David: At one point in your contest-winning essay “A Fable for Our Times”, you write, “The call for change did not die, but its message often seemed lost amid the static roar of greed and violence that filled the next forty years, until new leaders again stirred the conscience of the nation.” As someone who was active during the Civil Rights Movement, do you think there is a similar energy surrounding our nation’s current Black Lives Matter movement?
Michelle: Even at my advanced age, I still believe in the idea of moral progress. So it always comes as a brutal surprise to me that we are still having to assert the basic tenet that the life of a Black woman, child or man is exactly as valuable as the life of, say, Rick Perry. The unbearable conception of the Black body as merchandise, and thus disposable, is woven into the creation myth of this country. So the movement is always working to change something that runs deep and strong in our collective unconscious. I do believe that many people know right from wrong and want our nation to do the right thing, but most of us aren’t watching very closely. I wish that were not the case, but it is. So we desperately need the people who are watching to speak up, speak out, use bullhorns, make speeches, run for office, interrupt. Disrupt. We desperately need disruption. So, yes, I think Black Lives Matter is a desperately needed disruption, and in that sense it is a continuation of the same struggle, the same movement, calling our attention to contemporary forms of the same fundamental injustice.
I do want to make clear that I was 18 when MLK Jr. was killed, and just beginning to be politically active. The following year I went to university and became active in the peace movement, as well as the civil rights movement on my campus, which was different from the forms these movements took in the South and out in the broader world. Though I did run from the police and the tear gas, my life as a white college student was not in danger in the same way the lives of the civil rights workers, especially those in the South, were in danger.
David: While reading this, I had a kind of “aha” moment when I got to the end of the first section, where you write, “What the students did not yet understand was that the murder and suppression of those leaders had altered the course of this nation’s history.” And when you then proceed to tally up just how many of the most influential, progressive speakers who were killed, it really drives home the idea that violence has pushed America to where it is today. But I’d like to play what-if for a moment: what kind of a difference do you think some of these people could have made if they were spared?
Michelle: This is a fascinating question, and I wish I were more knowledgeable so that I could answer it more intelligently. From what I’ve studied, it seems clear that MLK Jr had begun to broaden his understanding of the roots of injustice to include poverty and the cost of war, both literally and figuratively. His vision of nonviolence expanded to nations, to the entire world. The Poor People’s Campaign was his, and the SCLC’s, vision of one way to unite poor Black people with poor people of all races, in order to strengthen and broaden the movement and call attention to issues of employment, housing and aid.
I thought of this recently when reading Bryan Stevenson’s book JUST MERCY—“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.” Stevenson’s understanding places him solidly in line with the thinking of MLK Jr and the SCLC. So again, it seems the movement has continued, addressing the same intransigent issues—though we are in far worse shape, in terms of wealth and poverty, than we were in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Without the voices that were silenced then, the nation seemed to lose its conscience. The War on Poverty became the War on Drugs, which was in essence a war on poor people, and poor black people in particular. Would the nation have swung so far to the right if the people who were gunned down had survived and continued to speak? Perhaps the inevitable reaction would have happened later, for a shorter time, and we would not have gone so far into the world of private prisons and private jets before being called, again, to act.
The fact of the violence speaks to the fact of the effectiveness of these dead leaders. Someone was threatened, and threatened enough to do whatever it took to maintain the status quo.
David: I find it interesting that, unlike most nonfiction pieces I’ve read, this one is entirely in the third person. What made you choose this point of view?
I started this piece in the first person, but two things happened: first, when I wrote it in the first person, this story struck me as being too cute and heart-warming; then I understood that the piece was not about a baby boomer, her delightful child and an amazing coincidence but, instead, about the huge events linking the two meetings with Baez. What lured me was the difference between those two moments in history.
During the 1960’s there was a phrase that became popular in the Women’s Movement—“The personal is political. And the political is personal.” I kept thinking about those sentences and the ways in which they were true for me. At my age, I have experienced a lot of history. I grew up in the Jim Crow South. I witnessed the years between the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s and the election of Barak Obama, and though the link between those two historical moments is on some level obvious, it struck me that it was also complex and torturous. The story of how our nation got from the moment I heard a young, starry-eyed Baez sing in her father’s living room to the moment Baez serenaded my daughter and her team of Obama workers is not exactly, or not purely, a triumphant one. It’s painful and ragged and, frankly, just way too bleeping long.
When I understood that I wanted to tell THAT story, or a wildly reduced version of it—and also when I realized I didn’t want to tell MY story but OUR collective story—the first person became useless. I needed a third person voice to turn the narrative into a tale of the times and also to provide enough distance to allow me to track the historical events themselves.
David: The fact that both you and your daughter had chance encounters with Joan Baez is an almost unbelievable touch of serendipity, and does a perfect job of bringing the piece full circle. What was going through your head when you heard Baez on the other end of the phone? Did you get a feeling that you had a potentially great story on your hands?
Michelle: No. I was crying too hard. This is my response to just about anything moving, as my kids know well. They will often warn other people, “You should know my mother is definitely going to cry.”
It wasn’t until I was sitting with a group of musicians and storytellers, a few years back, that I put the two events together and thought, “Oh. A story.” I told it that night, and the response was so strong that I decided to try to write it. But as I’ve explained above, it turned out to be a different tale from the one I first told. Isn’t that one of the most wonderful gifts of writing—that our material makes so much more, and such different, sense than we think it does?
David: You’ve had two other nonfiction pieces published by Solstice but this one differs from those in its heavy usage of historical content. How did the process for constructing this one differ from some of the other nonfiction pieces you’ve written?
Michelle: I think I’ve answered this already, to some degree, but I’ll add that the non-fiction pieces I like most always include history and a bigger context, a bigger container (to quote Charlotte Joko Beck). I wrote a piece for MORE Magazine about money anxiety and began to research the origins of the Poverty Thresholds, which were developed by a woman named Mollie Orshansky who worked for the Social Security Administration in the 1960’s. This material got cut from the piece as it appeared, but will be in the collection of essays I am working on (slowly, the way I write everything, unfortunately). And there have been others like this, too. The lyrical personal essay can be beautiful, moving, insightful, but I’m always looking for ways to include the rest of the world. The personal is political; the political is personal.