I can’t say that I have mastered balancing research and writing. I am often carried away in my research and it can sometimes weigh me down and create a writing block. I am learning to use my research as a creative muse, to enhance my ability to paint a more vivid picture with words but also to inspire my writing and ask the question, “WHAT IF”? I delved deeper into research and I discovered a small town in Jackson County, Tennesee called Bemis. In this small town before it was even called Bemis, there was an African American village on what used to be the Jackson Plantation. At the heart of this town was a school for black children named Cane Creek School. The school was destroyed by a fire in 1915. I learned in my research that thousands of schools for black children in black villages through out the South all had a similar fate, they were burned to the ground.
I began looking at the philanthropy behind these schools which led me to Booker T. Washington, one of the most influential voices for Black America and on education during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I listened to his memoir, Up From Slavery for severl days on Audible. My mind began to journey to so many places and possibilities. I began to question integration and what the black community and black students have gained from it. When schools were segregated and even non existent, blacks had to build, fund, and staff their own schools. This meant there was an invested interest. Black families and leaders were included in the planning process of schools because they had a stake in its development. Now in the 21st century, almost 70 years since schools were forced to intergrate, black students are suspended and expelled at greater rates than any other group, have lower academic achiement rates and lower graduation rates. Many public school districts have added Diversity, Equity and Inclusion departments in an effort to combat some of these adverse inequities and disparities.
I had to stop and ask myself how does this information connect to my story. Jim Boylan, was not formerly educated but he lived in a county that was home to one of the oldest Rosenwald Schools, which was first the Cane Creek school for African Americans. Julius Rosenwald was a philanthropist and head of Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Rosenwald funded grants and the architectual plans for construction for over 5,000 buildings for African American education throughout the South. Rosenwald partnered with Booker T. Washington, who was at the time head of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The West Bemis Rosenwald school would be constructed in 1916 after the Bemis Brothers Bag Company would acquire land to begin construction for a company town for its cotton mill employees. The African American village would be moved to a segregated part of the company town along with the West Bemis Rosenwald school.
I disovered on an 1900th census record, my great aunt, Sallie Boylan, Jim Boylan’s daughter. Sallie’s occupation on the census record says she was a teacher. I had so many questions, where did she teach and where was she educated. In my research I discovered that many schools established for blacks during reconstruction would be targeted and in the summer of 1869 thirty-seven school buildings were burned alone. I wondered if she witnessed the burning of black schools or did she feel threatened like so many others.
Formative Narrative Theory is a theoretical framework that individuals contruct their identities and understand their experiences through the stories they tell about themselves and their lives. The theory is often used in psychology to understand how people makes sense of their experiences and they construct their identities.
The theory suggest that these narratives are constantly being constructed and reconstructed as people encounter new experiences, perspectives, and information. It also emphasizes the importance of self-authorship in the narrative process. It suggests that individuals have the power to author their own narratives, and that they can actively shape the stories they tell about themselves. This process of self-authorship is seen as an essential aspect of personal growth and development.
The power of Formative Narrative Theory reminded me of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series or Kerry James Marshall’s, Our Town. Art has always been a way forward, a way to envision a reality not yet seen just as literary genres like speculative fiction and alternate history can. Marginalized voices have historically had to fight for the right to tell their own stories or to be a reliable source for their own narrative. We have seen this in the recent atttacks against Nikole Hannah-Jones 1619 Project, which sought to reframe the American story through the lens of slavery. Arun Venugopal of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Hannah-Jones and discussed the backlash against teaching the history of structural racism in this country.
The importance of telling my ancestor’s story, knowing the history and context of the times, and connecting the past to the present, not only to resolve what has happen but to also write a new story for the future is my way forward. It is where the paths of faith, trauma, and healing intersect.