What a White Man Learned Selling a Black History Encyclopedia Door to Door in 1971Breaking News
tags: African American history, Ebony Magazine, Ron DeSantis, Lerone Benett
Jonathan Odell, native of Laurel, Miss., is the author of three novels. His first novel, The View from Delphi (Macadam Cage 2004), deals with the struggle for equality in pre-civil rights Mississippi. In 2012, Random House published his second novel, The Healing, set on a slave plantation in the Mississippi Delta, which explores the power of a story to free a people. Odell’s third novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, was published in 2015 (Maiden Lane Press).
In January 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida argued against an advanced-placement course in African American studies, warning that such material acted as a trojan horse for indoctrinating students into “left-wing” ideology.
The statement infuriated me, but once I settled, I had to agree with him.
In fact, such a thing had happened to me. I was raised a racist child in the 1960s in Laurel, Miss., and it was those very trojan horses that finally slipped through my generations-old wall of white supremacy and turned me into what DeSantis would call a left-wing ideologue.
When I was 19, I was recruited to sell the first edition of Ebony Pictorial History of Black America door-to-door in African American neighborhoods to pay my way through college. This collection was the first set of Black history books that a Black author wrote for a mainstream Black market. Clarksdale, Miss., native, social historian and former Ebony magazine executive editor Lerone Bennett Jr. penned the books along with Ebony co-editors. Nobody had seen anything like it, so they should sell well I thought.
But I had never stepped foot in a Black person’s home before and was pretty sure they didn’t want me there. I was no civil-rights activist. I needed the money.
The Southwestern Company out of Nashville, Tenn., sent me to Smithfield, N.C., in the summer of 1971 where I sat in tar-paper shacks without indoor plumbing, under shade trees, out in tobacco barns or in the brick home of the rare Black professional. This same phenomenon repeated itself as parents gathered their children to see what the “white man” had brought.
I flipped through the books, showing them pictures and telling the stories of African American heroes. And not just the usually promoted sports stars and singing acts, but Black entrepreneurs, a Supreme Court justice, an Air Force general, inventors, intellectuals, orators, militants, revolutionaries, kings and queens.
I remember the solemn weight of that unknown history as it settled upon them. The children’s eyes opened wide, the parents pulled their kids closer. Sometimes there were words of amazement, sometimes a soft laugh of recognition, but always a sense of reverence—like we were in church, and great truths were being revealed. But I couldn’t quite grasp it at first.
Late that summer, I was demonstrating my books to an elderly Black man who wanted the set for his grandchildren. As we chatted, he proudly mentioned that he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I asked him what that moment meant to him, hoping to firm up the sale. He told me that before marching with Dr. King, he was seen as a “boy.” But afterward, he saw himself as a man, and nothing was the same since.
I remarked condescendingly that most Black people regarded Dr. King as a savior. But before I could flip through some pictures of King in Birmingham, the man firmly corrected me: “Not just Black folks, son. He’ll save you, too, if you let him.”