My dining room table is covered with my 2011 tax receipts. Most years, I itemize my deductions on a monthly basis, using a spreadsheet program, but 2011 is the year that spiraled away from me.
As I sort my business expenses for my accountant, the money I’ve spent fascinates me. After all, where and when and how and why we spend money says a lot about our priorities, doesn’t it? As I reflect on these things, I make budget decisions for the coming year.
Because time is money, there’s something else I do at the end of each year. I call it “An Accounting of My Days.” Simply put, I tally the days I spent out of my office, namely, speaking at conferences, schools, teaching, vacation, researching, and babysitting my three grandchildren. (My daughter teaches 5th grade, and during the school year, I watch her twins and singleton one day a week.)
An Accounting of My Days reveals a lot about the balance — and imbalance — in my life. Where am I spending too much time? Too little time? What does the time spent say about my work and family and my priorities? The numbers help me decide how I want to budget my time for the coming year.
Consider this: Several years ago I read that a home office can generally handle three to five different tasks. For the writer, tasks include the creative side of writing (research, writing, etc.) and the business side (contracts, speaking engagements, royalty statements, etc.)
This bit of information caused me to wonder: if my brain is an “office” of sorts, how many tasks am I asking it to handle in all my various roles? I made a list, itemizing each task, and then I tallied.
The numbers helped me make budget decisions. I called held a family meeting, explained the situation, and said, “I’m downsizing and one of you has to go.”
Just kidding! I would never downsize my family. Not ever. Cross my heart.
How about you? How do you balance your working and family life?
In 1970, I was an angry and bitterly disappointed sixth grader because my mother wouldn’t allow me to see the tearjerker Love Story. Any girl who was somebody in my class had seen the movie or was going to see it. The movie and how Oliver and Jennifer made them cry was all that circle of girls talked about at recess.
Even though my mother forbade the movie, she did allow me to buy Erich Segal’s paperback novel with my own money and she sprung for the piano sheet music for the movie’s theme song, “Where Do I Begin?”
Despite several years of piano lessons, I was a terrible piano player and hated to practice, but I memorized that song and played it over and over every night. (In my memory, I played it flawlessly, but doubt that’s true.)
And the novel? Sure, the book had lots of swear words I wasn’t allowed to use — and I didn’t want to think of the consequences if I did use them — but I read those pages so many times that my friends could feed me the lines and hear me recite the next lines. I had memorized the book. (And that’s true.)
My mother had strict rules about language and movies, but she never censored my reading. Well, almost never. One night that same year, she folded the newspaper, placed it on the hassock, and said to me, “You are no longer allowed to read Dear Abby. It’s vulgar.”
Vulgar? My ears perked up. So did my curiosity. Dying to learn more about the secret life of grownups, I never missed a Dear Abby column after that. Depending on where my mother was stationed in the house, I read the forbidden column before or after the comic strip Mary Worth.
Today, you’ll be relieved to know that reciting lines from Love Story is no longer one of my party tricks.
If you’ve ever heard me play the piano, you’” also be relieved that the Love Story theme song has also slipped from my fingers.
But that offensive “Dear Abby” column? It’s been forty years, but I still remember the column that caused my mother to censor Dear Abby. Later that day, I found it and read a letter from a woman who was sick and tired of her husband and teenage son sitting shirtless at the dinner table, and so one night she came to dinner topless. From then on, her husband and son always remembered their manners and wore a proper shirt to dinner.
There’s nothing like censorship to etch something forever in the memory.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the gravity of censorship. The good news is that my nonfiction book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., has prevailed in a challenge from a parent in the Metro Nashville Public Schools. In December, the committee voted to approve the book for all school levels.
Stay tuned for posts on the subject of censorship. In the coming days, I’ll write about my experiences with challenged books and censorship as a teacher and as a parent.
And yes, I’m building to a point.
Three weeks ago, I posted on Facebook the news that my book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., is being challenged in the Nashville Metro Public Schools.
This week, my book is under review there. A committee of seven will determine its fate.
Authors often say that their books are like children to them, and they’re right. As I raised this book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., it kept me up at night, made me cry and made me angry, made me worry and made me frustrated, and yet it inspired me and filled me with wonder at the courage of the human spirit.
But now the book is grown, and it must stand on its own. I cannot follow it around and clean up after it or tell it how to act. I can only hope that when my back is turned, it continues to do as it was raised. (And if it’s like its mother, it will be headstrong and curious and . . . well, that’s another blog.)
As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the amazing actor Dion Graham narrated the audio version of They Called Themselves the K.K.K. Over the course of our work together, we had several intense conversations.
We talked about our growing up years. We talked about our children. We talked about writing and acting.
We talked about the need to know and understand history, so that we aren’t surprised when it shows up in our present.
We talked about American history, and how it reveals deep contradictions – times when our actions haven’t lived up to the words of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
We talked about the fact that our history has so many stories that reveal a darker side to our nation’s character – as well as many stories in our history that instill pride, courage, and hope.
During that first phone call, when Dion asked me “What do you hope readers and listeners of this book will take away?” I told him that I wish for this book to shine a light on the dark side of our history. After all, isn’t that how we release its power?
Dion called, he said, to thank me for the autographed copy I had sent him. He called the signed book a “loving memory” and said that he hoped it would be the first step in a longer journey of working together.
If you know Mr. Graham’s work, you’ll recognize his name as an actor on the HBO series The Wire, in several television episodes of Law and Order, and as an award-winning narrator of audio books.
It’s no surprise to me that Mr. Graham is an eagerly sought-after talent, and that he can pick and choose his audio book projects. When his audition won for my book, he called to express his delight to narrate such an “important work” and then he asked the question: “What do you hope readers and listeners of this book will take away?”
Dion Graham, the consummate professional, was preparing to explore the role to its fullest, and he was inviting me to participate.
This question is the very question I ask each time I begin a book, as I reason my way through the research and writing, as I send the manuscript to my editor, and as I hold the first published book in my hands. What is my wish for this book? and, What is my wish for each reader?
Or, What I Saw and What I Heard—and What I Thought
I had researched the Klan’s history and creed, and yet I was unprepared for what I saw and what I heard — from the opening speech to the pageantry of the closing cross-lighting ceremony.
Most of all, I was unprepared for the ordinariness of the people who attended the Congress. They played with their children. They talked about their gardens and their families. They sang the same hymns I grew up singing.
I also wasn’t prepared for the relatively small number in attendance. I don’t know the exact number, but I estimate that fewer than 100 people were there, even though the registration packet and other information promised huge crowds. For the benefit of the short-wave radio listeners, the audience was told to clap as if there were hundreds and hundreds of people present.
On one hand, I find comfort in that small number and the fact that the today’s KKK wants to create the illusion that it is bigger than it really is.
On the other hand, one speech haunts me more than the others: “We are planting thousands of seeds among high school students,” said a Klanswoman. “We don’t need robes . . . a silent majority in America agrees with us.”
I leave you with this statistic: In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 932 active groups, six more than the year before.
Why? Perhap W.E.B. Du Bois explained it best: “[T]hese human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime.”
What I Saw and What I Heard
Throughout the weekend, the children attended special Bible classes, called “The Kids’ Corner.” One speaker lauded the Kids’ Corner, saying, “What was going on in the Kids’ Corner was the most important meeting of the weekend.”
I bought a “White Heritage Coloring and Storybook.” On page 2, there is a picture of Noah’s ark. Above the picture, it says, “God saved Noah and his family because they were not of mixed race.” Below the picture, the text reads:
“God saved Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives from the flood. In the land where Noah lived the people had mixed races and men had boyfriends and girls had girlfriends. Noah, [sic] was perfect in his generations (a pure white man) and so was his family. The family of Noah was saved from the anger of God.”
On Sunday, a church service was held on site. In his sermon, the pastor – also the National Director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – called the invasion of America by nonwhites a “national calamity.”
Here are some quotes from the sermon:
“You and I are in a war for the survival of our people.”
“Only 50% of children under five are white [in the United States]. If that doesn’t cause torment in your heart, something’s wrong.”
“God doesn’t curse a nation because people smoke. God doesn’t curse a nation because people drink. He doesn’t care if you go to church or not. He is going to curse a nation because they have sinned against their heritage.”
“Ask your preacher if he believes whether it’s a sin to race-mix.”
“We are on a holy mission. . . . God is calling now. . . . He’s looking for shepherds.”
“You cannot stop a man or woman who is being led by God or believes he is being led by God.”
At the end of the service, National Director implored the congregants to reach down into their heart and find the true believer. He asked them to come forward and speak out for the deliverance of their race, their faith, and their homeland, come what may.
And they did. As Celtic music played in the background., one by one or in family groups, the Klansmen and women stood in front of the altar. They faced the congregation, stretched out a right arm in a straight-armed salute, and dedicated themselves to their race, their God, and their country.
Then they and the congregants shouted, “White Power.”
That night, the Congress ended with the pageantry of fully robed Klansmen and at least two Klanswomen and a tall cross burning against the night sky. At least one child wore a child-sized costume to match his father’s.
Tomorrow’s post will conclude this series with “My Weekend with The KKK, Part 4.”
Or, What I Saw and What I Heard
Note: For those of you who have not yet read They Called Themselves the K.K.K., allow me to clarify: this book is about the first wave of the Klan that formed in the years directly following the Civil War. In celebration of my book’s release, I am posting all this week about one part of my research: my trip to Arkansas to attend a KKK Congress.
The idea for this book began several years ago during a visit to Tennessee when I spotted a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
At the time, I knew several things about the famous Confederate general: How the former slave trader and plantation owner enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose to the rank of general. How his daring exploits earned him the reputation as a brilliant cavalryman who was both insubordinate and ruthless. How, under his command at Fort Pillow in Tennessee, Confederate soldiers committed one of the worst atrocities of the war. And how, after the war, he was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.
I also knew this: In 1867 the Confederate general reportedly became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a secret paramilitary organization that had formed in Tennessee one year earlier. The group was dedicated to the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy throughout the South. Over the coming years, Ku Klux Klan dens sprang up throughout the South, brutally attacking defenseless freed men, women, and children and white people sympathetic to the freed people’s condition. Forrest was granted immunity for testifying during the great Ku Klux Klan trials of 1871-72.
That day, as I considered that statue, I found myself wondering about the thousands of victims of Klan violence and wondering: Where are their memorials?
With that question in mind, I called the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, an organization internationally recognized for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists, and its tracking of hate groups.
I asked if anyone at the center could tell me if any statues commemorate the lives of the victims of Klan violence during the Reconstruction years.
I was told there are none. That’s the moment I decided to learn more about the reasons tens of thousands of white men joined the Ku Klux Klan in the years that followed the Civil War.
As I researched, I was grabbed by the stories of ordinary white Americans who feared that they would suffer personal loss if the rights and privileges of citizenship were extended to the newly freed slaves and who feared black Americans would compete for land and for work.
I was grabbed by the stories of ordinary black Americans who wanted a simple justice and a fair chance to exercise their rights to vote, to make a living, to attend school, and to worship as they pleased – and were attacked by the KKK.
I was grabbed by the stories of white Americans who sympathized with the plight of the freedpeople – and were also attacked by the KKK.
Whenever I study history, I ask myself: why should I care about this subject today? Do I see any parallels today? In what ways is the past present?
Those questions drove me to attend the Klan Congress.
I did not have to join the Klan in order to attend. I simply had to fill out a registration form and pay a small fee for the three-day event, which was open to “all white Christian nationalists.” According to the Klan, a “nationalist” is a person who believes America was founded by white people for white people. A “universalist” believes any member of any race can be an American and enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship.
The Klansmen and women I met were very ordinary people who came from all walks of life. They claimed that their organization was not about hate, but about “love” and “love for their white heritage” and “love for their God and their country.” They said it’s not hate that they feel, but anger at what America has become.
Some had traveled from far parts of the United States to attend, as far away as Alaska. For most, this was a family event, and some brought their children.
The Congress opened with a tour of the National Office, where I saw the membership room; the recruiting room; the souvenir room; the publishing room, where they print their pamphlets; and the media room, where the Klan leaders broadcast an internet television show and air shortwave radio programs.
That first night, the tone and theme were set for the weekend. The National Director called for a revival in America. A recruiter from Arkansas spoke, saying, among other things, that Protestant Christian churches have changed their message and have changed God. “God is a God of Segregation,” he said. “The God that made the races made them to stay separate.”
Throughout the weekend, other members spoke. Most of their speeches were variations of the same themes. Some told how the Klan gave meaning and direction to their life. Others spoke about the dangers of illegal immigrants, the number of nonwhites in America, homosexuality, Jews, Hollywood movies, television, public schools, and taxes. They claimed that America was founded by white people, for white people only.
On Saturday afternoon, I watched as men and boys wrapped a tall cross in kerosene-soaked rags and then covered it in burlap, and then carefully stood the cross on end.
They were preparing for the Sunday’s closing cross-lighting ceremony.
Stay tuned tomorrow for that ceremony – and a church service during which the National Director/Pastor called the work of the Klan a “holy mission.”
As part of my research, I like to visit the places I write about. Travel informs my work. I often learn things I can’t learn in books.
Joe didn’t think I’d do it. Not even after I booked my flight and hotel and reserved my rental car. Not even after I paid my reservation fee. Not even after my registration packet arrived in the mail.
Now he slaps his forehead and says, “I should have known better.”
The registration packet arrived and contained helpful information: where to stay, where to eat, how to find the Soldiers of the Cross Bible Camp.
The packet also said things such as: “Wear insect repellent.” “Wear your uniform if you have one.” “Please no camouflage clothing or ‘Biker’ attire. Look sharp!” “No foul language or conduct. This is a Christian gathering.” “If you smoke PLEASE do not throw cigarette butts on the ground,” and “If you carry a weapon for travel, it must be kept in your vehical (sic). No open display of weapons.”
I arrived on a Friday, rented a car, and drove about seven miles over dirt road into the Ozarks. Once at the camp, I parked my car next to trucks, cars, and minivans. Most sprouted American and Confederate flags from their antennas.
I walked up the hill to the community center, where men, women, and children milled about. There began my weekend with the Ku Klux Klan.
(For those of you who are wondering: Yes, I traveled alone. But Joe flew down that night and called to tell me to pick him up at the airport.)
We spent the weekend listening to speakers. We attended a Sunday church service, and watched the pageantry of a cross-lighting as part of the closing ceremony. (They no longer call it a cross-burning.)
Why did I do this?
Because I wanted to better understand how today’s group reads against the Reconstruction-era Klan. I wanted to know: In what ways are the two groups alike? How do they differ? What sort of men and women join the KKK today? What are their goals? What compass guides their lives?
In my other nonfiction work, I’ve explored the lives of the disenfranchised, the exploited, and the victimized, from the pain of child labor, the trauma of famine, to the horrors of the Third Reich.
This book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., is a continuation of this exploration – and in my interest in the silence that surrounds these subjects.
I’m interested in the gaps: the gaps that exist between our words and our actions, whether it’s the words found in our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the words of our leaders, or the words of ordinary citizens.
This is how character is revealed, isn’t it? Through those gaps that expose contradictions.
Tomorrow I will post more about what I saw and what I learned. Stay tuned. You may be surprised.
This week I am celebrating tomorrow’s official release of They Called Themselves the K.K.K. (Houghton), a book that took me several years to research and to write.
The reviews are coming in, and so far it’s FIVE STARS. Thank you, Kirkus! School Library Journal! Book List! Publisher’s Weekly! and Horn Book (forthcoming in the September/October issue)!
Thank you, too, Richie’s Picks and Capitol Choices for your support of this title, and to the numerous bloggers who are getting the word out.
I am also celebrating a new web site, www.scbartoletti.com, thanks to my son, Joe. The site is still under construction. (What web site isn’t?) His main goals were to create a serious but funky look and a site I’ll eventually be able to maintain on my own.
Please check it out. While you’re here, check out my new release. I’ll be adding material throughout this week. By the week’s end, you’ll see a video interview, hear a sound clip or two, find links to interviews, and learn some behind-the-scenes information about the research and writing of this book.
Go have a look. Tell me what you think. And stay tuned. Tomorrow, I will answer the question: Why do I write about the things I do?
And speaking of tomorrow (August 23) . . . I’m celebrating and you’re invited. If you’re in the area, email or call me, and I’ll tell you where and when.