On the porches and street corners of life in Jacksonville, Florida I grew up eavesdropping on stories as I came of age with integration. Eventually those Florida Southern reminiscences became the genesis of my cross-cultural Race and Change work.
Curiously, though, the literary and musical presentation “An Afternoon of Jazz and Multicolored Memories” that kicked off the national “Libraries Rock” summer reading program at the Jacksonville Public Library recently wasn’t the conventional homecoming for me.
Isn’t it interesting that some places – and experiences – profoundly shape our lives, not by nurturing us but by pushing us away? In the process, discomfort toughens us.
And if we return – in person or in memory – we are not like lost wanderers but like explorers. At least that’s how I felt onstage that day.
I was performing just a few yards away from the notorious downtown park where pro- and anti- civil rights protesters clashed and rallied. I once joined marchers there to walk in a picket line. A few blocks beyond was the now historic building where I entered with trepidation when Blacks were first allowed to checkout books from the “White” library. My paper card became a passport to larger worlds.
A few miles farther was the site of the old Gator Bowl where the Beatles performed, demanding an integrated audience, and I went – alone. Who could have predicted where that decision would lead.
And here I was, many decades later, in the library auditorium with a racially-mixed audience listening and nodding together to some of my stories, and then sharing some of their own.
After the show many of them lingered, as if prolonging the respite before going back outside to face the heat and thunderstorms of life that assault us all in various ways.
We had talked about the importance of working for positive change that affirms humanity, about staying the course of social justice, about holding on.
Maybe this work, collecting and sharing hopeful stories of race in trying times, in some small way, makes discomfort seem a little less daunting, I thought, as I prepared to leave home again.