Still struggling with Jim Crow

Last modified: 12/12/2014 10:20:22 AM
Molly Lynn Watt’s memoir of her part in our struggles with Jim Crow, “On Wings of Song,” is that rare book of poetry that is a page-turner. I began it about 9:30 and by the time she had been arrested, thrown (with her two babies) into jail and escaped with her family the clock was approaching midnight.

Although Molly uses the first person, these poems are not about her or heroism, rather in them she bears witness to what, if it happened to her, happened to many others and, by extension, to all of us. Her poetry provides an opportunity for us to contemplate our history and ask ourselves, given current events, what we need to do to meet the challenge of her witness.

Perhaps we should begin, as Molly begins On Wings of Song, with a confession:


My people owned slaves

split husband from wife

traded parent from child

worked folks like mules


this is the stain

my forebears

passed to me

slaves bought at auction

slaves sold for profit


She follows this confession with her introduction to our racist reality, when, at the age of eight, she watches as a small girl, the daughter of an African American soldier, is dragged by a bus in Washington, D.C.:

The bus rumbles into motion

drags the child along the gutter

Daddy runs into the street

shouts stop for God’s sake stop

brakes screech the bus halts.

The driver calls out black or white?

She breathes

she will recover

Daddy grasps the soldiers hand

God be with you and your daughter

I brought mine to meet Abe Lincoln

but she met Jim Crow instead

She continues, in poetry as lucid and compelling as those opening verses, to acquire a family, train in Vermont at the Putney School, and to set off to Tennessee with an integrated group to start a summer work camp for the legendary Highland School. They barely arrive before they are terrorized at 3 AM by a deputized mob and thrown in jail. The legal resolution and their escape back to Cambridge are worthy of Kafka.

She begins the book’s final section with this assertion,

Jim Crow Lurks When

they say he’s uppity

they say that’s very white of you

they say but you don’t even look –

they say I don’t even think of you as –

they say I’m colorblind

then, before she concludes by quoting “We Shall Overcome,” she gives us this description with its implicit challenge,

the girl in skin-tight jeans

strains toward the mirror

mascaras her lashes

she knows the story –

her grandmother

not much older than she

packed up two babies…

…Okay will

this girl owns her civil rights

but cannot imagine her vote counts

she does not know she is living the dream

but must keep dreaming it

or the movement will stop

Jim Crow still trips the street

So, my friends, how shall we meet the challenge of these poems?

Molly Lynn Watt was an active member of the Peterborough community for many years. She and her husband, Dan, lived on Gregg Lake in Antrim. She taught at Antioch New England in Keene, was on the board of the Lyceum, active in the Unitarian Church and wrote occasional columns for the Monadnock Ledger.


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