Sep. 25, 2005


by Donald Hall

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Poem: "Hiding" by Donald Hall, from The Painted Bed © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission.


I know she's gone for good.
I watched her die, but Gus is
Not sure. In the birch wood
He searches, looks, fusses.

When we walk home today
He sniffs at her armchair.
"She won't come back," I say.
He climbs an attic stair

And sticks his intent nose
Under a hamper's lid,
As if, for all he knows,
She slipped back in and hid.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1957, nine black teenagers entered Central High School in Little Rock, escorted by members of the 101st Airborne Division. The Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in the decision, Brown v. Board of Education, three years before. But schools were still segregated in Little Rock, though it was considered a relatively liberal southern city. There was no segregation on buses or libraries or parks; just schools. So teachers at the all-black schools in Little Rock handed out applications to attend the all-white Central High, which was one of the best in the state.

One of those nine black students, Minnijean Brown, remembers picking out her best outfit for the first day of classes. She wasn't worried. She said, "I figured, 'I'm a nice person. Once they get to know me, they'll see I'm okay. We'll be friends." But they never even got close to the school building that first day. They were surrounded by a crowd of segregationist white students and parents. One of them was chased away from the school by a mob.

The nine students tried twice to enter the building. Each time the crowd grew more threatening, shouting and spitting at them. Footage of their second attempt was broadcast on television across the country, and Americans were shocked to see how badly they were being treated.

And so on this day in 1957, the third day they tried to get in, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort them up the front steps and into their classrooms. The soldiers remained in the school for the rest of the year. The nine black students were taunted, they were humiliated, and they were abused in various ways.

After the experience of that year, most of the nine black teenagers tried to keep a low profile. Only one of them became a civil rights activist; the others became an accountant, a corporate vice president, social worker, real estate agent, psychologist, a teacher, and two of them homemakers. All nine of them were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1998.

Today is the birthday of William Faulkner, born in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). He wrote most of his books about his hometown of Oxford, a town of about 1500 people at the time.

William Faulkner dropped out of high school, took a few courses at the University of Mississippi, and got a D in English there. He had to resign from his job at the post office because he kept magazines until he had read them himself.

He went off to New Orleans where he met the writer Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged him to write, and Faulkner did. He wrote his first novel Soldiers' Pay. It came out in 1926. Between 1926 and 1932, Faulkner wrote some of his best works: Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August.

Most scholars at the time thought his work was too dark, too lurid. By 1944, all but one of his books was out of print. People in Oxford, Mississippi thought he was washed up. But in 1945, Viking brought out a Portable Faulkner edition, which brought attention back to his work. And then a few years later, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and all his books were brought back into print.

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