In the recent season of gift giving, I concentrated on the young people in my life and on presents I could find that I think are worthy of them. But of course I received some gifts too, and this year brought a very special book my way. It’s called The Song and the Silence: A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Wright.
The book’s author is Booker Wright’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson, and I found out about her and her work through Sherry Rankins-Robertson, who was Johnson’s teacher at the University of Arkansas. In fact, I think Johnson began work on this project in Sherry’s class. Whatever the case, it is a book that I will cherish and that you will want to read because Johnson’s journey to recover her grandfather is so compelling: honest, fresh, passionate, and based on over six years of intense research.
I’ll admit to being an “opening sentence” nut: I always go to the first sentence in any book or article and mull it over, read it aloud, see how it feels in my mouth, and determine whether it gets a thumbs up. This first sentence—“Booker Wright was a difficult man to know”—definitely got a thumbs up. Short, direct, and slightly mysterious, the sentence impels me forward into Johnson’s (and Wright’s) story. We learn that her research started when she discovered that her grandfather had been in a hotly controversial NBC News program in 1966, where he talked openly about racist encounters he had faced during his years of waiting tables at a “whites only” restaurant. As Johnson says, her grandfather “did the unthinkable,” which was to describe what life was like for a black man in Mississippi in the Sixties.
But who was this grandfather, who waited tables in one part of town at Lusco’s, ran his own business called Booker’s Place in the Black neighborhood, appeared on TV, became an icon of the civil rights movement—and was murdered by a drunk customer in 1973?
Johnson takes a long, hard, unflinching, and loving look at the many selves of Booker and especially at the town of Greenwood, deep in the Mississippi Delta. Her depiction of the town is rich in detail, stinging in its reflection of the racial tension and deep-seated bigotry of the white community and the struggles and constant humiliations of the Black community. We see Greenwood through both Johnson’s and Booker Wright’s eyes, a small town of enormous complexity. We learn of Wright’s search for his mother, whom he believed had never wanted him, and of the complicated relationship between Johnson and her own parents. And we see her come to terms with them, and with Booker, and with Greenwood. It’s a cliché to say this, but it’s also true: once I started reading, I could not stop until I turned the last page.
Today, Yvette Johnson is a filmmaker, public speaker, and director of the Booker Wright Literacy Project, a foundation aimed at supporting literacy efforts in the Mississippi Delta and beyond. But her work on The Song and the Silence began in a writing class with a teacher who cared about her and her subject, and who supported her research and her steps toward publication. When we enter out writing classes, we always need to know that there is likely an Yvette Johnson there, just waiting for the gift of “coming to voice” that writing classes provide for so many students. So, as always, bravo, brava, to writing teachers everywhere.