Walking Back Up Depot Street:Poems

Minnie Bruce Pratt

Why I Wrote Walking Back Up Depot Street

I began these poems in 1981. I had recently finished graduate school, and found myself living in deeply conservative cities in North Carolina. Though I had written poetry in college, I stopped when I married a poet in 1966—that being an era when a woman married the person she wanted to be. But I had started writing again when I became involved in the women’s liberation movement, and had completed a poetry chapbook.

I was making my living by teaching in historically Black colleges. And I was a white woman who had been raised in segregated Alabama in the 1950s. I had grown up in a town where the water in drinking fountains was labeled by so-called "race," and where the cemetery had barbed wire down the middle to separate white people and African-Americans even in death. Until I began teaching at Fayetteville State and Shaw University, I had never eaten a meal, had a social or intellectual conversation, much less developed a friendship, with an African-American person, or any person of color.

At the same time, I was "coming out" as a lesbian, and was losing custody of my children as my husband used the anti-gay sodomy laws of the state against me in court. Suddenly I discovered the punishment that could happen to me when I stepped outside the narrow boundaries of "womanhood" given to me by my upbringing. And I began to think about, and feel deeply, what I might have in common with people from whom I had been divided in the past, the ones I had been taught were "the other."

Right about this time, an event occurred that led directly to my beginning Walking Back Up Depot Street. In Greensboro, North Carolina, five union organizers who were holding a public rally were shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan, on a public street. Despite the fact that the murders were videotaped by a local TV station crew, the Klan members were all acquitted by a local jury; their defense was that they had shot to "protect" one of their white women members. The wives of Klan members interviewed by the press said that yes, they knew their husbands belonged to the Klan, but really, they didn’t know or care what they did "outside the home."

It seemed beyond belief to me that such murders could go unpunished. Yet every week I drove by graffiti that said, "Be A Man, Kill A Commie." I felt keenly, furiously, how I was living within a system that justified murder, still, in the name of "white womanhood," in my name! I rejected this system, I rejected my place in it. But, having been raised to occupy that place, how did I change? And how did I find the language, facts, ideas, and actions to replace the lies and myths I had been taught? How did I make a "home" that was not based on my acquiescing to this murderous system? How did I find the other people also committed to this struggle?

So in 1981 I invented Beatrice, who could walk back into the past and find the history of resistance that I had never been taught, and who could walk into the future to show me what I needed to do next.

Selections from Walking Back Up Depot Street in English