BWW Review: I HEAR MY PEOPLE SINGING by Kathryn Watterson is Captivating and Important
Fascinating history and real-life stories come to life in I Hear My People Singing, Voices of African American Princeton by Kathryn Watterson. The book tells of a vibrant African-American community, the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, that was an integral part of the elite university town of Princeton, New Jersey. It also exposes some lesser-known issues of racial segregation in the Northeast. The introductions to each chapter provide the historical context, as does the book's foreword by noted scholar, theologian, and activist Cornel West. The book is interspersed with photos that depict the people whose stories are wonderfully told.
I Hear My People Singing draws from vivid first-person accounts from over 50 black residents of Princeton who discuss aspects of their lives and that of their families in the 20th Century. Watterson and her undergraduate students of Princeton University chronicled oral history to create a vivid picture of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and the overall community. The black citizens were essential to the success of Princeton while they also created their own neighborhood that cared for its people with group organizations, places of worship, and special events.
As the neighbors speak openly to Watterson and her students, they reveal facts about Jim Crow segregation, school integration, the World Wars, and struggles for equal rights. Multiple generations faced injustices including the famed Princetonian, Paul Robeson. Many of the residents remember their contact with Albert Einstein, who spent time socializing in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The many personal accounts, like these excerpts, are truly compelling.
Helen Ball Hoagland (1920-2009) "My mother first came to Princeton with a white family. She was a little maid girl in a family in Virginia and when they moved to Princeton, they brought my mother. She was just a young child, twelve years old and her job as to be the maid to the woman she came here with, and this meant fanning the woman at mealtime, fanning her at night."
Hank Pannell (1939-) "I guess everybody my age remembers Einstein when we were kids. He used to give us nickels. Ad he used to talk to everybody in our community. I didn't know as a kid that he was Einstein. Who, Einstein? But I realize now that he came in that community just to get away and talk to people who would treat him as a regular guy."
Leonard Rivers (1934-) "When you were a kid, see, you got to understand, back in those days, there were restaurants on Nassau Street that black folks didn't go in. You didn't go into Balt; if you went into Balt, you'd better go in there and go to the bathroom and run out."
Kathleen Edwards (1924-2000) "People did a lot of things here to survive. The younger ones don't realize or they don't believe it. Because we said that the indignities and the hardships that we went through, my children will not go through. You make that promise to yourself."
Shirley Satterfield (1940-) "My family, my church, and community were my support. They were just always there. My family told me to be proud- II mean, they were just proud people, and I don't know how to explain it. We were poor but we were proud, and that's how the healing came."
It is these stories and many more that will touch your heart and inform you, provoking interesting discussions about the current state of race relations. This is the time to read and reflect on important books like I Hear My People Singing, Voices of African American Princeton.
About Kathryn Watterson
Kathryn Watterson is a writer whose award-winning books include Women in Prison (Doubleday) and Not by the Sword (Simon & Schuster). She's written for magazines, literary journals, and newspapers, including the New York Times and International Herald Tribune. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where she lives and drums.
I Hear My People Singing, Voices of African American Princeton by Kathryn Watterson is published by Princeton University Press. It can be purchased by visiting https://press.princeton.edu/titles/10955.html. It can also be purchased on Amazon.com.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Princeton University Press