ticket. Without great fanfare, one of the women, Mrs. Valerie Britton, replied, "Well, I was the first black poll watcher in Towson." Slowly, she told the story of how she came to sit as an unofficial "poll watcher" in Towson when she was a teenager in the late 1930s. Long before she was able to vote, Mrs. Britton — along with another teenage neighborhood friend — were taken down to the polling station by their fathers. In those days, blacks weren't allowed to serve as poll workers, but many of the blacks who voted wanted to ensure that their votes were counted. That's how Mrs. Britton's father and other black men in the community got the idea that they should at least exercise their right to be election observers — to let the white folks know that blacks were watching the process.

There was one problem. According to Mrs. Britton, her father knew that if black men in the community camped out in the polling place all day it would be viewed by whites as a provocation, a threat. It might result in arrests — or worse. So Mrs. Britton's father decided that his high school-age daughter and her friend were old enough and smart enough to observe at the polls but non-threatening enough that white folks in charge of the election wouldn't panic. Mrs. Britton says she and her girlfriend brought a bag lunch and stayed at the polling place from morning until the polls closed.

I learned about this small but important event in Towson history only because I asked Mrs. Britton about her early voting experiences. Just the simple act of asking our elderly neighbors and relatives about their experiences in a very different America than the one we now know can lead to a treasure trove of information about our communities, our country and our shared past.

Two new books movingly demonstrate how the stories of ordinary black Americans are vast and too-often untapped sources of vital information about race and the development of our country. In "The Warmth Of Other Suns," Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration through the voices of ordinary Americans who represent the more than 6 million blacks who made the often perilous journey from the violence and exploitation of the Jim Crow South to seek, in the words of Richard Wright, "the warmth of other suns."

Ms. Wilkerson conducted more than 1,000 interviews in researching the book, but she wisely focuses the story on just three migrants. Their personal stories — their daily confrontations with violence, death, and disappointment and their unfailing sense of hope and commitment to family — draw the reader into a world some may vaguely remember, if only from television documentaries. But in the skilled storytelling hands of Ms. Wilkerson, the America of Ida Mae Gladney, Dr. Robert Pershing Foster and George Starling comes alive in all its ugliness and beauty. Most compelling is the sheer resilience of these migrants and the millions like them who "by their actions … did not dream the American Dream, [but] willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing."

The Great Migration, which Ms. Wilkerson calls "perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century" changed the face of the South and the North. Ms. Wilkerson assembles the facts and figures and presents the scholarship of historians and social scientists who've written about this era. But none have done what Ms. Wilkerson has done: let the migrants of the Great Migration speak for themselves, with power and passion and truth.

In "The Grace Of Silence," NPR reporter Michele Norris also explores our history of race through storytelling. But this time, the journey is a personal one. Ms. Norris, who is a fifth-generation Minnesotan on her mother's side, is compelled to go to the Deep South to learn more about her family, when — after her father's death — she learns that as a young veteran, fresh from service in the Navy in World War II, her father was shot by Birmingham police.

Belvin Norris, a native Alabaman, had never spoken of the incident. His daughter Michele grew up only knowing the hardworking postal worker who always put his family first and who was never in trouble with the law. She'd visited Birimingham many times as a young girl, but no one — not even her father's five brothers — had ever mentioned the shooting incident. Using her reporter's skills and pressing her family for information, Ms. Norris allows readers to go with her on the journey to understanding the complex life of her father and the racial forces that shaped his decision to leave Alabama. The story she tells is a deeply moving one, tainted with the sad reality that Belvin Norris has passed away, and we can never know from his own lips what he made of those events in Birmingham.

And, of course, this is the key. It is often only by asking questions of our parents and grandparents, our elderly neighbors, our church and synagogue members, that we will learn the intimate and compelling stories of the individuals whose experiences shaped the world we've inherited. It's fitting that Ms. Norris and Ms. Wilkerson's books have arrived in time for the holidays, when we gather with our family members. Ms. Norris reminds us that "many are the people, often anonymous, who play minor roles in history's grand tales. I am betting that some of them might be sitting at your family table. They might take their tales to their graves if you don't invite them to share their stories and wisdom."

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and the author of "On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching In The 21st Century." Her e-mail is sifill@law.umaryland.edu.

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