Daisy Between a Rock and a Hard Place is a bit of an odd book, weaving the story of civil rights activist Daisy Bates together with the stories of other people and places that entered Daisy’s life. It tells bits of the history of the town Daisy was born in, and of the state where her future husband grew up. It also shares relevant bits of the author’s own story, how she was the daughter of a cotton share-cropper in Arkansas, and how she eventually took over Daisy Bate’s newspaper.
Almost two thirds of the book are written as little bits of history woven together as a sort of extended-introduction. The final third of the book is written as ‘biographical memoir’ in first person from Daisy’s point of view. It moves to the type of stories I could share with my young children, about growing up and dealing with racism.
Because I have an ongoing interest in adoption stories, I was particularly interested in the description of Daisy Bate’s adoption. Ms Kearney writes in Daisy’s voice:
Not too many years back, an interviewer from one of the news stations asked me what it was like growing up an orphan. I had to explain to him that I didn’t know what the word ‘orphan’ meant, when I was growing up in Huttig. Negroes didn’t really use that word. I guess, because there was always somebody who would take in a child if their parents couldn’t care for them.
I was ‘taken in’ by the Smiths, but for most of my childhood I didn’t know that; and even after I learned it, I never thought of it as me being an orphan. I saw them as my real parents. But, after I learned about the terrible thing that happened to my parents, anytime I heard someone mention a child being ‘thrown away,’ it would go all through me. I tried to justify my own situation by telling myself: If Hezekiah Gatson had truly wanted to throw me away he wouldn’t have picked the Smiths to take me in. He had to love me to pick people as good as the Smiths.
Then a few paragraphs later she writes:
Maybe the hardest part of it all was learning that Hezekiah Gatson lived just a few miles from me. For some reason, that word, orphan, resonated with me a lot more after that. I was that child whose parent simply chose not to be her parent.
Of course the book isn’t just about adoption. It’s a fascinating collection of stories and information. It is well worth reading, although the first two thirds, with their complicated mixing of stories and background information is probably best suited for when you have time to read a full chapter at a time rather than in five minute spurts between interruptions from the children. I was interrupted enough I did struggle a bit with remembering whose back story I was reading and how it fit in with the story of Daisy. I also wished that the description of the Little Rock Crisis time came earlier in the book. (If that’s the part you’re looking for, don’t despair, it does come eventually!)
As I read, and reread the descriptions of what the Daisy Bates went through, and what the nine children she helped mentor went through, I can’t help thinking about Chief Spence of Attawapiskat and the situation right now with the #idlenomore protests. I think about the years that Attawapiskat had to wait for a real school and the racist comments I see and hear now, as natives across Canada are standing up and saying it is time for them to have equal schools, equal access to health care and a chance to assert some control over the resource extraction taking place on their lands. Chief Spence and her family would be going through some of the same adrenaline and stress the book describes Daisy going through, the trying to figure out the best options for how to protect the children and manage the political aspects. Then I’ve heard a story recently that parallel’s that of Daisy’s mother, about a young native mother being picked up recently by some non-natives who told her that their kidnapping and rape was racially motivated, that her people deserve to lose their rights. She was left for dead in a woods but managed to make her way home so her very young child is not left motherless as Daisy was. The situation for native people in Canada is not the same as for African Americans in the states either now or 50 years ago, but there are some simularities in the ongoing need for change and the difficulty not only in changing laws but “changing hearts.”
I was sent an ecopy of the book in order to review it and was permitted to email some questions to Ms. Kearney, in exchange for posting about her book as part of a blog-tour. So here are my questions, and her responses:
1. Could you tell us a bit about the research process of writing the book? In particular, how did you go about trying to find the contacts who would remember Daisy?
JFK: I visited Daisy’s hometown of Huttig, and talked to one person who knew most people in town. She directed me to a number of elderly citizens, most of whom did not meet Daisy personally, but were able to paint a picture of Huttig’s environment during Daisy’s childhood, and knew some of Daisy’s family members.
2. I’d like to know a bit more about your time working with Daisy Bates. You mention in your book first meeting her as a teenager, hoping to work for her but not being invited to at that time. Then you went to work for her in 1987. How did that job start? Did you just apply, or did she know you through your other work? What was that like working with her? How big of an office was it? (My parents ran a weekly newspaper out of the basement of the house I grew up in, so I’m curious about what running the newspaper was like, as well as what Daisy Bates was like.)
JFK: In 1987, I was working for the state of Arkansas as a Director of Information for an organization called Migrant Data Bank. I told a number of my friends that I wanted to leave state government and work more directly in the field of writing. One friend told me that Daisy Bates’ managing editor was leaving his job to go to law school. I immediately called about the job and was invited to come pick up an application. I did, and shortly after returning it, was invited back for an interview with the managing editor, and then Daisy Bates, herself. I reminded her at the time that I’d applied for a job with her at 16, but didn’t get the job. She laughed before telling me I had this job. It was a wonderful experience finally working with a woman I had admired for so very long. She was full of wit and wisdom…and, so much history. It wasn’t long, however, before she announced her plans to retire and sell the newspaper. I fretted for weeks over this decision, but after much thought and prayers and discussions with my husband, I went in and asked if she would consider selling the newspaper to me…eventhough I had no experience running a newspaper. She thought about it for several days then came back and said she would, saying she could tell I had the “fire in the belly,” necessary to take on such a challenging role. Running a weekly newspaper in Arkansas was the hardest thing I ever did, but also one of the most enjoyable and most educational. I learned so much about SO many things, including politics, city government, small city society, and was able to meet some amazing people throughout the country. Our office was small after I took over the newspaper. Daisy came in regularly as a consultant to the newspaper for one year. I eventually hired a managing editor, a secretary, a typesetter, one reporter, a part-time photographer, a commissoned salesperson, and distributor. We published every wednesday.
3. If you could go back in time and ask Daisy two questions, what would you ask her?
JFK: If I could ask Daisy two questions, it would be these:
1. Did you dream as a child? If so, what things did you dream about? Did you dream of being something other than a newspaper publisher and a civil rights leader?
2. How did it happen that you never had children? From all evidence you loved children very much. In fact, you risked you life and livelihood to ensure equal opportunity for children. Was it a pre-meditated decision on yours and L.C.’s part; or were you simply not able to bear children?
4. What is something you learned from Daisy that ended up helping you deal with the challenges you faced later on?
JFK: I learned from Daisy that it is not smart to mix politics and journalism. Most newspapers have their own cultures, and take their unique stances on all manners of things, but it is so important that newspapers be viewed as objective to the extent possible.
5. Reading the book it kind of threw me when suddenly it shifted to Daisy’s perspective, although in a lot of ways that part of the story was easier reading. What was it like for you taking on the persona of someone you knew? How did it compare to your other writing projects?
JFK: Most of my books have been nonfiction, but in many ways, still stories about people. As a story teller, I think much of my writing could be described as `channeling’ others’ stories – which include their views and beliefs. Because Daisy is no longer with us, I thought it was a good way to share her voice with readers. It was a little difficult because I did a great deal of research to ensure her voice, and thoughts were authentic.
6. I know you worked for the Clinton administration, and you were the personal diarist. Do you know how or why that position was created? I’m wondering if you keep in touch with the Clinton’s since then, and if you would consider working for Mrs. Clinton if she runs again for Presidential Nominee?
JFK: I loved serving as personal diarist for Mr. Clinton. It was like a front row seat on history as it happened. I was able to utilize my writing, my love for history, and my love of story telling. There was a presidential diarisrt since the Bush white house, a member of the national archives staff responsible for collecting data for the future presidential library.
My job was as a member of the president’s staff who chronicled his presidency on a day to day basis. Yes, I do stay in touch with President Clinton since leaving the white house in 2001. I can’t imagine working in the same capacity for another president…even another President Clinton.
7. Your book does a wonderful job talking about your experience in the cotton fields, and Daisy’s in the mill community, and the discrimination that shaped you both. I’m wondering though about what suggestions or priorities you would have for changes that need to happen today, to continue to reduce discrimination and improve things for African Americans today and in the future?
JFK: I try not to overstep my boundaries as a storyteller and become an advisor to my readers, although many readers tell me thy gain insight from some of my stories. I will say, however, that…inn a nutshell, my philosophy is that there is humanity in each of us if we would look deep enough inside ourselves and find it. And, from Daisy, I learned of the power in one. I believe, like she did, that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to make this world better.
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