Day by day
A mother-daughter team chronicles the civil rights battle in Florida in a memoir.
Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 10:51 p.m.
Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights
By Patricia Stephens Due
and Tananarive Due
(One World/Ballantine, $24.95)
Through their personal recollections and research, the authors record the civil rights movement in Florida.
Their stories, captured in their new book, "Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights" (One World/Ballantine, $24.95), tell of "ordinary people who did extraordinary things," said Patricia Stephens Due, who lives in Miami.
She calls them the "foot soldiers," the hundreds and thousands of people - black and white - who challenged the status quo in the 1950s and '60s, and as early as the 1920s, to bring about societal change. Her daughter's voice in the book is a "thank you" to the generations who've gone before, and a reminder that the work of eradicating racism is not done yet.
Patricia Stephens Due was one of those foot soldiers on the front lines of the civil rights struggle in Florida. She grew up in Miami, Quincy and Belle Glade in a Florida that segregated its schools, swimming pools, beaches, movie theaters and restaurants. And while the nation's attention may have been focused on the desegregation of schools in the Deep South in the 1950s, Florida was the scene of just as great a struggle.
In 1960, as a student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Patricia Stephen Due was among a group of black students who were arrested and spent 49 days in jail for participating in a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter, beginning four decades of activism in the civil rights movement.
Her eldest daughter is the American Book Award-winning novelist Tananarive Due. Born in 1966, Due grew up in a household of activism and a Florida that, while no longer legally segregated, still was making the transition to integration in the 1970s. The Dues often lived in neighborhoods that were integrated only by the fact that the Due family rented a house there; the children - Tananarive, Johnita and Lydia - were the frequent targets of racial slurs in the neighborhoods and at school.
The pair wrote the book not just to chronicle their own involvement in the civil rights movement, but to capture the stories of other activists in Florida. In their personal recollections and research, they have revealed the broader scope of "the Movement," as they call it.
Tananarive Due, who was a features writer for the Miami Herald before she quit to write novels a few years ago, brought her journalistic background to the process of interviewing activists up and down the state.
She took a leave of absence from the Herald in 1996 to work with her mother on the book.
"Even then I envisioned it more as a history book, oral histories," Tananarive Due said in a phone interview from southern California, where she was vacationing over the holidays. "It was much later that my agent suggested that we should write as a mother and daughter. It really had not occurred to us in the slightest. I was so accustomed to focusing my attention on my mother's generation - who cares what I think?"
Writing the book was a long and sometimes painful process, the women said. First, it involved a great deal of research, including researching their own memories of incidents (which sometimes turned out to be wrong).
"This project has taught me a great deal about the nature of memory, how we imprint an idea of an event while we're experiencing it and then realize long afterward that our recollections are flawed," Tananarive Due said.
And there was the emotional component. "It was a great toll on me because I was reliving my past and still seeing my present as almost parallel with my past in many instances," said Patricia Due. "If we'd had the changes we had envisioned, it would not be as difficult."
"There was so much procrastination," said Tananarive Due. "Every single day it was a struggle. It was the most difficult project I've ever worked on."
The book, Patricia Due hopes, will help younger generations recognize the sacrifices made for the cause - and recognize that there is still work to be done. "I think many young people felt like so much of this was so long ago," said Patricia Due. Young people, she said, "need to learn what is happening around them, they need to find out the history of this state, the history of this country. They need to get involved, reach out, get to know persons of other groups, get involved in voter registration."
Tananarive Due said researching the book brought together many of the stories she'd heard as a child.
"I'd grown up hearing bits and pieces," she said. "We knew that my mother's dog had once tried to bite Dr. King." But it wasn't until they began to work on the book and Tananarive looked at her mother's outline that she realized just how much history was compressed into her parents' lives.
"I'm sure that there's a lot we did take for granted," she said. "It was really hard for my sisters and I to imagine the world my parents had grown up in knowing my parents' history really infused me and my sisters with a sense of ambition, that we were carrying a torch, not just for them, but for generations before them." Despite the efforts of civil rights workers in the 20th century, racism continues to be deeply entrenched in American society, Patricia Due said, her voice becoming more impassioned as she went on.
"Racism is alive and well. It's more difficult to prove it," she said. "The clock is being turned back. I see it in the disproportionate number of black persons in the criminal justice system, the lack of opportunities in the school system, and I actually see it in everyday life. We've got a disease that is rampant in their country, and racism is a disease."
The book is written in alternating chapters by the mother and daughter. Patricia Due's chapters delve into the nitty-gritty of the experiences she and others in the movement shared. Tananarive Due's chapters are perhaps more emotional, reflecting on the impact her parents' involvement in civil rights had not only on Florida society, but on the Due family.
She also relates experiences from the 1980s and '90s that show both how far America has traveled in race relations, and how far it must yet travel. In one example, she and her mother were driving from Kentucky to Florida and stopped in a Tennessee diner to eat. The only blacks in the restaurant, they were greeted with silence and stares. But they were served.
Both Patricia and Tananarive Due say there is much work to be done to improve race relations.
"There is not a deep enough appreciation in this country for how devastating on a multigenerational level the legacy of slavery and segregation has been," said Tananarive Due.
Patricia Due warns against waiting for the emergence of another charismatic leader like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I don't believe we need to have a leader to lead us forward," she said. "I believe we all collectively have to be willing to move ourselves forward when you yourselves have to forge ahead, when one person falls down, you have hundreds of thousands to move forward."
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