Tonight I'm going to tell you two stories, each about a writer . . . what I learned from those writers . . . how they influenced me . . . and then close by talking about the McBees and why the work they do here at the Ida Hilton Public Library is so important.
To tell the stories, I must go back to the 1950S. You ladies look so young that I know none of you were here in the fifties. So please allow me to tell you that was when the crust of the earth was still cooling . . . when dinosaurs roamed the land.The first story begins when I was twelve and my parents sent me to spend the summer with my aunt and uncle on their small, remote farm in rural southwest Georgia. Remote is the operative word. We were fifteen miles from the nearest town.
You need to know just a little about my uncle and aunt.
Uncle Felix was a big roly poly man with a rollicking sense of humor. He had one mule and farmed about 30 acres. It was a hard life.
To help make ends meet, two days a week he drove a rolling store.
Everyone here knows what a rolling store is?
Think of a school bus without windows, a big boxy vehicle with compartments along the sides and barrels of salted meat down the center aisle. It was a combination grocery store, department store, and hardware store. It traveled the dirt roads of southwest Georgia to remote families who had no cars.
My Aunt Grace I always thought of as a pioneer-type woman. She was wiry, as tough as they come. Her eyes were sad, I think because her life was one of such endless poverty. But she always had a sweet smile on her face.
Neither my aunt nor my uncle had a high school education. The only book in their house was the bible.
From as far back as I can remember, I was a reader. I read under the covers at night. I didn't want to go to the farm that summer, so the first thing I dud when I arrived was to look around for something to read.
Something other than the bible.
Which is probably what I should have read.
One of the biggest surprises of my life was when I saw, there on the mantel, a set of four books. No dust jackets. Books of navy blue. This was the first time I had ever seen books at Aunt Grace's.
They were the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe.
I asked my Aunt Grace where the books came from and she shrugged and said, "I don't know. They just showed up."
How do books "Just show up" in a person's house?
I was too young to read Poe. But that was all there was . . . So that summer I ventured into the dark and brooding landscape where Poe worked.
I read "Murders In The Rue Morgue" and had nightmares about a giant ape slitting people's throats with a straight razor.
I read "The Pit And The Pendulum" and had a fear of being tied on the edge of a deep pit while rats swarmed out of that pit and a sharp scythe swung in descending arcs toward my throat.
I read "Descent Into The Maelstrom" and for weeks was afraid to pull the plug in the bathtub.
I read "The Cask Of Amontillado." I loved the sound of that word . . . Amontillado . . . And resolved that one day when I was grown I would go into a wine store and buy a bottle of the wine Poe liked, a bottle of amontillado. And I did.
I read all of Poe's short stories. But what I most remember are his poems, particularly "Annabel Lee." The internal rhyme . . . the romantic vision . . . the melancholy . . . the way he used the language.
I Was a child and she was a child, in this kingdom by the sea
And we loved with a love that was more than a love, I and my Annabel Lee.
I had read a lot but I had never read anything like that.
Edgar Allen Poe could fling words on a page and make them dance and shimmer and linger in the reader's heart. He put me on a magic carpet and took me to a place I had never seen . . .a place I did not even know existed. He evoked emotions in me that I had never felt before. From Edgar Allen Poe I learned the magic and the power of my mother tongue.
Two years later I was sent to the farm again.
If you are getting the idea that my parents liked to get rid of me in the summer . . .well, You are right. I was the sort of kid my parents would not let me play with.
Edgar Allen Poe was gone, replace by a singe book. I asked Aunt Grace what happened to my friend Edgar Allen Poe and she said, "I Don't know." And I said, where did this book come from and she said, "I don't know. It just showed up."
And I began to think there was some kind of cosmic rolling store that went through southwest Georgia at night. It was driven by a mischievous angel who would look at a title and throw the book inside a farm house knowing it would be found by someone who was ready to receive the story.
This book had no dust jacket. In southwest Georgia, the first thing people did when they bought a book was to rip off the dust jacket and throw it away. They looked on books the same way they looked upon apples or oranges: you had to peel them to get to the good stuff. This book was by Frank Yerby and the title was "The Foxes of Harrow." It was a historical novel, and while I was an undisciplined reader, this book was not high on my list. But it was all that was in the house.
So I opened the book and began reading.
Ladies and gentlemen, I had never seen the Mississippi River. But when I read the first page of "The Foxes of Harrow" I knew how the river sounded and smelled . . . I knew how it slowed on the corners and raced down the straightaways. I knew how it shimmered in the moonlight. I felt the power of that mighty river.
Frank Yerby took me to a sandbar in the Mississippi River and introduced me to Stephen Fox, an elegantly-dressed man with a priceless pearl as a stickpin and a golden snuffbox. He was a gambler and had won too much money at cards so the captain took his money and abandoned him on the sand bar.
I was there when he was picked up by a pigboat, which is just what the name says, and saw him when he arrived in New Orleans. Broke. Only the clothes on his back.
The story told how ten years later he owned Harrow, the largest and richest plantation in Louisiana, and was married to the most beautiful woman in the state.
The story was about the generation of Foxes who owned Harrow . . .what happened to the family and what happened to the land.
But behind that story was a back story. It was a subtle story . . . a line here . . . a phrase there. And that back story was about the relationship between blacks and whites in the years before the Civil War.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I came from a time . . . the mid-1950S – and a place – southwest Georgia -- where racism was instilled in the marrow of my bones; It was part of my DNA. But Frank Yerby wrote of black people as I had never imagined. Educated Multi-lingual, superior in many ways to the whites around them. But condemned to servitude for one reason and one reason alone: the color of their skin.
This disturbed my thinking.
I was so taken with Frank Yerby that when school started I went to the library and asked the librarian, "Do we have any books by Mr. Frank Yerby?" She looked at me in a rather peculiar way and pointed out the books. I read them all. I had never seen such a masterful story teller.
One of his books described a river boat – he liked river boats – coming down the Chattahoochee River. I lived only a few miles from that river. I had fished there.
A character standing on the port side of the boat is looking at Georgia and observes: The reason the devil lives in hell is because Georgia's climate is so bad.
And I Said, Whoaaa. This guy is writing about something I know about and he nailed it.
In all of Frank Yerby's books that I read, almost hidden behind the rich historical drama of the American south in the 1800S, was a back story of blacks and whites, and of their relationships. He said white people did not understand that raising up black people would not diminish white people.
He was writing about my south, the place where generations of my people had been born and reared. Frank Yerby wept for the south as it was . . . and he hoped beyond hope for the south that he knew would one day be
I thought I had read all of Frank Yerby's books and then I found one more. This one had a dust jacket and I pulled it from the shelf and turned it over. On the back cover was a picture of Frank Yerby and a biographical sketch.
I stared at the photo for a long time. . .seeking another truth. But there was only one truth. Frank Yerby . . . was a black man.
He was from Augusta, Georgia . . . his grandparents had been slaves . . . .his father was a hotel doorman. Frank Yerby had fled to Spain to avoid the racism of his native state . . . of my state. He spoke French and Spanish and his thirty-three books had sold millions of copies. He was one of the most popular novelists in the world.
And he was a black man from Augusta, Georgia.
I knew then why the librarian had looked at me in a peculiar fashion when I said "Mr" Frank Yerby.
A month or so later I was at the farm for Sunday dinner and I told my Aunt Grace that the book she had on the mantel was written by one of the best known writers in the world . . .and that he was a black man from Georgia.
She looked at me and laughed . . . And she said, "Robert, where do you get such foolish ideas?" And I thought here is my dear sweet Aunt Grace, my favorite aunt who loves me deeply, and this is what she thinks of the greatest writer I have ever read.
And I knew I would be leaving my home town.
From Edgar Allen Poe I learned the magic of the English language.
Neither the angles in heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Will ever sever my love from the love
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
Those haunting rhythms I will take to my grave.
From Frank Yerby I Learned that the story is everything. It is not about the writing, it is about the story. Frank Yerby set me on the path to becoming a writer.
For a poorly educated, wild-rabbit of a boy coming out of rural southwest Georgia in the 1950S . . . you cannot begin to imagine what an impossible dream this was.
You cannot begin to imagine.
But Frank Yerby made me believe I could do it.
Even more important, I learned from Frank Yerby that the ideas I had been taught, the ideas I had grown up with . . . ideas shared by my family, my neighbors, my friends . . even by my teachers . . . just might be wrong.
Frank Yerby changed my life.
Books can do that.
One book can change a life. This library can change the world.
This place where we meet tonight is not just four walls and books. We meet in a holy place. Miracles can happen here.
If one boy or one girl from McIntosh County finds the right book, that boy or that girl, may find a new path in life. The light will go on and that young person will know that his or her life is not pre-ordained; that it is possible to grow up to become a painter, a singer, a teacher, a scientist, a musician, a medical researcher, an astronaut.
You thought I was going to include lawyers, but we have enough of those.
It is possible for a book to carry a child to a new world . . . a bigger world . . . a richer world . . . maybe even a better world.
So when the McBees ask you for a contribution, I implore you. . . give more than you think you can afford. Because you are investing in the life of a child . . . you are investing in America's tomorrows.
Thank you for allowing me to tell my story.