Kevin Jennings, |
Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son
Kevin Jennings grew up as a preacher's son (the son of a Southern Baptist minister) and a mama's boy (more interested in intellectual pursuits than athletics). This memoir is not merely the story of a homosexual boy living below the poverty line in the Deep South. Jennings's personal struggles with family and community acceptance are neither extreme nor representative of the majority. The strength of Jennings's life story lies in the experiences and incidents that led to his career as an activist. The author is able to portray the gradual development of his adult activist spirit, so far removed from the boy who lived in fear of school and his classmates.
As a reader, I especially enjoyed the story of young Kevin's black sister-in-law. His decade-older brother came back from military service with (gasp!) a black wife. They were exiled from the family and community and moved to the Northeast. Kevin had been raised to believe that the Ku Klux Klan, while not a part of his immediate family, did good for the whites in the South. He was ingrained with beliefs about the scourge of blacks in the South. He had extreme anxiety about visiting his brother and sister-in-law, but when he arrived at their house, he learned first-hand what a lovely woman Claudette was, and they quickly became friends and confidantes. Kevin's earliest moment of activism was introducing Claudette to all the family members at a funeral, and ensuring that they all shook her hand and talked politely with her, despite her outsider status.
Jennings was the first member of his family to go to college, but the family was disappointed that he chose a profession as unimportant and unmanly as teaching. If there is one lesson from Jennings' story, it is this: a teacher learns as much from his students as they do from him. A teacher who goes into the classroom ready to learn from his or her students has boundless capacity for growth. Jennings worked at a number of private institutions in his early career, learning from his students what level of "outness" they could accept (a lot, it turns out). He spoke up against administration policies that did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He formed early gay-straight alliances, describing the impetus that came directly from both gay and straight students who placed importance on such partnerships.
I highly recommend this book as high-school classroom reading. Jennings has a life story with elements of poverty (classism), sexism, racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation. These are universal issues, and his personal experiences provide a starting point for dialogue about acceptance and the destruction of stereotypes.
28 March 2009
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