[In midlife, Diane Faison and her family faced multiple traumas while living in Richmond, Virginia., including the murder of her mother-in-law and family conflict over her estate.] Diane writes,
After all this, it was no surprise that my husband said he wanted to leave Richmond. I don’t want the children living in this atmosphere, he said. I said OK. Now out of the Navy, he said he wanted to find a teaching job somewhere quiet in the country. Before long he found a position in Farmville Virginia, about fifty miles away. I was teaching in Richmond, so soon he was driving from Richmond to Farmville and back every day, 50 miles each way.
I finished up my contract in Richmond and found a position in Brookville, about 5 miles from Farmville. . . . Soon we bought 70 acres that was mostly wooded. On it we built our dream house, finished in 1987. We were also both very involved with the schools there in and around Farmville, which was in Prince Edward County.
I guess I need to say something about Prince Edward County. By the time we got there many years had passed since the days of lunch counter sit-ins and Dr. King’s big march. But major civil rights history was not far away.
In 1959, when a federal court ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its schools, the county reacted by closing them all. White students were issued vouchers to pay tuition at a new private “segregation academy.” Black students were left to fend for themselves. Their schools stayed closed til 1964.
They reopened just about the time I started teaching after college. So in one way it was all over. But the memories were still fresh. And one of them was particularly meaningful to me: Late in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee started work in Prince Edward County, with an office in Farmville for what in 1960 became its Emergency Placement Program.
Through it families in non-segregated areas volunteered to take in black students from Prince Edward to attend school there. That program lasted four years, til the schools reopened. It enabled many black students to complete their disrupted high school work.
Friends = Quakers. The connection stayed with me. I learned about their tradition of quiet worship, without a church hierarchy. I liked that idea too. I often spent time on our land in silent meditation. My husband, now out of the military, sometimes talked reflectively about all the killing in war. About the time our house was finished, a gentleman who lived nearby decided to start a Quaker worship group, under the auspices of a regional association called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. We began to gather at his barn for meeting, alternating with our house.
Those were good years. The children grew, moved on through school, into college and out into adult life. Both my husband and I were honored for our work in the schools. And each February, when Black History Month came along, we joined in eagerly.
It was in 1988, when I started thinking about the coming February, that I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.
So I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books and barely any computers. I had to touch the books, lift them and open them. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.
I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman. Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person, but with such a huge courage.
The idea began to grow in my mind. I had older relatives, who didn’t have much schooling, who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice. I didn’t have to study that part.
I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read it, I felt it, and I spoke it. I was following the tradition of my people: I didn’t have to read it. Storytellers of my people don’t have scripts. But I keep learning about Harriet. Every year I find out something new about her, and I might add it to the performance, and I might not.
After that first performance in 1989, I began to get requests to perform at other schools. And those were very fulfilling too.
Yet in time, big changes came. One morning in 1997, my husband tugged me awake. When I saw him I screamed: his chest and groin were covered with blood. It was an advanced case of cancer, which he had not told anyone about.
From there I had more than a year of caregiving as he went through surgery and chemo and experimental therapies, and got weaker and weaker. When he died in 1999, I was more than devastated; we had been married thirty-one years. . . .
[In 2015, Diane married Crawford McKinzie, and moved with him to Gibsonville, North Carolina. . . .]
When I moved to Gibsonville, I felt an overwhelming need to find another Friends meeting to be part of, and I started searching for one. I finally found Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp, NC, where I do feel like I belong. Spring had an unexplainable spiritual atmosphere that felt like a warm hug. Maybe that was partly due to the fact that the Meeting has been in that spot since the late 1700s; so many Quakers have lived there, and many are buried nearby.
Mack had been career army, twenty-two years, and was a Vietnam veteran too. He had been in field units there, often under fire in combat areas, sleeping on the ground with rats and taking baths mainly in the rain, — and both the rain and the ground were running with toxic Agent Orange. Even now, sometimes he has flashback nightmares, muttering “They’re coming, they’re coming” in his sleep, and striking out, even at me.
After four good years together, Mack fell ill, and as this is written, he is contending with a number of very serious conditions. I’m again being a caregiver, essentially fulltime, juggling doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures, savoring his good days, and weathering the others.
This routine, I confess, wears me out. And I remember that Harriet too was a longtime caregiver. She built a house in Auburn, New York, where she cared for the poor, including Civil War veterans who were afflicted with what we would name PTSD, but then was called “soldier’s heart.”
Later she took care of her second husband and her aged parents there. She did this work for almost as many years as she was active in the Underground, and then the Civil War. Learning this strengthens my identification with her; besides my second husband, I too took care of my aging parents. She did this caregiving until her own health failed; she lived until 1913.
In my situation, I often get tired, and frustrated. Times of relief and release are sparse. I know that in Harriet’s years of caregiving, she found support in her religious faith and her church community. And at Spring, with Friends, when I lead the meeting, or sit and listen in the meeting, it gives me the same renewal like I feel also came to Harriet. And I have to add that the most renewing moments are when I’m performing as Harriet. . . . Even after thirty years, and several hundred appearances, speaking Harriet Tubman’s words and evoking her spirit refreshes and renews my heart and soul.
More of Diane’s story, of growing up in the time of segregation, and being a military wife during and after the Vietnam War, is in the pages of Passing The Torch.
And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
You’re invited; (more details here. )
Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen