By CHRISTOPHER MARTIN
On June 21, 2015, I left northwest Georgia before sunrise, headed for Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, just south of Cumberland Gap and the state lines of Kentucky and Virginia. Later that evening, I would begin teaching creative nonfiction at the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop, a weeklong, intensive residency for high school and upcoming college freshman writers from the region. This would be my second summer teaching at AYWW. As I write this introduction to “Creating One Nation,” an essay by AYWW student Shae Johnson, I am preparing for my third, which has turned into one of my favorite times of the year. AYWW is a remarkable community, one in which I find great sustenance and purpose.
But the community, creativity, and regenerative spirit bountifully present at AYWW do not exist in a void. It is perhaps too easy for any writer—regardless of age, whether student or teacher—to conflate the chance for retreat to focus on one’s writing, or to teach writing, as a kind of retreat from the world. I find this true no matter the times or circumstances, no matter the news. In my view, the opportunity to leave one’s routine for a few days is not ultimately an opportunity to retreat from the world, but a chance to more deeply engage it.
This was on my mind even more than usual last June as I made the trip to AYWW, driving north along the route of the Atlanta Campaign—terrain that saw the beginning of the end of the Civil War—into a landscape that cradled it. Just days before I left, on June 17, a young white man entered Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and murdered nine black parishioners in an act of racial terror evocative of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, 1963, and in fact every attack on a black individual or community before or since.
I knew I had to talk about this, in some way, with my students. Yet I was worried, not knowing at all how to approach it, as I hadn’t really even begun to process it myself. I also knew there was no time to entertain my lack of conviction: These were the days that saw a proliferation of Confederate flags and a resurgence of the misguided and harmful yet popular notion that slavery and racism were somehow unrelated to the Civil War. Many people seemed more concerned about the potential loss of a historically oppressive symbol than the loss of life in the name and legacy of that symbol. Empathy and nuance found little refuge in such a charged time.
This is where grace enters: On the third day of AYWW, all the faculty and students—young essayists, poets, storytellers, artists—loaded into a van for an hour drive southwest from Harrogate to Clinton, Tennessee, on a field trip, arranged long in advance, to the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. Green McAdoo was Clinton’s segregated black elementary school until 1965; it reopened in 2006 as a cultural center, focusing on the story of the twelve students who integrated the whites-only Clinton High School in 1956, making Clinton High the first integrated public high school in the South—a story that I and most of our group did not know. This trip and the wonderful people we met there provided a gateway, as Shae Johnson writes in the wonderful essay that follows, “to assimilate events and ideas of the past with our thoughts on serious issues occurring in our own time.”
Following the field trip, Shae began drafting an essay about Green McAdoo, which, over time, became the essay you are about to read. She shared a very early version of this essay at AYWW, and that version went on to appear in AYWW’s 2015 student anthology. Shae’s passionate, empathetic writing not only enabled my creative nonfiction class to talk about Charleston, but also became a substantial part of the AYWW ethos last summer. It was one of my proudest moments as a teacher, one in which I became a student through seeing this young writer give so much time and energy to such vital work.
I realized after reading the early draft that Shae’s essay deserved a wider audience. The story of the Clinton 12 is one more people should know, and, in this time of indifference, Shae’s authenticity in telling the story—particularly given the fact that she is a high school student—is refreshing and hope-giving. Soon after AYWW, I wrote Shae to ask if she would like to revise and expand her essay to be published as a guest entry for this blog. She agreed, and, nearly a year of work and dedication later, here it is.
This fall will be 60th anniversary of the integration of Clinton High School. It is my hope that Shae’s essay will bring this story to those who need it, and that her voice will spark compassion and true conversation—which, in the wake of Charleston a year ago, and now in the wake of Orlando, we need as much as ever, and cannot continue to go without.
- Read Shae Johnson’s essay “Creating One Nation”
New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin is author of This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith, which won the 2015 Will D. Campbell Award in Creative Nonfiction and will be published by Mercer University Press in 2017. He is also author of the poetry collections Marcescence: Poems from Gahneesah (Finishing Line Press, 2014), Everything Turns Away: Poems from Acworth and the Allatoonas (La Vita Poetica Press, 2014), and A Conference of Birds (New Native Press, 2012). Chris’s work has appeared in publications across the country, including American Public Media’s On Being, Broad River Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, Loose Change, McSweeney’s,Pilgrimage, Poecology, Ruminate Magazine, Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, Thrush, and Waccamaw. His poems are anthologized in Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (University of South Carolina Press, 2016), The World is Charged: Poetic Engagements with Gerard Manley Hopkins (Clemson University Press, forthcoming), Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems (Negative Capability Press, 2015), and The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press, 2012). The editor of Flycatcher and winner of the 2014 George Scarbrough Award for Poetry, Chris teaches English at Georgia Highlands College and creative nonfiction at the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop. He lives with his wife and their two young children in northwest Georgia, between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain.