Welcome back to The Story Behind The Story series. Today’s post is by Jo Ivester. It’s a fascinating and powerful tale behind her memoir.
In 1967, when I was ten years old, my father joined the War on Poverty. Leaving behind his pediatric practice in Newton, Massachusetts, he helped found a clinic in a small, all-black town in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. My mother, although stunned by his decision, put up a brave front and assured my two brothers and me that moving to Mound Bayou, where we would be one of only two white families and the only Jewish one, would be a great adventure.
My memoir, The Outskirts of Hope, is the story of our two years in Mississippi, where my father ran his clinic, my mother, Aura Kruger, taught English at the local high school, and I was the only white student at my junior high. You may recognize the book’s title from a speech made by President Johnson in back in 1964. He said: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
Although committed to the president’s cause, my mother found her early days in Mound Bayou both exhausting and depressing. En route to town, she used a Whites Only restroom. When word of this spread, she found herself ostracized, despite her best efforts to fit in. It was only when she began teaching that she felt a growing seed of acceptance. Although Aura struggled initially, she soon found ways to connect with her students. She had them write about what it meant to be the target of prejudice and encouraged them to help get the vote out. She escorted her students to Memphis where they attended a movie and, for the first time in their lives, sat in the main theater rather than the “colored” balcony. She risked her life to march with her students in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Her efforts were not always met with support. When she sought to bring black literature into the classroom, many parents protested, not wanting their children to make waves, fearful that if they did so, they would face retribution from the Ku Klux Klan.
Forty years later, my mother, then in her eighties and living with my family in Austin, Texas, started a journal. Every day she wrote for twenty minutes and after several years, having amassed a pile of handwritten notebooks a foot high, she felt her task was done; it was just the beginning for me. I spent over a thousand hours in the course of five years listening while she told and retold all the family anecdotes. Then I tried to capture what I’d heard by writing in her voice, checking back with her frequently.
The result was a journal we called “Forever Autumn.” By the time we were done, neither one of us could be sure who had written what. More than that, however, it pushed our relationship to a new level as we discussed for the first time her self-doubts about her ability to teach and her fear that had she not followed my father to Mississippi, he would have disappeared from our lives. The book covered over a hundred years of family history, going back to the 1800s when my great-grandmother was a child working in a factory.
We circulated our 500-page journal to dozens of agents and several editors and were told that the most publishable part was the 70-page section in the middle about our time in Mississippi. With my mother’s blessing, I set out to create a book based on that, telling the story from both of our perspectives.
I wanted my book to read like a novel, with fully developed characters and scenes. I sought to end each chapter with a hook, inviting the reader to continue on, rather than turning in for the night. Most importantly, I wanted to story to be honest and authentic. To do that, my editor said, “You have to go back and interview people and immerse yourself in the setting.”
I cringed at the thought, not wanting to risk spoiling the image to which I’d clung all these years. I didn’t want to face the possibility that we had not been accepted, but merely tolerated. I didn’t want to learn that my mother hadn’t been the fantastic teacher I’d always believed her to be. Complicating matters further, we had left town abruptly when four local teenagers had assaulted and sexually molested me; the thought of confronting the leader of the boys who roughed me up left me queasy.
But, like my mother before me, I put my fears aside. A close childhood friend hosted me in his home and set up interviews, including my mother’s former students and colleagues, my father’s patients, town leaders, and most difficult of all, one of my assailants. The account of this journey, which I made with my own daughter, comprises the last chapter of the book.
When I set out to write The Outskirts of Hope, I expected to fill in a gap in the history of the civil rights movement by providing a perspective of the families behind the heroes. By the time I finished, I realized that unfortunately, my book is still profoundly relevant for the racial issues facing us today. My hope is that by sharing my personal stories, I make it easier for readers to grapple with racism in their own lives, to be willing to interact with those who are different from them. My time in Mound Bayou as a ten- and eleven-year-old child gave me a courage to face any situation, a confidence in my resilience, and a keen awareness of those individuals who still live on “the outskirts of hope”.
Jo has spent the last eight years writing The Outskirts of Hope. She has been married to her college sweetheart, Jon Ivester, for thirty-six years and they have four children and one grandchild.
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