I Hear My People Singing
Voices of African American Princeton
By Kathryn Watterson Princeton
University Press. 400 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
Kathryn Watterson is a wonderful writer and teacher in Princeton. She enlarges our world in I Hear My People Singing, a collection of oral histories about the African American community in Princeton. Many might be surprised to learn there is such a community, that it has been there as long as the town has, and that it has a long memory. Singing renders all those truths vibrant and alive, in the voices of those who lived in that community for the past century and more.
Starting in 1999-2000, for her fall writing seminar, "Life Stories: Writing Oral History," Watterson, who has long ties to the African American community, had her students study it, speak to its elder members, record interviews, do further research, and write about what they learned. "Many of the students saw and felt racism in a new way," she writes in her introduction; she loved "seeing the students tearing off the blinders" and unlearning myths of race and racial superiority. That led to a wider effort to record and archive these records.
This book features excerpts from almost two decades of interviews, 55 oral histories, including some from the Historical Society of Princeton. It tells of "the North's most Southern town," where blacks were bought and sold for the greater part of a century, where organized racism persisted into the 1990s and past.
Not everyone remembers racism; many kids grew up happy. Others remember the frustrations of being treated as less-thans, in employment, the professions, housing, marriage. You keep encountering amazing statements. Sophie Hall Hinds (1875-1974) remembers back to when she was around 6, when the train carrying the body of President James A. Garfield came through: "People put pennies down on the railroad track for when his train come by." Her husband, Albert Hinds (1902-2006): "Now my grandfather, of course, he was a slave, and I guess he was pretty young when he came up. But he helped build the Brooklyn Bridge."
Hank Pannel, born 1939: "I guess everybody remembers Einstein from when we were kids. He used to give us nickels." Donald Moore, born 1932, talking to an agent who refuses to sell him a house: "He said, 'A black family coming in would just ruin it.' I said, 'We're going to try to do everything we can to get in.' He said, 'We're going to try to do everything we can to keep you out. ' "
Resilience and creativity come through strongest: cutting wood, raising chickens, making ice cream, pooling money for comic books. This marvelous, well-illustrated book lets us hear a community's precious voice. Mostly, that voice speaks bitterness less than something else, as Johnnie Dennis (1903-2007) tells us: "I like - I love - everybody."