Shelby Warner is a part-time Reference Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. She is a guest columnist. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. Read past columns here.
Mattie Mae was eleven and I was nine. Though I was nearly as tall as she, we were very different. That never bothered us. A lot of times I wished I had her beautiful chocolatey-brown skin. I was sickly white beside her. Best of all was her hair, braided into the tiniest plaits filling her head, row after row. Even if I stood in front of the mirror for hours, I couldn’t make my fine, straight hair do that, so, I had to be satisfied with touching and admiring hers. I was jealous because her hair was always so neat without having to be combed.
Mattie Mae lived a half-mile away with her grandfather. I loved playing with her. She was always in a good mood and would join me in ‘most any adventure I dreamed up. Her smile was big and bright and, when she laughed, she made me laugh, too. We lived on a big cotton and peach farm. There were no other children our ages for miles and miles. Mattie Mae and I only had each other.
Then one day I was told I could not play with Mattie Mae anymore. On the night he told me, I looked up into my Dad’s face and saw the fine lines around his eyes tracing out the path of deeply etched wrinkles that were to come. It was a face I trusted, a face brown from hours in the sun. We were close. He could always comfort me. That night he looked very uncomfortable with what he said, “You’re too old to play with Mattie Mae.”
In the South, in those day, you lived by the system, stayed in your place, in the proper pecking order. But until that moment, I had not really understood the consequences of the “way things were.” I suppose I should have ranted and raved but nine was pretty much a “do as I say” age – at least, it was for me.
So, I did not play with Mattie Mae anymore, my buddy, my sister, my friend. The next time I saw her, I was embarrassed and shy, waved to her from a distance, then quickly looked away. She was going to the fields with her mother, while I sold peaches by the side of the road. That summer was long and lonely. Then one day her family was gone. Moved, my parents said, to some other farm, and I never saw her again.
Years went by and eventually I rebelled against the system, against its edicts, against my family traditions. But for Mattie Mae and me it was too late. Oh, how I wish I could have found Mattie Mae, asked her forgiveness and told her how I’ve missed her.
I think of Mattie Mae often but most especially on Martin Luther King Day when we, as a nation, remember a man who had a vision for a better world where people could live together as equals. His courage was beyond question and his dream was an inspiration to many.
There are a large number of books telling the story of King’s life and his dream. One of the first I read was “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”, written by King while he was in prison. The following are some of the newer items on the shelves in Morrill Memorial Library:
Eric J. Sundquist’s book, “King’s Dream: The Legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech”, is a well researched and easy to read book. He seeks to return the speech to its proper context in our history. A book well worth your time.
The library also owns a box set of 24 speeches and sermons by King called, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. Each item is introduced by a famous person such as Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Rosa Parks among others. If you’ve never heard King speak, you need to check this one out.
Another new book is Hampton Sides’ “Hellbound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the International Hunt for His Assassin”. This book reads like a novel and sets side by side two men, one whose life and death changed a nation and another who brought about that death. This tragedy is the focus of Sides’ 2010 book.
In 1963, my husband stood in the crowd in Washington, D.C. as King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. It is still one which brings shivers to the bones and tears to the eyes as you listen to his rich and trumpeting voice deliver those uplifting words, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” On January 17 we honor the man, his life, and a vision which is bringing hope and change to all of us..