This phrase comes up frequently in "Leonís Story", an autobiography by a sharecropperís son. Born near Fuquay, North Carolina in 1936, Leon Walter Tillage grew up under the Jim Crow laws that shaped his young life.
"While we kids worked in the hot summertime, we wondered why Mr. Johnsonís kids never worked. He had children that were approximately our age and a little older, and they would stay up under the pecan tree and drink lemonade while everybody elseís kids were out there working. And we kids couldnít understand why we worked all the time and then at the end of the year we didnít have anything..."
"We kids wanted to know why we had to live in an old broken-down house. Why we had to walk around with no new shoes. Why we couldnít have a pretty car like Mr. Johnson (who owned the farm) and them. ...and I couldnít figure out why we didnít have some of these nice things. We knew somewhere something was wrong, but we just couldnít figure out what to do about it. Why in America we had to be second best. Our parents would only say ĎWell, thatís the way itís intended, thatís the way itís supposed to be. Youíll never equal up to the whites.í
"Our parentsí attitudes were different in those days. If my son asked me something now, I would try to explain things to him to my best ability, but in those days you did not question your parents. They was very strict and they would give you a quick answer and that was it. You didnít feel bad about it, you just didnít ask them anymore, and that was the way it was."
Throughout the rest of the book, he describes all the other ways that it was. The segregated elementary school that was four miles away - black children had no bus, no running water, no cafeteria and a stove they had to stoke themselves for heat and cooking lunch. The stores where blacks were not allowed to try on the clothes, hats or jewelry they wished to buy...the segregated movie theater, where blacks only had wooden crates crammed into the balcony. The daily humiliations, rudeness and physical violence practiced on them by nearly all whites...not to mention those sleepless nights when the Klansmen were riding. He describes what he and other young people went through when they dared to march for their civil rights.
Some readers may be thinking, so what? This has all been said before, and by other, more important people in history. So what makes these recollections (and a few people have charged that some are imperfect recollections) of a Baltimore janitor so powerful? Why is this particular book, by this man, so important?
There are a couple of different reasons to read this book. Most basically, it is as it began, as an oral history taken from lectures Mr. Tillage has been giving to students for years at the Park School in Baltimore. About four years ago, out of all those students who went home to talk to their parents about this special lecture, one was the child of local author/illustrator Susan L. Roth.
"Well before she finished explaining, I felt that this was a story that should be told to more than just the seventh grade at The Park School." writes Mrs. Roth in her summation at the end of the book. "It seemed to me the world should be listening to him." It took a couple of years to pull the project together, but "Leonís Story" was finally published by Farrar Straus Giroux on October 29, 1997. Mrs. Roth supplied the art work.
On a higher level, this is a story of one man going through hard times, and becoming...what he is today. In todayís culture, a harsh upbringing seems to be an excuse for too many (and for all colors) to indulge in selfishness, greediness, dope, lying, stealing, child abuse, rape or murder. How Leon turned away from his generationís equivalent of the thug life is, to me, as important as what he went through under the horrors of Jim Crow.
"What amazes me most about Leon," writes Mrs. Roth, "is his prevailing optimism. When I ask him how can stay as he is, he talks about his parents and his strong religious upbringing. He talks of his parentsí strictness, and also of their constant unconditional love, strength, and support. He speaks of his motherís difficult but successful struggle to keep the siblings together after his fatherís death."
ĎBut, Leon,í Iíve said many times, Ďyou have no bitterness. How come?í "Leon smiles. ĎWhat good would that do? I know there were bad times,í he says. ĎBut you know, there were rejoicing times, too.í"
And this spirit comes through in the book. Kind, good people are mentioned - the Clarks, a white couple who in Leonís words, "treated us like people", and saved the school kids from more than a few beatings - the Jewish store that would let blacks try on clothes before they bought them - the policemen who only went through the motions of beating the marchers, and let them run - the Greek and Jewish business folks who let the marchers hide in their basements from the Klan - two nameless white men who saved Leon from dogs that were sicced on him by a drunk employer.
He describes how Christmas and a death in the family would bring everybody together, black and white. The love and faith in his family, particularly from his parents, was always there for him when he needed it. And Leon seems to have found a great deal of fulfillment from marching for civil rights.
When recruiters were talking to the older high school students, explaining what they hoped to accomplish, Leon says "They didnít have to talk too much-we were ready for a movement. Of course, we figured it would be a little violent, but we didnít know it was going to be rough as it was. Our parents would say to us, "We donít understand. Donít you know youíre going to get killed for listening to these people? Youíre going to get beat up. Whatís wrong with you?í then we would say to them, ĎWeíre getting beat up now. Weíre getting killed now. So Iíd rather get beat up for doing something or trying to change things. I mean, why get beat up for nothing?í
And when they marched, they were vilified, pelted with excrement, beaten and thrown in jail. Yet they still marched. "But our friends and relatives and also the white man didnít understand the way we felt and the way we thought about the situation, which was we didnít care who we sat beside." explains Leon. "We didnít care so much about walking in the front door. What we cared about was who are you to tell us what we can and canít do in America, the land of freedom, the land of democracy. That is what we got beat up for. It was as simple as that."
Susan Roth adds her perspective at the end of the book. "In telling his story, Leon Tillage is continuing his peaceful protesting by helping to educate people. We all need to know and to remember the history over and over again. We all need to help the changes to continue."
Amen to that.
First published in Baltimore's Child, February, 1998. All rights reserved.
Quotes are mostly from the book, and from telephone conversations with the illustrator and author.
Promotional material from The Park School, Baltimore, Maryland
and from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Inc.
"Books of the Region" by Jim Bready, Baltimore Sun, 12/21/97
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