Saturday, November 3, 2012

WHITES ONLY Poem Receives Standing Ovation

Dateline 10/31/12

On Wednesday, October 31st, I completed a legal phone call to my lawyer, William Sheppard, in Jacksonville. Perhaps it was appropriate that it was a Hallowe’en phone call. In prison, when it comes to “Trick or Treat,” there are mostly “Tricks,” and very few “treats,” but on this Hallowe’en, Bill delivered a “treat.”

Much of our call concerned confidential issues, but Bill had no problem with my sharing this information.

A newspaper article described Bill Sheppard as “the renowned civil rights lawyer,” and he is that. He is famed for his many court battles, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, over the past forty-plus years,. I am fortunate and blessed to have him fighting for me.

Bill’s son is a filmmaker who produced a documentary about the Honorable Judge Henry Lee Adams, Florida’s first black federal judge, and the hurdles he overcame as a black lawyer in race-sensitive Jacksonville.

The Federal Bar Association invited Bill to be the keynote speaker at its Orlando gathering commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Middle District. The Middle District encompasses federal courts from Tampa and Orlando, to Daytona Beach. 185 federal magistrates and federal district judges were in attendance. It was quite an honor for Bill. The assemblage viewed the Adams documentary, then Bill spoke.

A little over two weeks ago I wrote a poem titled, “Whites Only,” recounting my memories of traveling across the South with my family in 1959, before the civil rights era came to prominence. Because Bill and I had discussed our own experiences from that time, and he’d previously told me about the documentary, I dedicated “Whites Only” to him. I mailed the handwritten poem to Libby, who typed it and sent it to Bill. I respect Bill’s opinion on writing, and Libby sends him copies of most of my literary works. I asked if he’d gotten the poem and what he thought of it. Bill said he was moved by it, loved all my work, that each of us only has so much time in this world, and what we leave behind us matters. He said, “Charlie, if you checked out of this world this afternoon, you’d leave behind a helluva legacy of your works, already.” Coming from such a man of distinction, that encouragement meant a lot to me.

Bill told the federal judges that we can’t be complacent on this race issue, that contention continues, then he read my poem to the group. I asked him how they responded to it, and he told me, “Standing ovation!”

That amazed me, that such an austere group would respond so positively to a poem by a state prisoner and thereby validating what I was trying to communicate. It was such a pleasant surprise for me, on Hallowe’en, after the battles I’ve had with the Florida Department of Corrections over their repetitive and ongoing censorship of my First Amendment constitutional rights to communicate with the outside world. I’ve had outgoing letters containing handwritten literary works “disappear,” never received by the intended recipient, never to be seen again, taken by a prison employee mail clerk, while other letters were arbitrarily “refused,” with post-it notes declaring, “inmates can not[sic] write stories,” and “inmates can not[sic] write poems.”

I beg your pardon, but we still have a “Bill of Rights.” Further, every citizen has the right to “speak, write, and publish their thoughts,” according to the Florida Constitution. After unwavering effort, the poetry censorship has eased. Had it not, the federal judges would never had heard the poem.

I’ve asked Libby to include “Whites Only” here. I would like your comments and feedback, and any experiences you might have had that you’d like to share.

A Poem by Charles Patrick Norman

(for Bill Sheppard)

It seemed odd, the barn roofs across rural Alabama
painted with Coca Cola and Burma Shave,
(there were no interstates in the South in 1959),
and every third billboard, it seemed, proclaimed,
“Impeach Earl Warren.” “Who is Earl Warren, Daddy?”
and, “Why do they want to impeach him?” I asked.

It seemed forever, our annual trek from Tampa
to Texarkana, to visit our grandparents, the race
across the South had only one entrant, our father
treating every gasoline refill as a NASCAR pit stop
to be done in thirteen-point-four seconds or thereabouts,
Heaven forbid, one of us say, “Daddy, I gotta pee.”

It seemed that Mississippi was one huge cotton field
hundreds of miles wide, lined with pitiful wood shanties abutting
the East-West-two-lane highway in front and outhouses
out back at the very abyss of the first green row.
“Daddy, can we stop and ask those black people
if I can use their outhouse, or just pee beside the road?”

It seemed the only gas station in Mississippi
wasn’t much bigger than the tiny shanties we passed.
The first thing I noticed were the two rusty water fountains
with signs behind them proclaiming “Whites Only” and “Colored.”
The old man sitting on the kitchen dinette chair out front
pointed with his chin when I asked for the restroom.

It seemed silly that I had to choose between two doors,
“Whites Only” and “Colored,” neither one looked special,
but I chose white, since I was one, and pulled open
the flimsy wooden door with no knob, just a round hole,
to be stopped short by the ammonia burn of stale urine,
then I gagged — the toilet stopped up, feces floating, overflowing.

It seemed my only alternative was to seek fresh air.
After I peed on the old tires stacked high in the weeds
at the back of the station, I ran to our car,
where my father impatiently thrummed his fingers on the seat back
and my mother read “Perry Mason,” refusing to look left or
right across Mississippi, avoiding childhood memories of Arkansas cotton.

It seemed unlikely that all those people sitting on porches of
those passing shanties knew I’d peed on old tires behind
the only gas station in Mississippi, but I felt like their
black faces accused me of something, though I wasn’t sure
what, since I hadn’t done much wrong in my ten years of existence,
at least I didn’t think so, ignorance being no excuse.

Lying on the backseat remembering how my sandals stuck
to the sticky restroom floor (“Whites Only”), I saw
in my imagination a black child coming out the “Colored”
door and peering past him to see shiny porcelain sinks,
polished toilets, white tile floor glistening where the black
man cleans, never daring to enter the door proclaiming “Whites Only.”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that this poem is the exact thing that should be read in classrooms all across America.(I don't come from America,I don't even live in America.)Its amazing,and clearly shows the ignorance of what apartheid and American racism stood for. Mr Norman,you have such talent that God Blessed you with and I have so much respect for you.I follow your blog for 2 years now and I really think that your life is not wasted in prison.even though you are there, you are making differences in many peoples lives inside of prison and outside. You may not know this ,but your writing inspires people beyond the American borders and changes peoples lives. You are a true angel made by God. I sometimes feel very sad when ever I see horrible crimes on television and think to myself that its sad that Jesus Christ died on the cross for all of us and look what people is doing with this beautiful gift Jesus gave us, but then I read your poems and stories and I feel that Jesus Christ will be happy because look at your circumstances and still you are faithfull to the Lord. May God Bless you forever more.
From a 25year old single mother living in South Africa.