Document 88B: Elaine DeLott Baker, "Contextualizing the Waveland Memo," , Elaine DeLott Baker Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. 3 pp.
I began writing this piece in 1995, a year after the 1994 Freedom Summer reunion in Mississippi and a year after I rediscovered the box of documents that form the basis of this collection. I had just begun a doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Innovation at the University of Colorado, Denver, and I was excited about applying my new analytical skills to my Mississippi experiences. My new analysis of the memo is therefore quite different from the terms I used in 1994. The memo remained the same but commentary on it reflected a greater depth of perspective.
Contextualizing the Waveland Memo
It was in the late seventies that I first heard about scholarly interest in the Waveland memo. My close friend Casey Hayden told me a woman named Sarah Evans would be calling to ask me if I remembered anything about it. Sarah Evans never did contact me, and I don't know what I would have said then if she had. Casey recently found a copy of the letter she sent to me, Penny, Emmy, and Theresa in response to Sarah, asking us if we had written the memo, but I don't remember receiving or answering it.
The life I was immersed in at that time was a different type of life. But I do remember that my first question to Casey was, "Is she black or white?". I was surprised when Casey answered "white", suprised that a white person would be doing research on the civil rights movement. It was part of how I saw things then, that movement history belonged to black people. I still viewed the movement as something that belonged to someone else, something I had been priviliged to take part in, but not something for whites to present and interpret to the outside world. Black struggle, black movement, black history. It was how I saw it until very recently.
So many of our movement memories, my friends and mine, are blocked in pain, submerged under the weight of confusion and regret for what was lost, what we didn't accomplish, our individual internalization of grief and despair over our failures. Still, as we get older and further from that pain, the memories begin to reemerge, jogged by circumstances, events, letters, books, images, encounters, and our own personal journeys back to reconsider our youthful past, in its pain, its beauty and its brilliance.
A year ago two events coincided that changed my relationhsip to the past. The first was the recovery of forgotten boxes of material from my days in Mississippi, materials that resurfaced from the basement after the sale of our family home following my mother's death. The second was attending the Mississippi Freedom Summer Reunion in Jackson in June of last year. With Mississippi journals and diaries, position papers, and project reports still fresh in my mind, I returned to Jackson to meet with my old colleagues, my sisters and my brothers. Since then I have read, reflected, conversed with friends, and written. "Contextualizing Waveland" focuses on one moment in time, an intersection of movement history, women's history, and my own personal history.
"Contextualize" is a favorite word in academic life. It tells us that the world is slippery, that to understand anything we must understand everything, and that to understand everything we must know everything. Tough job. My personal understanding of what it means to contextualize is heavily influenced by systems theory, a way of looking at human interaction as a system of interconnecting relationships and constraints. When I encountered formal systems theory (Bateson) and change theory (Clarke) during my recent reentry into academic life, I felt I had found a conceptual
[p. 2]framework that resonated with the way I viewed the world.
So that's what I'd like to do here, to contextualize, to describe what I understand to be the influences that interacted at a particular moment in time, the specific context that gave birth to the Waveland memo. My perspective is that of a primary participant, although I am not arguing for a formal acknowledgement of that role. That's a different argument for a different time, and for someone other than myself. But no matter what the reader may think of the particular circumstances that led to the writing of the memo, this is the truth as I see it: "Waveland Contextualized".
Who was that person in the mimeograph room late that night, huddling with friends around an underground document. By the fall I was an angry young woman, indignant at the disparity between ideology and action, between what I believed to be the ideals of SNCC and the way I felt SNCC people treated each other. I expected better. I believed we were struggling to create a better society and that part of that struggle was learning how to be free.
We talked about freedom all the time, about being free. My own version of what freedom meant was an odd mixture of idealism, a rebellious nature, a distrust of authority, experiences, and philosophical ideas, many of which came from learned friends who revelled in Wittgenstein, the existentialists, and radical marxist theory. I liked the sadness of Camus and Sartre, but I was drawn more by the mystery, I think, than the intellectual purity of despair.
I never really though of myself as an intellectual. As a high schooler I read incessantly, influenced by the writings of Upton Sinclair, Emile Zola, and Sartre, but I felt ill prepared for Harvard. A working class kid from a public high school, I was overwhelmed at what I saw as the vast expanse of knowledge and worldliness possessed by my classmates. But Harvard did teach me one exceptionally important thing. It gave me confidence in my ability to evaluate information and make instant decisions about what I thought.
It is a merciless game that is played in Ivy League settings, with every person always on the spot, expected to present an informed opinion within instants of coming accross information. Those endless hours around the coffee tables at the "Bic" and in our other haunts around Harvard Square taught me to read and react to the New York Times within seconds of hearing or reading an article, to know exactly how to critique a movie within moments of walking out of the Brattle Theatre, and how to respond to ideas in the time it took to hear or read them.
Harvard was not for the intellectually timid. But for all its wretched elitism, its hideous stodginess, its nasty
[p. 3]competitiveness, and the enormity of its social blindness, Harvard was a great trainer of the mind. I emerged from my three years there the same defiant and rebellious young woman who had entered, now fully equipped with a cold and merciless intellect. My belief in the power of the intellect as the great purveyor of truth would be one of the casualties of my experiences in Mississippi, but that was to be a long and painful process. In the fall of 1964 I still trusted in my intellect to discern what was real, and believed in the role of the intellect in altering of the course of events. I believed that if we could expose the truth,
we were learning about freedom, but it was through feeling the constraints of trying to be free, not through any triumphant victory over the forces of power, racism and sexism.
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