To fully appreciate reading former Savannah mayor Otis S. Johnson's From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor, Experiencing the American Dream, you might want to note some important clues he shares at the book's beginning. The first is his identification of himself as a "scholar activist." Take that for exactly what it sounds like: he has long been devoted to the cultivation of knowledge within himself and others, as well as to the reversal of heinous social and political injustices.
A second shared hint is his struggle over whether to spell out the word "nigger" in this book's title or employ the more politically-accepted abbreviation. Following his publisher's suggestion, he chose the latter but felt the original more "symbolic of my struggle as a black male in American society." With that in mind, the book in general, he states, "documents my struggle to achieve the American Dream while having to confront the vicissitudes of being black in a racist society" (p. 11)
A Timeline of Powerful History
The above words may sound, to some, like little more than sensationalistic jargon employed to grab attention. It would be more accurate to describe them as precise when considering Johnson was born in 1942 and, from the beginning until the present era, his experience of the American dream has unfolded along a timeline of powerful history-shaping events on personal, national, and international levels.
For its precisely-balanced combination of social history and personal memoir, Johnson's book under any title is one of the most valuable written in recent years by an African-American man, and one of the most important for any time by a native of Savannah, Georgia. Being the former dean of Savannah State University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and current Scholar in Residence and Professor Emeritus that he is, Dr. Johnson's text often reflects the language of his intellectual leanings. That allows him to place his life and his times within an analytical context similar to important works by some of his scholarly heroes, like Harlem Renaissance strategist W.E.B. Du Bois and political scientist Hanes Walton Jr.
Yet, at the same time, he is a very down-to-earth writer who engages readers with stories of his family's Gullah culture heritage, what it meant to lose his father at an early age, learning about racism for the first time, falling in love and getting his heart broken, discovering the world as a young sailor, and confronting the challenges of leadership within a demographically-evolving community.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia as Johnson experienced them while growing into maturity during the 1960s were much like America at that time as a whole. African Americans with many White Americans alongside them were calling for an end to Jim Crow apartheid and battling against the system by staging public sit-ins, conducting protest marches, and targeting racial barriers ripe for breaking.
Of his position in this history, Johnson writes, "My life has been full of being in places where I shocked non-blacks with my presence" (p. 88). One such place was on the campus of Armstrong State College (now Atlantic University) where in 1963 he famously became the first African American to enroll in the school. Another was the campus of the University of Georgia, Athens, where he was the first Black from Savannah to attend that institution. At UGA, he walked out of one class after a white professor discussing the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision proclaimed the only reason African-Americans wanted to integrate schools in Georgia was to marry white women.
Most of the kind of anti-racism activism Johnson chronicles is to be expected given the time-frame. In his chronicling, however, he provides important snapshots of black leaders in Savannah, like Wesley Wallace "W.W." Law and Hosea Williams, in political action. But his reportage goes beyond the dynamics of blackness clashing with whiteness.
Through his account of how segregation laws prevented Whites from attending the historically black Savannah State College, founded some 45 years prior to the establishment of Armstrong (as a junior college) in 1935, he demonstrates how racism has caused grievous injury on both sides of the color line. It has also been extremely absurd when considering that in order for him to become the first African-American to integrate Armstrong in 1963 for sake of racial progress in the name of democracy, he had to switch from Savannah State's senior college program curriculum to Armstrong's junior college curriculum.
Navigating Major Changes
Early in From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor (2016, Donning Company Publishers) Johnson discusses three types of black leadership attributed to sociologist Daniel C. Thompson (author of Sociology of the Black Experience) and with which many readers of African-American literature are familiar: "...the Uncle Tom...racial diplomat...and race advocate" (p. 48). He places himself closer to the third category but more as a "human rights advocate" who believes the following: "'We are all God's children,' but I live in an institutional and structural racist society. 'Self-preservation is the first law of nature'" (p. 49).
By the time Dr. Johnson took office in 2004 as the sixty-fourth mayor of Savannah, and its second consecutive black mayor (after the late Floyd Adams), the city was well on its way to navigating major changes in its multicultural and economic make-up. His determination to meet that challenge at every level resulted in 2006 in a major heart attack experienced while attending the National Conference of Black Mayors in Memphis, Tennessee. Consequently, he writes, "How I approached the job of being mayor during the period before and the period after my heart attack were two very different periods" (p. 291).
As it pertained to his labors as mayor, Johnson's professed sense of racial "self-preservation" took a back seat to his role as a servant leader committed to advocating "for improving conditions that impact people of all races and classes" (p. 261). In the wake of the Great Recession that would create chaos in American cities during his second term, he worked with city council members to help Savannah avoid the kind of disastrous lay-offs and cancellation of services which occurred in cities like Atlanta and Camden. As he points out:
"In 2011, we were still in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. We had to find a way to continue providing all of the services to citizens with about $8 million less than we had in 2010...while the 2011 budget was extremely difficult, it was balanced with minimal impact to our citizens and without an increase in property taxes. That was due to strong leadership, clear priorities, and tough resolve by this council, which chose not to spend wildly when times were good" (p. 325).
Candidates lining up for the 2020 presidential race in America could take a few helpful lessons from this former mayor's playbook. One might be committing to running a campaign based on proven abilities and a strategic comprehensive vision rather than one based on negative personal attacks. In fact, though he won his first election to mayor before former U.S. President Barack H. Obama won his first election to the White House, their campaign styles bore striking similarities. (The president and mayor met when Mr. Obama visited Savannah in 2010.)
At times, From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor reads a bit too much like a college paper, or lecture, as Johnson parenthetically informs readers where he will continue the thread of a particular subject or on which page he has already discussed it. This is easy enough to overlook, and even smile about, when remembering these pages are coming to us from a master scholar at whose literary feet we are fortunate indeed to sit and learn as much as possible.
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
The same reasons that convinced me to give PT Armstrong's Looking Back and Dreaming Forward a four-star rating might prompt others to give it five. Some might settle for three. But here's the way I see it: the first three stars are for the rarity of the book's content. This isn't just another memoir. It's more like a flesh and blood time capsule filled with reports from America's past about issues the country (and the world) is dealing with in 2019, like the challenges of adjusting to increasing diverse populations and managing the awkwardness of inter-generational interactions in various venues.
The fourth star is for the fact that Mr. Armstrong was 91 years young when he released this book at the end of 2018 and is currently looking forward to turning 92 years old on St. Patrick's Day, 2019. What the age factor means in this case is that as an African-American man born in rural Texas in 1927, the military veteran had to survive quite a bit before he could even think about publishing a book, his third, at the age of 91. A lot of the memories through which he had to navigate to tell his stories are the kind many Black men his age, he tells us, do not enjoy recalling or discussing.
Powerful Authorial Voice
One of the most fascinating things about the five stories in Armstrong's volume is his authorial voice. The author realizes he is addressing a digital-age audience which might not immediately, necessarily, understand him as someone whose worldview and mindset were forged during a very different era. Bearing that in mind, he kicks off this unusual collection with the controversially-titled essay, "When I Was A Negro." In it, he explains, "I hope it will be clear that I am not writing out of anger but sharing the truth as I have lived it." He further acknowledges, "There are a lot of books out now about what people are calling 'the New Jim Crow.' Well I grew up during the old Jim Crow in a segregated society that was very strict so I have some perspectives and insights people might find useful." In other words, as the title of his book indicates, he is more interested in learning from past mistakes in order to help fellow citizens move forward than he is in dwelling on past injustices for the sake of wallowing in self-pity or stirring up feelings of guilt.
Moreover, his meditations are surprisingly much more inclusive than many might assume. As with classic autobiographies and memoirs by such authors as Maya Angelou and James Weldon Johnson, Armstrong does make some hard unflinching observations when it comes to topics like the history of slavery, racial segregation in Texas and his adopted home of Savannah, Georgia, and the historic bias against interracial relationships. However, he goes a big step further in "Bloodlines: Interview with Miss Pilgrim Cottonwood."
An actual interview, "Bloodlines" tells the story of a Native American Hopi woman whose tri-racial ancestry included Natives, Whites, and Blacks. It is a rare authentic document of its kind. Constructed from an interview which Armstrong conducted in 1966 when his subject was 66 years old, the author presents her dialect as she spoke it. Cottonwood is candid about both her struggles to survive and the heartbreak over losing the love of her life. Particularly significant is her account of relationships between African Americans and members of her tribe during and after slavery.
In "A Place for Old Black Men" Armstrong writes with moving poignancy about the paradoxes of aging in a society that continues to advance technologically but appears to regress when it comes to issues of social justice. At the same time, in "Back to My Roots" and "My Trip to Africa" he rejoices in the discovery of his cultural inheritance and celebrates the potential which he believes the future holds for everyone.