Freedom Summer, The Man who betrayed the Poor
- Hello. I'm taking the leap of endorsing this book before reading
it, but with knowledge and certainty about the character and
experience of its author, Denise Nicholas. I knew Denise a year
after 1964, when my wife, child and I joined SNCC's Free Southern
Theater and spent the summer with them at their New Orleans
home base and performing trips in the deep south. Kate and I became
quick friends with Denise and Gil Moses, her husband, director-actor,
co-founder of the Theater and lover of music. Kate taught dance and
acted with the troupe, where Denise was female lead, and I helped out
co-founder John Oneal in the office with booking and such, including
going with John when a white face was essential for business and
protection. My private agenda was to locate and visit with Babe
Stovall, Butch Cage, Clifton Chenier and other blues and zydeco greats
in Louisiana, and Denise and Gil enthusiastically came along with Kate
and me. We also knowingly broke the color barrier in a few restaurants
on route, and it was genuinely scary, if not terrifying. We left Marni with
a baby-sitter when we did this. The great bonus was, of course, meeting
one after another of the greatest musicians in the world, all of them warm,
generous and forthcoming with leads to others.
One other aspect of our shadow of experience compared to Denise's
full engagement was the Theater's creating plays by going into often-
rural communities, quickly located the historians - most often women -
and creating dramas using actual, remarkable incidents and then
casting residents to give narratives along with the pro's. And, I swear,
it became great theater and played to rapt audiences, including the white
community, most often hanging around the edges, but totally engaged.
I think of traditional music in the same mode, but that's another story.
So, here's a brave-in-the-face-of-terror, sensitive, truly creative and
beautiful human being who can pull from her own experience - including
writing skill enough to merit such a review.
So read this book. It should be great on many levels.
Freedom Summer A bold new novel explores the fault
lines of class and race in 1964 Mississippi.
Reviewed by Samuel G. Freedman
Sunday, September 25, 2005; BW06
By Denise Nicholas
Agate. 335 pp. $23.95
A southbound train pulls out of Memphis in the opening
paragraph of Denise Nicholas's superb novel,
Freshwater Road, and aboard it sits an idealistic and
anxious young woman named Celeste Tyree, headed for
three months of volunteer work as part of 1964's
"Freedom Summer." On the empty seat next to her, she
spreads out a map of the South and an information
sheet from her sponsoring organization that has the
disquieting headline "How to Stay Alive in Mississippi."
Vivid and economical, filled with presentiment, this
scene begins a memorable book, surely the best work of
fiction about the civil rights movement since Ernest
J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Where Gaines made the movement the climax of a
sprawling narrative of a century-long life, Nicholas
sets her entire tale within a single summer, as
Celeste teaches in a "freedom school" and mobilizes
blacks to register to vote in a segregated backwater
called Pineyville. By deeply inhabiting every
character, by intricately depicting every moment,
Nicholas manages to be intimate and epic
Freshwater Road is a coming-of-age story that unfolds
against the backdrop of epochal events, particularly
the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and
Andrew Goodman. The assassination of Medgar Evers and
the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic
Party also hover in the wings of Nicholas's narrative.
Simply to note those episodes is to be reminded of why
the civil rights movement has yielded far more history
than fiction -- the work of David Garrow, Taylor
Branch, Diane McWhorter, Nick Kotz and David
Halberstam, among others. With an actual cast of
characters as larger-than-life as Martin Luther King
Jr., Bull Connor, George Wallace, Lyndon Johnson and
Fred Shuttlesworth, any novelist would have good
reason to despair over how invention could possibly
outdo reality. Beyond that, the movement represented a
genuine example of Good versus Evil, which has a way
of turning pedantic and inert when transmuted into
A first-time novelist best known as a television
actress from "Room 222," "In the Heat of the Night"
(for which she also wrote) and "The Cosby Show,"
Nicholas rises to these challenges better than most
literary veterans. While she comes to the book with
her memories of having performed with the Free
Southern Theater in Mississippi during the summer of
1964, she has delivered something infinitely richer
and more artistically satisfying than a veiled memoir.
She has found the human complexity within the
overarching passion play. Rather than dividing her
characters into dastardly whites and saintly blacks,
she boldly explores the fault lines of class, pigment,
geography and character within the African-American
Nicholas's appreciation of the untidy truths of human
nature starts with her unsentimental portrait of
Celeste. A child of the North and of the black middle
class -- her father, Shuck Tyree, owns a popular bar
in Detroit, and she is attending the University of
Michigan -- Celeste volunteers for Freedom Summer for
complicated reasons. At one level, Nicholas writes,
"She saw herself as a cross between Joan of Arc and
Harriet Tubman, the fires of righteousness flaming in
her heart." Yet she also recognizes that she'd "come
here to shore up her own Negro-ness," guilty that for
so long "she'd thought she was above it."
Her immersion into Pineyville, then, brings all kinds
of shocks, from outhouses to insects, from the
timidity of some local blacks to the ferocity of the
white sheriff. Nicholas indelibly conveys the fear
that accompanies Celeste nearly every second of the
summer, whether she is being beaten and hurled into
jail or walking along a dark stretch of road to a pay
phone, wondering which passing car might carry her
killer. She wrings out accomplishments in tiny
increments and at great cost. Three local blacks
succeed in registering to vote, but meanwhile the
church that housed her freedom school is burned to the
ground, and one of the pupils mysteriously drowns in a
nearby river. To Celeste's agony, it looks possible
that the child, inspired by lessons about runaway
slaves, was trying to flee her bullying father.
Toward the end of the book, Nicholas writes with
typical insight about the toll on her heroine:
"Celeste had packed and unpacked her suitcase a
hundred times in her mind. She first started doing it
the night the shots were fired through the houses on
Freshwater Road and blasted out the back window of Mr.
Tucker's maroon Hudson. Whoever had done it surely
believed this would scare the Negro people out of
their drive for voting rights and scare her back to
where she came from. She fled back to Detroit a
hundred times, in her dreams, in her walks to the
outhouse, in her daily struggle with the lack of
running water, in her loneliness."
By portraying Celeste's fears and doubts, Nicholas
makes the young woman's commitment all the more
impressive and all the more believable. Nicholas also
shows just how deeply it unsettles Celeste's family.
Her mother, living in New Mexico with her second
husband, sees Celeste as hopelessly naive. "You'll
give and you'll give," she chastises her in one
letter, "and it'll still be crabs in a barrel." A
self-proclaimed "race man," or black nationalist,
Shuck vacillates between pride and anger at his
daughter's grit. While he supports the civil rights
cause, at a more personal level he drips condescension
for Mississippi's blacks -- so hopelessly "country"
while he is "siddity."
As Nicholas paints Shuck during a few chapters set in
Detroit, she evokes the imminent changes there, too --
changes that would take the form not of political
liberation but self-destructive revolt. Three years
before the Detroit riots, Shuck can see the substance
of black neighborhoods starting to erode. Nicholas
describes him driving to meet his lover, a high-school
"Shuck drove north on West Grand Boulevard, passing
the deep-porched houses not destroyed by the
expressway. At night they were presentable, but Shuck
knew in the light of day you could see the disrepair
creeping around the eaves, the paint chipping off the
wood trim, the old people let go of by their
delinquent children. . . . In the middle of the day
the discarded young men stood around on corners, and
women ran from the bus stop to their front doors,
hands in their purses, clutching kitchen knives or
sewing shears to ward off junkies."
It is impossible to praise Freshwater Road too much,
in part because it arrives without a large promotional
campaign or much publishing-industry buzz. The credit,
then, goes not only to the author but to Agate, the
publishing house in suburban Chicago that has brought
such a worthy book into print and, with any luck,
given Denise Nicholas yet another career, this one as
a novelist. .
Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at
Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of
"Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life." His
other books include "Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a
C 2005 The Washington Post Company
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The Man Who Betrayed the Poor September 27, 2005
By George Monbiot
Two months have not elapsed since the G8 summit, and already almost
everything has turned to ashes. Even the crustiest sceptics have been
shocked by the speed with which its promises have been broken.
It is true that they didn't amount to much. The World Development Movement
described the agreement as "a disaster for the world's poor."(1) ActionAid
complained that "the G8 have completely failed to deliver trade justice."(2)
Christian Aid called July 8th as "a sad day for poor people in Africa and
all over the world."(3) Oxfam lamented that "neither the necessary sense of
urgency nor the historic potential of Gleneagles was grasped by the G8."(4)
But one man had a different view. Bob Geldof, who organised the Live8
events, announced that "a great justice has been done. .. On aid, 10 out of
10; on debt, eight out of 10 ... Mission accomplished frankly."(5)
Had he not signed off like this, had he not gone on to describe a South
African campaigner who had criticised the deal as "a disgrace"(6), Geldof
could have walked away from the summit unencumbered by further
responsibility. He could have spent the rest of his life on holiday, and no
one would have minded. But it was because he gave the G8 his seal of
approval, because he told us, in effect, that we could all go home and stop
worrying about Africa that he now has a responsibility to speak out.
The uses to which a Geldof can be put are limited. Before the summit he was
seen by campaigners as naïve, ill-informed and unaccountable. But he can
make public statements with the potential to embarrass politicians. While
they don't usually rise above the "give us your focking money" level, they
do have the effect of capturing the attention of the press. But though
almost everything he said he was fighting for has fallen apart, he has yet
to tell the public.
Immediately after the summit, as the world's attention shifted to the London
bombs, Germany and Italy announced that they might not be able to meet the
commitments they had just made, due to "budgetary constraints"(7). A week
later, on July 15th, the World Development Movement obtained leaked
documents showing that four of the IMF's European directors were trying to
overturn the G8's debt deal(8). Four days after that, Gordon Brown dropped a
bomb. He admitted that the aid package the G8 leaders had promised "includes
the numbers for debt relief."(9) The extra money they had promised for aid
and the extra money they had promised for debt relief were in fact one and
Nine days after that, on July 28th, the United States, which had appeared to
give some ground at Gleneagles, announced a pact with Australia, China and
India to undermine the Kyoto protocol on climate change(10). On August 2nd,
leaked documents from the World Bank showed that the G8 had not in fact
granted 100% debt relief to 18 countries, but had promised enough money only
to write off their repayments for the next three years(11). On August 3rd,
the United Nations revealed that only one third of the money needed for
famine relief in Niger, and 14% of the money needed by Mali had been pledged
by the rich nations(12). Some 5 million people in the western Sahel remained
at risk of starvation.
Two weeks ago, we discovered that John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the
United Nations, had proposed 750 amendments to the agreement which is meant
to be concluded at next week's UN summit. He was, in effect, striking out
the Millennium Development Goals on health, education and poverty relief,
which the United Nations set in 2000(13). Yesterday, ActionAid released a
report showing that the first of these goals - equal access to schooling for
boys and girls by 2005 - has been missed in over 70 countries(14). "Africa",
it found, "is currently projected to miss every goal." There is so little
resolve at the UN to do anything about it that the summit could deliver "a
worse outcome than the situation before the G8." Yet Geldof remains silent.
"We are very critical of what Bob Geldof did during the G8 Summit", Demba
Moussa Dembele of the African Forum on Alternatives tells me. "He did it for
his self-promotion. This is why he marginalized African singers, putting the
limelight on himself and Bono, rather than on the issues. . The objectives
of the whole Live8 campaign had little to do with poverty reduction in
Africa. It was a scheme intended to project Geldof and Blair as humanitarian
figures coming to the rescue of "poor and helpless" Africans."(15)
"Right from the beginning," says Kofi Mawuli Klu of the Forum of African
Human Rights Defenders, "he has acted in his own selfish interests. It was
all about self-promotion, about usurping the place of Africans. His message
was "shut up and watch me". Without even understanding the root causes of
the problems, he used his role to drown the voices of the African people and
replace them with his own. There are many knowledgeable people - African and
non-African - who could have advised him, but he has been on his own,
I have heard similar sentiments from every African campaigner I have spoken
to. Bob Geldof is beginning to look like Mother Teresa or Joy Adamson. To
the corporate press, and therefore to most of the public, he is a saint.
Among those who know something about the issues, he is detested. Those other
tabloid saints appeared to recognise that if they rattled the cages of the
powerful, the newspapers upon which their public regard depended would turn
against them. When there was a conflict between their public image and their
cause, the image won. It seems to me that Geldof has played the same game.
He seized a campaign which commanded great public enthusiasm, which had the
potential gravely to embarrass Tony Blair and George Bush. He asked us to
focus not on the harm the G8 leaders were doing, but on the help they might
give. When they failed to deliver, he praised them anyway. His endorsement
and the public forgetfulness it prompted helped license them to start
reversing their commitments. When they did so, he said nothing. This looks
to me like more than just political naivity. It looks as if he is working
for the other side.
I don't mean that this is what he intended - or intends - to do. I mean that
he came to identify with the people he was supposed to be lobbying. By
ensuring that the campaign was as much about him as about Africa, he ensured
that if they failed, he failed. He needed a story with a happy ending.
There is just one thing that Geldof can now do for Africa. This is to
announce that his optimism was misplaced, that the mission was not
accomplished, that the struggle for justice is as urgent as ever. But while
he holds his tongue, he will remain the man who betrayed the poor.
1. World Development Movement, 8th July 2005. G8 condemn Africa to miss
Millennium Development Goals. Press Release.
2. ActionAid, 8th July 2005. ActionAid's reaction to the G8 outcome. Press
3. Christian Aid, 12th July 2005. The G8 - in terms of build-ups it couldn't
have been bigger. Press release.
4. Oxfam, 29th July 2005. Gleneagles: what really happened at the G8 summit?
5. DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), 8th July 2005. Bono, Geldof Reaction to G8
Africa Communique. Press release; Ewen MacAskill, Patrick Wintour and Larry
Elliott, 9th July 2005. G8: hope for Africa but gloom over climate. The
Guardian; Mark Townsend, 10th July 2005. Geldof delighted at G8 action on
aid. The Observer.
6. Matthew Tempest, 8th July 2005. G8 leaders agree $50bn Africa package.
7. Oxfam, 29th July 2005, ibid.
8. WDM, 15th July 2005. Leaks reveal IMF threat to already weak G8 debt
deal. Press release.
9. Minutes of Evidence Taken before Treasury Committee, 19th July 2005. To
be published as HC 399-i. House of Commons.
10. Eg ABC online, 27th July 27 2005. Australia, US form climate change
pact: report. http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200507/s1423298.htm
11. World Development Movement and Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2nd August 2005.
Leaks reveal G8 debt deal faces funding shortfall. Press release.
12. BBC Online, 3rd August 2005. Hunger in Mali is being 'ignored'.
13. Eg Julian Borger, 26th August 2005. Bolton throws UN summit into chaos.
14. Patrick Watt, 5th September 2005. Development Under Attack: will the
2005 poverty agenda unravel at the UN World Summit? ActionAid.
15. Demba Moussa Dembele, 3rd September 2005. By email.
16. Kofi Mawuli Klu, 4th September 2005. By phone.