Little Creek Press 2013
Reviewed by Bob Wake
In 1959, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Warr Acres, Rosalyn Coleman Gilchrist, a married mother with three young sons, suffered third-degree burns over 90% of her body from what was either a bathroom dress-cleaning incident with a can of gasoline gone tragically awry or else a failed attempt at suicidal self-immolation. Rosalyn’s 10-year-old son, Joe Gilchrist (who would later as an adult change his name legally to Coleman and come to write Spoke, the memoir under review), ran outdoors to aim the garden hose ineffectually at the closed bathroom window like a traumatized Peanuts character. Inside the house his father and older brother took the necessary steps to break through the bathroom door and wrap Rosalyn in blankets and douse the flames.
After months of painful reconstructive surgery (“She lost her ears, her nose, her eyelids, and most of her fingers. Her breasts. Her lips. Part of her tongue”), Rosalyn returned home to an initially supportive community. However, it wasn’t long before a local reverend asked that Rosalyn not attend Sunday services because her scarred appearance was unnerving to the congregation.
During ongoing Oklahoma City hospital visits for treatment of her burn wounds, Rosalyn found solace through growing friendships with the African American nursing staff. Soon she was a welcome congregant of black church services at Calvary Baptist Church. She joined the NAACP and became a Youth Council volunteer, further alienating her from the all-white Warr Acres suburban community.
The Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council was the famed activist organization behind the 1958 Katz Drug Store lunch-counter sit-ins that ended the chain store’s discriminatory lunch-counter policy throughout the South. By the time Rosalyn joined the organization in the early 60s, they were busier than ever staging sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies in support of civil rights. When Rosalyn divorced her husband and put their house up for sale to a black family, a cabal of outraged Warr Acres elders—including the aforementioned local reverend, the chief of police, and Rosalyn’s ex-husband—successfully conspired to have her committed to the state mental hospital.
Coleman eventually helped obtain his mother’s release from her illegal institutionalization, but not before moving out on his own, attending Cornell University, and becoming a campus Vietnam War draft resister. He gained wider notoriety when—inspired by the personal mentorship of radical Catholic antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan—he was arrested in 1970 along with seven others for breaking into the Federal Building in Rochester, New York and shredding Selective Service records.
The locks on the office doors were simple to break. Within minutes each team was at work. The six Rochester draft boards were located in an adjoining series of suites in the middle of the building’s second floor. There we labored all night—prying open locked desks and file cabinets with crowbars, disgorging an avalanche of draft records, and then feeding them handful by handful into one of two paper shredders we’d brought with us. The shredders were noisy, but this didn’t worry us. We were in the middle of the building on the second floor, and it was late night on a lazy holiday weekend. Downtown Rochester was a ghost town. There was nothing to worry about.
Spoke is a bracing, full-immersion memoir about political activism in the 1960s that is unlike any memoir of the era you are ever likely to read. And it is as a testament to the indomitable spirit of his mother that Coleman’s memoir especially distinguishes itself. As he speaks with those who knew her during times when she was absent from his life, we share in his miraculous discovery of her kindnesses and near-mystical calm in the midst of personal anguish and adversity. She will inspire readers as surely as she inspired her son to strive always to do the right thing when called upon to take a stand.