Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Librarian and the Liberator

Still Life with Books, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
What do Simon Bolívar, Cleveland, Mississippi, and Fredericksburg, Virginia have in common? For those of you who are familiar with Fredericksburg, you might offer that Bolívar is known as the George Washington of South America and Fredericksburg was the home of George Washington. In fact, popular tourist attractions in Fredericksburg include Kenmore, the home of Colonel Fielding Lewis and George Washington’s sister, the Mary Washington House (George’s mother), and a George Washington boyhood home close by. That’s the obvious connection, but it leaves out Cleveland, Mississippi. The connection I see has a bit more of a story to it, a story that caught my attention, and subsequent connections that are gratifying to follow.

The story starts with a Column One article in the Los Angeles Times that colorfully chronicles the life of Ronnie Wise, a librarian in the Delta region of Mississippi (For Delta Librarian, The End, Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2006 by J.R. Moehringer, Times Staff Writer). The article caught my eye because my father grew up in rural Mississippi and stories about Mississippi are usually interesting to me. The article reads like a movie plot and here’s the pitch (let’s call the movie The Depot):

The train depot is a metaphor for escaping a life filled with ignorance and poverty. The story creates parallel threads that build a tapestry from the lives of people trying to escape their hovels of despair. The main character, Ronnie Wise, is the director of libraries for Bolivar County, Mississippi. The main library is in Cleveland, Mississippi, and it was moved (and expanded) to the abandoned train depot. For 30 years Ronnie Wise has been on a personal crusade to stamp out illiteracy in this county and bring book-reading to a populace that could not afford the luxury of reading fiction. Ironically, he is as stuck as the people he is trying to help. He’s not particularly personable, he tends to be a loner, and he buries himself in the books that provide the escape route for those he helps. He is a victim of what he does best: get buried in the wonderful, fantastic world of reading.

But, fantastically, while providing assistance to a researcher, whom he meets after corresponding with her for two years through emails and phone calls, he falls in love with said researcher, retires from his librarian post, marries, and moves to Los Angeles. And so his role as liberator ends and a new liberator takes over his work.

George Caleb Bingham: Mississippi Boatman, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.The article is filled with peoples’ stories on how their lives improved through literacy—people who are able to now find a job, start their own businesses, get their high school equivalency, and send their own children to college. And so we see that Ronnie Wise is a liberator, like Simon Bolívar. He is a general, and leads the fight against illiteracy and, by extension, some of the trappings that feed illiteracy: poverty, racism, and the legacy of slavery. Wise is passionate.
“Reading, Wise believes, is life. Illiteracy, therefore, is death.”
Further along in the article, Moehringer quotes Wise:
“The source of illiteracy is slavery, he says, plain and simple: Before the Civil War, Bolivar County had more slaveholding plantations than any county in the South. Slavery begat illiteracy, he argues, illiteracy perpetuates economic slavery, and the cycle simply remains unbroken.”
So, Ronnie Wise is the Liberator of Bolivar County (named for the Simon Bolívar), a county named for a liberator, that ironically, enslaves its people in illiteracy and poverty. Bolivar County, where 41% of its 40,000 residents can’t read.

I was shocked at that number. No child left behind? How does a child learn to read if its parents don’t read? Legacy of slavery? That also was a wakeup call to me. I thought slavery was something in the past. I learned about slavery in school. I read about slavery though history books and literature and Black History Month. But to understand how its effects are still so powerfully felt even today was enlightening and frightening.
Frederic Bazille: Negro Girl with Peonies, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
This brings me to the Fredericksburg connection. Washington D.C. has the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to educate and remember the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Fredericksburg is building the United States Slavery Museum to open in 2008, which will educate and remember our legacy of slavery. Its mission is “To vitalize and interpret more completely the human drama and toll of slavery in America. The museum will educate some, re-educate others by presenting slavery in a larger and more balanced economic and political context.”

It’s not just the illiterate residents of Bolivar County Mississippi that need educating. It’s all of us.

Statue of Simon Bolivar, Gift from the Republic of Venezuela to United States of America 1958, Washington, D.C.So now you know: the connection that links Simon Bolívar, Cleveland, Mississippi, and Fredericksburg, Virginia is the legacy of slavery. I’ll write more on Fredericksburg and Washington D.C. soon, as I have just returned from traveling to these cities.

3 comments:

B Jacks said...

Dear Gail,

I found your blog by chance and was interested in your article about Ronnie Wise.

My friend Ronnie was probably as horrified as we Bolivar Countians were at the way the reporter interpreted his comments. There was much exaggeration and misinterpretation in that article, and we'd love to have you return to your dad's childhood home to see for yourself.

Our library hasn't been moved. The depot was refurbished to be an afterschool tutoring spot and a place for literacy programs. Ronnie did a wonderful job with the design and program planning, and his successors are carrying on with his dreams.

Cleveland, home of Delta State University, is the county seat of Bolivar County. One of our schools, Hayes-Cooper School for Math and Science, was recently awarded one of the highest academic honors given in the USA. Wish I could think of the award, but, alas, it escapes me. All of the schools in the Cleveland School District are graded at Excellent or Superior rank.

Other smaller towns in Bolivar County do continue to struggle in many ways -- especially economically as people have closed businesses and moved away. The tax base is shrinking. I understand this is happening in rural areas all over the US.

I'm sorry the L.A. Times reporter opted for sensationalism. This is a beautiful area of the country with kind, considerate people who work hard and get along well.

Finally, I'd love to know where all those slave plantations were in Bolivar County. Cleveland is barely 100 years old . . . and had to be dug out of the Mississippi River swampland then.

There is only one antebellum house in the whole county, and it's falling in. That information is bad wrong. Maybe the writer was thinking about Natchez or Vicksburg, farther down the River.

Do come visit. Your spirits will be buoyed.

B. Jacks
bethjacks@hotmail.com

Lucas Blancon said...

NUEVO COLONIALISMO
La dependencia económica es el nuevo colonialismo, por la nueva monarquía u orden mundial, es decir, el orden financiero; basado en el préstamo, la deuda, las armas, la guerra y el monopolio y manipulación de todos estos negocios por un ente casi invisible: La Monarquía Mundial Financiera o LA CORPORACIÓN BRITANICA; aun EEUU es víctima de ella, desde su engañosa independencia en 1776. Siendo la primera emancipación de este tipo. Muchos de aquellos líderes “libertarios” fueron manipulados y engañados; pero hoy sus gobernantes a sabiendas de su servilismo, son hipócritas y más fieles a logias secretas supranacionales que a su propia nación; porque sus promociones, altos grados y respaldos, los alcanzan o reciben, por hacer actos muy vergonzosos, para después poder ser manejados fácilmente a punta de chantajes por sus tutelares corporativos.
Así es, hoy, igualmente en todo el mundo. El G20 actual o países más desarrollados, al igual que EEUU, también han sido víctimas y colonias desde hace más de 200 años de LA CORPORACIÓN BRITANICA y su pulpo bélico y bancario, que se enriquece con el “Gran Teatro o Engaño Mundial” que han impuesto entre las naciones, su propósito es instaurar el caos general, sacarle partido a esto y desmantelar el mundo para debilitarlo y finalmente gobernarlo. Para establecer un NUEVO ORDEN MUNDIAL. Esto se explica muy bien en LA CONSPIRACIÓN MUNDIAL DE LA MAFIA X, léalo gratuitamente en la web: www.lucasblancoacosta.com
Lucas Blanco Acosta

order flowers onlne said...

I love your article on Ronnie Wise very much and it's very interesting topic around.

The horror punch and the misinterpretation with exaggeration is the main storyline and it constructs the whole tale as well. Thoroughly interesting.