Crossing the line: how a book changed a community forever

10 October 2013

By Pan Macmillan

Lines. They can divide communities. Certain people live on one side; others live on the opposite side. The lines might not be marked by signs but they exist. At one time in various parts of the United States, laws enforced the lines. These are your neighborhoods, the laws said. These are your churches, this is your park. 

Fortunately, the laws that divided residents were abolished generations ago. Yet patterns live on, the lines etched deep in our collective memory. 

In 2013, in a rural county in Texas, a handful of strong-willed people decided they were finished with lines. Enough was enough. It was time for change. But how? One answer, they believed, was literature.        

A committee of three white women selected The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, a novel, for the county’s BIG READ. This is a program established in 2006 by the National Endowment of Arts in the United States. Its aim is to promote reading and to open discussions within diverse communities.         

Choosing The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was a brave decision. It’s a story about an African-American family in the South Dakota Badlands during 1917. Like the Badlands, the county in Texas is a community with cattle ranches. Unlike the Badlands, cotton once was king in this part of Texas and with that comes a painful history. Although many of today’s residents long to shake off the past, the lines that divide are still there.          

Or they were, until three women decided to do something about it.   

Once the novel was selected as the BIG READ, a steering committee was formed, again composed of white women. They convinced a prominent African-American couple to serve as honourary co-chairs, and when this couple signed on, the dynamics changed. There was now muscle behind the push to make this BIG READ inclusive. Committed to bring about change, the honorary co-chairs worked tirelessly with the committee members to personally visit every community leader they could find. 

The book was reviewed and discussed. The committee members went on the radio and talked about it. Posters went placed in store windows and there were articles in the local newspaper. Every student in the junior class at the high school was required to read The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. What mattered the most, though, was the grand finale, the free author reception held at the local community theatre.   

Attending any event at this theatre was a line that some people in the county had never crossed. 

There were enticements to get people in the door. Wine, beer, and hor d’oeuvres were free. Displays of artifacts used by black army troops also known as Buffalo Soldiers were in the theatre lobby. The author would make a presentation to the audience. Actors would perform an interpretive reading from various scenes in the book.       

I am the author of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. I’m a white woman who assumed the narrative voice of a black woman. On the day of the reception, I had brunch with the committee members and the honorary co-chairs. After that, I was rushed to a luncheon with faculty and students at a college. Mid-afternoon, I did a radio interview. By the time I got to the theatre for the early evening reception, my nerves were humming. It was a chorus of nerves. Everyone involved with the BIG READ was tense.      

Would people come? Would the audience be diverse?
The doors to the theatre opened. People came. And audience was diverse. 

I signed books, shook hands, and hugged people. When it was time to give my presentation, I stood on the stage and marveled that the theatre was full.

'The novel was inspired by a photograph of an African-American woman,' I told the audience. 'She was alone, the photo wasn’t labelled, and she was sitting in front of a sod dugout somewhere in the West. As I studied her photo, I felt her speaking to me.  “I have a story,” I imagined her saying. “Somebody tell it. I don’t care who. Just don’t let me be forgotten.”'

I went on to say that Will Atkins, an editor with Pan Macmillan in London, was the first to publish the book.  An American story had found a home far from the South Dakota Badlands. 

When my part was finished, the five actors took over.  Three were African Americans, another line that had been crossed. They sat in chairs and read sections from the book. At the centre of the stage, a young black woman had the part of Rachel DuPree. As only a gifted actor can do, she scooped up the audience and held us spellbound in her hands.          

The applause was long, loud, and heartfelt. The artistic director, a woman from England, asked me to return to the stage for questions. There, I answered one after the next, some questions funny so that together we laughed. Toward the end, the director announced there was time for one more question. 

A white minister holding a cowboy hat swept it before him to take in the entire audience. He said, 'Because of your book, a miracle happened here tonight.'

A line that once divided had been trampled.

by Ann Weisgarber