by Pat Holt
Thursday, January 30, 2003
'FREEDOM IN THE FAMILY' - MOTHER AND DAUGHTER SPEAK OUT AT STACEY'S
Everyone in the author event room smiles gratefully when Patricia Stephens Due steps off the dais at Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco to "talk down here," eye-level with her audience.
It's a chilly, rainswept day in San Francisco, but about 35 people from the financial district have made it to Stacey's Bookstore at noontime to hear Mrs. Due and her daughter, Tananarive Due, discuss the memoir they've written together, "Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights" (Ballantine; 389 pages; $24.95).
Mrs. Due is a giant among civil rights workers of the '60s, and it's quite a thrill to see her up this close as she walks the aisles talking to us in her practiced, respectful way, her clothes warm and wooly and her glasses thick and dark. (Ever since a police officer lobbed a tear gas canister at her face in 1960, her eyes have been painfully sensitive to light.)
But right now I can't help but picture Mrs. Due in the front yard of her Florida home when she found herself facing a dozen armed police officers late one night, "wearing only the slip she'd been sleeping in," as Tananarive explains in the book.
See if you can tell what year this was. The incident occurred following a hurricane that had devastated South Dade County and brought family members home to help the Dues clean up what Tananarive calls their "bombed out" property.
Looters were roaming the area that night, and "the National Guard had been called in to enforce a curfew," Tananarive writes. "Many homes posted hand-painted signs: LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT," while "nervous homeowners occasionally fired guns to ward off real or perceived intruders."
About midnight, Mrs. Due heard suspicious sounds outside the house, and didn't have time to throw on a bathrobe as she raced out the front door to investigate. "Suddenly, from somewhere, came a glare of white light," Tananarive writes. Out of the darkness, "a man's voice came, shouting an order: 'Okay, freeze!' "
Mrs. Due froze. "She had no idea why a small army was ready for combat in the front yard, rattling the fence, threatening her family." Undoubtedly the harsh spotlights hurt her eyes, but seen she could look past the glare and was shocked to find not looters but police and highway patrol officers.
"There were 12 of them, and their bullet-proof flak jackets were on, their revolvers aimed," according to Tananarive. Then the cops yelled, "We have you surrounded! Tell everybody to come out of the house!"
This is where Patricia Stephens Due proved her famous mettle. Instead of telling everybody to file out quietly into the front yard, as the police had ordered, she turned toward the windows and yelled to the family she knew was huddling behind the curtains.
"Stay inside!" she shouted. Then she told her nephew's wife to call Tananarive, who lived across town in North Dade County, in this way "establish[ing] contact with someone who was not in the house, a witness, which had been part of her civil-rights training."
Mrs. Due also made it a point to tell "my uncle and father to stay inside, a common-sense tactic, as far as she was concerned," Tananarive tells us. "In an unfamiliar situation, when emotions are running high, you do not send a black man into the path of the police."
Eventually the white police lieutenant made the mistake of telling Mrs. Due to "be calm" and asking "to speak to the man of the house." At this "my mother rejoined loudly, '*I* can handle this.' "
Perhaps you've guessed that this scene did not occur in the 1960s but in 1992. Had the police officers radioed in to see who lived in the house they had surrounded, they would have discovered that the residents, John and Patricia Due, were highly regarded in the county and the state of Florida.
The Metro-Dade County car the police had not noticed parked *inside* the gate was used by Tananarive's father, John Due, director of Dade County's Office of Black Affairs and former attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, the mayor, State Attorney Janet Reno, Florida governor Bob Graham and a host of other officials would easily have vouched for the Dues.
More important, John and Patricia Due were known as the kind of activists who made everybody, black and white, cop and kin, feel welcome. "Just days before, my mother had befriended a squad of [National Guard] soldiers who'd been wandering the neighborhood, and she'd offered them cold drinks in exchange for help clearing debris from the backyard," Tananarive explains.
"The photograph she posed for with them on our front porch - a woman in a purple housedress beaming a beautiful smile in the midst of the group of grinning, youthful men in camouflage uniforms, rifles slung across their shoulders - was a shocking contrast to the combative stance these police officers took that night."
Mrs. Due "wasn't concerned about being arrested or about being shot" when she explained to the officers how she felt about their behavior that night. "My relatives, who watched the exchange ... say her tirade at the front gate lasted at least 20 minutes. She demanded to know [the cops'] names, what agency they represented. She told them to whom she was about to report them first thing in the morning. She told them to get off her property."
And finally the unthinkable - even comical - thing happened. The only black patrolman in the group of police stepped forward to chastise Mrs. Due for talking back to his superiors.
"As soon as he opened his mouth, my mother tore into him; 'Listen,' she snarled, 'I *got* you this job.'" Indeed, the Dues had long campaigned to help African Americans win police appointments. That was "the end of this brother's contribution to the conversation," Tananarive writes. As for the others, "all the armed men could do was listen to my mother's verbal thrashing in a sheepish, uncomfortable silence."
They retreated, and "the following day, representatives from Metro-Dade Police visited my parents' house o make an embarrassed formal apology."
All this comes back to me as I listen to Patricia Stevens Due speak at Stacey's about her part in the making of "Freedom in the Family" with her daughter.
Her deep voice, "which flows with a texture as dark and rich as molasses," mesmerizes and galvanizes at once. She talks about the event that made her famous at 18 - the Woolworth sit-in in 1960 that got her arrested and resulted in a jail sentence of 49 days (she and her sister refused bail), and the many protests since then.
But the great irony of her talk emerges when she talks about the struggle for voting rights. "We knew a young man in Tallahassee County in Florida who died because he dared to register people to get them to vote," she says. "Still, wee continued to promise people that if they did go and register despite all the intimidation, then their vote would be counted."
That was the way of nonviolence, says Patricia Stephens Due, herself the winner of the prestigious Gandhi Award. "But now just recently in Florida, with the presidential elections of 2000, many votes - especially black votes - were not counted. So when you hear the question asked, 'Well, why are these [African American] people so upset? After all, mistakes are mistakes,' you have to know the context."
The reason the Dues wrote the book, they explain, is that the Civil Rights Movement is fading from the collective memory. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many who struggled to make the principles of American freedoms come true for everyone. So Tananarive left her job as a reporter for the Miami Herald and joined her mother to travel up and down the state of Florida looking for and interviewing others in the movement.
Her own sister's story Mrs. Due then tells a story about what happened to her sister, who had fled to Africa following her own arrest and imprisonment. "After the Voting Rights Act of 1966, I said to my sister, 'the laws have changed. You can come back home. She did, and we went to visit friends in Palm Beach County. My sister was 9 months pregnant and not feeling very well, so we stopped a diner that had been open to blacks for several years. I explained to the waitress we just wanted a sandwich to take with us because my sister felt ill.
"Instead of getting the sandwich for us, the waitress picked up a chair and was about to hit my pregnant sister and myself, and my 9-month old baby, Tananarive. Now you know I had been involved with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. We believed in nonviolence as the only effective way to change things.
"But at that point in time I told the waitress, 'If you move that chair any more, I'm going to wipe up the floor with you,' You see, we were not seen as human beings. We were seen as animals. People may tell us we need to forget about slavery. They may say: 'Why are you people always complaining about what happened so long ago, about slavery and segregation.'
"Well we can't forget about it because the vestiges of slavery and segregation are still with us. If you don't know the history of this country, if you don't see that the clock is turning back - I'm talking about re-segregating schools, a dual healthcare system, prisons with a disproportionate number of black males and opposition to affirmative action programs from the White House on down - then maybe you won't see what's necessary to change the way things are right now."
Mrs. Due finishes her comments to rousing applause, and Tananarive begins a talk that shows the immediacy of the context her mother mentioned. During their research, Tananarive says, a man told them he had helped to register a woman who was more than 100 years old. She was a former slave, he said, who remembered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. "So when you think that someone my mother's age once grasped the hand of a slave who remembered Abraham Lincoln, you know we're not talking about things that happened so very long ago."
Tananarive's own story in the book is nearly as gripping as her mother's. Born in a white neighborhood but raised in a mostly black section of town, she experienced "a more personal kind of prejudice" from whites, Mrs. Due writes, and an odd kind of resentment from her black schoolmates. No wonder one of Tananarive's early books is called "The Between."
How did it happen that Tananarive would leave her job at the Miami Herald to become a successful writer of horror fiction with such books as "The Living Blood" and "My Soul to Keep"? In the book she credits her mother's joy of science fiction movies and the fun of family gatherings around the television every week to watch the old sf series, "Creature Features."
But in an interview after the Stacey's appearance, Tananarive agreed that waiting for her parents to come home from protests she knew held an element of danger had a horror of its own. "It was subtle," she said, "but I think growing up in the movement contributed to an early fascination with questions of violence and mortality. I had assumed it was the science fiction movies that influenced me, but while writing the book, I realized that I had sat and wrestled with questions as a young kid that other 10 and 12-year-olds hadn't."
"Mostly, though, my mother's influence let me be free to pursue my inclinations as a writer. That, I think is as much a testimony to my parents' legacy as any of the breakthroughs in civil rights law they helped to achieve."
HEY PUBLISHERS! HOW ABOUT AN 'ORPHAN CLAUSE'?
Now that Ann Godoff certainly did land on her feet (see #356) after she was fired by Random House and hired in only 8 days by Penguin, it's intriguing to see the latest publishing observations to which readers have been subjected.
The New York Times has already pondered how many of Godoff's famous and most lucrative authors will desert Random House and follow her to Penguin.
Further, "now that she's landed at Penguin, staffers there worry for their own jobs and lists," writes publishing columnist Sara Nelson in the New York Observer.
"With Ms. Godoff's contacts and track record, some fear that all the best books will go to her automatically, that they'll be shut out of the bidding."
That would be a disaster, as Michael Cader reports in his news digest, Publishers Lunch: "Unlike Random, Penguin does not allow multiple imprints to bid on the same book." Thus at Random House, imprints such as Pantheon and Knopf might compete for the rights to a novel; at Penguin, Riverhead and Viking cannot.
So a different kind of empire-building goes on at Penguin, where Ann Godoff - "never the teamiest of team players" because she "thrives on competition" - may have a hard time "giving ground to other editors," Nelson says. "In other words, if I were Bill Shinker or Rick Kot at Viking, I'd be worried." (Really, these two veterans have proven they can take care of themselves.)
But what a dreadful picture of mainstream publishing these writers have presented. It's as though editors are engaged in daily combat, their success is determined by who bumps whom out of battle from one day to the next.
I know it's nothing new - the best editors have always competed for the best books - but as we've seen in recent years, the number of mainstream publishers (once in the hundreds) has dwindled to a handful, and so has the number of editors. With marketing departments taking away much of their acquisition power, editors by the dozen have left the mainstream, many of them to become literary agents or manuscript consultants.
What the Observer and Times are saying, then, is that any time an editor as formidable as Ann godoff moves onto their terrain, editors who remain must put on their combat gear, hide their most lucrative authors, demand agents give them first look at new authors, learn to steal authors from other houses and generally put the notion of quality on the back burner.
This reminds of something the legendary editor and publisher Michael Bessie (Harper & Row, Atheneum, Pantheon) said when, years ago, he was asked, "What does a publisher *do*?"
"We select," he said, meaning that the separation of good from mediocre was such a huge undertaking that publishers shouldn't be asked to do much more.
You can see how long ago *that* was, but I think of Bessie's comment today as a reminder that a good editor shouldn't have to amass power or score points on the basis of personality or politics. Knowing how to select good books and finding a way to champion them through the tangle of commercial publishing should be enough.
But as the industry consumes itself and keeps burping up its mistakes, it's hard not to get angry.
According to Martin Arnold's column in today's New York Times, "bereft writers are used to it" - "inured," even. Authors may feel "ambushed" when their editor leaves the house, but "more and more they are becoming accustomed to being bushwhacked."
Just as "very little fuss" was made when AOL Time Warner announced last week it was dumping Little, Brown and Warner Books, so are writers supposed to become "inured" when shaken editors phone to reassure them.
"Look, it's business as usual," as Larry Kirshbaum of Warner likes to say. Don't worry, agents and editors are telling their authors. Be calm. Keep working. Everything will work out fine.
Well, how do they know? Their jobs are on the line, too. Anybody who listens to them has to be nuts.
What they're really saying is, pray for the largesse of the parent company. "I hope and expect the buyer will really appreciate books, and our talent here and the talent of our writers" says Kirshbuam.
Yes, AOL Time Warner sure appreciated books from the beginning, didn't they? That's why they're putting Little, Brown and Warner on the block.
And you know, Bertelsmann just loves books at Random House - witness their public devotion to the bottom line and their loving treatment of Ann Godoff.
Rupert Murdoch himself has always had a soft spot for HarperCollins, which is why he never comes barging into the house to cancel contracts that might threaten his plans or demand millions for some loudmouth politico who may help expand his empire.
And we know Robert Maxwell adored Macmillan because he killed himself *after* he stole everybody's pensions.
Real comfort to authors might occur if agents and editors could promise an "orphan clause" in everybody's contract. This would allow authors to take their book *and* their advance and leave the house that betrays them.
Now that would be an acceptable "business as usual."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Note: This letter arrived before news of Ann Godoff's move to Penguin]:
The publishing world is roiling and aghast at the latest corporate decapitation. I detect some notes of surprise in the various reports. I would be more inclined to hit the notes of shock Claude Raines sounded in "Casablanca" when told gambling existed on his turf. Of course, I'm shocked that Godoff was fired because she didn't make enough money. And I 'm shocked that Random House is going to trim a big salary from their budget. Shocked, I tell you.
Actually, other than the emotional damage done to Ms. Godoff, I see this turn of events as having unintended positive consequences. If Godoff is as good as many people think she is ( I have talked to a fair number of her writers who share that view), she will end up in a better place. She won't have to spend her time choosing the corporate colors of the Random House imprint at the new Bertelsmann corporate headquarters (brain child of Peter Olson). I think a life of not worrying about fleas and cutting oneself has, as they say in the business world, a big upside.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for writing "Heartbreaker at Random House" about Ann Godoff's firing at Random House. It gives a good overview of what's happening to the publishing industry - and to writers - since publishing houses have become corporate entities and are focused on big profits. Yadda yadda...
I still can't understand why writers, as a whole, are treated so badly (unless they write best-sellers). To quote Doris Lessing: "And it does no harm to repeat, as often as you can, 'Without me, the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the sub-sub agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages - all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronized, put-down and underpaid person."
Just a thought.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for your kind words re BookSense bestseller lists. We display the national BookSense bestseller list in our store, and hardly a day goes by that a customer isn't heard commenting on what a wonderful, unusual selection of books we have as bestsellers.
I think that customers find it refreshing to find new books, new authors that they haven't been "force-fed"!
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.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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