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The Friendship: Author Mildred D. Taylor’s 1988 BGHB Fiction Award Speech

by Mildred Taylor

taylor_friendshipI am pleased and honored to accept the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for The Friendship (Dial). It is an honor for me, and it is an honor to the memory of my father, for The Friendship is drawn from one of the many stories that he told me. Over the years he shared many stories about life in the South with me, and today in accepting this award I would like to share just a bit of that time in my life with you, that time in my life when my father and the other storytellers told the history.

For me the history began in the South, for I was born in Mis­sissippi. When I was three months old, my parents took my sister and me to live in the North, yet over the years of my childhood I grew to know the South — to feel the South — through the yearly trips we took there and through the stones told. In those days of the late forties, in those days of the early fifties, in those days before the civil rights movement, I remem­ber the South and how it was. I remember the racism, the seg­regation, and the fear. But I also remember the other South — the South of family and community, the South filled with warmth and love — and how it opened to me a sense of history and filled me with pride.

I remember during our trips South, speeding down winding red roads toward my grandparents’ house, with rocks hitting the underbelly of the car. I remember my father pointing out landmarks of his own childhood or of incidents that had hap­pened. I remember my grandparents’ house, the house my great-grandfather had built at the turn of the century, and I re­member the adults talking about the past. As they talked I be­gan to visualize all the people who had once lived in that house, all the family who had once known the land, and I felt as if I knew them, too. I met them all through the stories told, stories told with such gusto and acting skills that people long since dead lived again through the voices and movements of the storytellers.

The history of the family and of the community was told through those stories acted out on moonlit porches or by brightly burning fires. Many of the stories told were humorous, some were tragic, but all told of the dignity and survival of a people living in a society that allowed them few rights as citi­zens and treated them as inferiors. Much history was in those stories, and I never tired of hearing them. There were stories about slavery and the days following slavery. There were stories about family and friends, and there was the story about a man — a black man — who befriended a white man and who later was shot by that same white man for refusing to address him as “mister,” for refusing to show “the proper respect.”

This story both enraged me as a child and made me proud. It enraged me because of the injustice of a society that expected blacks to bend to the will of whites. It enraged me that one man, because of the color of his skin, could consider himself superior to another. It made me proud because a black man chose not to see himself as inferior but to see himself equal to anyone. For me as a child hearing this story, this black man became my John Wayne. He was a hero, and as a black child growing up in the forties and fifties, I needed black heroes. I needed them desperately and at no time more than the year I was ten years old; my family moved into a newly integrated neighborhood in Toledo, and I found myself the only black child in my class. During that year and the years that followed, classes devoted to the history of black people in the United States always caused me painful embarrassment. This was because history had not been presented truly, showing the accomplish­ments of blacks both in Africa and in this hemisphere. But, as it was, as the textbooks and the teachers presented the history, the indictment of slavery was also an indictment of the people who were enslaved — a people who, according to the texts, were docile and childlike, accepting their fate without once attempt­ing to free themselves. To me this lackluster history of black people, totally devoid of any heroic or pride-building qualities, was as much a condemnation of myself as it was of my ances­tors. I used to sit tensely waiting out those class hours trying to think of ways to repudiate what the textbooks said, for I recog­nized that there was a terrible contradiction between what was in them and what I learned at home.

Eventually there came a time when I tried to put some of the stories of heroism I had heard from my family over the years on paper. The story that later was to become The Friendship was one of the first I attempted to write. But in the beginning I didn’t have the power to put the story on paper. For me the story had to be as powerful on paper as it had been when I had heard it told by the storytellers. I wanted the reader to feel what I had felt.

Over the years of my childhood the story of the man I call Mr. Tom Bee had been told by the finest of storytellers, and the finest of those was my father, for he was a master storyteller. The last most vivid memory I have of my father telling the story was shortly after my return from a two-year stay in Africa. I remember how special that time was. There was no large family gathering; there were no other storytellers present. In fact, it was just my father and me. Everyone else had gone to bed. It was late, after two o’clock in the morning. My father had to be up the next morning before six to go to work, and I had to be up early, too, for I was leaving for a job in Chicago. Yet my father talked on, telling the stories of his childhood, and I, as always, eagerly listened, not yet ready for sleep, not yet ready to have the stories end. Sitting by the living room fireplace, I heard each story anew. Then, as the night drifted on, and one story led to another, my father again told the story of the man I call Mr. Tom Bee.

I remember how my father’s voice rang out as he told the story. I remember the sound he made in describing the awful explosion of the shotgun when the old black man was shot. But most of all, I remember the words of the old black man so long ago, the words as told by my father.

They were haunting.

My father has been dead twelve years now. I have not heard the story told since. Yet, the words ring out in my mind as if I had heard them spoken by my father only yesterday. Those words are now the last words spoken in The Friendship.

The white men came out and sniggered. Mr. John Wallace, carrying the shotgun, came out onto the porch too. He stood there, his face solemn, and said, “You made me do that, Tom. I coulda killed ya, but I ain’t wantin’ to kill ya ’cause ya done saved my life an’ I’m a Christian man so I ain’t forgetting that. But this here disrespectin’ me gotta stop and I means to stop it now. You gotta keep mind you ain’t nothm but a nigger. You gonna learn to watch yo’ mouth. You gonna learn to address me proper. You hear me, Tom?”

Mr. Tom Bee sat in silence staring at the bloody leg.

“Tom, ya hear me?”

Now, slowly, Mr. Tom Bee raised his head and looked up at John Wallace. “Oh, yeah, I hears ya all right. I hears ya. But let me tell you somethin’, John. Ya was John t’ me when I saved your sorry life and you gave me your word you was always gonna be John t’ me as long as I lived. Sos ya might’s well go ‘head and kill me cause that’s what ya gon’ be, John. Ya hear me, John? Till the judgment day. Till the earth opens itself up and the fires-a hell come takes yo’ ungrateful soul! Ya hear me, John? Ya hear me? John! John! John! Till the judgment day! John!

From the March/April 1989 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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