Texas students in grades 3 through 6 will be voting this month for their 2016-17 Texas Bluebonnet Award favorites, and one of the many blessings of having The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on this year’s list is that it has given me the opportunity to talk about the book at scores of schools in my home state.
I often read the book in its entirety to audiences, and when I’ve finished the text on this page —
When the Altamont chugged away, taking its crew home to the North, John Roy could have gone along. He had the choice to stay or go, and he chose to stay. Natchez was his home. Fellow former slaves reveled in the promises of freedom — family, faith, free labor, land, education. John Roy wanted to be part of that.
— I stop.
“How many of you,” I ask, “knowing only what you know now at this point in the story, and knowing only what John Roy Lynch himself knew at this point in his life, would have gone on to the North with the crew of the Atlamont?”
Sometimes two or three hands go up. Sometimes, it’s only one. Often, no one in the audience says they would have headed north.
“And raise your hand if you would have chosen to stay — to participate in those promises of freedom: family…”
By this point, at least some hands are already held high.
Pretty much every child in the room has a hand aloft by this moment. And each and every time, I take that as a sign of hope.
You see, I know what happens next in the story. I know what became of these “promises of freedom” in the South immediately after the Civil War.
As I put it in the text on the very next page, “Freedom, however, soon turned sour. Mississippi whites passed laws to make Mississippi blacks into slaves under different names: ‘Apprentices.’ ‘Vagrants.’ ‘Convicts.'” Don Tate’s art on that next page depicts a whipping in progress, and a lynching about to occur.
Students often gasp when we get to that next page.
But on the page before, as the Altamont heads off into that beautiful sunset, the children in the room are guided by their optimism, by their sense of fairness and what’s right, by an innate belief in what should happen next. Of course it should be freedom. Of course.
I am, by nature, an optimist. I think I’m a realist, too, but when viewing that reality I tend to err on the side of expecting good and hopeful things to happen. For many people I know, however, this year has begun with such expectations deeply challenged.
Maybe that describes you, too.
I wish you could experience that feeling I get when I share the “When the Altamont chugged away…” spread of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch with children. When I see by the show of hands their expectations of progress, justice, and equality, how could I not be optimistic?
And at the same time, how could I not be determined to do what I can in my life — to do the work — to help make their expectations more often come to pass?
Jennifer surprised me last month with an early Christmas present. And she had help from Don. Unbeknownst to me, she got a piece of his original artwork from The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch framed and snuck into our house.
It now resides on our living room wall, where it will serve as a daily reminder of what the young people in Texas and elsewhere in this country expect from me, from you, from us, and from our future.