In 1973 I was attending Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, when I was fortunate to hear Alex Haley speak. At that time the work that brought him such renown, Roots, was not yet published. At that time I knew of Alex Haley only from his collaborative work on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Haley's absorbing, mesmerizing talk that evening at Duke was about the research, literally detective work, that--through a few fragments of African speech, passed down from generation to generation in his family--led him to the "roots," to the origins of his people in their ancestral African home.
In much the same way, an Easter egg provided the key to the secret of a distant land and an unknown past. Recently a co-worker described how she was able to identify the very village in the Ukraine that her grandmother had come from.
When decorating Easter eggs--pysanky as they are called--my co-worker's mother had used a design that she had learned from her mother: "That's the way my mother did it." Well, it happened that, one day, mother and daughter were at a folk festival and, laid out on tables, were Easter eggs decorated in the style unique to each Ukrainian village--it was traditional that each village have its own distinctive and identifying style. Thus, by identifying the style that they knew, the style that the grandmother had brought with her to America, they were able to identify their ancestor's home village.
The six oral histories presented here can only sketch lives lived. Ms. Maggie Johnson, for instance, has over 90 years of memories. Yet, in just a few words, speaking of her mother's father back in Alabama, she manages poetically to capture a past now unrecapturable--
And he had pecans--just miles.
And equally vivid is the study in brown and white of her father astride the big horse "Charlie"--
I remember my dad had a big horse--he had white down his face, white tail, he was a big horse. His name was Charlie. Nobody could ride him but my dad. My dad would dress up, had on his brown boots, big brown hat, and he'd get in that saddle, you know, big brown saddle and my dad would go all over the community riding that horse.
Gems such as these are to be found throughout these six interviews. And, like Alex Haley's few treasured words or like my co-worker's Easter egg, Ms.Blake, Ms. Dunn, Ms. Egleston, Ms. Johnson, Mr. Lee, and Mr. Wright, in their distilled reminiscences, are providing their own "clues." Clues to the Black experience in Pittsburgh; clues to the changes that the Pittsburgh district has witnessed over the years; and clues to those human ties that bind a community--church, music, health, struggle, home, work and loss.
29 June 1999.