September 23, 2010

I Have Tales To Tell: Teachings from Don West

"Poverty pays unless you're poor."
- Don West (1906-1992)

Look Here, America (1946)

I want to tell, America,
About victory —
About sharecroppers, tenants,
Black men and Crackers,
And you must listen
And look
And think deep...

For tomorrow in a new world
You must lift your head,
America —
Proud of yourself,
Proud that a Georgia Cracker
Can clasp the hand of a Black man
And say:

Look here, America.
Bend your head toward me
And listen.
Make your dreaming eyes to look
For I have tales to tell
And little pieces
Of twisted life
To show...

You must look, America,
And listen
And think deep.
For even I, a Georgia Cracker —
One of your own mongrels —
Am grieved
By looking
At what I’ve seen...

Don West achieved success as one of the foremost southern regional poets of the twentieth century. He was at different times a labor organizer, political radical, preacher, progressive educator, and outspoken spokesperson for human equality in the generation before the civil rights movement. Although he is best known for his literary works, West was also an effective proponent of the Social Gospel, embraced by some of the South’s most dedicated religious reformers.

Born in 1906 in Devil’s Hollow, near Ellijay in Gilmer County, Donald L. West grew to young adulthood in the north Georgia mountains. The eldest son of a farmer, he took pride in the independent spirit that had made his forebears nonconformists who opposed slavery in the antebellum years. This heritage of independence expressed itself in West’s career, during which he often found himself at odds with the folkways and beliefs of the communities in which he lived and worked. Throughout his life he remained committed to a progressive view of ethnic and racial harmony, which linked him with his personal family history.  

Imbued with the folk school philosophy, in 1932 he collaborated with Myles Horton to establish the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Later in 1964, West and his wife helped to open the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, West Virginia, where West worked until his death in 1992.

Read more at the Georgia Encyclopedia.

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