Langston Hughes, one of America's finest poets, conveys in many of his poems optimism in the promise of America despite its shortcomings. Perhaps the best expression of this attitude is in his short poem "I, Too." In that poem, he admits
"They," white America, send him "to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes" (3-4), but rather than fall into despair, the speaker decides to "laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong" (5-7), knowing that "Tomorrow, / [he]'ll be at the table/ When company comes" (8-10). An American Story is a real life expression of these lines from Hughes. In it, we have the stories of Monroe and Freddie Mae Fordham, who both grew up and came of age when America was finally coming to grips with the issue of civil rights. Although Monroe grew up first in Georgia, and then in Florida, and Freddie was far away in Kansas City, both of their stories share a strong sense of community through family and church, and a determination that the obstacle of a Jim Crow America would not prevent them from reaching their dreams. And, as the title suggests, their stories are American stories, worthy of Horatio Alger stories of struggle, work, and achievement.
Monroe begins his story with two short sentences: "I was born in Parrott, Georgia, on October 11, 1939. My mother, Arie D. Oxford, was a single parent." Despite being the son of a single parent, a mother who left him shortly after he was born to start a new life in Orlando, Florida, Monroe spends the first chapter of his "short" autobiography describing the sense of community he found on his grandparents' farm in Parrott. Much of that community came from the Macedonia Baptist Church, whose "membership was made up of four or five extended families." "In many ways," Monroe writes, "Macedonia was like one big family ... central to our lives." Much of the pleasure of Monroe's story in that first chapter comes from his descriptions of the rituals and seasonal events of his life as a child on his grandparents' farm--the day long Sunday services and socializing at the church, "arriving home after dark"; Christmas; "hog killing time"; lazy Saturday afternoons in town when couples courted or pick-up baseball teams played on "make-shift ball fields in nearby cow pastures"; working in the fields during harvest and hoeing seasons; and the growing and eating of watermelons in the summer.
He spends several paragraphs describing the ritual of walking to school six miles away. The white kids had school busses, but Monroe explains that the children farthest from the school "would stop at the house closest to them. On cold days the group of children, which grew larger as they advanced toward the school, would stop at each successive house and crowd around the fireplace to warm up." Here, even the hardship of walking to school became an opportunity to build community (and is an idea, "a walking school bus," that is now in vogue to save transportation costs and get young students to school safely).
Although Monroe spends a good deal of time relishing the sense of community and rhythms of pastoral life, he also is clear that racism touched the "lives of every black southerner" and describes how, at six years old, he saw his cousin covered in bandages and unconscious in bed after being severely beaten by the town's part-time sheriff. Yet Monroe maintains that despite the brutality of the Jim Crow South, "black farmers always maintained a faith that their omnipotent God was leading them to a better day." Those same farmers could have been the speakers in Langston Hughes' poem.
The second chapter is actually an excerpt from a previous collection of memoirs by several writers, WE REMEMBER: School Days & Growing Up Black in Orlando, Florida, 1940-1957. Monroe went to Orlando to stay with his mother, her husband, and their three children in 1947. The descriptions of a more urban life in Orlando complement his earlier sketches of his life on his grandparents' farm. …