October 26, 2023
By Angela Jackson-Brown, fiction faculty
My most recent novel, Homeward, started coming to me in 2020, mainly because I knew I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the people in my fictional town of Parsons, Georgia, that I wrote about in When Stars Rain Down. I wanted to see if they recovered from some of the many trials and tribulations that took place in When Stars Rain Down. I decided, after a few starts and stops, that the early 1960s would be a good place to begin my journey back into their world. But I had no clue that the stars would all align so that Homeward would be published during the sixtieth-anniversary year of so many historical events that I researched and wrote about in this book: the Children’s Crusade, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Children’s Crusade that took place in Birmingham, Alabama, is only a few sentences in my novel, but it sets the mood for the direction my story will take, and it set the mood and the momentum for the early days of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
There has been a general belief that all Black people in the south supported the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King, but that just wasn’t the case. I remember as a little girl asking my daddy if he marched with Dr. King. I just knew that my big, strong, brave daddy was on the front lines, getting spit at and pushed around like the Black people I saw on television. But Daddy said to me, “Not everyone could march with King, little girl. Some of us just had to focus on living.” As a child, I couldn’t understand his words or his logic. In my little microcosm of the universe, there was good and evil. There was brave and cowardly. There was Black and white. There were no shades of gray, so I could not understand back then how my Daddy and other Black people could choose not to get involved in the Movement.
But as I grew older and wiser, my Daddy’s words began to make sense. Black people were afraid during the 1960s and rightly so. My daddy and his family were sharecroppers and none of them were fortunate enough to even have a high school diploma. My daddy was a WWII veteran who served in the Navy, but when he came back home to our hometown of Ariton, Alabama, shortly after WWII ended, instead of a ticker-tape parade or an opportunity to work in a job befitting a war veteran, he instead was met by racist white men holding rifles, threatening him if he attempted to vote. My Daddy and so many other men were destroyed emotionally by the hate their country showed them after they risked it all for the red, white, and blue. My people lived with the threat of lynchings, church and home bombings, and all-around harassment for protesting their conditions.
So when I sat down to write this novel, I wanted to illustrate that not every Black person felt confident or even brave enough to stand up against the hatred of the 1960s, and their stories deserved to be told with respect and dignity too. Not every Black person could be Dr. King or Rosa Parks, and there is no shame in that. And then there were some Black people, like the Perkins family in my novel, who had reached upward mobility, and they did not want to do anything to bring what they considered unnecessary attention to themselves or their community. I can’t be angry at that.
I would like to believe I would have been a Harriet Tubman or a Sojourner Truth, but the chances are greater that I would have done like so many other Black people in history whose names we do not know. I would have bided my time and prayed for better days, if not for me then for my progeny. Instead of raging against the proverbial machine, I probably would have done an honest day’s work, kept my head down, and waited for something or someone outside of myself to fight the good fight.
By highlighting the Children’s Crusade in my novel—a crusade that consisted of more than a thousand Black youth ranging from six years old to teenagers—I hoped to show that the Movement was primarily spearheaded by young people because the adults had so much more to lose. People in my community were told they would lose their lives if they marched with Dr. King. In other communities, the consequences were so much worse. This is why Dr. King and others in the Movement put children on the frontlines, but of course we saw on May 2, 1963, when those children were met with police dogs and fire hoses, that they, too, had much to lose, from being expelled from school to being arrested to worse. But this did not deter these young people.
So many of the people on the frontlines weren’t even old enough to vote, but they understood that freedom is not free, and they were willing to pay the ultimate price so that they and others like them could have the rights and privileges that I and others like me now have. Because of the bravery of children, some barely old enough to write their own names, I now have the right and privilege of teaching at a Big Ten University and Spalding University’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing. I truly am my ancestors’ greatest hope.
I spent roughly ten months doing the research for Homeward—basically the gestation period of a baby. My reading list was extensive. I consulted newspaper articles and old news footage. I read biographies and autobiographies of those in the Movement. I talked to people who lived during that time and experienced the Civil Rights Movement up close and personal. But Homeward is also filled with details from things I and/or my family experienced firsthand. My best writing always happens when I can infuse parts of my own story into what I am writing.
In the book, I wrote about an incident that happened to my Daddy and me when I was about six or seven years old. We were driving on a back country road in rural Alabama on our way to church and a policemen stopped us—harassed us. It felt like hours but it was probably only a few minutes. Writing that scene for the book was both traumatic and cathartic. Looking back now, I realize how fortunate we were to make it out alive. This book has caused a lot of memories to resonate to the forefront of my mind. Writing historical fiction is my passion, but I have to admit that doing so has a price. Sometimes a price that would send me running for the bed, overwhelmed by the onslaught of history.
Another real person who made his way into Homeward was Medgar Evers. I first remember hearing about Evers when Whoopi Goldberg’s film Ghosts of Mississippi was released in 1996. I feel ashamed to say his name was not familiar to me before then, but once I knew about Evers, I vowed to pay tribute to him someday, and I got the opportunity to do so in this novel. I wanted readers to see how a death like Evers’s would affect people like those in my fictional town of Parsons. By June of 1963, many of the Black population of my fictional town are studying for the voter registration test. They are studying under the fear of reprisal from racists in their town. Then they learn about the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. For some, his death caused so much fear and trauma that they deserted the movement, but for others, like my protagonist and her family, it spurred them on.
The year 1963 was not all death and destruction, and I was happy to include a section about the March on Washington, which took place on August 28. Many Americans, Black, white, and others, thought the March represented change in a way this nation had not seen before. My protagonist and her family honestly believed they might be witnessing the first Black president speak when Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. So many people felt that “hope and change” was in the air. Unfortunately, this hopefulness was dashed a few weeks later, on September 15, when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, killing four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. Just like the country was in despair after these gruesome murders, so were my characters in Homeward.
Then, just a couple of months later, on November 22, the country lost its president—for many Black Americans, the closest they thought they would ever come to having a president who saw them as people worthy of respect. I suppose I could have ended the story there and allowed my characters and my readers to wallow in despair. But I wanted readers to recognize that even after all of the losses this country suffered in 1963, we are still standing . . . bruised and battered, but still standing.
Every day I dive deep into our past, encountering the ghosts of days gone by, and I try to make sense of their actions. I try to imagine myself in their time period, living in their skin, so that I can be as honest and transparent about the past as possible. Now that we are sixty years away from the incidents I wrote about in Homeward, I would like to be able to say we have turned a corner and now, we are on the pathway to healing. But I do not believe that is the case. What I do believe is we are slowly inching towards a future where we bequeath our children and grandchildren a better world than the one my generation inherited. That is my most fervent hope.
Angela Jackson-Brown is an award-winning writer, poet and playwright who is an Associate Professor in the creative writing program at Indiana University in Bloomington. She also teaches in the graduate program at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of Drinking From a Bitter Cup, House Repairs, When Stars Rain Down, The Light Always Breaks, and in October of 2023, Angela’s newest novel, Homeward, a follow-up to When Stars Rain Down, was published by Harper.