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  • [SWP: Behind the Book] The Outskirts of Hope
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[SWP: Behind the Book] The Outskirts of Hope
Contributor
Written by
Jo Ivester
December 2014
Contributor
Written by
Jo Ivester
December 2014

In 1967, when I was ten years old, my father quit his pediatric practice in Boston to help found a clinic in a small, all-black town in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. My mother, although stunned by his decision, put up a brave front and assured my two brothers and me that moving to Mound Bayou, where we would be one of only two white families, would be a great adventure. 

The title of this memoir I've written based on journals of my mother, Aura Kruger, comes from Lyndon Johnson's clarion cry announcing the War on Poverty, of which my father's clinic was a part: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both.” 

Within weeks of our move to Mound Bayou, my mother was recruited to work at the local high school. There was such a teacher shortage that many students spent part of the day idling in the library when they should have been in class. Although Aura struggled initially, often unable to even understand her students’ speech, she soon found ways to connect. She taught them to spell their names phonetically and to write about what it meant to be the target of prejudice. She encouraged them to help get the vote out and the area elected its first black beat supervisor. She escorted her students to Memphis where they attended a movie and, for the first time in their lives, sat in the main theater rather than the “colored” balcony. She risked her life to march with her students in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Her efforts were not always met with support. When she sought to bring black literature into the classroom, many parents protested, not wanting their children to make waves.

Two years after moving to Mound Bayou, I was attacked by four of the town’s teenagers, resulting in a concussion, a couple of broken ribs, and contusions severe enough that I couldn’t walk. One of the town elders, fearing KKK reprisals should word get out, begged us to move away. We did so reluctantly, saddened to leave the community we had grown to cherish.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. My mother went on to become a renowned inner-city English teacher, inspiring generations of students to love the plays of William Shakespeare. Aura’s work with minority students in South Central Los Angeles was portrayed in the CBS made-for-TV movie The George McKenna Story, starring Denzel Washington as the principal.

Forty years later, my mother, then in her eighties and living with my family in Austin, Texas, started a journal. Every day she wrote for twenty minutes and after several years, having amassed a pile of handwritten notebooks a foot high, she felt her task was done; it was just the beginning for me. I spent over a thousand hours in the course of five years listening while she told and retold all the family anecdotes. Then I tried to capture what I’d heard by writing in her voice, checking back with her frequently.

The result was a journal we called “Forever Autumn.” By the time we were done, neither one of us could be sure who had written what. More than that, however, it pushed our relationship to a new level as we discussed for the first time her self-doubts about her ability to teach and her fear that had she not followed my father to Mississippi, he would have disappeared from our lives. The book covered over a hundred years of family history, going back to the 1800s when her grandmother was a child working in a factory.

We circulated our 500-page journal to dozens of agents and several editors and were told that the most publishable part was the 70-page section in the middle about our time in Mississippi. With my mother’s blessing, I set out to create a book based on that, telling the story from both of our perspectives.

As I plunged further into this undertaking, I grew nervous about writing about race. How does a white person explore her interactions with black people in a way that doesn’t offend anyone? My mother was a master at this. From her first day of teaching, she was able to challenge her students to think and talk about how being black affected them, and somehow she accomplished this without stepping on toes.

The more I wrote, the more I recognized that I needed the help of an independent editor. Alexandra Shelly assisted me over the course of five years and a dozen drafts. I developed a deep trust in her ability to advise me how to strengthen my work. But early on, I hesitated when she said, “If you want to write an honest book about your family’s time in Mississippi, you have to go back and interview people and immerse yourself in the setting.”

I cringed at the thought, not wanting to risk spoiling the image to which I’d clung all these years. I didn’t want to face the possibility that we had not been accepted, but merely tolerated. I didn’t want to learn that my mother hadn’t been the fantastic teacher I’d always believed her to be. And the thought of confronting the leader of the boys who roughed me up left me queasy.

But, like my mother before me, I put my fears aside. My close childhood friend, Clarence, hosted me in his home and set up interviews, including my mother’s former students and colleagues, my father’s patients, town leaders, and most difficult of all, the man who molested me when I was eleven years old. The account of this journey, which I made with my own daughter, comprises the last chapter of the book.

At a time when racism is still prevalent, I hope this book provides a new ground-level perspective on the War on Poverty.

 

 

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Comments
  • Lene Fogelberg Writing

    I can't wait to read your book! What incredible stories and experiences you have had. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jo Ivester

    Yes!  Please come to my launch party on April 14th at 7pm at BookPeople in Austin!  If you'll send me your snail-mail address (through a Facebook message), I'll send you the invitation!  Thanks for the support!

  • Hope to see and hear you read from this book at BookPeople in Austin.  Any chance of that happening?

  • Jo Ivester

    Thanks, Celine, both for your comment and for pre-ordering my book.  I especially appreciate your saying that the post was honest.  I value that tremendously in other writers and strive for it in my own.  I'm hoping to read both Layla and Play for Me in the not too distant future and am very much looking forward to both.

  • Celine Keating

    PS Jo, your book is already up for pre-order on Amazon. It won't be shipped yet, but it can be ordered. I've done so.

  • Celine Keating

    Jo, this is an incredible post - so honest and so true. I've preordered your book and absolutely can't wait to read it!

  • Janet T Cannon

    Definitely want to read this! Just last night, we were trying to sort out our experiences in race relations. A friend's daughter, who is very blond, young, attractive, and insecure, feels herself as the target of reverse racism in many situations. She has a hard time understanding why that reverse prejudice should persist in a time where we have a black president and successful black individuals. There are so many layers to the problem! Where I see hope, though, is in her generation. When I opened up to my teenage daughter about my recognition of my own underlying bias, which is only partly mitigated by my interactions with wonderful people of color whom I love and respect, she was genuinely shocked. I am so happy to see that I did not pass it along!

  • Jo Ivester

    Thanks Betsy and Jo Anne for your comments.  "Outskirts" will be available on a Kindle, but that won't be put up for pre-order until about a month before publication.  I am glad you both found the story to be interesting.  My mother was an amazing individual and it's been a joyful journey to explore her teaching experience in my writings.  She passed away about a year ago and this book is one way I have of honoring her.

  • Betsy Teutsch

    Wow! What a story! My friend Rabbi Julie Greenberg spent a chunk of her childhood with her mom and 4 sisters in a poor county in the South where her mom set up a Head Start program. You two should meet!!  http://www.rabbijuliegreenberg.com/

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    I see it will be published in April, next year. Will it be available in Kindle edition also?

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    This sounds utterly fascinating! Your mother was obviously an amazing woman. And you seem to have inherited her courage. And what an odyssey you had writing it!