This column was published Sunday, January, 27, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.
We were not exactly friends in high school. In fact, a generous description would be arms-length rivals. Grant Overstake was chorus and madrigals, I was orchestra and pep band. He was varsity football and spring musical lead, I was let’s cut Algebra 2 class and go pound some 16-ounce Budweisers. Grant was newspaper, I was yearbook. As fledgling teenage journalists, we trudged two similar, but very distinct paths at Wichita Heights.
While our yearbook faculty advisor encouraged a healthy spirit of competition with the newspaper staff, I’ll cop to not getting that deep or much past high school one-upsmanship. This manifested itself in short-sighted decisions. When the time came to select photos of the newspaper staff for inclusion in the yearbook, our goal was to find the most unflattering poses.
Out in the real world, we both pursued journalism, Grant as an ink-stained wretch, me wrestling the then-industry standard 1-inch videotape cassette decks, lights and cameras of TV news.
Not really surprising, I guess, that we each evolved into authors. His The Real Education of TJ Crowley is a young adult novel, drawn from Overstake’s own upbringing and surroundings in the heart of the civil rights struggle in 1968 Wichita.
What happens when what are perceived to be clearly defined and understood social boundaries are blown through by someone who doesn’t look like us?
My book, Spifflicated (a 1930’s slang term with dual meanings, the first translates to “plastered,” the second, to stifle, suffocate, ruin), is a creative non-fiction family memoir based on three years of purposeful conversations with my father at the end of his life about his troubled childhood with raging alcoholic parents. Spifflicated spans a quarter century (1931-1956) in Kansas and points westward.
Each book, at its core, is about dysfunction. TJ powerfully illustrates the dysfunction of racism, traced upstream to individual closed hearts. Spifflicated is based on an illness that centers in the mind and is characterized by self-driven thinking that results in choices that can destroy families.
The “cure” for each starts with awareness, which can open the door to willingness to change.
This month, we marked the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appearance in Manhattan, three months before he was gunned down in Memphis, six months before the story of TJ unfolds in Wichita.
In Manhattan, in January 1968, King told a packed Ahearn Fieldhouse that “…somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” I interpret that as change requires action.
Ordinances designed to prevent discrimination served as the impetus for a black family to move in next door to TJ in northeast Wichita in 1968. Meanwhile, across town where I lived, white kids, including my younger brother, were bused to schools in black neighborhoods and vice versa.
Fair housing laws and busing were the city commission and school board’s tactical answers to a larger communal strategy of integration, obliterating decades of separate but equal justification and rationalization – upended by a legal action that also had its origins in Kansas.
Fifty-one years later, people who look like me and Grant Overstake remain overwhelmingly the majority in Kansas, though as our society evolves, that trend line is descending. In fact, studies indicate within half a century, Kansas will be a majority-minority state with people who look like me and Grant comprising less than half our population.
The definition of the word, ‘majority’ won’t change, just 200 years of knee-jerking to deeply-ingrained collective assumptions.
I wrote Spifflicated for a broad general adult audience, but also for a narrower band of those who have experienced the heartaches that accompany addiction. That band is much wider than I imagined, based on feedback I’ve received.
In my book, I seek to illustrate the self-destructive behaviors of addiction through the lives of those from whom I sprang, whose DNA and blood I carry. It’s passive, in the sense that if a reader recognizes troubling traits and wants to do something about it, they’re free to knock themselves out. In fact, that’s the only way it works.
Grant Overstake’s book takes that a step further and builds in an action step. His target audience is “young adult,” generally recognized in the book publishing game as teenagers. Grant tells a compelling story, but he also wrote TJ to serve as a resource, to reach those young adults in the classroom and foster a conversation about race and social justice.
Every Kansas teenager should read The Real Education of TJ Crowley, for lessons on how it used to be, but more importantly, for the opportunity to realize how their thoughts and actions can shape the Kansas and America of the future.