“Of the Yamacraw children, I can say little. I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the inexorable fact that they were imprisoned by the very circumstance of their birth.” – Pat Conroy, The Water Is Wide
Recently, the New York Times reported on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, one of the few places inhabited by a people called the Geechees.
Descendants of slaves, the Geechees once populated the island’s shoreline, but have been progressively pushed inward as affluent people who want a home on the water purchased choice island lots. Most recently, property taxes on Sapelo soared, leaving locals buried under bills.
In a place where people outnumber jobs and racial tensions pulse through the coastal history, locals on Sapelo wonder if the increase in property taxes signals a kind of forced evacuation from their homes and, inevitably, from their culture.
Today, as Occupy movements and uprises saturate the news, more and more people believe their voices, combined with those of others, can create change. As a byproduct of unified protests, we see revealed through conversations and storytelling the otherwise unseen harrowing conditions of individuals who may be victims of systemic inequalities … and people imprisoned by “the very circumstance of their birth.”
Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, published 40 years ago in 1972 and deeply relevant today, tells one such story, a poignant account of an island, its people and their persistent fight to break through bonds of past slavery and current societal bias.
At 21, Conroy graduated from the Citadel, a military college 70 miles away from his self-proclaimed hometown of Beaufort, S.C. Growing up in the segregated South, he sometimes questioned the goodness of the world and its people.
The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. coincided with an internal call for change. Conroy, later author of best-seller novels (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini and others) applied to the Peace Corps and after a period of no response, he approached the superintendent of Beaufort’s schools and requested a teaching assignment on Yamacraw Island.
Yamacraw lies off the cost of South Carolina, a short distance from Savannah. The isolated island can only be reached by boat. The Geechee people have long inhabited Yamacraw in a culture of camaraderie and simplicity, counting on the sea and its famous oysters for a living.
When Conroy ventured onto Yamacraw, he found troubles. A factory in Savannah had contaminated the oysters and in turn, island life. An exodus of local people left the few remaining islanders fighting for limited jobs and searching for an identity.
Conroy taught under the authority of pious white men and alongside a black teacher who “wanted to be white,” as he writes. In his first days at Yamacraw, he witnessed the spirit of his students but also found them labeled “inadequate” by those appointed to educate them. Mrs. Brown, the only other teacher at the school, corralled students with a belt and bluntly called them “retarded.”
Conroy, contrary to commands, refused to control his students with physical force or to use outdated textbooks passed down from the mainland white schools. Instead, he offered his students experiences.
To encourage confidence, he played classical music for his class and aided students in the memorization of classical musicians and their pieces. Then he invited guests from the mainland to his classroom so students could impress them with their knowledge of such a prestigious subject.
Baffled by his students’ unfamiliarity with traditional Halloween festivities, Conroy arranged, under much scrutiny, a trip to Beaufort. Frowned on by his colleagues, the upstart teacher approached the families of islanders, asking for permission to take their children off Yamacraw for a night of Halloween fun. Reasonably distrusting of outsiders, particularly white outsiders, the locals questioned Conroy’s motives and his ability to safely transport their children.
Edna, the island’s matriarch, initially refused Conroy’s appeal. But Conroy’s gift for flattery convinced Edna and, in turn all the islanders, to concede their children for a strange, eye-opening, wondrous Halloween night off Yamacraw.
Conroy writes: “After the Halloween trip, one thought began to form and crystallize without my knowledge, and when I finally acknowledged its presence, it was already a part of me: simply, that life was good, but it was hard; we would prepare to meet it head-on, but we would enjoy the preparation.”
As Conroy built a metaphorical bridge between the island and the mainland—heck, the whole world—and as he blended with islanders, those above him inevitably questioned his ability to do his job, along with his motives and his loyalty to the school district. A petty dispute over gas bills grew into Conroy’s near dismissal from his job as a teacher on Yamacraw.
It is here, when Conroy seems most vulnerable, that we learn the true depths of his relationships with the people of Yamacraw Island and those on the mainland.
Under pressure from the school board, Conroy asks to speak at a meeting. The board’s fancy, brand-new meeting room stands in stark contrast to island classroom conditions.
Conroy describes the board members as “a lot of calories under gray suits, a lot of talk behind bright ties, and a lot of coarse laughter.” With an island-drafted document written in his support, the company of a few island people, his family, and his varied group of friends, Conroy speaks forthrightly to the board. In his speech, he defends himself, but also details the “education” of the island:
“Six children who could not recite the alphabet. Eighteen children who did not know the President. Eighteen children who did not know what country they lived in…”
I slammed twenty-three of those strange facts down their throats, hoping they would gag on the knowledge. My voice grew tremulous and enraged, and it suddenly felt as if I were shouting from within a box with madmen surrounding me, ignoring me, and taunting me with their silence.
In this silence and the accusatory arguments that followed, those in support of Conroy boisterously battled the school board, voicing their disgust with conditions on Yamacraw and their belief in Conroy and his teaching.
With this convening of the school board, readers realize how Conroy afforded a once silenced island a voice and a chance to tell its story. In his listing of the horrors committed under the banner of education, we and the people of Beaufort come to understand that a school building doesn’t equate to an education … and that withholding genuine education from people breeds ignorance and perpetuates a system of racism and disenfranchisement.
The spirit of The Water Is Wide is the spirit of Yamacraw, the spirit of the Geechee people, whose oral tradition gave us some of the famous Brer Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris. The feisty and resilient students simultaneously induce laughter and tears. Their parents, burdened by the reality of the island at present compared to the island they once knew, sing a soulful song and offer the comforts of wisdom and inherent kindness (with pleasantly rough edges).
One deep question haunts readers throughout:
How does society imprison people?
In The Water Is Wide we learn that the people of Yamacraw live without a true education, limiting their hopes of ever leaving the island … nevermind traveling or inventing or starting a business or engaging in behavior most Americans take on as a birthright.
Set at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Conroy’s work couldn’t be more relevant to us today.
I know firsthand.
From 2010 to 2012, I taught eighth-grade reading with Teach For America in a middle school on the border of Texas and Mexico. Nearly all my students came from impoverished immigrant families, many legal … and some illegal, I’m sure. For the past two months, I’ve worked as a librarian on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest places in the United States.
Like the young Conroy, I observe students and families lost in a maze of poverty, desperately trying to figure out their value in a society that basically keeps them in a geographic and socioeconomic holding cell of deprivation.
In both places, the illiteracy of my students shocked me. I questioned how a child who couldn’t read above a second grade reading level cycled through grade school and most of middle school to make it all the way to eighth grade. More horrifying, I questioned the quality of their futures when … or even if … they ever graduate from high school.
Here on the barren Plains, once populated with Native people defined by strength and humility, I see the saddest students of all. They sacrifice hope to alcoholism. Their broken culture makes broken families. They live in a culture that seems to command they forget the indigenous roots that birthed them.
They keep me awake at night.
Without transformational change, without a belief in their worth and voice, my students recycle generation by generation from their formerly rich culture into one now burdened with teen pregnancies, alcohol abuse, low percentages of college-educated individuals, and a dependency on social services.
Like the kids of Yamacraw, my students, here and in Texas, embody spirit, perseverance, worth. Even so, a force greater than they are, greater than their families, imprisons them. They fall captive to a belief that a school building equates to an education, an illusion that low achievement resides in their genetics instead of in the cruel codes dictated by those who live far from the ruin they cause.
Pat Conroy started teaching on Yamacraw after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Water Is Wide told a story of a community still enslaved by the effects of racism … and one man’s mission to offer a voice to those people.
Today, as cruel as Dr. King’s, we witness a different sort of assassination—the slow assassination of cultures through indifferent wealthy expansion and empty education.
The Water Is Wide reminds us of the worth of silent people, the value of humanity, and the fight for fairness faced by those past and present. Conroy’s book offers insight into the beauty of their stories and irrepressible voices to tell them.
The Water Is Wide reminds us that this is a time to listen to—no, hear—the stories now being told by once silent voices.
Natalie Sturdevant is a librarian at Crazy Horse School on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is also an alumnus of Teach For America-Rio Grande Valley.