Monday, January 16, 2012

Eben Miller's "Born along the Color Line"

Eben Miller teaches at Southern Maine Community College and lives in Lewiston, Maine.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement:
Casting my book as a movie, I'll start with the easiest role to fill. In this collective biography, the role of a distinct place—the Troutbeck estate in Amenia, New York—actually nears in significance to some of the main figures involved. Happily, the sylvan setting where the men and women I write about gathered together in 1933 remains largely intact as the Troutbeck Inn and Conference Center.

Of the roughly two dozen up-and-coming African American leaders invited to Troutbeck in 1933, my book explores the lives of five key individuals. Their biographies, woven together with the story of the conference they attended at Troutbeck, illuminate a generational struggle to secure civil rights for African Americans.

I can see Derek Luke as Louis Redding, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the first African American admitted to the bar in Delaware. To portray him, Luke could capture Redding's professionalism, intellect, and commitment to social justice—all the while conveying the young man's struggle to meet the expectations of his small, middle class community in Wilmington.

As Abram Harris, a brilliant young economist who taught at Howard University, I'd expect Michael Ealy to cause a run on tweed and wire-rimmed spectacles. Beyond the vintage props, Ealy could offer something nearly as antiquated by voicing passionate advocacy for an interracial movement among American industrial workers.

Few who met Juanita Jackson failed to comment on her buoyant character and impressive dedication to the cause of African Americans' civil liberty, whether as a church-based youth organizer in Baltimore or as the founding coordinator of the NAACP's national youth movement during the mid-1930s. As Jackson, Kerry Washington could ably project these qualities, but also offer the role a necessary, thoughtful gravity.

Anthony Mackie could play a perfect Moran Weston, a divinity school graduate who served as an organizer with the Harlem-based Negro Labor Victory Committee. Extant during World War II, the committee was most noted for putting on spectacular "Negro Freedom Rallies" at Madison Square Garden designed to fuse entertainment and political action. What an opportunity to feature today's stars as celebrities from the past—Duke Ellington, Pearl Primus, Murial Rahn, and Josh White.

Seeking black freedom during a reactionary era was not without political peril, though. I envision Jeffrey Wright as Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Prize winning United Nations diplomat who in 1954 was forced to account for his loyalty to the nation. Did his belief that African Americans deserved equal economic opportunity make him a Communist? Wright could enliven Bunche's righteous indignation to this accusation.

As for cameo roles, I'll continue this marvelous daydream by picturing a supporting cast featuring Giancarlo Esposito (as W.E.B. Du Bois), Sam Waterston (as Joel Spingarn), Alfre Woodard (as Alice Dunbar-Nelson), Andre Braugher (as Lews "PaPA" Redding), Terrence Howard (as Walter White), Lance Reddick (as Roscoe Dunjee), and Glenn Close (as Mary White Ovington).

John Sayles, David Simon, and Oprah Winfrey—this project awaits your talents and influence.
Learn more about Born along the Color Line at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue