In May of 1964, Myles Horton, the legendary director of the Highlander Folk School, in Knoxville, Tennessee, offered his facility to SNCC staff for a poetry workshop. The workshop was an invitation to the weary and sometimes shell-shocked civil rights veterans to spend a few days without struggle in a safe venue, outside of Mississippi, although it was not so far that the darkness could not be felt. I remember the Highlander atmosphere as open and spacious, an almost sanitarium-like ambiance. There were no "poets" there, just soldiers, pausing in a time of war, looking for ways to express themselves in a peaceful setting. We wrote quietly and sometimes shared what we wrote with each other. The workshop allowed me to express how I felt. They were more emotional expressions than literary works. The following are three of the poems that I wrote at Highlander.
In the first poem, I described what I felt when Janet Jemmott, a stately black civil rights worker, walked into the room. Even when we were "black and white together," living in the Women's Freedom House, or working in the Jackson office, it was difficult for me to connect with the Black women who were not my immediate co-workers. There was so much distance between us, our backgrounds, our upbringing, our struggles, our opportunities in society and our understanding of racism, both historical as well as contemporary. When I look at how little I understood of the lives of Black people, I am amazed at how graciously I was accepted into their homes and into their lives. Many of my relationships with the Black women that I worked with were cordial, while others were strained. Through it all, there was no way that I could express the admiration I felt for the strength, beauty and intelligence of the remarkable Black women who came south or emerged from local communities to challenge segregation with their lives.
The poems I wrote at Highlander in May, 1965, were the last things that I wrote before leaving Mississippi.
Janet swept in
with a smile
and the stance
and the skin