A Brooklyn Writer Remembers the Painful Contradictions of Her Childhood in Selma

Willie Mae Brown during one of her audiobook recording sessions
Willie Mae Brown during one of her audiobook recording sessions
Courtesy of the Tabla Rasa Gallery

Willie Mae Brown's Selma doesn't just pivot on the grand events of the 1965 voting rights march and the immortal legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

For Brown, a writer and memoirist, Selma is home. Growing up during the civil rights movement, Brown, who now lives in Brooklyn, bore witness to history unfolding around her. While many are familiar with the popular stories of the era — the murders of Emmett Till and Viola Liuzzo, King's timeless speeches — Brown says there were other tales that went untold. "Whispers of homes suddenly catching afire," she says. "Talks of beatings that were never recorded in the newspapers. Disappearances of young black men, and guns being drawn on Negro men on [Selma's] Water Avenue."

Brown, 62, will be sharing these and other stories with New Yorkers during a February 15 reading at the Tabla Rasa Gallery (224 48th Street, Brooklyn) to commemorate Bloody Sunday and the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. She will be reading from her two soon-to-be-published memoirs, My Selma and A Defiant Leader.

Collectively, the double memoir project — the two works are said to be companion pieces — has been an on-and-off tussle for nearly twenty years. "I'd pick it up and put it down and pick it up and start something else," she says. "And then the voices will start talking and creating fiction and then I would go back to my memoir and then I'd [decide] to create some more fiction, so I have all of these started-and-stopped manuscripts that I've done." Finally, she says, she embraced the fact that her story mattered and she mustered the strength to complete it. The books are scheduled for publishing later this year.

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Brown left Selma for New York at age eighteen for what was intended as a brief visit with her sister, but after she saw the city's skyline, she never went back. She studied creative writing and English literature at Columbia University, and she soon got swept up by her creative ambitions. Eventually, Selma became a place she'd see only on holiday trips home.

But her heart never left her hometown. She still misses the quiet. Her recollections are bittersweet. Selma was a "beautiful" place that "smelled of black dirt, tasted of sour clay dirt, [with] smells of steak sausages, ham, bologna, barbecue, grits, and egg blowing through dew-covered Johnson grass and foggy highways at 5:00 a.m. on any morning," she says, reading an excerpt from her memoir.

But it was also a place where, at age thirteen, a white laundromat owner had cursed her out of his store: "I'm not gonna tell you no more, nigger, to get out of my business," she reads from another passage. "You get out of here! Goddamn nigger, get out!"

"It actually brings tears to my eyes when she starts to read and talk about the stories," says Joiseph Anastasi, co-owner of the Tabla Rasa in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which profiles the works of emerging artists from the area. Anastasi says he overheard Brown recounting one of her stories at a Christmas party and was so touched that he invited her to document her memoirs as audiobooks. He wanted them archived to preserve oral history.

His wife and fellow gallery owner Audrey Anastasi points out a distinction in Brown's oral storytelling. "She has a beautiful presentation, so as painful as it is to hear these truths, it's almost an atonement to listen and experience it again," Anastasi says. "We're reminded of such a harsh reality that is a terrible part of the American history."

Brown is full of anecdotes, and remembering brings forth old memories — good and bad. Sometimes she's wistful and happy; other times she's incensed. Her voice occasionally cracks with grief when she talks about issues like modern-day voting restrictions that disproportionately affect black voters, or the liberal use of the word "nigger" within the black community.

"Americans forget so quick," she says in her distinctive Southern drawl. "You will not hear a Jewish man address his friend with a name that is detrimental. But you hear our children [say], 'My nigger this, nigger what's up?' That's not right, because I have heard it and it meant something when I heard it."

One moment from her Selma upbringing that Brown says she will never forget is the time that she, as a precocious eleven-year-old, found herself in the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. himself. It's a day that she vividly recounts in My Selma. She was so mesmerized when King walked down the aisle of Selma's Brown Chapel — amid shouts of "Lord Jesus, it's gonna be all right...King is here!" — that she couldn't feel her mother's hand tugging her to sit down. She remembers King as a "well-dressed, short, stocky man" with a "brown and smooth" face.

Fearing for her daughter's safety, Brown's mother refused to let her join her older siblings and Dr. King in the march to Montgomery. A Defiant Leader, Brown says, was inspired by King's appearance at the chapel that day. The address he delivered was in defiance of a court injunction that prevented him from speaking publicly. Meanwhile, My Selma offers insight into what it was like to be an impressionable child living in fear and grappling with the concept of home.

While Selma is back in the American consciousness once again thanks to the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, Brown has thus far resisted seeing the movie. She says it's not time for her to see it yet. She doesn't elaborate beyond offering that she will watch it "when it's time."

Not much has changed in Selma, Brown says. The town is doing "OK," but not well enough, especially for a historic place. "We should have [more] industries and we should have more jobs," she adds. Even as Alabama's unemployment rate continues to drop, Dallas County — where the city of Selma resides — is among the three counties with the highest unemployment rates in the state, at 10.1 percent as of December 2014, almost double the national average of 5.6 percent. "It may be [better] now that they set John Legend on a piano and put him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge," Brown says, referring to Legend and Common's performance of the song "Glory" on the iconic span to promote Selma the movie on January 18. "Tourism may even improve," she says.

The upcoming readings in Brooklyn at 2:00 p.m. will serve as a warmup for similar events that she has scheduled for March at the Selma Public Library — during the actual anniversaries of Bloody Sunday and the voting rights march. Brown wants people to see civil-rights-era Selma through the lens of her childhood and to experience her stories for posterity's sake.

"My focus is on keeping the stories alive, because they did happen and because I'm not getting any younger," she says matter-of-factly. "And because it is our history and I lived it."

Email the author: icnwoye@villagevoice.com Follow on Twitter: @irenecnwoye

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