“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
As an adult, author Susan Follett, who grew up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow 1960s, became obsessed with discovering why she had no knowledge of momentous historical events like the Freedom Summer, despite them having occurred essentially in her backyard, and, once she answered that original question, she felt compelled to examine how she might have behaved had she been more aware, which led her to write “The Fog Machine.”
Follett spoke to a group in the Little Theater January 18 as part of St. James Library’s “Meet the Author” series about her background, how history is repeating itself now in places like Ferguson, and her work of authentic historical fiction. Earlier in the day, she visited with St. James High School staff members during their professional development time, and on January 19 she worked with seniors in the school’s college-level English class--who had read “The Fog Machine” after having copies purchased for them by the Friends of the St. James Library.
Follett espouses the power of education, stories, and shared social interaction to dismantle prejudice. “Shared stories have the power to change things for the better.”
The first time she genuinely associated with blacks wasn’t until 30 graduates fresh out of Mississippi State University--where Follett was something of a pioneer as a woman majoring in computer science--moved to Minnesota to work. Then, they all suddenly became close.
Why? Because they focused more on what they had in common than how they were different, she said. They were all “outsiders, expatriates of Mississippi” in a new, frozen land.
While stereotypes are not always untrue, they certainly are incomplete, she said. That’s why “The Fog Machine” has three main characters, each with a unique point of view--to avoid “the danger of the single story.”
In addition, it’s a refusal to talk about those differences that perpetuates divides, she said. In families, uncomfortable matters are often left unsaid, and it almost always leads to bitterness and recrimination--and it’s all the more true in society at large.
There were divides she knew about in her hometown of Meridian, Miss., and divides she didn’t know about, she said. For example, the first time an African-American stepped foot in Meridian’s public pool was the same day man first set foot on the moon, and her high school wasn’t desegregated until 15 years after Brown vs. Board of Education had struck down “separate but equal.”
Authentic historical fiction can open hearts through the mind’s pathway, Follett said. It’s not inherent in human nature to segregate; “someone is teaching us to do that [...] I was taught ‘white entitlement,’ that society was for me, not for them.”
Jim Crow made blacks second-class citizens, at best, and though it was unwritten and unspoken, it was unmistakably part of the fabric of the culture, she said. Jim Crow hasn’t disappeared, unfortunately--it’s just changed forms.
For example, there’s the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, which was fought for so memorably and at great cost and peril during the Freedom Summer, she said. In addition, blacks continue to be incarcerated disproportionately more often--and for longer sentences--than whites.
Finally, schools are again segregated, but now they’re segregated by economics, she said. In many places, the poor and minorities congregate in dilapidated public schools while the affluent and the white collect in better-funded suburban schools with more amenities.
The fight for equality needs to be a fight taken up by all, not just the oppressed or the oppressed and their allies, she said. The “status quo” serves those in power, and “the haves” want to keep what they have, but it’s paramount to understand “giving other people rights does not lessen our rights.”
History is too often whitewashed, Follett added. This is evident in seemingly monthly controversies where a school textbook airbrushes unpleasantness, like recent cases where slaves were euphemistically described as “workers.”
As Follett spoke to the group, there was a slide show in the background with photos of the Freedom Summer taken by volunteers in Meridian, where the final third of “The Fog Machine” is set.
The Library’s Anne Lundquist introduced Follett and acknowledged the felicitous nature of the subject matter being discussed on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. She said the incorporation of Freedom songs--”This Little Light of Mine,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” and “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement--sung by Alison Kulseth and Miah Rehm was done because Freedom songs were pivotal during the Freedom Summer and voter registration drives. She added that “The Fog Machine” first came to the library’s attention when the Friends of the Library selected it as their book of the month in September 2015.
Karla Beck, high school principal, said Follett opened a lot of eyes when she spoke with staff. The district has “interesting challenges” with so many students from different socio-economic backgrounds, and it’s incumbent upon teachers to understand every child wants--and deserves--to learn.
The key is prompting teachers to open the doors to their classrooms and look inside from the outside, Beck said. Having Follett speak to staff, to the public, and to students over two days was a “triple whammy” of good fortune for the district, and “The Fog Machine” is “a really good book.”
Follett said she was especially thrilled to talk with youth, because it’s the young who need to lead changes in society. In order to bridge divides, “get to know people different than you,” think critically, move from judgement to curiosity, read widely, and seek information from a variety of sources.
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan