If you’re of the right generations, just the mention of a blue book is capable of triggering waves of anxiety. For the uninitiated, it’s the bound, soft-covered notebook that college instructors distributed in which students wrote their answers to final exam questions. To kick the anxiety level up several notches for me, one professor told me that because he didn’t know me well, he would base his graduate school letter of recommendation on the quality of the blue book responses to his final exam questions. I managed to survive that high stakes trial by fire.
When I became a college professor myself, I inflicted the same punishment on my students, just as fraternity and sorority members inflict the time-honored initiation rites on new candidates that they were subjected to. My first teaching job was at Tougaloo College in Mississippi where I had a free hand in designing the elective courses in psychology that I taught. I wish I could find the syllabus for my one-of-a- kind course in political psychology which consisted of a lot of readings I was eager to dig into deeper and in some cases to read for the first time. The sense that we were all learning together injected a welcome jolt of energy into our work. It didn’t need much in a setting where the politics of race, with all its attendant psychological effects, pervaded every aspect of my students’ lives.
One student in that class stood out. She was different. She was African American, like 98% of her classmates, but she spoke with a New York accent that mirrored my own, rather than the soft Mississippi drawl you can hear in the voice of Congressman Bennie Thompson, another Tougaloo graduate. There was a sophistication about both her comments in class and her written work that spoke of a different exposure to language and ideas from her Mississippi classmates, both in schooling and in home environment. I learned that her father was a well-known radical writer and editor. In that small, insular community, I also knew that this student hung out with a group of SNCC workers who used the campus and its surrounding community as a safe haven. It was clear that this young woman had come south to make what John Lewis called “good trouble.”
That student’s name was Margaret Burnham. When she graduated in the spring of 1966, she left campus before I could return her blue book final exam with my appreciative comments and high grade. That book sat in my desk drawer ever since in the hope that I could one day return it to her. I followed her career from afar as she completed law school at the University of Pennsylvania, became a municipal court judge in Boston and finally joined the law school faculty of Northeastern University.
I was delighted to learn that Ms. Burnham had recently published a book entitled By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners. More about the book in a minute. For now, the important thing for my story is that the book earned her an invitation to the Chicago Humanities Festival where she was scheduled to speak right in my own back yard on the campus of the University of Chicago. Here at least was my opportunity to return that orphan blue book to its rightful owner. Wouldn’t you know it that, despite a frantic search, the book that I had tripped over for decades was nowhere to be found.
Nonetheless, we planned to go to Margaret’s event, both because the subject interested us and because we hoped there would be a chance to say hello, even though we were empty-handed. In her conversation with a professor from nearby Lake Forest College, Margaret described the data base she and her students had created of Jim Crow-related deaths in the pre-civil right years, the vast majority of which were never adjudicated.
Among other things, this seminal book tells the stories of some of the victims whose identities would otherwise have remained unknown. In Margaret’s words, she felt it was important to “raise up” the names of these forgotten people and to connect with their descendants to make sure they knew the true story behind their ancestor’s death. There was a feeling about the work that was reminiscent of the Movement organizing that Margaret had been exposed to in Mississippi. Traveling to the homes of the victims of these atrocities and sitting at their kitchen tables to share the data her team had collected mirrored the painstaking work of voter registration, one Black farm family at a time. When I researched her father’s history after the talk, I found eerie parallels to his work of publicizing similar atrocities as they were occurring in the 30s and 40s. In a note I wrote to Margaret the day after her talk, I commented that her father, dead of a heart attack in his mid-forties, would be so proud of the work she had chosen to focus on.
When the formal talk was done, I rushed up to introduce myself t from our front row seats before the book signing line had formed. I lowered my face mask and said, “I know you won’t recognize me, but you were in my class at Tougaloo in 1966.” I told her the story of the errant blue book and my disappointment at not being able to locate it. And here is the high point of this adventure. Her eyes widened as she got up from her chair to hug both me and Rosellen and shouted to the assembled book buyers, “This is my teacher. Oh my god, this is my teacher,” as a photographer captured the moment. Three geezers, aged 83, 83 and 78, leaping back in time 57 years to relive the roles we inhabited all those years ago. I have never felt so honored in my life, especially because the honor was bestowed by someone who had far surpassed me in her accomplishments since our youthful days at Tougaloo, when Rosellen and I, hiding behind the façade of our faculty positions, were barely five years older than our students.
We’ve since exchanged warm email messages and Margaret promised to have dinner with us next time she’s in Chicago. Perhaps by then that elusive blue book will have resurfaced, and I can close the circle by placing it in her hands. Meanwhile, I plan to praise and promote her important book to anyone who crosses my path.