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Remnants and Margins and Livable Stories

I recently published a novel, Swimming Between Worlds, set during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. The year is 1959−60. Somewhere along the line in my research, I found mention of how Civil Rights organizers often sought “sponsorship” from local grocers who might offer tins of ravioli or day-old bread or ripening fruit to protestors who needed a meal when they traveled beyond their hometowns. I had never heard of this practice. But it was a blessed discovery for my novel because I had already conjured a white male character, Tacker Hart, who hires an African-American character, Gaines Townson, to work in his family grocery store. And I was setting these two characters on a collision course with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly lunch-counter sit-ins and swimming pool integration. Now I had a rationale for why Gaines might come to Tacker looking for a job. Gaines has been trained in nonviolent resistance at Fisk University. So he’s not just looking for a little money to help with family expenses when he comes to work for Tacker. He’s looking for donations. And Tacker, who has recently spent a year and a half in Nigeria on a goodwill mission, might be sympathetic to the cause. It doesn’t hurt that Gaines’s Aunt Frances has worked for Tacker’s family for years.

The practice of donating groceries might seem a banal detail in the dramatic history of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, but I was captivated by it. Feeding hungry people is an originating concept in my theology, anchored as it is in the New Testament story of the feeding of the five thousand. Sharing food can be a form of communion, especially if people sit down together, which is why the sit-ins were so effective and so contested. Breaking bread together creates intimacy, and once people have experienced the pleasure of such a gathering, they don’t want to go back to isolation and segregation. Landing upon this knowledge about grocers and Civil Rights workers, I wondered what other, less glamorous exchanges supported large movements for change. And I wondered, too, what flowed back to the giver.

Too often we imagine shared resources going one way: The U.S. sends aid to Africa, for example. The distance is so great. and perceptions and realities of power appear so lopsided, that it’s hard to imagine anything flowing back to the U.S. from such aid, unless it’s a feeling of national “blessedness” for being generous with those less fortunate.

In Swimming Between Worlds, what flows back to Tacker Hart is an awakening to his privilege. We might call it a spiritual awakening; certainly it is transformational. Most crucially and painfully, he learns his limits. Even when Tacker invites two protestors to spend the night in a large house he is renting (one of these men is white, the other black), he realizes that he cannot completely cross over into Gaines’s world. Centuries of violent oppression cannot be transcended over a weekend or in the transference of a few bags of groceries. Tacker does not feel blessed. He shouldn’t. Throughout the novel, he remains confused, a seeker.

As I wrote these paragraphs, my mind wandered to a recent moment with my granddaughter. We were together the weekend after her fifth birthday. She was wearing three unicorn necklaces: one red, another purple, another blue. These necklaces were just what you might imagine birthday favors to be: plastic ornaments on colored string. But they were lovely adorning her Sunday outfit. At some point in the afternoon, she took one from around her neck and put it around mine. “This is for you, Emmy,” she said (I refuse grandmother as a form of address).  Later, she took off another and handed it to my sister. “Do you want it back later?” her great-aunt asked. “No, thanks” my granddaughter said, casually, as if it hadn’t occurred to her to ask for it back.

Sometimes we live by remnants of stories, like the story of grocers helping Civil Rights workers or this small story of my granddaughter who believes one necklaces will do; she doesn’t need three. Occupying such stories, writing out of them, expanding them, increases the possibility that we might yet produce a more just world, a sustainable one. Stories may be our greatest resource, and gathering them in from the margins is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our grandchildren.