Septima Clark — The Glorious Complexities of Identity

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark’s background is found in the second part of Ready From Within, you can read more about the first on her life and work here. Once again I found myself bumping against my own unconsciously contained ideas of identity.  The editor Cynthia Brown noted her own surprise when she saw Rosa Parks let her hair down and it fell below her waist… Rosa Parks smiled at her, and said kindly she was part Native American. How had I never heard that before? Septima Clark’s background is just as wondrously complex — exactly the complexity that the U.S. brand of racism strips away by reducing everything to the absurdity of a drop of blood defining a status that whites have long tried to hold forcibly down at the bottom.

Clark writes that her mother was born free, and that she:

…had three distinct sets of brother and sisters. The first set was mulatto, two girls with soft curly brown hair. then came three ginger-colored boys with soft black hair. Then came three girls including my mother, Victoria. They were medium-brown with soft straight black hair. Their father was Indian, from the Muskhogean tribes who lived on the sea islands from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.

Born free, her mother, and then raised in the heart of the 3rd great revolution (and much more revolutionary than the US revolution if we’re at all honest):

My mother was born in Charleston but reared in Haiti…those three little girls were sent to Haiti to be raised by their older brothers, who were cigar makers there. (89)

Her mother was very proud of this claim, that she never was in slavery. Very unlike Clark’s father who was freed by the civil war as a teenager, and remembered this freedom as a worrying time. His surname Poinsette came from his former master, a botanist for whom the Poinsettia is named.

I think about the connections between language, culture and place embodied in the intertwinings of this single family’s history — and the simple identity assigned to Septima Poinsette Clark fairly boggles the mind. How soon can we leave these damn binaries behind us?

There are also fascinating insights here into the early traditions of education and how they play into these complexities. There was a local public school, but Clark would have been one of 100 students for the one teacher. Her mother worked to get her into a private school:

There were lots of black women who had little schools in their homes–in their kitchens, in their dining rooms, or in little shed rooms. (98)

These schools ran on their own hierarchies — and this whole story of education resulted in a class pride that Clark had to work hard to undo through the rest of her life in struggle. She remembers that her teacher:

didn’t take  just anybody who had the money for tuition. She chose her pupils from the blacks who boasted of being free issues, people who had never been slaves. These people constituted a sort of upper caste. (99)

From there she went on to the Avery Institute, getting her teaching certificate in 1916. The Avery Institute is hell of fascinating — itself emblematic of the complexities of identity and the immense possibilities opened up by Reconstruction. Francis Louis Cardozo founded it, his father the Jewish editor of a newspaper, his mother half black and half Native American. They sent their son Francis to school in Europe; after his return he became the first black Secretary of State for South Carolina during reconstruction. (101)

The racist laws against marriage meant Cardozo’s parents never officially married — two such interracial families lived on Clark’s street while she was growing up, but her mother always looked down on them for living together outside of wedlock. Not everything was nice and friendly back in the day.

Clark’s first job was on Johns Island, part of a network of islands along the South Carolina coast. It took nine hours in a boat to get there from Charleston. She talks about the prevalence of African words, Gullah. She taught how that idiom as spoken related to ‘correct English’ (de to be written down as the…). She worked there several years, and then moved back to teach in Charleston.

How did she become fully radicalized? It took a little while:

I want to start my story with the end of World War II because that is when the civil rights movement really got going, both for me personally and for people all over the south. After World War II the men were coming home from fighting in Europe and Africa, and they weren’t going to take segregation any more. (23)

It was still some time before a fellow teacher introduced her to Highlander, the kind of space that encouraged her to step into her full potential and change the course of the growing civil rights movement. From there she never looked back, and never lost her faith in the ability of people to develop:

You know, the measure of a person is how much they develop in their life. Some people slow down in their growth after they become adults… But you never know when a person’s going to leap forward, or change around completely. (103)

One of my favourite quotes from her, and I’ve used this once already, is on growing old, and the opportunities that change and chaos bring:

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (125)

Maybe if more righteous elders were like her and celebrated such things, we would be in a better place. To end, the one thing we all have to remember:

The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming. (126)

You want to see my new favourite photos?

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks:

Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center
Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center

parks-and-clark-sitting

Senior power!

 

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