[Note: this is a February series on the diverse themes and characters in Deborah Wiles’s books. I’m publishing the series during Black History Month, with the full knowledge that my books are written from a white person’s point of view (as I am white), and that every month is Black History Month. For more on that, see this essay by Michael Harriot at The Root, and for more on Freedom Summer see this essay by Henry Louis Gates (also at The Root). You can buy this book, Freedom Summer, at Indiebound or Amazon or B&N or at your local independent bookstore. There is likely a copy at your local school or public library as well. More about the book itself is here on the website.]
When I started writing Freedom Summer, in the late 1990s, I didn’t think about the word “diversity.” I just wanted to tell the story of what happened the year the pool closed in Mississippi, the summer of 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
I was eleven. I went “home” to Mississippi the way my family did every summer, and suddenly everything had changed. We couldn’t go to the Cool Dip for ice cream, or the movie theater, or the public library in Bay Springs — everything had closed, it seemed, including the Pine View Cafe and the Pine View Pool and the roller skating rink next to it.
“Why?” I asked. And no one could explain it to me. I never forgot my confusion and, later, my dawning awareness of how white people were doing all they could to keep black people from “invading” their public places. Growing up summers in Mississippi — a land I loved because my people were there… people who loved me and couldn’t wait for my return every summer — growing up in Mississippi, along with a checkered childhood where I lived around the world in a military family, gave me a perspective on life and injustice that has colored everything about who I am and the writing I do.
There was nowhere more special to me on earth than Mississippi, and nowhere more hard to understand. I have spent a lifetime writing about Mississippi, injustice, and the American South in an effort toward not only understanding, but in an effort to tell the truth about privilege and prejudices and to help usher in a world where fairness and justice-for-all actually exists. That effort extends to me and my own privilege and prejudices as I dismantle, unpack, and think about my own life and daily choices.
This is why you’ll see my dive into Freedom Summer once again in Countdown, Revolution, and Anthem, and why you’ll see my dream world reflected in my books The Aurora County All-Stars and A Long Line of Cakes, books that imagine a Mississippi where black and white live together in (relative; they’re novels, everybody’s got their stuff) harmony, which I’ll profile in future diversity posts this month.
I’m writing for ten-year-old me, I always say, who needed, as a white kid, to understand the landscape of privilege, and of racial prejudice, and to realize that she had choices, and still does. And of course I write for anyone who needs to find my stories — I trust that you will.
When a book leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me, but I hope you will read these books and laugh, cry, share, and see yourself in them, as a human, and as someone who looks or acts like you, in the many characters who populate these stories.
I have always said, “the only story I know how to tell is my own,” so the main point of view in my books has always been that of the kid I was at ten, or twelve, or sixteen: white, middle class, curious, questioning, and wanting to learn, desperate to understand, and trying to discover her place in the bigger conversation and continuum. I’m still that kid at heart.
Of course there are black characters in my stories about the South, and they need their own voices as well. In Freedom Summer, John Henry wants to swim in the pool that his best friend Joe swims in every day, now that the new law says the pool will open to “everybody under the sun, no matter what color.”
“Is it deep?” asks John Henry. “Real deep!” answers Joe. “And the water is so clear, you can jump to the bottom, open your eyes, and still see!”
“Let’s be the first ones there!” says John Henry, as the two friends make plans to show up the next morning to swim together. “I’ll bring my good luck nickel. We can dive for it!”
Things don’t go as planned, needless to say. It took me 30 years to write Freedom Summer and 45 years before I (quite literally) hacked my way back into the piney woods to find my pool. What had happened to it?
My research told me that many pools at that time — across the country — had been emptied and filled in with asphalt (as in Freedom Summer — that was my artistic choice) or turned into parking lots (Revolution) or filled in with earth and turned into parkland (like the pool in Lynchburg, Virginia’s city park), but mine had simply been abandoned. When I show photos of what that abandoned pool looks like today, you can hear a pin drop, even in a room filled with 350 students and their teachers.
It seems unbelievable today that people of color and whites could not swim in the same pools or eat in the same restaurants, or partake of the same public services, but today we are still struggling with the 400-year-old legacy of slavery in this country. It has just changed flavors. When I first started taking Freedom Summer into schools, in 2002 or so, a few teachers wanted to know why I wanted to bring “that history” up again, when their students were colorblind. No one asks me that question today. We are — slowly — making progress. I am, too. And there is still so much work to do.
Freedom Summer was published by Simon & Schuster/Atheneum in 2001, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, and edited by Anne Schwartz. Its first review was a star from Kirkus and it has been a perennial best-seller as well as a core standard in many county school districts over the years. The largest portion of fanmail I receive is from students writing a new ending for Freedom Summer — the book ends on a “what happens next?” note. It’s so interesting to see their takes on it, which, most of the time, translate into their own hopes and dreams for a different future.
Freedom Summer was my first published book, at a time long before our current conversations about diversity and inclusion, and at the beginning of a writing career about those very themes in everything I write. I’m proud of the book, and of the team that published it, and of every librarian, teacher, and bookseller who has placed this story, and its context, into the hands of young readers.
Next time: the Aurora County novels and my sometimes-stumbling path to writing, in long-form fiction, about diversity and inclusion for young readers.