I just sent in KC's application to sponsor a visit to Columbia by author James McBride as part of the Maryland Humanities Council's program One Maryland One Book. I'm really excited about this program--and here's why:
I first heard about One Book programs in the fall of 2001 when the city of Chicago held a campaign to get everyone to read and discuss Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. And I mean everyone--the program wasn't just a series of book discussions in local libraries and school. The City Council read the book. Neighborhood associations read the book. Churches and unions and private companies got in the act.
The point of the program was simple--it was designed to give people something to talk about with their neighbors, something to build civic community. But there was a subtext to the program too. Chicago is a city that has a fair share of racial turmoil over the years. Talking about To Kill a Mockingbird gave the city a way to talk about race that was honest but not so scary.
When I first came to Columbia, I asked someone who worked for the public library if there had ever been a "one book" program in the community. She told me with delight that there was one underway. You guessed it--"Choose Civility". That wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but clearly nothing else was going to happen any time soon.
I thought of the One Book program again a few weeks ago when our new Attorney General, Eric Holder, made some very sharp but very true comments about how little experience most Americans have with talking about race. His complained that despite the advances our country has made with legal remedies to racism, we had done very little to address the rampant "social segregation" that still defines most American communities. Columbia is a notable exception, but we don't talk much about race here either.
Inspired by Holder's comments I started to look around the web for some information about One Book campaigns. To my delight, I discovered that there is one underway in our state. The book that has been selected for the campaign is McBride's newest: Song Yet Sung. I read it immediately and it is a great selection. Set on Maryland's Eastern Shore, it tells an excited tale of escaped slaves, slave catchers, slave stealers, slave owners and free blacks all living together in a complex community in the 1850's. One of the characters, a Harriett-Tubman-esque woman called "The Dreamer" has some provocative visions of today's culture. Needless to say there's a lot to talk about.
I intend to pursue this and I'm looking for partners. I think the book could spur some conversations that could spread through our community and make us just a bit braver about what we're willing to talk to each other about.