Thursday, February 8, 2007

Haley Farm Opened to the Community

Haley Farm Opened to the Community
On Sunday, February 2, the Alex Haley Farm, owned and operated by the Children’s Defense Fund, flung wide its great metal gate and opened its pastoral grounds to the people of Anderson County. Everyone in the area was invited to celebrate the inaugural event of Black History Month - by listening to volunteers read poems and excerpts from the work of Langston Hughes, one of the greatest and most prolific authors in American History, perhaps the most famous individual to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. His work has spanned generations, has crossed ethnic lines, and is perhaps just as relevant today as it was in the 30’s and 40’s. To hear the passion in the voices of the readers, from librarians to reverends to small children to the Mayor of Oak Ridge, the listeners were moved – some of them to tears.
The Children’s Defense Fund, founded in 1973 by Marian Wright Edelman, along with her colleagues Hillary Rodham, Dan Yohalem, and Rochelle Beck, is the grandchild of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign, which evolved into the Washington Research Project shortly after his assassination in 1968. To this day, over 30 years later, the Children’s Defense Fund has not wavered in its mission to Leave No Child Behind, seeking to insure them a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start. Every year they train hundreds of college-age servant-leaders to teach thousands of children, of every race and creed, in summer Freedom Schools.
As it neared 3:00 p.m. on that first Sunday in February, people milled about the grounds, enjoying the farm’s beauty despite the oppressively cold weather. All the leaves had fallen from Alex Haley’s perfectly linear groves and a fine patina of ice covered the enormous pond which served as the centerpiece of the property. A tiny group of children tossed small stones and watched them bounce and skitter across the ice as the adults gradually made their way to one of the newest structures on the property: the Chapel, designed by architect Maya Lin. The massive structure, windowless except for skylights, crouched in stoic serenity at the water’s edge.
The event was originally scheduled to be held within the Langston Hughes Library, another structure designed by Maya Lin (the Alex Haley Farm is the only site in the world boasting two buildings by renowned architect Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial in Washington, D.C.), but the response to the call for readers from the community was far greater than expected, and the reading had to be moved to the much larger Chapel. People were in attendance from Andersonville, Bethel, Oak Ridge, Norris, Knoxville, Powell, and numerous other areas, both to show their appreciation for great homegrown literature and to enjoy a rare visit to one of the most beautiful locations in East Tennessee – and amazingly, located across from the Anderson County High School, nestled comfortably away behind a small hill.
The mammoth door to the Chapel, fully two stories tall, and only differentiated from the rest of the wooden front wall by a simple door handle, opened smoothly and easily to reveal the interior of what was designed to resemble an ark – a sanctuary for less fortunate children tossed about on the otherwise stormy seas of life. One would expect voices to echo cacophonously in such a cavernous structure, but the expertly crafted acoustic walls softened the sounds, reducing them to a reverent whisper as those in attendance sought their seats.
Wokie Massaquoi-Wicks, of the Children’s Defense Fund, rose from her seat in the audience, strode to the fore of the Chapel, and stood at the podium situated directly beneath a single enormous round skylight. She welcomed those in attendance and summarized for them the history and mission of the Children’s Defense Fund and the importance of the Alex Haley Farm, which is the home and the heart of the organization. “It’s a place where the mind and body can take a break,” she said with a smile, “where the mind and spirit can refresh themselves and grow stronger.”
Theresa Venable, Librarian for the Langston Hughes Library, followed immediately thereafter, expressing her sincere and heartfelt appreciation for the unexpectedly exuberant and enthusiastic response from the community. She was delighted they had to alter their plans and their location to accommodate many more than were expected. She reminded everyone that they were but a few among the millions of people across the nation who were, at that very moment, also occupied in the observance of the African-American Read-in, a program started eighteen years ago to encourage literacy and awareness among the children of the nation. The Read-in of 2007 was devoted to a single author, Langston Hughes, Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, and everyone in attendance was encouraged to read their favorite passage from one of his many works.
The voice of Langston Hughes then filled the vault of the Chapel, a rare recording of his first poem, written when he was eighteen – only the first of what would eventually fill sixteen full volumes, running the gamut from poetry to novels to television to screenplays and dozens of magazine articles. As Langston’s voice faded into silence, Theresa Venable again thanked everyone for spending their afternoon on the Haley Farm, and then opened the floor to the audience and the writing of Langston Hughes.
A group of students from Jefferson Middle School of Oak Ridge requested the opportunity to be the first to read. They stepped to the podium one after the other – hesitant voices wrapping their soft and uncertain tones around the words of one of America’s greatest poets, a man who chronicled a turbulent life, and who rose above the waves. A few of the students stood on tip-toes, struggling to reach the microphone, their voices occasionally stumbling over bumpy words unfamiliar to their developing vocabularies, but rendered no less profound by their youth – perhaps moreso because of it.
Lori Price’s Anderson County High School students, nine in all, followed the Oak Ridge Middle-schoolers by reading their own personal favorites, including Night Funeral in Harlem, Negro Mother, Daybreak in Alabama, and Cross. “I do not need my freedom when I’m dead,” one of the students loudly intoned. “I do not need tomorrow’s bread.” “Where is the Jim Crow section on this merry-go-round,” quoted another, “I want to ride.” One of the students, appropriately enough, wore an old Beatles T-shirt emblazoned across the top with the words, “Let it be.”
Vicki Violet, the Director of Schools in Clinton, then read I too am America. She was followed by local philanthropists Karen and Ron Bridgeman of Clinton. Mr. Bridgeman is the Editor of the Courier and Karen is a local business owner. David Bradshaw, the Mayor of Oak Ridge, followed the Bridgemans, reading three of his favorites - a shaft of sunlight illuminating the podium as he purposefully spoke the words, “No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.”
Kyle Townsend, a 16 year old sophomore from West High School, followed in the Mayor’s footsteps and read In Time of Silver Rain. Kyle’s mother, Yolanda Childs, read an excerpt from The Big Sea entitled When the Negro was in Vogue. Hannah Rose and her friend Ed Sullivan traded readings from The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, a manuscript only recently discovered, unpublished until 1994. The book is a collection of children’s poems, one for every letter of the alphabet, and each featuring a particular animal – every line dripping with humor and irony.
They, in turn, were followed by a retired Chemist from Oak Ridge, who read an excerpt from The Return of Simple wherein he described the cooking, preparation, and eating of opossum - and he was followed by two more students from Jefferson Middle School. Jane Rudman, of the University of Tennessee, assumed the podium in their stead, reading Let America be America Again. “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed,” she read, punctuating the final line of the poem, “Make American again,” by closing her book with a snap.
Trella Sparksdale, a speech and language pathologist in Oak Ridge, then read her selection; as did Scott Smith, the librarian for the Robertsville Middle School. Wokie Massaquoi-Wicks, who earlier opened the program, then read a few excerpts from Black Misery: “Misery is when you can see all the other kids in the dark but they claim they can’t see you. Misery is when you can’t get in the pool with your bosom buddy. Misery is when it takes the whole National Guard to get you into the new integrated school…”
Poet Rose Lieber expressed her profound appreciation for the work of Langston Hughes and the first poem she read was Early Evening Quarrel, pitching it flawlessly throughout the Chapel, filling the edifice with a forceful and ardent emotion that infused every syllable. She concluded her reading with Sunday Morning Prophecy, a poem about a sermon which she read in the emphatic histrionics of a Hellfire and Brimstone preacher, her voice getting louder and louder, eventually reaching a manic pitch and pace. The enrapt audience, admonished to seek salvation in the most fervent and insistent tones, became a congregation of supplicants at a tent revival, collectively groping about their purses and wallets in search of an offering for the collection plate.
Many others followed in her stead, reading one poem or excerpt after the other – until there was no one left to read. Theresa Venable again strode to the podium, urging applause for all those who spoke, thanking them for “a marvelous experience.” She hoped everyone would take with them something inspirational - that they would also be inspired to read more of the work of Langston Hughes. With a smile, she invited all of the guests to explore the breathtaking grounds of the Alex Haley Farm, to enjoy its beauty and serenity, and to take that beauty and serenity with them back into their communities.
Outside, a small group of children laughed amongst themselves as they skated pebbles across a rapidly thinning veneer of ice, and a woman and her son walked slowly side by side at the water’s edge, seemingly unaware of the cold and in no hurry to be anywhere other than where they were at that very moment.
If only Alex Haley could see what a magnificent place his farm has become – but then, perhaps he can…- Editor