Sunday, September 15, 2013

"A Mother-A Son-Civil Rights-Vietnam"

Something riveting arrived in the mail the other day, just in time for me to lose myself in it while nursing an injured toe. I feel incredibly lucky. SPOKE is an intense memoir by a man who has taken the name "Coleman," focused on the startling upheavals of the late 1960s and early 70s in the United States. Subtitled "A Mother-A Son-Civil Rights-Vietnam" it's a wonderful reminder of a time when a generation -- my generation -- became alienated from many our fellow citizens because we were repelled by cruel and violent resistance to African American equality and by an immoral Asian war. At our best, we wanted to build a beloved community in this land. Millions of us were brave and foolish and more than a little ridiculous. That's all there in the story of Coleman's life path. He moved on from a white Oklahoma high school where he excelled at patriotic speaking, to concluding that the Vietnam war as a crime of aggression while in college, to defying the military draft system, to destroying a draft office, and then serving time in a Federal prison. Actually, Coleman comes across one of the saner ones of the time, even when driven to hallucinations while being held in solitary confinement.

Concurrent with Coleman's story -- and framing it -- is the story of his mother, a far more painful tale. Coming up in rural white Texas and Oklahoma, abandoned by an abusive husband with four boys and no money, she didn't have hardly any natural opportunities for the liberating self-invention and re-invention that became the hallmark of so many of her son's age cohort. So she made her own opportunities. Horribly disfigured by fire, locked away in a mental hospital for the crime of working for Black equality, Rosie Gilchrist simply did her best. She cooked and cleaned and embraced what life sent her, warm, engaged, always curious, and always suffering. Coleman drew strength from her; she died during his prison term. Their bond, strong even when separated, is the center of SPOKE. Perhaps unexpectedly, this is a joyful book.

Full disclosure: I knew Rosie at the end of her life. I never knew Coleman.

If you are interested in the real lives of ordinary people caught up in one of those magic moments when we can believe we can inject ourselves into the tumult of human social change, you'd like this book. I certainly did.

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