For 1st grade, I went to a one-room school house taught by Mrs. Raney. I was happy. For 2nd grade, I went to our local segregated school. I was happy.
But for 3rd grade, life changed in my country Alabama hometown. Schools had to be integrated. Our previously all-white school and its neighboring all-black school were no more. Uncertainty set in. Parents of some of my friends pulled their kids from public school and fled to private ones.
My parents? They wanted to make it work, so they enrolled us in our new public schools. I headed to West Madison, the previous “black school,” complete with a black principal. But we set about learning and growing just the same. I was happy.
By 6th grade, though, I was slowly becoming aware that racial tension still existed. One school afternoon, a riot broke out between blacks and whites in the upper grades. Fist fights. Name-calling. Parents and police came, including my mama who picked us up and took us home, pronto. I was scared.
But we went back, tensions eased, and I was happy again.
Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees took me back to those school days—early oblivion of color strains, then growing up by rude awakenings.
But for Lily Owens, the 14-yr-old white girl in the book, the experiences were drastically harsher. Her year was 1964. And she had no mama to pick her up for rescue.
So she goes looking. What she finds is three strong black women. And a truth that August Boatwright teaches: “You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
As Lily works through this truth, the story of the book enlarges to more than her own. It encompasses the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black voter registration. Integration of movie theatres.
Yet at its core, Sue Monk Kidd keeps reeling us back in to widen our hearts. Lily: “Up until then I’d thought that white people and colored people getting along was the big aim, but after that I decided everybody being colorless together was a better plan.” August: “And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love—but to persist in love.”
Persisting in love. Fitting our stories together. That’s the real angle.
“Where do you come from?” Neil asked me. This is the number one most-asked question in all of South Carolina. We want to know if you are one of us, if your cousin knows our cousin, if your little sister went to school with our big brother, if you go to the same Baptist church as our ex-boss. We are looking for ways our stories fit together.
The book is a good read, and the movie that followed remains true to it. May the absurdities in such stories keep us awake and alive in our own stories.
A person shouldn’t look too far down her nose at absurdities. Look at me. I dived into one absurd thing after another, and here I am in the pink house. I wake up to wonder every day.