In 1971 I was a twenty-year old Mississippi college sophomore, terminally shy with a stutter and an undeclared major. What career choice did I have that didn’t involve actually speaking with people?
Milton, a fast-talking, pimply-faced senior, said he had just the ticket for a shy guy like me. “How are you ever going to be a success if you’re afraid to open your mouth?”
Milton was a student manager for a sales company that hired college kids to work during the summer. If I signed on, I would be sent 1,000 miles away from home, dropped off in a strange community, and given a set of books to sell door to door to families just like mine. It sounded like the foreign legion—a chance to go away from everyone I knew and reinvent myself.
I worried about my stuttering. Milton convinced me it would disappear if I didn’t have to actually think about what I was going to say next. I would memorize a word-for-word talk, so I didn’t have to depend on being spontaneously charming or clever. It was all written down for me, even the jokes.
The territory I was assigned was Johnston County, North Carolina, deep in tobacco country. Upon crossing the county line, visitors were greeted by a billboard with a robed Klansman on a rearing white stallion: “This is KLAN Country. Help Fight Communism & Integration!” I rented a room from the widow of a Baptist preacher.
That’s when Milton dropped it on me. I would not be selling Bibles and encyclopedias, after all. Something even better had come along. The Ebony Pictorial History of Black America. This summer we wouldn’t be calling on whites, we’d be selling blacks.
Everyone on my sales team thought it was a joke. We were a bunch of Mississippi white boys. We never even set foot in a black person’s house.
Milton guaranteed us the books would sell like hotcakes. This was the first set of black history books written for the mainstream black market. We had a special meeting to learn the brand-new sales talk.
What they didn’t teach us was how to handle threats from the rednecks in Klansville, USA. Soon the county sheriff pulled me over. “What’s a white boy like you doing with these nigger books?” he asked. Without stuttering, I told him the truth, that selling Ebony Black History was purely a mercenary calling. I was a poor college student in it for the money. I wasn’t an agitator. I was an entrepreneur.
Over the course of that summer, sitting in tarpaper shacks without indoor plumbing, or under shade trees, or out in tobacco barns, the same phenomenon repeated itself. Parents gathered their children to see what the “white man” had brought. I flipped through the books, showing them pictures and telling the stories of African American heroes. And not just the usual sports stars and singing acts, but black entrepreneurs and a Supreme Court justice and an Air Force general and inventors and intellectuals. It was news not only to me, but to them as well.
I remember the solemn weight of that unknown history as it settled upon them. The children’s eyes opened wide, the parents pulled their kids closer, sometimes there were words of amazement, sometimes a soft laugher of recognition, but always a sense of reverence—like we were in church and great truths were being spoken. You could feel it. A story, well hidden, was beginning to stir.
They reached for worn-thin wallets and cracked-leather purses, emptied baking soda tins and flour canisters of the cash they had put away for groceries; the kids contributed pennies and nickels hard-earned from working tobacco, money for school clothes in the fall. They gave joyously. And I took it without a second thought. It helped finance a life where black history was no more than a side-note. I had learned the sales talk but never read the books.
Thirty years later, a black friend asked me to show her Mississippi through my eyes.” Although raised in New Jersey, Sondra’s parents had been sharecroppers in Alabama; they refused to talk of those days.
I drove her through small towns with Confederate statues, counties named after the founder of the KKK and the President of the Confederacy, around a massive reservoir named for the governor who fomented a riot to keep a black student out of Ole Miss, government buildings bearing the names of arch-segregationists.
At a massive sculpture memorializing white Southern womanhood, Sondra snapped, “You can’t even tell we were ever here.”
“I guess these are just my stories,” I said, sensing the gulf between us.
I knew they weren’t just stories—not to her.
I thought about selling the Ebony Pictorial History to families thirty summers earlier. The amazement in the children’s eyes. Over the years I’ve come to understand what seeing these stories in print meant to them. Maybe that’s what Sondra was trying to tell me. Perhaps she wanted me to know, history is not a passive thing. The way it is told can nourish or starve an entire people.