Sunday, May 25, 2008

How The Book Began

by Deborah Johnson

This is how I came to write this particular book: Up until university, I integrated every school I ever attended. This was in the 60s and 70s and in Omaha, Nebraska, not in Revere, Mississippi. As with the Jacksons in The Air Between Us, and most other African-Americans of that time, "education was the acme of achievement" in our family and the quest for it often thrust us into places where we found ourselves to be unexpected, if not exactly unwanted. The Convent of the Sacred Heart was my mother's choice for me and for my sisters. Kennedy women and Buckley women and numerous other well-known Catholic women had attended various Sacred Heart Schools scattered around the country and throughout the world. In those days this meant that they were "acme" enough.

My father actually said little about this decision. He was very busy. Like Reese Jackson, in the book, he was a gifted physician and surgeon, and revered in the African-American community. He still made house calls. Many times, we would catch him crying when a patient died. I can remember driving down 30th Street with my mother on a very rainy day and seeing patients, sick people, under umbrellas, in a line that snaked well up the next block. His waiting room may have been already filled, but they thought Daddy was worth waiting out in the rain to see. Until I got to Sacred Heart, all I ever heard or saw was reverence for my father, for his skill as a physician. But I was in another world now.

Normally he, if not I, would have been warmly welcomed. He was a doctor, on-staff at all the Catholic hospitals and about to become Chief of Surgery at the Methodist one. You would have thought his colleagues would be pleased to have him in their midst, as someone they already knew and worked with. Instead, at father-daughter dinners, at school performances, at family conjes, I would see him speak briefly to the other doctors, shake their hands and then find us sitting at tables with other misfits--girls and their parents who, like us, did not quite fit in. Except--sometimes, I would catch my father off in a hidden corner talking intently to one of his colleagues, their heads bent close together, both thinking that no one else was around. And they were colleagues in these brief conversations, equals; and sometimes you could see by a movement, by the nodding of a head, that my father was the superior of these equals. Then the conversation would be over and each physician would move to his separate-but-equal table once again. Many years later my brother, also a surgeon, gave me a possible explanation for those secret talks. "This was what going on," he said. His tale sounded real to me. I loved it. And it became the basis of this book.

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