Thursday, December 22, 2016

WHILE "SIFTING RED DIRT"

Every Christmas, I receive a card from the Piney Woods School near Jackson, Mississippi, a country school to which I've been sending a small donation for fifteen or more years. I had never seen the school until this Fall when we made our return trip to New Iberia, Louisiana after spending spring and summer in Sewanee, Tennessee. Before veering off course to see the school, we visited the library in Brandon, Mississippi to research more about the birthplace of my great-grandmother, Dora Runnels Greenlaw, as I'm writing a book of poetry about the "redneck" side of my family entitled Sifting Red Dirt. I was surprised to learn that the Piney Woods Country School was less than an hour's drive from Brandon.

The Piney Woods School, the largest of only four historical African-American schools in the United States, encompasses 2,000 acres in the midst of piney woods south of Jackson and was established in 1909 for children of field hands, some of whom were former slaves. It has also been highly touted as a place for at-risk students who are trained to develop a work ethic by teachers who utilize the disciplines of a "boot camp." Piney Woods School was first used as an institution for blind African-American children, but the blind students were later moved to nearby Jackson, and since its inception as a school for African-American males, the school has become co-educational.

In addition to regular studies, the students work at least ten hours a week on campus with livestock and crops or as teaching assistants and office workers, and 98% of them graduate from the secondary school and pursue college studies. Many of them have degrees from Harvard, the University of the South, Princeton, Amherst College, Smith, University of Chicago, and other outstanding U.S. universities. The concept of work/study reminded me of Booker T. Washington's ideas for Tuskegee Institute (1881). During the early years of this institute in Alabama, students made bricks, built barns, grew their own crops, and learned trades. Of course, today, this university rivals other major U.S. universities in academics, but in its early life, Washington focused on teaching the students how to sustain themselves through agriculture and to develop trade skills that would lift them out of poverty.

When we drove through the Piney Woods campus, it was fall break and almost deserted of students, but we saw enough of the campus buildings, a lovely rock amphitheater, and one of the five lakes edging this instructional farm campus. I was disappointed that administrative offices were closed because I would have enjoyed a tour of the entire acreage. However, I later wrote a poem about Piney Woods School, the last verse of which is included here:

IV.

We made the circle,
passed the lake of once-turbulent water,
Mexicans, Caribbeans, Africans
now working a self-sufficient farm,
chores coupled with classes,
my modest check helping bury the past,
soil rich with the blood of slavery
and a shadow rising with the moon
above red mounds...
the darkness of Collective Conscience.

The image above is a photograph of a glass piece created by Karen Bourque, artist, Church Point, Louisiana, to be used as a cover for Sifting Red Dirt.


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