When I was choosing dates to visit my sister in Maryland, I realized that if I delayed my vacation I could go with her to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I had seen that Ishmael Beah was one of the featured authors who would give a talk, and that clinched the deal for me. Never mind that it was Labor Day weekend and the traffic would be horrendous (it was); I had to see this young man who had overcome his past as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war to become a memoirist and novelist and head of a foundation to help other children in war zones.
Then, two weeks before the event, I looked at the updated list of authors. There was Representative John Lewis’s name! Since I began my research into the civil rights movement, his name kept coming up as a front-line soldier, someone who had risked everything in the very beginning of the movement, who had endured beatings and prison and humiliations of all sorts for the cause.
While I had known who he was for a long time, I hadn’t realized the extent of his involvement until the past couple of years. His name was overshadowed for me by Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and others who had been martyred for the cause. Because Lewis has lived into his seventies, it had been difficult to picture him in the turmoil of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
But several documentaries and countless books later, he had become an icon to me, a hero and an inspiration, a living embodiment of courage and humility and zeal and faith. I had to meet him.
My sister, who has been to the NBF and many other book expos, chided me. “There’ll be thousands of people there, you know. Your chances of meeting him are nil,” she said.
There were 150,000 people there, according to The Washington Post. We went first to see E.L. Doctorow be interviewed and awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Library of Congress, which sponsors the annual book festival.
Then we got much closer seats to see Mr. Beah talk about the writing of Radiance of Tomorrow, a novel about Sierra Leoneans who return to their village after the civil war and try to re-create the community they had once had. It is a heart-wrenching story about people who should have lost all hope, but who cling to a belief that tomorrow will be better. Getting an education and maintaining the tradition of story-telling are big themes in the book. The courage of its characters is illuminating and also humbling when you stop to think that those characters represent real people in hundreds of countries around the world right in this moment.
Mr. Lewis’s talk was to begin at 2 pm, and after buying his book March, the first of a trilogy of graphic books about the civil rights movement, I headed up to the ballroom early. As I came off the escalator and walked around the corner, I saw a man standing with some young people, no one else around, no handlers, no security, just this man and the young people having their picture taken with him. My breath left my body.
I waited as patiently as I could for the young folks to have their picture taken with Mr. Lewis, then thrust my cell phone into one young lady’s hand and asked her to take my picture with him. As I took his hand, I said, “Mr. Lewis, this is the fulfilling of a dream to meet you.” Then we turned toward the camera. He asked me where I was from and I said, “Massachusetts.” “Mmm, Massachusetts,” he said, “that’s a good state.” “It is,” I said, “but there is still much work to be done there.”
It was obvious that the picture had been taken, but I didn’t want to let go of him. I was touching history. I had to hold on to it. In the end, it held on to me. As a parting word, I said something to the effect of, “Oh, Mr. Lewis, I bless the day you were born. Thank you for your courage.” I heard him say, “Ooooh” and then he wrapped me in a bear hug and, I blush as I write, I whispered “I love you” in his ear.
I did remember to get my cell phone back; as I walked on to the ballroom, I’m sure that my face could have lit up the entire floor had the electricity gone out.
It was the idea of Mr. Lewis’s media aide, Andrew Aydin, to write a graphic book. Mr. Aydin is a young white man from Atlanta. He is a huge comic-book fan and, after working on Mr. Lewis’ most recent reelection campaign, headed straight for ComCon. It took him three tries to persuade Mr. Lewis that a graphic book was a good idea, and indeed it has turned out to be. They have learned that it has become required reading in many high schools across the country and is also on the freshmen syllabuses at some colleges. It would seem a worthy project to get more volumes into schools where not only will white children learn this important history, but black children will have new role models and all will learn about the power of nonviolent protest.
One of the things that impresses me most about Mr. Lewis, who has the speaking manner of the preacher he initially planned to become, is his insistence on inclusion. This battle for equality is one in which we all need to join hands and fight, white, black, woman, man, gay, straight, all of us. Ironically, Stokely Carmichael’s biographer, Peniel Joseph, was to give a talk later in the day. Mr. Carmichael’s insistence on black separatism and using violence to fight violence hurt Mr. Lewis deeply and broke up the unity of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Mr. Lewis’s 1990s memoir is called Walking with the Wind, and he explains the title in his prologue. When he was a child, he was with several of his cousins at a cousin’s home when a fierce storm whipped up. His aunt brought the children into the house. As the storm raged, the house began to sway and floorboards in one corner of the house began to lift. His Aunt Sevena had the children hold hands and huddle together and walk to that corner of the room. Then the planks in another part of the house started to lift.
“And so it went,” he wrote, “back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.”
As he grew older, Mr. Lewis came to see that incident as a metaphor for the storms of life, particularly during the 1960s: “ . . . so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest . . . Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me . . .”
For Mr. Lewis, the metaphor extends beyond race, class, gender, and age. He calls it Beloved Community. He grew up a sharecropper’s son, worked in cotton fields from a very young age, one of 10 children, in a family that had very little to call its own. But that family taught him about Beloved Community, and Mr. Lewis still strives for it today.
As should we all.