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[Biography] Interview with Erin Goseer Mitchell, Author of Born Colored

Interview with Erin Goseer Mitchell, Author of Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday.

I had the pleasure of meeting Erin Goseer Mitchell two years ago when we attended a writing retreat given by renowned author Tina Ansa McElroy (Baby of the Family, Ugly Ways) on Sapelo Island, off of the Georgia coast. This petite little lady was a hit with everyone. Even though Erin has been living in Chicago for almost forty years, she still bears a trace of the southern accent she acquired having been born in Selma, Alabama and raised in Fitzgerald, Georgia. Her summers were spent in Selma with her maternal grandparents. Erin experienced two communities, Fitzgerald and Selma, in which she felt safe, loved and protected. But no amount of protection could save her from the stark racism that pervaded her life growing up in the 1940s. Erin expounds on that in her 2005 self-published collection of memoirs, Born Colored: Life Before Bloody Sunday, which expounds on her life as a Colored girl before the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. Now going into its fourth printing, Born Colored has been recognized by several institutions and is required reading in some schools. I was able to catch Erin during a break in her busy schedule promoting her book.

DRW: Erin, how did you come about writing your memoir? How long did it take?

EGM: I had never told my daughters, Audrey and Greta, what it was like for me growing up in the segregated south. When I returned to Fitzgerald for its Centennial Celebration in 1996, I began to recall Fitzgerald during my youth. I began to make notes of now and then. The more notes I made the more I remembered. I decided that I must write all of these memories down for my children and grandchildren. This was an eight year long project, from the beginning until the published books were delivered to my home.

DRW: We realize that African Americans have all kinds of stories and more often than not, the stories we hear are those about a difficult childhood full of poverty, adversity and dysfunction. Your story is very far from that; though you were not wealthy, you were brought up in a middle-class home with college educated parents surrounded by love from family and community. Why is this kind of story important?

EGM: I have received many thank you notes, letters, calls and e-mails from friends as well as strangers thanking me for "telling our story"; the side of our history that had been downplayed. All of us were not ignorant or sharecroppers or lazy or dysfunctional. Even the people who were poor were not always lazy, but caught up in an unfair system of wages. The bad news stories have gotten more widespread publication. I suppose these have more potential for selling but these have certainly given a distorted picture of our "Colored" communities. There were a lot of hard working, honest, honorable people in my community.

DRW: Where does your book belong in the construct of American history?

EGM: With our renewed interest in our history, the renewal of the Civil Rights Act, Mrs. King's death and the discussion of her work, I think my book sets the stage for the reasons for the sit-ins, boycotts, marches and civil disobedience. I tell about day-to-day injustices, -- more than the common knowledge of the "back of the bus" and the Colored water fountains and toilets (or lack of them). I feel that I have filled in some of the blanks with my stories. I'd like for our younger generation to know of their "bridges".

DRW: Your mother is still living. What does she think of the book? What about your children and grandchildren?

EGM: Mama is still living. She made 94 this past September. She still lives alone, does her own cooking, errands. She still drives--very slowly and not at rush hour (rush hour in Fitzgerald, ha ha) small town!

When I first began writing, Mama was nervous and told me not to write anything "bad". I told her then that I would write what I knew and what I felt. Many of my early stories were published in the Fitzgerald Herald-Leader newspaper at home. They were so well received and everywhere she went people told her how much they enjoyed the articles. She was so very proud then and continues to be proud and supportive.

My daughters understand me better now since they know what events formed my thinking and actions. They are very proud and supportive of my efforts in spreading the word.

DRW: How has your book been received by the people in your hometown as well as your alma mater, Spelman College?

EGM: The people in Fitzgerald in both the black and white communities have been very supportive. I've gotten many words of praise, encouragement and thanks. When I was a child, I could not go to the public library. Now my book is in the library collection!
The Spelman Messenger printed a very wonderful review in the spring 2006 publication. I've had a book signing there. When ever I return for visits my Spelman sisters buy my book on the spot. Many of them have become my agents.I've received many orders from Spelmanites. It will be required reading for one (at least) class at Morehouse this fall. The Morehouse book store is selling them.

DRW: Did you and your peers ever talk about the racism and bigotry you experienced growing up? Did your parents talk about it?

EGM: We (my schoolmates and I) talked about the worn, torn discards (books, furniture) from the white school. The children who had to walk past two white schools, in the rain and cold complained. Many times when we said our daily "Pledge of Allegiance", we would let our voices drop so the teacher couldn't understand that we said "with liberty and justice for some." My parents didn't talk about it a lot. My daddy had a sign in his office (principal of Colored elementary school) that said "That which cannot be changed must be endured." He secretly admired those of us who protested and complained about conditions. We got his silent approval.

DRW: There is a place in the book when you were traveling home from college and a conductor assumed you were white and you did not correct him and you went and sat in the white section of the train. Your parents were horrified when they picked you up at the train station. Why do you think you took that risk? A streak of rebellion?

EGM: When the white conductor mistook me for white and directed me to the white coach I was probably more curious and an opportunist. As I recall, I did not feel rebellious at all. I just wanted to see what the white coach was like. It certainly was different; I never thought that I was putting my parents in jeopardy.

My feelings were very different when I refused to go to the back of the shoe store in Atlanta, when the salesperson directed me there. That was rebellion--very deliberate! (Spelman story p 154- 3rd printing)

DRW: What has your publishing journey been like?

EGM: This has been one of the most interesting and challenging parts of my life. After my stories grew into a book length manuscript, I began seeking a publisher. One publisher who had announced on national TV that they were seeking "our" stories, that they would help get them in order for publication--just write them down. When I looked them up, at the time they were only accepting "agented" work. That was a disappointment. I submitted to about six other publishers. Two publishers kept my work for a year. A few places I got quick, turn-around rejections. I then decided that I was too old to keep waiting and looking for a publisher. I decided to self-publish. I have not regretted my decision. The publishers who held my work for too long really did me favors. The timing of my publishing was at the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, near the renewed interest in Emmett Till and our history and the death of Mrs. Rosa Parks--- so the publication timing was just right. Earlier might have been too early.

DRW: Who should read your book? Have you tried to get it in libraries and classrooms?

DGM: My dream is to have my book in public schools, College libraries and the general public. I'm making inroads in these areas. Hood Seminary in N.C. had it as required reading last semester, now Morehouse. I would be so very pleased if Spelman and others would follow suit. I was pleasantly surprised this week to get an order from a public library in Niagara Falls, N.Y. I have no clue to that connection. At present it is in several public libraries and college libraries around the country. I hope that this trend continues.

DRW: Are you working on any other books or writings? What are they?

DGM: I have been asked by my "fans" for more stories. I have some others as well as poetry that is not published. At present the effort to get this book out takes so much energy that I can't concentrate on writing or compiling at the present. Maybe, soon.
(September 8, 2006)

Born Colored can be purchased at

Dera R. Williams
October 8, 2006

_Dera assists in curriculum development at a community college in Oakland California where she resides. She is also a writer of fiction and nonfiction, a columnist and budding historian and genealogist.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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