As a child, whenever Erin Goseer Mitchell would ask her mother why she looked the way she did, her inquiry was met with a curt response. “Ain’t nothing to talk about. Ain’t nothing to be proud of,” was her mother’s standard reply, she said.
It would take years before she realized the response was meant to protect her from the hurt and shame shared by many African-Americans — a past filled with the complexities of slavery, racism and the struggle to rise above it all.
Decades later, when Mitchell became a mother, she faced her own issues reconciling with the past. “I realized later that I had followed the same pattern,” said Mitchell, 81. “My daughters didn’t ask me but I didn’t volunteer to tell them anything about growing up in the South.”
It wasn’t until she retired from a 38-year teaching career that Mitchell found her voice and began to tell the story about growing up in Fitzgerald, Georgia and Selma, Alabama in the years before the Civil Rights Movement began.
She mostly wrote for her children — to help them better understand the mother they thought was too conservative and too strict — but soon, her personal project would turn public.
The editor of the Herald Ledger in Fitzgerald ran her essays in the newspaper and readers in town encouraged Mitchell to keep telling their story. With help from a writers group in Chicago, where Mitchell has lived since 1956, her essays grew into a book which she published in 2005.
Over the years, “Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday,” (Ampersand, $23) has sold about 7,000 copies. Mitchell became a master of self-promotion — a one woman show of writer, saleswoman, media maven and fulfillment center. She thought she was done with it all, until last year when she published “From Colored to Black: A Bittersweet Journey,”(Ampersand, $23) which focuses on her life in the years after she migrated north to Chicago.
Through her books, readers learn about Mitchell’s personal story, but also gain insight into important moments in history. Mitchell was raised in Fitzgerald and attended segregated schools where her parents both served as educators. In colorful detail she describes the memories of her childhood, good and bad. The Sunday dinners with family, the processes of laundry, canning and cooking and regular trips to Selma to visit her grandparents, all against the ever-present backdrop of segregation. In 1951, at age 16, Mitchell left her familiar surroundings to attend Spelman College.
There she gained an introduction into a world much larger than Fitzgerald could offer and was exposed to music, culture and society on a grand scale. Even on issues of race, at Spelman, she would find enlightenment rather than repression at a time when separate but equal was still the rule.
After graduation and a year-long teaching job in Groton, Conn., Mitchell married and moved to Chicago where she began raising a family. Race and class continue to serve as predominant themes in her stories from this time period, even as Mitchell and her family grew and thrived in a new environment.
February is always busy month for Mitchell, one in which she once booked two to three appearances a week to speak to a range of audiences, but she is adamant that her story and the story of all African-Americans, is one to tell during any season. Here she shares a bit more insight into why we should all look to history to help us navigate the future:
Q: What motivated you to write your personal history?
A: When I retired I began writing about growing up in the South. It just flowed, but I knew I needed help with the craft of writing. Fortunately for me, I found a writer’s group on the North side of Chicago. It was a group of non-southeners who didn’t live in the South and they were fascinated with the stories and began pulling them out of me. I began writing not knowing it was going to be a book at all. I sent my work to the editor of the Fitzgerald paper and he ran all the parts. The response from people in Fitzgerald was, ‘Tell Erin to keep telling our story.’ Then I expanded it to telling Selma’s story. One day in writing group, I was talking about going down to the bridge in Selma and one fellow told me to stop and read it again. He said ‘We never heard of Bloody Sunday or Selma before the march.’ He said you have a story the world needs to hear about, what made Selma the place it was and a place where something like Bloody Sunday could happen.
Q: Your first book has sold thousands of copies over the years, now you have a second book. How are the stories different?
A: My readers from the beginning said, ‘We want more.’ I said, ‘I don’t have anymore to say. I resisted because it is hard work.’ The second book picks up when I move to Chicago. In the South, we knew where the line was. I taught in Chicago for 37 years and only 7 of those years did I teach in an integrated school and that was after Brown vs. Board of Education. The racial tensions and segregation and bias was in Chicago too. Older people in Chicago talk about the invisible lines that were drawn in Chicago. There was a line in Lake Michigan or Downtown that they knew not to cross.
Q: Some Americans have suggested that we no longer need to celebrate Black History Month. Do you think it is still and important and useful celebration?
A: It needs to be a special month and all year. I think we are getting some of that now with the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture opening. This year, I have felt it more strongly. I was talking to a group of students at Purdue University and I asked them to tell me something about Bloody Sunday. They said, ‘Oh, that was in Birmingham.’ One said, that was that something about a bridge. Those were college students. I know I have to get out here the best I can and let them know. So many young people don’t want to hear it. We were taught that we had a responsibility to help. It is part of our oral history so you remember who you are and you know that you came from hard-working people. I have told people, I am here all year around. I will not be pegged into Black History Month. Call me anytime.
Q: The country is experiencing some great divides of race, economics, etc. topics you touched on in your books. What are your thoughts on the current social climate in the country? How does it relate to or how is it different from your experiences growing up?
A: I am very disturbed, I was so disturbed that I talked to a pastor and to friends. The pastor said pull away. Get back to your faith. I never thought we would have to go through the civil rights battle again, now I feel like the clock is going backwards. As an educator, I was extremely disturbed with the Secretary of Education. The hate has been released, we always knew it was there. Now anyone who appears slightly different from what is normal or different — they have a right to attack or say anything they please. We have lost the civility and the caring and the tolerance that was being developed and it is so widespread now.
Q: How has the process of documenting your personal history changed you? What did you learn about yourself or others as you wrote?
A: I had to learn to be more outgoing and more adventurous and go places out of my comfort zone. I found that in talking to people, they want to tell their stories.
Q: What was most challenging for you about writing your memoirs?
A: Learning to use the computer. I didn’t know how to type because colored girls in my time in my school went to home economics. We were being groomed to be cooks and maids. I am still a slow typist. I write everything on yellow legal pads at least two times. Also, learning the business of marketing. My methods were unusual but people accepted it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the personal stories in both of your books?
A: A sense of where we came from and to be proud of it. We came from a group of strong hardworking people who made great sacrifices. For the older people, I want them to know that they have a story. They may not need to write a book. I say share with your children what you went through, don’t try to shield them from the reality of your hardship.