When commentators called the 2008 presidential election for Barack Obama, author and storyteller Clifton Taulbert celebrated, but not whole-heartedly. The child in him, raised in the segregated Mississippi Delta of the 1950s and 1960s, waited for the other shoe to drop. Surely there was a miscount. Or perhaps this was a practical joke unleashed on an impossibly large, national scale.
“I’m 50 years removed from [segregated Mississippi], but it’s a lesson of race and place that lingers. It still shows up today because we’re still seeing a lot of African-American firsts,” he says.
Standing in a hotel room on an otherwise average Tuesday evening in suburban Anytown, U.S.A., Taulbert was wrestling with the extraordinary. America had a black president. But initially, he couldn’t enjoy the finality of victory, the end of an era, the soulfully satisfying conclusion to one of the most important public conversations in the country’s history.
“I stood in the middle of the floor, and I cried. I still cry when I think about it today because I came from an era where this was impossible – totally and completely impossible. It was surreal. I thought I’d eventually wake up and none of it would have happened. I couldn’t believe it because it wasn’t believable,” Taulbert recalls.
He believes in the illuminating power of a story told well, and in his 12th book, The Invitation, Taulbert explores this “cultural post-traumatic stress disorder.”
It would be a year following the 2008 election before the story of The Invitation crystallized. It would take another six years before it saw bookstore shelves. Taulbert’s search for meaning behind the second-guessing, the hypersensitivity to the improbable, emerges in the pages of The Invitation as cultural post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If communities can be built in the face of segregation, they can be built under any conditions. Businesses with holistic communities, where every voice is respected, can succeed regardless of time and agendas.”
The Invitation – his recounting of an improbable friendship of a black baby boomer and the southern descendant of generations of slaveholders – invites readers to remember the lessons of segregation without reliving it; and it turns out, there is a sort of therapy for Taulbert’s brand of PTSD: hope.
“If the past shows up, hope is the most important bulwark. Reality isn’t the world of our childhoods. The future is not written. Be hopeful,” he says.
Taulbert’s frustration with PTSD emerges not just narratively, but stylistically. Every time the story starts rolling, Taulbert stops to check the surroundings and the audience. The discomfort of being watched and the low-level anxiety of always watching constantly remind the reader what The Invitation examines.
Once Upon A Time
It’s unlikely that Taulbert’s first book, 1989’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, would have made it to the big screen without its hopeful message.
Starring Phylicia Rashad, the film was a milestone for Taulbert. His life story, he saw, resonated powerfully with those of a much larger audience than the book gathered. It was also an important sign that his beliefs about community could resonate with a larger audience, as well. And it would find that audience in some unlikely arenas.
Taulbert credits his escape from poverty to the small community of his Mississippi hometown, Glen Allan, and to the even smaller community of the extended family – his “Porch People” – that raised him. His elders’ shared vision of his future, he says, shaped him before he was old enough to understand that he was being shaped.
“Community is about unselfish action, and ordinary people rising to the heights of leadership,” he says. “In my community, people did anything and everything necessary to protect kids in the world of legal segregation. In order to do this, the community came together and wove a safety net of sorts capable of catching us when needed.”
In 1997, two years after the release of the film, Taulbert codified the lessons of his youth in Eight Habits of the Heart. It was written proof that memories of caution aren’t the only ones that have stayed with him. Eight Habits contains messages of community carried forward from his younger years in the Delta. His forward-thinking elders, it turns out, were entrepreneurial thinkers.
With his consulting company, the Freemount Corporation, Taulbert has carried that gospel of community to everyone from nonprofit organizations and public school districts to Fortune 500 corporations.
“The message in Eight Habits resonates in a lot of places. I recently saw it resonate really well with Idaho’s public schools and the Human Rights Education Center. If communities can be built in the face of segregation, they can be built under any conditions. Businesses with holistic communities, where every voice is respected, can succeed regardless of time and agendas,” he says.
With Taulbert’s help, cutting-edge business strategies emerge from the time-honored customs and traditions of the Mississippi Delta. They target, of course, the most significant investment of every business: people. Developing human capital, says Taulbert, is where businesses need to succeed first. His ideas have reshaped a wide range of organizations, from the FBI and the National Security Agency to Ford Motor Co. and Harvard University.
Other forays into the business world include Roots Java Coffee, an African-American owned coffee brand that imports and retails coffee from war-torn Rwanda. The direct link it provides between the American retail market and some of the world’s most sought-after coffee beans is slowly but surely pulling a group of hard-working Rwandans out of poverty.
Doing business with the lingering lessons of Eight Habits in mind defangs the past’s trauma, softening harsh memories by creating real communities with real people – at home and around the globe.
Clifton Taulbert is best known for his books of nonfiction, including Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored, which was made into a successful movie released in 1995. Taulbert has also penned a trilogy of children’s books that revolve around a young boy growing up in Taulbert’s hometown of Glen Allan, Miss. In the Little Cliff series, Taulbert tells the stories of the early years of Cliff, a precocious young boy at the center of the series. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, an award-winning illustrator and artist, the books hold Taulbert’s belief in community at the forefront of stories of the young child’s adventures.
Taulbert says he was prompted to write the three books – Little Cliff and the Porch People, Little Cliff’s First Day of School and Little Cliff and the Cold Place – for bittersweet reasons.
“Once upon a time, my wife, Barbara, and I shared the joy of a daughter who passed away at age 7,” Taulbert recalls. “Annie loved books and loved reading. It was my job to read to her at home and at her school. She clearly understood that her father was an author.
“After she passed away, I decided to write books for kids to always remember our daughter’s love of books and reading,” he continues. “I know I need to write several more – and hopefully one day I will.” – Jami Mattox