Listening to the Crawdads Sing Above the Panic

(My reading room will be my retreat during this pandemic.)

Like many of you out there, I am anxious and quite nervous about what we will face as a nation in the next couple of months. Now is the time to definitely gather what we need. By this time, hopefully you all got enough medicine and food to last for the next few weeks. Although I fully understand the severity of the situation, I have to be honest and admit that I felt extreme melancholy following the Smithsonian’s wise decision to close all of their museums. When the governor of Maryland implemented an executive order closing all of the gyms I just knew I was going to go crazy consumed with cabin fever. I was also reckoning with the fact that I was going to have to keep my five year old entertained for at least the next couple of weeks. Yet, these small hiccups are nothing compared to the many blessings that surround my situation. Thus far my family is healthy and I have a job that will still pay me while we are home.To help keep my mind in a zen state, I plan on spending the few quite minutes I will have in my reading room. It was the first room I personally renovated when we moved into our 100 year old house. As soon as I saw it, I loudly proclaimed it “Mine” and informed all that it would be mine despite any future additions that would one day be added to my family. .

This week’s book will keep me company in my reading room and help get my mind off of the uncertainty outside. It came highly recommended by my sister and close friend. They both had one sole complaint and that was that it eventually had to end. Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens is a book about Kya, known to many as “The Marsh Girl.” She lives in the backwoods secluded swamps of North Carolina in the 1960’s. Although there are many wild tales running through the town as to how she came to live such a secluded life, in actuality, she was abandoned by every member of her family who was driven away by her abusive and alcoholic father. Despite all the odds and the constant evasion of the local truant and child and welfare officer, she with the help of the ecological wonders of the swamp raises herself. She lives a simplistic and meager life without electricity and running water. There are many times where she is unsure where her next meal will come from and depends upon a local African American gas station attendant for hand me down clothing, sometimes food, and fatherly comfort. Her life of solitude; however, is interrupted when she meets two young men who both are intrigued by her and seek her company to fill an inner yearning and emptiness that haunt them both. The book opens with the death of one of the suitors with Kya as the main suspect. The book jumps back through time as the readers work to unravel this coming of age, love, and tale of who done it.

I am half way through. The author’s careful depiction of life in Kya’s world has me once again homesick for Florida. I keep envisioning my rides through the Everglades, specifically Shark Valley. It is a 14 mile bike trail right through the Everglades where you come face to face with alligators. It’s really cool and worth a visit if you are ever in South Florida. Speak to you soon! Be safe and we will get through this 🙂

Review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

Sorry I have not published a post in a while, but school is back in session and a few major developments in my professional life have kept me pretty busy but for the good. Yet, no matter how busy I am, I always try to still make time to curl up even for just five minutes at a time with a good book. I was heartbroken when I heard the news of Toni Morrison’s passing . I loved her novels because they always whisked me away to another era in U.S. history and helped me get as close as I can bear to aspects of the Black American experience. The other day I was listening to an old NPR Fresh Air interview with Morrison where she read a passage from her last novel God Help the Child and the few lines she read were so intriguing that I immediately made a detour to the closest bookstore to pick up a copy. The novel begins with Sweetness explaining the shocker, horror, and shame she felt when her daughter Lula Ann was born. Both Sweetness and her husband Louis are exceptionally light skinned and most likely members of the Blue Vein Society. In the maternity ward, she momentarily contemplates smothering the baby rather that have her dark skin body and lips press against her breast to nurse. In the end, she decides to spare her life but not her feelings. She refrains from as much physical contact as she can with her daughter through the most pivotal years in a child’s development. She provides her with the financial necessities in life but fails to provide her any outward displays of affection and emotional intimacy. Her husband, still convinced that she cheated, leaves her in protest to having to raise a dark- skinned child.

Nevertheless, Lula Ann grows up to be gorgeous and successful. Her onyx skin becomes an “exotic” feature that helps her win lovers from all nationalities and opens doors for her in the cosmetic industry. It appears that she has triumphed in the end over the taunts about her skin hue from her peers and her mother’s emotional neglect. She has proven to everyone and herself that she can certainly find the physical intimacy her mother deprived her of from almost anyone she chooses. Yet, as you continue reading, you later realize that she is still the same little insecure , skinny, dark-skinned, knobbly kneed, girl of her past and, Lula Ann begins to panic when a love loss brings this insecurity to the emotional and physical forefront.

Although Lula Ann’s story is the focus of the book, all of the characters she encounters or pursues has their own story and each one is mired in a childhood pain or tragedy that has attached to them like a cancer and metastasized over the years into adulthood. I have to warn you that these tragedies are dark and unsettling but they were for me a constant reminder of the inability for any of us to ever free ourselves of our positive or negative childhood experiences. I was a little disappointed by the fact that with the exception of Sweetness’ story, the setting for the majority of God Help the Child takes place in modern day. Sweetness’ story was very compelling and left me with an insatiable desire to learn more about her, but maybe that was the point Morrison was trying to make. As a society we shine the light and focus on the perpetrators of crimes against children. We are obsessed with wanting to know why anyone could hurt or neglect children. Rarely do the children who are victimized get the opportunity to share their story and heal. We don’t care to know how they will cope into adulthood and the type of person they will become. Reading this novel left me like many of the characters also asking myself, ” Are my childhood experiences carrying me through life or am I carrying them?” If my childhood experiences are carrying me, “Are they tired, weary, and ready to rest?” Rest in peace Queen Morrison. Thank you for blessing us with your courage to tell the stories that no one else bothered to tell.

Gilder Lehrman’s National History Teacher of the Year

Early this fall, I got the news of a lifetime. I was awarded National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilderman Lehrman Institute! Words cannot express my gratitude.

Alysha Butler with CNN Senior Political Analyst John Avlon (standing) and Lewis and Louise Lehrman (seated)
Me with CNN Senior Political Analyst John Avlon(standing) and Lewis and Louise Lehrman (seated)

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History was founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, visionaries and lifelong supporters of American history education. The Institute is the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to K–12 history education while also serving the general public. Its mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources.

I am forever indebted to his institute. They are the main reason I currently reside in the DMV area. I first enrolled in one of their seminars 11 years ago when the late great historian Ira Berlin was giving a week long seminar on the history of the plantation society at the University of Maryland. They fully funded my room and board with stipend. The class was centered around the analysis and incorporation of primary sources and the use of historical sites when teaching history. We visited the original house where Frederick Douglass was born and the town up the street established by many of the emancipated slaves after the Civil War. We also visited Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s plantation and surveyed the slave quarters and burial site. I had visited the DMV area before, but I never saw it through the same lens as it was presented to me by the institute. I always realized that I was surrounded by history but to be able to walk among historical sites and landmarks stemming back hundreds of years particularly to the antebellum era made me want to relocate so that I could be immersed in it. I had also come to realize that I could and was obligated to incorporate trips to historical sites in my everyday lessons so that my students could experience the same reverence and appreciation. It made such an imprint on me that the following summer, I packed my bags and moved to the DMV. I have been here ever since.

A short documentary aired also at the ceremony and on the History Channel.

In early October, I was presented the award by CNN correspondent John Avlon at a private ceremony at the Yale Club in New York City. I was charged with giving a speech which sent me into a panic. Surprisingly the speech went really well and in the end earned me a standing ovation with a few requests for its publication. Everyone at the Institute was so warm and sincere that I am unsure if there will ever be a future professional accomplishment that will be able to top this.

This entire experience has been both humbling and surreal. I am so grateful to the Gilder Lehrman Institute and I hope that I have made my ancestors proud 🙂