Tuesday, February 7, 2012, alumnus McArthur Evans, came back to Texas A&M-Commerce to help us kick off Black History Month (I was out of state the previous week) with a 2012 version of the voter registration drive he helped organize as a student in the 1970s with the local activist group the Norris Community Club. After joining us for a morning presentation then a hoot of a lunch, he dropped by to see Ivory Moore before coming back to give a presentation to my first-year composition students in the afternoon.
He filled the room, as always. The refrain throughout was provocative and thrilling and inspiring. A celebration of the many who had the courage to “put down the cotton sack” and “drink from the colored fountain” to challenge injustice, as (to echo MLK), “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere”). A challenge to everyone enjoying those rights to “stand up” “get busy.”
I’ve been studying the Norris Community Club for some years, of course, so I’ve been around Mr. Evans’s fabulousness many times. I’m always inspired when I hear from or read about the men and women involved with this period of rapid change decades ago. This month, we bring several of these individuals before the students again, just as we have in years past (first October, 2009, and not just during Black History Month but then as well). This was the first time I’d experienced Mr. Evans’ and these other localized issues from the perspective of a group of 18-year olds (mostly, and from around the world).
The questions were interesting (like one from Merlin, who grew up in China, wondering if Asians experienced similar challenges on this campus at this time, and Isaac, a young African American man who wondered if Mr. Evans’s had ever had a drink from a “white water fountain” and if he had, “what would happen?”).
Even more interesting, perhaps, were the perspectives I’ve gleaned from their response papers following event.
A bit of context from the class: It’s second semester of first-year composition. A course designed to teach research and writing. I’m committed to the local as part of the circulation of texts and ideas that make us us. I like to share lots of models of possible research, and draw their attention to the possible research questions embedded in the archives and across the local landscape. We read articles on literacy research (Deborah Brandt, Lauren Bowen, John Duffy), rhetorical historiographies of local educators (Gold, 2005 and 2008), and on oral history (etc). We watched documentary on Norris Community (first by CLiC, with creative lead Luca Morrazzano), they read and wrote about excerpts from the local collection Memories of Old ET (from alumni attending college before it changed names in 1996). They just began reading The John Carlos Story, also from an former student (John Carlos attended ET 1965-1967). For the next few weeks, a speaker will be visiting the class. Each of these visitors (save one) has been interviewed for my research project previously (many, a number of different times), each time recorded and brought into our university archives.
All of this, of course, draws heavily from my own research agenda, but that seems right to me. There’s room enough for many, many more in this. This local, like all locals, is prone to excess!
Each class meeting, they submit to me a short Reader Response to one or more of the assigned “text” (be it documentary, a scholarly article, or a speaker). I want to them to synthesize some of the key ideas, how the various “texts” are speaking to one another and their own lived experiences, then draw from these toward a potential research project. I also want to know how these texts are working for them (or not).
As one student writes in her most recent Reader Response (RR#4), ”
I am very interested in how segregation took place here in Texas, and more in Commerce. In my past history classes I have never really taken an interest in the Civil Rights movement because I thought it had nothing to do with me, it was before my time. Now seeing how real it really was, with documentaries and speakers who actually lived through it, it all became very real to me.
Almost always interesting, usually more than that, these RRs are one of my favorite things to read. The response to this first speaker was beyond anything I expected.
“. . . It was a whole new connection, not only was I reading about this but now I was hearing it from someone who experienced it firsthand.”
“. . . Out of all of the assignments or presentations we have had, the speaker we had this past Tuesday stands out the most to me. It was great to have a living and breathing person that was able to share his first hand experiences of that day in time. We have been reading about it, and we even watched the documentary about it, but he was really able to hit home in a whole new way with his thoughts and reflections on the subject. For me at least, it was as if he was giving the readings I had gone over a new meaning. One of my favorite readings was the chapter that I read from Memories of Old ET. I found it particularly interesting because it was actual stories of the school that I attend. The presentation had the exact same result, except that it was a live example. When I was reading the John Carlos story I found it interesting that it really was not that long ago when these terrible things were taking place in our own country. Then when I was able see that someone was talking to us that actually lived it, the realization was that much stronger. I especially liked how he used some of the older phrases such as the “colored fountain.” It really gave himself credibility, but it was mainly really interesting to hear the phrases, especially from someone that actually used them in their day in time. That presentation was probably one of my favorite presentations that I have been able to attend so far at A&M. I really look forward to looking into the past of Commerce a little more, and reading some more chapters from Memories of Old ET.
The responses across the board were beyond positive. But one stands out in particular. Mabhekiso grew up in South Africa. Also far closer to 18 years old than his professor or the day’s speaker. The connections he drew to this presentation and the discussion of segregation, as well as John Carlos’s responses to Malcolm X (we read Chapter One of John Carlos Story this week) made him think of Nelson Mandela and Apartheid. For the first time. Of course these connections are crucial and real and conscious to many activists at the time (to the Olympic Boycott for Human Rights, of course) and folks who study this and folks far less removed in time to the height of the Civil Rights movement. Yet the importance of these personal connections cannot be ignored. Crucial. Powerful. Vital.
Mr. Evans’s presentation will be available online soon. And in our university archives after that. We are committed to both, as a vital way to sustain our future and enable future research (something from my upcoming CCC article on sustaining archives, sustainable futures). No doubt a least an excerpt will appear in one of the videos my project team and I are “remixing” from the archives.
As, we hope, might conversations emerging from local/global connections. Images like this one–Nelson Mandela reading The John Carlos Story, just as we read The John Carlos Story here in Commerce, Texas, the town that “introduced me [Carlos] to racism in the South” (Carlos and Zirin 73).When we went over to begin the process of acquiring Ivory Moore’s papers (local activist involved with NCC, first African American administrator, first African American city council member, first African American mayor of Commerce, writer of millions of dollars of grants on behalf of Norris Community and to establish EEO programs here on campus), The John Carlos Storywas on his couch, as well. You can’t see it there, but it’s right beside me.