History Is a Great Teacher, But We Have to Go to Class

Clifton Taulbert
Clifton Taulbert

In the wake of Charlottesville, America is still awakening from the shock of the aftermath — the deaths, the accusations, the violence abruptly tearing away the blanket of racial security. What many have thought was put to rest, if not steadily quieted, was never so.

Born to the era of segregation in the deep south state of Mississippi, Clifton Taulbert knows all too well what America has tried to leave behind. Author of the best seller, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, the Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Last Train North, and The Invitation, amongst other acclaimed works, his stories are evident of the coming together of past and present racial relations.

To Taulbert, the phrase “history repeats itself” no longer holds the same weight. Instead, its repetition now carries with it a new purpose — the rise of a new history, of the past, the present, and the future, interwoven, story by story, with the pen in his hand and the people around him.

Before Charlottesville, he recognized the need to embrace community. After Charlottesville, he extends an even wider arm. I had a chance to interview Clifton, who works with me as a member of the International Advisory Council for GlobalMindED, to discover how he manages to do so.

What was your first reaction to all that was taking place in Charlottesville? What did you want to do?

I was stunned. Maybe more so because of all the young adults who were involved— the looks of angry determination on their faces. I was saddened. In our broadly connected world, young people are all our future. I tend to look to them to keep bringing out our better selves, not taking us back in time. I cringed as I watched the television. I had seen this before.

History is a great teacher, but we have to go to class. I wanted to get inside each head and take them to class. I wanted to crawl into a corner, write my heart out, sit them down, and read aloud — to feed them the legacies of goodness they could all leave. I am an entrepreneur whose passion is writing. Writing is how I share the thoughts and feelings of my soul. I know the impact of the written word to change lives and change nations. I had already written about the lingering lessons of race and place and just how impactful the past remains in The Invitation, my most recent memoir that calls our hearts to daily action.

Tell us more about your memoir. How does The Invitation correlate to Charlottesville and what transpired there?

At the turn of the century, I had a rather surreal experience as the guest of Miss Camille, a white plantation owner from South Carolina nearing ninety years of age. Our paths crossed, and it felt as if destiny had arranged this meeting: the old South, Miss Camille and me, the great-great-grandson of slaves.

I expected the worst— like the actions that were being verbalized in Charlottesville. What I felt that first day at Roselawn was akin to how I was feeling while listening to young adults hurl such vicious words at Charlottesville. At Roselawn, I was in the presence of the Old South — where race and place were clearly understood. And to top if off, cotton was still growing as far as my eyes could see. This was the 21st century...but I was feeling the social and cultural weight of the 18th.

The Roselawn plantation and all the trappings of the Old South had emotionally taken me back in time to a world where one learned to be “colored.” The lessons of race and place that I had learned as a boy all came bubbling to the surface as if I had never been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize or had lectured in the Hunting Lodge built by Adolf Hitler. The place was so powerful, I felt as if the promises of the 21st century had gone with the wind, and yesterday had returned as if it had never been defeated.

The Invitation? Why such a welcoming title to the remnants of the past?

It took me seven years to finally settle on the title, but it is the right one.

It would have been bad, or even worse, had Miss Camille not embarked upon a different path than what her upbringing had probably required. But there was Miss Camille, the matriarch of Roselawn, who on every turn of our paths crossing chose to live out in my presence the way life should have been lived while I was growing up in our segregated South. I will always remember the warm touch from her aging hands, the quiet, yet powerful talks— not long conversation, but talks that tore down ancient walls of separation while weaving a shared tapestry for the future.

Her Roselawn was indeed the physical presence of the yesterday I cared not to relive or remember, or the yesterday to which some in Charlottesville may have wished to return, but instead, Miss Camille of Roselawn became an emissary of “community never to be forgotten.” That first unnerving day would turn into five years, and over those five years, the past, the present, and the potential for our future played out in my presence. Those five years are the lessons Miss Camille left for our times; thus, The Invitation was to discover that it is never too late to live out the goodness within our hearts and that it is never too late to walk away from the clutches of the challenging past.

What do you feel Miss Camille was saying to us by her actions in your presence — the scribe sent to write it all down?

At the turn of the century, that daughter of South Carolina left another lesson, one much needed today. In that same South Carolina, I would become the scribe to write what I had not expected and to share broadly what I had observed. I didn’t choose to be a writer. Writing chose me. Words are powerful, and truth is eternal. When I write the truth of my experience and share the hope I embrace, it seems as if each word is an eraser, wiping away the hurt and the potential for anger.

I left Roselawn knowing more clearly that the process to build “community” continues. Charlottesville has shown us that much work remains. Our stories must matter to each other. This we must celebrate, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, we must fan the flame of the candle that’s lit wherever it might be… at an 18th century plantation in South Carolina where the black writer and the plantation owner lived out the reality of what should have been, or sharing a pancake with Ben, the young white adult I bumped into and with whom I intentionally pursued community, just a week or so before Charlottesville. I want to believe that all over America, signs of “community” still show up. And moms and dads of all races can’t wait to tell their kids “more.” It’s the “more” that lays the foundation for the endurance of our nation or a small breakfast cafe in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where one pancake is share, and mutual respect becomes the drink of the morning.

This is Miss Camille’s invitation to all of us. In the wake of recent racial and ethnic turmoil, we must remember and celebrate loudly all that was good before Charlottesville as we move forward to ensure a more perfect union. This is our shared responsibility.

“We are indeed like blades of grass, here today and gone tomorrow. Even so, the impact of our human presence resonates all over the world. Our presence is known. We build civilizations. We humans marched from caves and on our way we left towns and cities as proof of our presence...the handprint of good and greatness is all around us and so is the handprint of our inhumanity towards others” (The Invitation).

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Diversity should not be a marginalized concept — that is what is at stake in this nation. Create your impact and make your presence known. Recognize acclaimed thought leaders like Clifton Taulbert, and share in his mission to embrace community and spread diversity. Take the opportunity to share your story, and submit your idea when the Call for Proposals opens September 1 for our 2018 GlobalMindED Conference. Connect with these leaders June 9-11 2018, and discover other ways to get involved!

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