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News|March 15, 2011 10:15 pm

Lessons from Eatonton, GA: Building a Voice in a Time of Change

Over the weekend, we at iPlan Magazine were able to take a break and head out to Lake Oconee in Eatonton, Georgia.  We were so excited to be able to leave the hotel behind and enjoy a sunny day of boating, jet skiing, and BBQ.  Not doing our research, we were surprised to find that Eatonton was a resort town nestled around Lake Oconee.  The grocery store was top notch offering samples of snack foods, Waldorf salad, and nice size slices of Mahi Mahi in lemon butter. The stores in town were of boutique styles, selling high end clothing, marine gear, and mementos. Even the Ritz-Carlton maintains an expansive lodge on Lake Oconee.

Driving past all of these attractions, we approached our hosts’ lake house nestled on the lake, situated on the outskirts of town. Soon the paved roads gave way to red dirt roads, and the boutiques gave way to small bait shops, churches, and farms. A small sign off the main road read “Author’s Driving Tour this direction.” Underneath that, we read the names Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker.

We were amazed!  Before the glitz and glam, before the Ritz settled in and the Lake became a resort town, this scenic area way off the beaten path birthed the authors of the stories of Brer Rabbit and even more important, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple. To find that not one, but two important American authors were raised in this small piece of Georgia backwoods is an amazing fact.  Even more, to think that they captured the attention of millions of people, when their home towns where only a blip on the map.  However, as we took time to think about the context and history of the writings, a more somber and realistic tone came over our conversations.  These writings were bore from America’s most vicious shame – slavery.

Though slavery had long ended prior to the 1930′s setting of Alice Walker’s novel, the repercussions of African American social life were still effected by such things as Jim Crow laws and poor treatment to share croppers.  Following the life of the main character Celie, we see the brutality, the hardships, and the difficulties of African American women in the post slavery South.  Celie is a women that overcomes immense difficulties and traumatic events that are so terrifying that she cannot initially comprehend the beauty in herself and must address her letters to God, as she has no one else to speak to.  All of Walker’s characters, their lives, and actions are made so vivid, so real, so extraordinarily sorrowing, that to know events like those captured in the book really happened is gut wrenching.  Yet, there is hope. Hope that no matter what situation one may be born into, there is a chance to live better days, to overcome obstacles, and to find the true value of our own being.  Since publication, The Color Purple earned Alice Walker the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has been made into a movie, and also made into a Broadway production.

Though you may not be familiar with the name Joel Chandler Harris, his work is essentially made up of Southern folklore derived from the African American oral tradition.  Harris, born 20 years prior to to the end of the Civil War, grew up on a plantation, and as a boy listened to the oral stories passed down to him by slaves.  As an adult, Harris recorded and adapted the stories he heard as a boy.   Harris worked to usher in the New South by stressing regional and racial reconciliation during and after the reconstruction era.  Harris’ stories are much easier to undertake than Walker’s, as most of his stories are geared for children, with animal characters in the brier patch brought to life by Uncle Remus.  The stories are now more controversial as they are narrated in a quasi-southern style dialect that many have labeled stereotypical.  Uncle Remus’ most famous story “tar baby” has become a common political allegory for once you stick your hands into a certain issue it gets more difficult to get clean and get out.

What we had thought to be a leisurely weekend, ended up being an awakening to the power of writing and personal voice.  As leaders, it is vital to take what is around us, our paradigm, our zeitgeist and share it with others.  Personal stories, even if fictionalized are our own stories, our history, and our perspective.  Without sharing the struggles of Celie, would we ever be able to empathize with the hardships women like her endured? With out Uncle Remus, would we have had the oral folklore as shared and handed down by slaves in America? As a leader, be vigilante of your surroundings, share your stories, know your perspective is important.  Even if you do not live in a thriving metropolis, your voice can be heard over a great distance, and it can change the lives of many around the world Remember, the only constant is change.  Times change, places change, and if you do not take the initiative, like Harris and Walker, to record your history, soon your history can be wiped away forever.

To think the land we were coming to enjoy as a get away, was home to tremendous struggle is almost impossible while under the disguise of the glitz and glam, the free lemon butter Mahi Mahi, and the Ritz Carlton Resort.  If it were not for a sign on the right side of the highway presenting the Author’s Driving Tour, we would have only known that Eatonton was a new resort town, one with little past, and situated on a beautiful lake.  We would have surely been wrong. Large voices with such influence, derived from such a rural place, should give all of us inspiration to speak up and share our stories.

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  • I had a good time reading this. Especially towards the end. brings back my childhood memories! Keep posting stuff like this!

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