Ah, April in Alabama---blistering sun one day, pouring rain the next. A certainty regarding the South is that one just has to wait long enough and the weather will change. Outside the conference building at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama, a precious rain is falling, soaking the parched cotton fields and drenching the freshly turned gardens.
When Clifton Taulbert stands up to speak to an auditorium full of students, faculty, and guests, he begins by saying “I like the rain. It makes us slow down….Writing is like that. It slows us down, takes us inside.”
Taulbert talks with us, not to us, as if we were old friends. He wants us to talk to one another, to make connections, to form community for “we are all one under the sun.” “Community” is his credo, his raison d’etre and has been his message since he published his first book Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored in 1989. During the past 17 years, he has published at least four more books and a series of children’s books. Furthermore, he is the founder and president of The Building Community Institute, a company that seeks to foster “Nurturing Attitudes, Responsibility, Dependability, Friendship, Brotherhood, High Expectations, Courage, and Hope” and aims to” transform human capital into operational excellence.” He is in much demand as a speaker to talk about his book Eight Habits of the Heart.
Clifton Taulbert wants to spread the word that being human is all about living together, about family, about respect and accountability, and, ultimately, about love. He wants us to read so that we can expand our world and walk in the moccasins of other persons. He wants us to tell our stories so history will not be lost. He wants us to write so we can examine our world and preserve it for future generations. He wants us to leave a literary footprint so that those who come after us will know that we have been here, a footprint that tells others that we, too, belong to the family of man.
I am reminded of the book Tom Hendrix wrote about his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay. Te-lah-nay walked the trail of tears to Oklahoma and as a young girl found her way, alone, back to Tuscumbia, to her “singing river” as the Yuchi called the Tennessee. Hendrix called his book “If the Legends Fade”, the first four words of the saying “If the legends fade, who will teach the children.” Like Hendrix, Taulbert is a story teller. He believes that we find connection and redemption, though our stories.
Taulbert’s fifth book The Journey Home is about taking his reluctant, and even recalcitrant, teenaged son home to Glen Allan, MS, to connect with his roots and meet his family. There, in the presence of the people who had shaped his father’s life, young Marshall has his epiphany. In the trailer of Cousin Sister, Marshall finally understands what his father has been trying to tell him about love and family and responsibility. Cousin Sister, who was in her 90s and still lived alone, was baking sweet potato pies for those who had fallen upon hard times. In yet another house, Marshall met Sarah and her husband. Sarah had only two kitchen chairs, but she had an orange crate for company. In Sarah’s home, there was always room for one more.
Clifton Taulbert was born in Glen Allan, Mississippi, a small town in the Mississippi Delta, in 1945. Because his mother was very young, she could not afford to take care of him alone so he was raised by his extended family. He was valedictorian of his high school in Greenville, Mississippi, to which he commuted 100 miles round trip each day without missing a day of school. Taulbert currently resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he is a professor at Oral Roberts University.
Taulbert, who began writing when he was in his late teens despite having no books of literature in his home, tells about his dream of moving to St Louis. There he felt he would find no color barrier but he soon discovered that there is prejudice everywhere. However, as a writer and as a speaker, Taulbert chooses to dwell not on that which alienates and separates us but on that which illustrates our commonality.
One such story is about his driving back from a conference in Mississippi with three white women including the renowned author Eudora Welty. Before they reached their destination, Miss Welty wanted a Coca Cola and so Taulbert pulls into a truckstop in Mississippi full of eighteen wheelers and huge burly truckers standing around looking anything but friendly. When the women go inside to get a Coke, Taulbert gets out of the car to pump the gas. As one of the truckers starts walking toward him, Taulbert wishes himself anywhere but in that place at that time. The trucker saunters up to him and asks “Is that Eudora Welty?” Taulbert replies, “Yes, it is.” The trucker slaps his thigh and exclaims , “ I won the bet! I told those guys that was Miss Welty.” And he turns and walks away.
The trucker was a reader, Taulbert reminds us, not a white man or a black man but a reader. “We all belong to the same world,” he asserts, “and reading gives us access to that world.”
As Taulbert speaks, he moves closer and closer to the audience as if to say with his body what he is saying with his words. We are all family. We all need each another. I want to have a conversation with you. I want to learn about your world and to share my world with you. I want to tell you my story and I want you to tell me yours. In that way we solidify our common bond.
“Southerners,” Taulbert reiterates “black or white, share the same world…. We eat the same foods, till the same soil, work under the same hot sun.” We share a common bond, he tells us, and it is incumbent upon us to recognize that bond and build upon it.
During the question and answer session, a young black man in the back of the auditorium praises Taulbert for focusing on joy, love, family, and community and not on bitterness, racism, and persecution. My heart bursts with pride for this young student, and I want to applaud.
This spring a high school in GA held its first integrated prom in the history of the school—fifty-three years after “Brown.” The students themselves requested that the prom be integrated. The principal said “It’s about time.” Yes, it’s about “time.” The south is changing, and most of it is very, very good.
- Penne J. Laubenthal, April 24, 2007