When people ask me what my book is about, my standard response is to say that when I was ten years old in 1967, my father transplanted our family from a suburb of Boston to a small, all-black town in Mississippi, where he was the first medical director of a clinic and my mother taught at the local high school. And I was the only white student at my junior high.
It’s an important story and one that gets people’s attention. But when it comes down to it, the book is really about my mother’s transformation from a traditional mom to a high school English teacher, and my own coming of age. These just happened to take place in a highly unusual setting, one that by its nature drew us into the heart of the civil rights movement.
But I’m no expert on that movement. A child when the book’s events occurred, all that I knew of the bigger picture was what I learned through my parents’ eyes, through the anecdotes that they told. I could have majored in history or political science in college and thoroughly educated myself in the field, but I didn’t; I was a civil engineering major.
Of course I’ve tried to be factually correct. I spent countless hours on the Internet, sometimes reading thirty pages to verify one sentence. But my book is still that of a layperson. I make no pretense that it is anything but that.
A wonderful example of this was highlighted for me when I chatted with Dave Richards, a lawyer who was on the Civil Rights Commission in the 1960s whom I had approached for a blurb for the back cover of Outskirts. When I dropped my manuscript off at his office, he had a few minutes available, and so we talked.
I sat enthralled as he told me anecdotes from that era. Among other stories, he described how lawyers successfully shut down swimming pools all over the south once it became illegal for government operations to segregate. Faced with a requirement to let black people swim in what they thought of as their pools, many white politicians and city managers opted instead to simply close their facilities to everyone.
As he talked, the story seemed familiar. I had forgotten what every true student of the civil rights movement would have known. Instead, I remembered a very personal take on the scenario, one that is captured in Outskirts. There was a beautiful swimming pool in Mound Bayou, paid for by the people in the next town. Apparently, the local politicians had reached an agreement whereby the black community promised not to go swimming in the “whites only” pool if the white people would pay for a pool in our all-black town.