Special to the Guide
Beginning July 7th, Resistance & Resilience: A Memoir Workshop of the Jim Crow Era, a cost-free creative writing class, will meet for eight Friday mornings in July and August from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Colored Community Library Museum in Portsmouth, providing an opportunity to celebrate through the written word the strength and grace that arose under that oppressive system.
Each meeting will begin with a writing prompt and in-class time to write, loosening up memories and creative energy. Then examples of short memoir pieces on various themes will be read: work, family, faith. Participants will craft their own short pieces of memoir during the week and bring copies to the workshop for helpful, supportive advice on improvement. At the end of the course, writers will have the opportunity to choose their strongest work for inclusion in a bound anthology that will be archived at the museum and made available to the public.
The workshop is sponsored by Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit I direct which brings creative writing workshops to underserved communities. For the past two years, I have guided writing classes for men and women in the Norfolk City Jail, which has certainly been an influence on the development of this new project. But more significant were two stories shared with me over a number of years that have continued to resonate.
In the first, a colleague of my husband recounted his mother’s response to the rule that kept Black families from purchasing food at the concession on the ferry to the Peninsula. This man’s mother would pack the most sumptuous picnic feasts that outshone any everyday hot dogs or ordinary popcorn the white families could buy. That image has stayed with me for almost a decade – such a thoughtful, inspired response to hurtful, vindictive regulation. How empowering it must have felt for these children, and such a meaningful life lesson.
The second story was told to me by one of my students in a writing class at the Portsmouth Arts & Cultural Center. This writer recounted riding another ferry, this one from Portsmouth to Norfolk, with her grandmother to go shopping downtown. She was six years old, and when she and her grandmother stopped off at the lunch counter as they always had, she could read the sign for the first time.
“Granny,” she asked, “does that mean the Black grannies can’t bring their little girls to lunch here?”
The answer was deeply upsetting. How had her grandmother let this happen? How can they still come here knowing about this terrible rule? So many years later she still tells this story with real pain in her voice.
These stories are anecdotes, tiny moments in a vast history of restriction and empowerment, division and compassion. They are each a square in a vast quilt of a complicated and often misunderstood history that deserves to be recorded for the next generations. There are echoes of Jim Crow all around us, and I see a marvelous opportunity in our response. Perhaps especially in the year we recognize the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the time is now.
How did you, your family, and your community cope with the daily pressures and challenges under Jim Crow? Join this group and share your stories of resistance and resilience. There are no prerequisites. You do not have to be a writer, or have any writing experience. I will provide the spark to get you started, and lots of help along the way.
The Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum is loaded at 904 Elm Avenue, Portsmouth 23704. To register, contact Emily Kilgore (757) 393-8591 firstname.lastname@example.org
By Lisa Hartz