Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 23, 2001


  The Play
  The Questions
  The Lessons



Seven pairs of worn shoes sit next to empty chairs on a shadowy stage. The chairs are arranged in three rows, and a big glass jar that's half-filled with pennies, nickles and dimes sits near the front.

Sitting in the audience, a few hundred high-school and middle-school teachers wait impatiently. They're in the midst of a two-day conference and have been brainstorming ways to help students think beyond curriculum and become "critical listeners" and "critical thinkers."

It's a concept that appeals to book reviewers, I feel, because our job is to engage readers in a critical conversation about art and literature in every review, with the ultimate hope that we can all come out the other side as "critical readers."

A hush descends on the auditorium as Awele Makeba, a former first-grade teacher who's become famous as a new kind of educator, begins her latest project, a one-woman play that's going to stir the creative juices of even these veteran teachers.

Awele (pronounced Ah-WAY-lay) has the authority of a Maya Angelou and the dramatic gifts of an Anna Deveare Smith as she steps tentatively onto the stage, peering through the bright lights at an imaginary group of students. Other than a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a nondescript dress, she uses no costume or makeup.

But the big blinks of her eyes,the strained expression on her face, the turned-to-jelly legs and hands wringing themselves wildly make us realize that something terrible - and wonderful - is about to happen.


"Hi, my name is Claudette Colvin," she says with a hint of an Alabama accent. "I go to Booker T. Washington High School on the other side of town. I'm here today because Mrs. Rosa Parks invited me to yall Youth Council meeting. She thought you would be interested in my story."

The date of Claudette Colvin's story - a true story - is March 2nd, 1955; the time about 4 p.m.; the place, Montgomery, Alabama.

Awele turns away from us and approaches a bus (the two rows of chairs), her face flooded with the expectation of a high school kid boarding a bus where other students await. We watch as she carries imaginary schoolbooks up the imaginary steps toward the imaginary bus driver.

She places her dime in the coin machine (the big jar),then gets off the bus, hurrying to the back entrance where colored people are required to board.

"I quickly made my way to the back door, so that the driver wouldn't pull off before I got on," she says, mounting the make-believe back steps. Looking for a seat, she switches to the present tense.

"There aren't any white people in the bus, mostly school kids. The 'COLORED' section in the back is full, so I sit in the middle section, the last row on the left, next to the window."

The rules seem clear enough - in fact, 4th graders who have seen this play have no understanding how segregation works: "Coloreds" can sit in the middle section as long as they're behind the sign; Claudette, in the last row of that section, is safe, as is the girl next to her. Very soon, however, the bus fills up with white people, and the bus driver is peering sternly into his rear-view mirror.

Now Awele becomes that bus driver as he yells over his shoulder to the middle section, "Give me those seats!"

And Awele is again Claudette, who's horrified to see that she's being singled out.

"Slowly, folks stood up. Whites sat in the vacant seats. My row, the last row in the middle section, stayed seated. I just stared straight ahead."

A pregnant black woman - who Awele shows us is very pregnant indeed - finally gets up, leaving Claudette the lone Negro in the entire middle section. White people are staring. Awele turns into one of these, arms crossed, eyeing Claudette severely: "I hope she's not one of those trouble makers," she whispers loudly to a friend.

Claudette hears the word, her mouth trembling, her eyes fearful and huge.

"Trouble maker?" she says to us, walking to the edge of the stage. "I'm a trouble maker?" She begins to think back. "Jesus Christ is a trouble maker . . . All the folks that signed the constitution were trouble makers . . . The NAACP is a trouble maker, fighting for the rights of black people . . . Well, just call ME trouble maker!"

By now, however, the bus driver has left his seat and walks down the aisle, fixing Claudette with a hateful gaze. "Before I drive on," he says, pointing to her, "you've got to move."

But then, from the back of the bus, where the rest of the Negroes are crowded together, another young voice is raised in answer: "SHE AIN'T GOT TO DO NOTHING BUT . . . STAY BLACK AND DIE."

When Claudette hears this, she laughs at its irreverence at the same time she nearly bursts into tears at its prophesy. "Yeah, that's right," she tells us. "I want to stay black and die a natural death - as a old black woman . . . We gotta fight for equal schools . . . Thank God the NAACP won the Brown v. Board of Education last year . . . "

Slowly, the tempo of the monologue picks up. Claudette, who tells us she wants to be a lawyer one day, talks with increasing fervor about everything from the Scottsboro boys ("children of 8 to 19 years old accused of raping 2 white women") to Jeremiah Reeves, a friend of Claudette's who's been convicted of rape and scheduled for execution because his white girlfriend wouldn't speak up for him.

The idea that ordinary people can "do something!" plunges Claudette in a fantasy sequence in which she grabs the big jar of coins, jumps on a chair and announces her own civil rights cause. She names it the "Stay Black and Die Campaign" and calls for support from passers-by to hire lawyers and help people who have been "treated unfairly."

"Have you ever been falsely accused of something?" she shouts, shaking the jar, imploring us to contribute. "Dime, quarter, That's all I want." Frustrated, she descends from the stage and walks into the audience, moving from seat to seat, holding out the jar.

"STAY BLACK AND DIE CAMPAIGN!" she yells. "I don't care what your color is! Think with your conscience! . .. Would you stand up for a colored person? A teenager? STAY BLACK AND DIE CAMPAIGN!"

Well! By now audience of teachers is as bewildered as it is inspired. Some actually dig in their pockets and throw a coin into the big jar as Claudette feverishly moves on. Others sit there paralyzed, staring at her.

We're bewildered because very few people here have ever heard of Claudette Colvin. We don't know, but will learn as Awele jumps back on the stage and takes her seat as Claudette once more, that the police are called that day and carry Claudette kicking and screaming out of the bus,

In her handcuffs, she quotes the Constitution ("Just read the 13th and 14th amendments!") all the way to the police car.

A big moment in the play comes when Awele takes the part of three women, including Rosa Parks, who made her stand later that same year. each holding a sign with her name next to her chest, as an unseen jail photographer takes her picture facing front, facing left, facing right - locked in that pose of humiliation and imprisonment, it seems, far longer than any of the three will be behind bars.

But soon we learn as Awele takes the role of these women, too, that it was Claudette Colvin who played a key part after her conviction, when the case against segregation went all the way to the Supreme Court.

"Claudette Colvin saved the day!" Rosa Parks tells us (yes, she's up there too). "Claudette was the star witness!" As the play winds down, we see Claudette insisting throughout her federal trial that the NAACP didn't put her up to it, didn't convince her to refuse giving up her seat.

So when the Montgomery lawyers speak incredulously about this 15-year-old girl, doubting that she would know enough about the Constitution to refuse to give up her seat, or that she would have the guts to resist the bus driver and police, Claudette makes it clear that this 15-year-old in front of them indeed knew what it meant to stand up for personal conviction, to say out loud that black people "were treated wrong: dirty and nasty" on the buses, and that she alone decided to "refuse to be a silent witness."

Awele makes it clear that Claudette paid a price, however - she was shunned by her schoolmates and by many in the black community, maligned even worse by whites. Pregnant by a married man, she left town ("I had no heart to stay here in Montgomery, Alabama, cradle of the confederacy") and moved to New York, where she became a domestic, saved her money, had another son, got her license as a nurse's aide, and continues to work full-time today in a private nursing home.

"It would be nice to be recognized," says Awele as the older Claudette. "I just want my grandbabies to know that their grandmama stood up for something. . . Everybody can't be a hero or a heroine, but we can all be a soldier for a cause."

Awele looks out at Claudette's listeners with kindness, strength and wisdom. Although the audience today is mostly middle-aged, at this moment near the end of the play, Awele is always greeted by the same expressions - of hope, of awe, of surprise - on the faces of people looking back.

In the few months that she's been building this piece, that expression has come to her from fourth graders in Vermont, high schoolers at a Christian school in Michigan, Asians and Latinos at an urban school and parents, educators, ministers, storytellers, performance artists, librarians or book reviewers all over the country.


On each occasion, Awele insists that time be set aside afterward to talk about "the implications of teaching" for educators and "what's really being said here" for students.

And boy, are we ready. The big question: Everybody knows about Martin Luther King, and most school children have heard of Rosa Parks. But why don't we know about Claudette Colvin?

The answers come flying out from the teachers: Because our culture honors heroes, not foot soldiers. Because Claudette was young and impetuous - and, it turns out, vulnerable. Because Rosa Parks was older, established, and had no skeletons in the closet.

"The big question I keep thinking about," says a young teacher, "is why have we been so slow to question the fact that we don't know anything about Claudette Colvin. This is a story we could have been using in classrooms for a half century. Why haven't we?"

"That's what motivated me," Awele says. "I was looking for true stories of young people to tell to students of all ages - to get them excited about life, to ask them what their vision is, what their purpose for being is.

"Then, when I started looking at oral histories of youth in the Civil Rights Movement, I thought, my god: How come we're not using these as a basis for teaching? I began a pilot in other teachers' classrooms, and the kids would raise their hands and say, 'Wait a minute, I thought Rosa Parks was tired, and her feet hurt.' " Rosa Parks also stood up, Awele reminds us, not because she was physically tired but because she was emotionally tired - sick and tired, like Claudette, of being a second-class citizen.

And of course "tired" doesn't begin to describe the emotion they felt. "Rage," as Awele titles the play, "Is Not a One-Day Thing."

"So we have to look at the master narrative behind our teaching," Awele says. "Before we teach kids, we ourselves have to become critical thinkers. We have to ask in the midst of our classroom preparation - historically, socially and politically - does this make sense? What might be missing?

"It's so important to ask these questions, because textbooks" - she pauses, blows out her cheeks, looks around the room and says, "well, need I say more?" The room vibrates with laughter.

Now I'm the one who's in awe. Imagine: A single dismissive reference has demonstrated how teachers - at least the few hundred in this room - think about textbooks. That is to say, they don't trust textbooks. They teach around them.


"We need to teach our students how to ask their own questions of the text," says Awele, "how to research, how to analyze, how to examine words on the page.

"Because when we do not examine hard history - segregation is hard history; the holocaust is hard history; women's suffrage is hard history - a legacy of silence, of violence, of racism continues."

Whoa. The teachers are nodding, but this isn't this a bit subversive?. Perhaps our first question should be: Who is this Awele Makeba? Where does she come from and how does she have the presence, the authority and the knowledge to turn a bare stage into living history that we can trust more than long-established textbooks?

Most of all, how can one teacher galvanize audiences and perhaps open a new door to critical thinking, even critical reading? See Part II on Friday.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

There is only one problem with the ebook revolution, as you mention, and that is getting someone to buy a self-published POD [print-on-demand] or electronic title. Your little example of researching 100 books to pitch 6 to get a 2-book total "order" is better than most sales reps could have hoped for. Imagine the waste of time.

Let's suppose I am a consumer who'd consider buying one of these things. How am I going to find it to order it? I know people who prefer mysteries, or self- help books or whatever, but I don't know of many folks who are interested in self-published books as a genre. This gets back to the Amazon mentality. Spend 60 cents on the dollar to retail online, instead of 15 cents on the dollar to retail in a bookstore. Duh.

So what consumers in their right minds are going to bookmark iUniverse to stay on top of all the self-published titles, or read the 50 e-mails or so announcing those books. What book buyer is going to listen to your pitch the second time around?

I just can't see any demand for e/POD books unless it comes through the bookstore, and I can't see the bookstore assuming the promotional burden of the publisher. That has to come from the author/publisher, and may consist of a little more than spam mail. It is just a big waste of time unless both sides work together.

But sooner or later I do think this could become the great democratization you mentioned and could provide the future justification for the existence of bookstores (instead of just Wal-Marts).

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Dick Harte

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Loved your review of POD books and wanted to thank you for including an Xlibris title in your list. Separating the wheat from the chaff if going to be a key issue in the whole POD segment, and some kind of community review capability will need to be built.

Roland LaPlante
Xlibris Corp.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

All this blah-blah-blah about POD publishing is mostly a flight in the ether. No, it won't replace conventional publishing except that conventional publishers are already using it to keep books in print--much to the chagrin of most authors, by the way. Why? Because authors' contracts often read that as long as their publishers keep the book in print that publisher holds the license to the copyright. Authors who want to do new editions of those books, and possibly move the books to other publishers for a fresh start, can't. On the other hand, Authors Guild has POD service available through a couple electronic publishers so that members can keep out-of-print books in print. This is great for those of us who do lectures and workshops and want our own books to sell in the back of the room.

The big thing POD and epublishing does is to democratize publishing as never before. There will be a lot of bad stuff to wade through, but that's just as true, unfortunately, of mainstream publishing, in case you haven't looked lately. Mainstream publishing's claim that they have a monopoly on quality is just plain laughable--with a few exceptions, I'll admit.

While I'm at it, let me remind your readers of the hundreds of authors who originally had to self-publish because mainstream publishers of their time didn't consider them worthy--start with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Bottom line is that this new technology is changing the face of publishing, making it less elitist, for one thing. To compare POD to mainstream publishing is not only missing the point, it is clinging to an illusion of "quality" that hasn't existed in mainstream publishing for at least 50 years.

I haven't published by POD yet but frankly it sparks my imagination. 30 years of publishing through New York and the more mainstream independent publishers has made me more than a little cynical. I have purchased a half-dozen or so books from POD publishers, however. Of six, three were excellent, two were ok, one was poorly edited drivel. Two of the better ones were literary novels, one was on a technical subject. Seems like three out of six ain't bad, about the same averages as I find in my independent bookstore purchases, come to think of it.

Hal Zina Bennett

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Since your column often covers free speech and the media, this letter is to tell you what was not reported at the Bush inaugural]: There were thousands of protesters along the entire parade route shouting heartily at Bush as he fled by in his closed limo. He got out and walked for that staged photo you saw in The Times, one block at the end of the route. That block had been barricaded off by the police, and you needed a ticket to get in. Aside from those few ticket holders, that was all we saw of supporters for Bush. The streets of Washington were swarming with protesters.

From where we were standing at Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, the security forces were incredible. It was more like a military maneuver than a national celebration. The police were standing in two lines facing the protesters, shoulder to shoulder. That's one man about every three feet. Behind them was a line of military personnel, and interspersed were riot police in full gear -- plus the sharpshooters on all the rooftops, mounted police, and helicopters flying by overhead. We were searched and bags were checked before we could even get near the parade route.

It was freezing cold and raining, but the crowd kept growing. When it began to hail, everyone spontaneously started chanting, "Hail to the thief! Hail to the thief!" Well, it felt good to yell at that black limo roaring by, with secret service men actually running along its side like they had their coats stuck in the door. But almost as satisfying was the cry that started as a roar, rolling up to us, up the parade route, directed at what we finally saw were two flatbed trucks carrying reporters and camera crews. The cry was "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

Shame indeed. That's why I'm writing -- because the press did not cover this event. After looking at The New York Times this Sunday morning I felt I wanted to let you know that there were thousands at the inaugural expressing their anger at the first selecting of a president.



Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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