by Bruce Weeks,
It seems history is the story of the past usually told by someone that wasn’t there. Having lived through the 1960s and having been immersed in the racial vitriol of that decade, I felt obligated to pen an accurate portrayal of what happened. I chose historical fiction as my vehicle.
I found early in my late blossoming teaching career that my students retained much more of the information I offered them when it was delivered in the form of a story. Sixth Grade World History can be a most boring subject for 12 year old kids and after writing many failed lesson plans, my students taught me to ‘make it real’. By developing the characters we were studying, I was able to make my students visualize them and give them human features. Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia had a body odor problem and needed to bathe with Irish Spring soap. Peter the Great inherited his father’s dreamy eyes and curly hair, but he had bad gas. Cleopatra was beautiful, but she wore too much makeup and Anthony was a General but his feet were stinky. Soon it became necessary to give each historical figure a complete profile and visual description, so I began researching the personal idiosyncrasies of every historical figure and when I couldn’t find anything, I would make it up.
My students loved my character development, but my performance observations often had questions about my truthfulness. Still, it was fun, my students were learning and they were retaining what they learned so I just dealt with the flack I got in parent/teacher conferences. With my principal sitting at the end of the conference table, I was once asked by a parent if I knew for sure Peter the Great had gas often. I thought my principal was going to crack up but she held serve and promised the parent I would tone down the tall tales. By this time, I was becoming a schoolhouse legend and when there was time to kill, I was often called upon to, as my principal called it, ‘tell some whoppers and keep the students’ attention for a while’.
In my last few years of teaching, on the last day before MLK Day, I would tell my students a real life story, about my days as a 12 year old in the early 1960s. You could usually hear a pin drop in the classroom when I began my recollections. Telling them of my brother getting Strep Throat and having to go to the doctor and get a shot, I mocked my brother just as I did those years ago, “You gotta get a shaaaa-ot and it’s gonna hurt when they stick that needle in yo buuuuutt” and they laughed at me. I described entering the old doctor’s office and seeing the ladder back wooden chairs around the waiting room and the old couch my mother refused to sit on. The thoughts flowed like water from my mind as I told them of the mean looking lady that was perched behind the sliding glass window and the door of doom that led to the hallway with examining rooms on each side. But my main reason for telling of that particular visit, was to describe the adjoining ‘colored waiting room’ that was separate from where we sat. I had seen it plenty of times before, but this time, my buddy Albert was sitting with his mom and brother in the dark, sparse addition. When I saw him my face lit up because I knew we could have some fun together as we did when we ran and romped over my father’s cotton farm. But just as I approached the doorway that separated us, my mother spat out, “Don’t you dare go over there on that nigger side. Sit down here beside me and behave!”
As I stood in stunned disappointment, I heard Albert’s mother chastise him, “You keeps yo butt outta da white folks’ side of dat room. Now sit yourself down by yo brother!” We eyed each other across the threshold with sad faces; it wasn’t the first time our color had interrupted our fun.
I wanted my students to know how it was, ‘back in the day’ and of the oppression and struggle that all black people had to endure when I was a boy. I wanted my students to know of the hatred that southern white people heaped upon the black race and of the courage they had to summon to finally stand up and demand their civil rights guaranteed them under the United States Constitution. I wanted them to know of the people that courageously fought and died so they could sit in my classroom that very day. I wanted them to know that Dr. King was one of the greatest historical figures of my era and how he was killed by an assassin’s bullet before he could see the changes for which he had given his life. I wanted them to know the sacrifices that had been made so they might have a better life.
So often after my MLK story, my kids would say, “Ah, Mr. Weeks, it wasn’t really like that back then, was it? It couldn’t have been like that, it’s against the law to do that kind of thing!”
Even though I promised them it was true and showed them pictures of the Civil Rights Struggle, they still just could not imagine it was that bad. It seems unbelievable that in my lifetime, the prejudice, the scorn and cruelty of that time could be forgotten and our children not even believe it happened.
Salleys Kitchen is my attempt to accurately characterize the oppression faced by Black people during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It is my effort to inform a new generation of the sacrifices made by a courageous generation and make clear to them that the struggle for equality must continue. We can celebrate how far we have come from those dark days of my youth, but each time we see or hear subtle attempts to bring back the remnants of those days, we must vividly recall those cruel days and be reminded of the distance yet to be traveled before all citizens are treated equally in our nation.
Salleys Kitchen is a debut novel by Bruce Wise Weeks. Told in an achingly beautiful voice it conveys the story of a tender first love among brutal racial hatred. Set among the sandhills of a western South Carolina cotton farm it is ripped from the actual events that occurred in that region during the late 1960s. With painstaking realism, the story paints an intense portrait of life as a black person during the Jim Crow Era in the South. Seen through the eyes of a young white boy, lovingly raised since an infant in the southern black culture, his unique point of view articulates his struggle to enter adulthood as a white, black person.