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.
William Anderson’s The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: the Political Career of Eugene Talmadge is one the most engrossing and compelling portraits of a complex American political figure in American literature. It was, in addition, an essential source of the biographical information and historical insights needed to complete the essay titled “The Bridge and the Monument: A Tale of Two Legacies,” published in the book The American Poet Who Went Home Again.
Mr. Talmadge was a controversial figure when he was elected governor of the state Georgia (USA) four times (he died shortly after the fourth election). He has remained one in the twenty-first century while residents of the city of Savannah repeatedly debate the wisdom of retaining or removing his name––so indelibly associated with white supremacy– on or from the magnificent bridge spanning the Savannah River from the city’s downtown area to Hutchinson Island.
The Eugene Talmadge we meet in the pages of The Wild Man from Sugar Creek is a fierce champion of the supposed underdog white political demographic he adopts as his constituency/tribe. To them he famously declared: “You all got only three friends in this world: The Lord God Almighty, the Sears Roebuck catalog and Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them.” They heard him and many apparently believed him.
We also meet in this biography Talmadge the vehement die-hard racist who advised white citizens of Georgia to follow his lead by “flash[ing] to the world the news [on September 10, 1942] that Georgia recognizes white supremacy and is a white man’s state.” That declaration and many others like it make it difficult to win any arguments in favor of keeping Talmadge’s name on the bridge that currently bears it.
Putting Talmadge’s Wild Legacy in Contemporary Context
The value of Anderson’s unflinching report, however, goes beyond regional or even national policies governing the names of public facilities and spaces. It speaks boldly to the international dilemma of how best to correct grievous historical atrocities of the past.
Talmadge’s legacy and the lessons which may be gleaned from it cannot be ignored as members of diverse cultural groups attempt to establish peaceful coexistence in a twenty-first-century world flooded with political and social discontent, be they due to wars, unyielding immigration issues, the wealth divide, gender concerns, or cyber disruptions.
Truthfully, on many levels Talmadge’s political strategy was not very different from that of the current POTUS Donald Trump’s when it comes to over-emphasizing the plight of one demographic to the exclusion of America’s cross-cultural population as a whole. That observation circles back to the question of what lessons should contemporary citizens take from the xenophobia-inspired rise of The Wild Man from Sugar Creek and which of his pronounced values and practices should be vigorously denounced. The answers should be clear enough but a thorough reading of Anderson’s expert volume can help make them more so.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. He recently completed work on a nonfiction book about cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently writing a play about southern traditions and legacies.