Clyburn memoir: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

04/27/2014 6:52 PM

04/27/2014 7:22 PM

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn often speaks of the influence of his late parents, the Rev. Enos Lloyd Clyburn and Almeta Dizzley Clyburn, and how the lessons he learned as a child in Sumter set the path for his life. In an interview with The State newspaper, Clyburn described his father as “evolutionary” while his mother was “revolutionary,” particularly when it came to civil rights. “He was an advocate of change, but he wanted it to evolve. My mom wanted it to happen tomorrow morning.” An excerpt from Clyburn’s upcoming memoir:

My two brothers and I grew up without racial blinders, and without the conditional view of the world that so often characterized black families of the Jim Crow era. Our parents placed no limits on our ambitions. This “no-limits” concept was something ... we came to realize was not all that common among our neighbors and friends. I learned that lesson firsthand one afternoon as I arrived home after school.

Mom operated a beauty shop in the front part of our house. It was a rule that my brothers and I would stop off at the beauty shop when we got home from school and give Mom a report on how things had gone that day.

On this particular day, one of the ladies in the shop was a friend of Mom’s, who had grown up with her on an adjoining cotton farm in the Browntown community. When I greeted Mom’s friend, she exclaimed how much I had grown since the last time she had seen me and how my voice had changed. I smiled, and she continued with a familiar line of questioning: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asked me.

I beamed with my best Clyburn self-assured smile and told her of my dreams to finish high school, go to college, and pursue a career in politics and government.

By her reaction, I might as well have told her that I planned to overthrow the government of the state of South Carolina. Her eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. She then proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was never to let anyone hear me say that again.

Mom was polite and said nothing at the time to dispute the admonishment I had just suffered. Her friend, I am sure, meant no harm. Like my dad’s despondent parishioner who had exclaimed, “I’ve been down so long, getting up never crosses my mind,” she had been beaten down by the limited expectations of Jim Crow.

And she was probably not alone in feeling that a little black boy growing up in Sumter, South Carolina, could find himself in grave jeopardy were it to be found out that he harbored such radical thoughts.

But that evening, after Mom closed the beauty shop, she called me to the kitchen table.

A message of expectations

“Don’t pay any attention to what that lady said,” Mom told me firmly, looking me straight in the eye. “Things are going to change. If you stay in school and study hard, you will be able to realize your dreams.”

This was not just a mom-and-son pep talk.

These were solemn words, spoken with authority and conviction, expressing not just support for me and my ambitions, but also conveying to me a strong message of their expectations of me.

Mom and Dad were not just raising children to dream lofty dreams; they were busy organizing a vast conspiracy of resistance to the cruelty of Jim Crow. They were instilling in me the will to carry out a fight that they knew they could not finish. They were pushing me to dream the dreams that they knew they could never realize for themselves.

That’s what I wanted to tell them during my private moment of reflection the night Barack Obama captured the Democratic nomination for the presidency. I wanted to tell them that their fight was being won and their dreams were coming true.

Some Americans proclaimed Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency as something of a miracle. It was far from it.

This was the triumph of decades and decades of people such as Enos and Almeta Clyburn pushing and driving their children and their friends not to yield to the oppression of the system and instilling in them the will to resist what had been imposed on them.

All I knew that evening sitting around the kitchen table on Walker Avenue was that Mom was telling me her family had far outgrown the kind of cotton-field mentality her friend had tried to impose on me a few hours earlier. ...

Clyburn memoir

Excerpts this week in The State newspaper

Tuesday: How did the Clyburn brothers get a jump on school, starting before they were old enough, according to state law? Creative solutions.

Wednesday: How replacing a high school quarterback led to a strike, marches and intervention by the Clyburn-led Human Affairs Commission.

Thursday: It’s 2:15 a.m. and a former president of the United State is on the phone – and very angry. Excerpts will be available online at on the evening before their print publication.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” by James E. Clyburn, to be published May 1, 2014, by the University of South Carolina Press in Columbia. Used with the permission of the publisher.

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