It opened a window

Meet Ruth Simmons. She’s a hero of mine – I’ve mentioned her here several times, I think. She’s a hero for a variety of reasons; she forms a little cluster of examples of what can be thought and said and done that it’s popular to say can’t be thought and said and done, so I reach for her often, in different contexts. It all comes from just one interview on the US news show 60 Minutes – her being the twelfth child of Texas sharecroppers, her discovery of books as a child, school as a doorway to a better world, her wide interests. The best bit was when Morley Safer asked her why a black woman would want to take a class in French Renaissance poetry – a question which caused me to scowl in instant fury, and then light up like a Christmas tree at her answer – which was pretty much Terence’s answer: nothing is alien to me. She grandly repudiated the nastly limiting bantustanish assumption behind Safer’s horrible question, saying it’s all for me, everything is open to me. I loved her for that.

Things looked up after the family moved to Houston when she was seven. “The neighbourhood was shabby, there were bars on every corner, and crime and alcoholism were part of the daily routine,” she says. “And yet I was blissfully happy. People bothered to insist I went to school, and I loved it. There was a calm and order that was missing elsewhere in my life. But, above all, there were books. My parents were deeply suspicious about my reading, but for me it opened a window into a different reality, where it was possible for someone like me to be accepted.”

As it did for Fredrick Douglass, for example, which of course is why there was a law against teaching slaves to read. It’s not very popular to think of books and reading that way; all too many people are deeply suspicious about anyone’s reading; it has that whiff of elitism, you know. That’s unfortunate. That closes that window into a different reality.

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