The nonfiction piece, Liberty, earned an honorable mention in a recent competition I judged for the Bayou Writers’ Group, and author Sherry Perkins graciously allowed me to reprint it here. Sherry is a diverse writer and is published in three newspapers, six magazines, and a poetry anthology. Three of her stories appear in the Southwest Louisiana Historical & Genealogical Library’s Reminiscent Writings with another forthcoming in 2011. She has been published twenty-seven times, including nine photographs. Sherry is a member of the Bayou Writers’ Group, the Beauregard Writers’ Guild, and three screenwriting networks.
The first definition of liberty in Webster’s dictionary is “freedom from slavery, captivity, etc….” Humbly, I have never put myself in the same categories as Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglas, or Dr. King, those who truly fought for personal liberty. However, I feel proud to have presented their stories to students who had never heard about such things.
A few years ago, I had the privilege to substitute teach in a predominately white elementary school. With a faculty of over thirty teachers, I stayed quite busy. One day, in a fifth-grade social studies class, a student read aloud a few paragraphs about plantations, and then quickly moved on without giving the word “plantations” a second thought. Jumping on the chance to elaborate, I stopped the student.
Since my husband and I frequently visit plantations, combined with my life-long interest in slavery and the “Underground Railroad,” I felt qualified to expand the discussion of slavery. “We’ve never heard that,” someone said. I instructed the class to close their eyes. With all eyes closed, I spoke of the dark images in my mind.
“Imagine yourself asleep on a pallet on the floor of a shack. Even though it’s still dark, you awake in a bitter cold. Your breath turns to smoke as you shiver and dress. Although it’s winter, you may not have shoes. You make your way outside to begin a long, tedious day in the field. As you grow older, your days are the same: eat, sleep, work, and get beat, or perhaps raped. The leather strap, whip, or branding iron leaves deep, heavy scars on you.” A few young eyes opened and looked up in confusion. “You can’t read, you can’t write, and there is absolutely no hope for your future.” While staring at young faces, a knot came in my throat, my chin quivered, and my eyes watered as I tried my best to continue. “You are property. You are lower than cattle, horses, and even dogs. You are a slave. You will be a slave until you die. Now, open your eyes.”
Scared, teary eyes gleamed at me. At that moment, I imagined slaves standing at the rear of the classroom. I imagined them nodding and smiling. I imagined them staring at the two black students mixed among the thirty or so white students, and smiling.
Before I knew it, the bell rang and I had taken up the remaining social studies lesson without finishing what the teacher had assigned. I didn’t care. My heart was filled with an urgency to discuss a secret the history books barely touched on. As the students left, some still with misty eyes, one white student said, “Thanks! That was very interesting.” I smiled, nodded, and said, “Go to the library. Look it up on the Internet, but don’t stop learning about it.” The young white student left.
After Christmas, I was assigned to first grade for three weeks. After the first few days, I was mentally exhausted! Upon learning the routine, the days flew by and it was Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Earlier in the week, tiny first-grade hands colored, cut, and pasted individual pictures of Dr. King with their only knowledge being he was a black man. The day was ending, when I had another first! Below a homemade streamer of twenty colorful Dr. Kings taped together above the board in front of the classroom, I sat on a stool, opened a book, and started reading.
As little, innocent eyes looked up at me and hung onto every word, I read a first-grade version of Dr. King’s life. Through catches in my throat, I explained, the best way I could, discrimination. Since I never was a victim, my limited first-grade terminology was put to the test. I explained that white children and black children could not play together. I explained that black children could not learn to read or write. I explained they had to “work” for the white families. Sensitive faces shook back and forth and some said, “That’s not fair.” I looked again at the back of the room, only this time, I imagined little black faces staring back at me whose only desire in life was to be treated the same as the white children sitting at their desks. They wanted the liberty they heard of, the liberty just out of their tiny reaches for generations still to come. When I finished the story, closed the book, and wrapped up the lesson, many of the children vowed, “I would play with the black kids, I wouldn’t care if I got in trouble or not.”
After the class left for P.E., a white first-grade teacher whose room was right next door stuck her head inside. She said, “I have to confess. I was listenin’ and it sounded like you were up there preachin’!” With enthusiasm, I smiled. “I’ve never talked to first-graders about Dr. King; I didn’t know what to say. The words just came out.”
Sometimes at night, when the weight of the world bears down on me and I wonder how we’ll stretch our money when the bills pile up, I lie in bed and worry. Then, like a bolt of lightning, shame strikes me down. How dare I worry about trivial things! I should be thankful
for the things I have: a bed, a job, a house, and a car. I have food to eat. I have a husband whom I see everyday. I have freedom. I have the liberty so many only dreamed about.
I’ll never have to wonder if my husband or children will be sold away. I’ll never experience being beaten. I’ll never have thoughts of escape. Freedom will never be just a fleeting whisper or an unrealized dream. I’ll never be excluded from a white water fountain. I’ll never be arrested for not giving up my bus seat. Then, I’m thankful for the things I’ll never experience.
Dr. Martin Luther King. His name evokes images of equal rights, powerful speeches, determined marches, and 1960s unrest. However long before Dr. King, there were hundreds, if not thousands, who began what he desperately tried to continue. Generations before planted the seeds of liberty with their understanding of the basic human desire that “…all men are created equal.” Our history is loaded with famous names like Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglas. Yet, there were many more soldiers of freedom like John P. Parker, William Still, and William Garrett. Not to mention the countless unknowns who remained in the shadows and are now lost to history. It is their cause, their souls’ purpose, and ultimately their liberty which I celebrate by remembering.
With a permanent job now, I no longer substitute. However, my knowledge and interest in these important topics continues. If I never again get to explain about Dr. King, slavery, discrimination, or plantations, I am content knowing that for a handful of students I had the honor to present these issues to them for the first time. It was I! I stood in front of students and spoke for those who could no longer speak for themselves. I spoke for both the remembered and for the forgotten. I spoke from my heart, from the heart of a human being.