When Institute Executive Vice President Eric L. Motley published his new memoir, Madison Park: A Place of Hope, this year, the world was introduced to a remarkable town near Montgomery, Alabama—and to the remarkable man who was raised there. Madison Park, a small community founded by freed slaves in 1880, is a place where lessons in self-determination, hope, and an unwavering belief in the American dream are nurtured. Motley, a native son, reveals his own stories of racial injustice and segregation,but more importantly, he reveals how the community taught him everything he needed to know about love, faith, and negotiating the world in front of him. Before Motley earned his doctorate, before he worked in the Oval Office as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, and before he became a force at the Institute, he was a bookish African American boy being raised by his grandparents in the Deep South. He sat down with Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur to talk about this extraordinary book and why it is so resonant at this moment in time.
Adrienne Brodeur: Is there a reason—historical, political, personal— that you decided to write your memoir now?
Eric L. Motley: Over the years, friends who have learned of my personal journey have encouraged me to tell my story. I have increasingly been exposed to a number of personal narratives that would suggest a singular, transcendent American narrative. But there is no single narrative for the African American male, or a citizen of a rural community, or any American for that matter. In an increasingly polarized society, where the concept of community seems almost an alien concept, I now have the courage and inspiration to tell a story about a place, a people, and a community that made my American experience possible. In many ways, there is no better time than now. But I must confess that the real inspiration for writing this book comes from the desire to celebrate an idea, an American spirit, a people, a group of freed slaves who decided to make America work for them and who founded Madison Park in 1880 near Montgomery, Alabama. In the process, they developed a moral communal vocabulary with great power, but its story has never been told. There are two narratives: my own personal narrative and the narrative of this special place, but they are intimately interwoven.
AB: As a boy, you came face to face with Governor George Wallace in the Montgomery Public Library. You were generous in your musings of what he might be thinking: “Perhaps he saw in me, nameless black boy lost in wonder at the library, the embodiment of a time that was no more. Maybe he thought of me as the future’s promise. Maybe he was pondering poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s lines, ‘Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.’” What gave you such an optimistic outlook on the inner thoughts of the most notorious segregationist in history?
EM: I was taught to believe that there is goodness in everyone and that, whether or not we realize it, the God in each of us yearns to shine outwardly. My grandparents were pragmatists whose realism was always tempered by hope. They instilled within me a self-perpetuating sense of optimism and hopefulness. So, on the one hand, I was seated before a paralyzed man, physically and spiritually, whose entire life narrative had been marred by hatred. On the other hand, how could I not be aware that I was seated in the very same place that he barred my parents and grandparents from attending. The experience was a lesson that, while human progress is not always immediate, it is redemptive; there is irony in life, in history. I have come to believe along with Reinhold Niebuhr that nothing is ever understood in its immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by hope.
AB: How often do you get back to Madison Park? Do you still think of it as home?
EM: I no longer physically have a home in Madison Park, but, spiritually speaking, Madison Park will always be my home. The land that my family farmed is still the place of my childhood home, many of my childhood friends and neighbors continue to live in the same houses on the same streets, and my grandparents and ancestors all rest in the community cemetery. I return twice a year, every autumn and spring. It is a centering rhythm that I always hope to maintain.
AB: “We never get all of the thank-yous or goodbyes properly said, which leaves us, each one, living with a burden of gratitude.” Could you tell us a bit more what you meant by this?
EM: All of us live with a bit of regretfor not always allowing our feelings and expressions to be manifested, regret for not always acting on impulses or inspirations. I am often disturbed by the thought that there were a good number of people who significantly gave of themselves for my betterment whom I never thanked or to whom I never adequately conveyed my gratitude. Some were strangers who flashed in and out of my life, and many others were neighbors, friends,and teachers, many of whom did not live long enough to see their investment in me realized. I often find myself wondering if they had any real sense of my gratitude.One must constantly cultivate a sense of gratitude; it is borne of continuous reflection and recognition of one’s own poverty and deep need for others.
AB: Can you tell us about your creative process? How long did you workon the book?
EM: In many ways, this book has always been in the making, inasmuch as I havealways kept diaries and commonplace books. Memory has always been a centering force in my spiritual and intellectual development. Recording observations, experiences, and reflections has always been a part of my daily exercise of learning. But writing this book of course required a level of concentration and focus that extended beyond my “miscellanies.” For me,this was an intellectual, emotional,and spiritual exercise in recollection. Instead of starting off with a publisher or an agent, I decided that I would go the route of writing, and writing, and rewriting. The end goal was not to producea book that could be sold; the motivation was telling my story and the story of my people without constraint and telling it to myself first. Also, the very nature of a memoir requires a type of honesty and forthrightness that is not always easily achieved. There were a lot of emotional and psychological boxes that I had long sealed and put away in the attic of my mind and heart. In some instances, I would put the manuscript in a drawer for extended periods, until I was ready to go where I knew I needed to go to reveal a more honest me.