ArticleAn Enlivening Heritage: Reintroducing Robert Coles
A chapter in each of the two books is devoted to his relationship with Bridges. In Handing One Another Along, Coles says that he asked what she was doing when she moved her lips each morning. She was praying, the girl told him. Coles then asked,
“Who are you praying for?” She replied, “I was praying for the people in the street.” I was surprised and unwilling to drop the matter. I said, “Why would you want to pray for those people in the street?” She looked at me and answered, “Well, don’t you think they need praying for? I always say the same thing. I always say, ‘Please God, try to forgive these people because they don’t know what they are doing.’ ”
The hatred he witnessed in the South confused Coles, and made him feel lonely and adrift. A partial antidote came in the form of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. Coles writes in Lives We Carry with Us that he had read Percy’s essays for years, adding that when The Moviegoer came out in 1961, he read it so many times he lost count. The book “gave hope to me, helped me feel stronger at a critical time, when I was somewhat lost, confused, vulnerable, and, it seemed, drifting badly.”
The exchange with Bridges and the reliance on Percy’s work illustrate the spiritual and religious understanding that took shape during Coles’s childhood and which he ultimately made his own. Coles believes we live in a moral universe in which right and wrong do exist and matter. Striving for moral courage is desirable and honorable, if not imperative. Like his father, Coles drew strength from literature rather than organized religion or personal belief.
While he is deeply respectful of others’ faith in God, Coles himself does not have that same certainty. “I just don’t know,” he said, after I asked him about the topic for the third time in his study. “I’m an agnostic.”
Bolstered by Percy’s work and by his relationship with Williams, Coles stayed with his family in the South for more than a decade, becoming heavily involved in the burgeoning civil rights struggle that eventually toppled legal segregation.
It was dangerous work.
Coles told me that he was in the same car as civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi the evening of Sunday, June 21, 1964. The men were going to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Union Methodist Church, fifty miles away in Neshoba County.
Coles was planning to ride with the three men, but the legendary organizer Bob Moses, who was staying to attend a meeting in the area, intervened.
“Bob Moses came over and put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘You’re a white American Harvard doctor. They’ll listen to you, they won’t listen to me.’”
Coles got out of the car and went with Moses.
Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman disappeared that night. The next day their burned-out station wagon was found in the Bogue Chitto swamp. The bodies of the three civil rights workers were found forty-four days later, buried fifteen feet in an earthen dam.
Philip Coles was furious at his son for staying in such perilous conditions, especially with his wife pregnant with their first child, but Coles and Jane did not leave for several more years. Their next stop was a return to Cambridge and his alma mater, where the psychologist Erik Erikson, yet another towering figure in both books, had invited him to teach.
Coles’s years in the South did more than expand his racial horizons, lay the groundwork for the monumental Children of Crisis, and give him a visceral awareness of life’s fragility. It also inculcated in Coles a deep desire to travel to new places and learn what he could from children’s and adults’ struggles to act bravely in an often harsh and unfair world. He, his wife, and his three sons ventured to Alaska, where he worked with native people, to apartheid-era South Africa, and to the former Rhodesia, among other places.
Out in the World
The Coles family also traveled to the Southwest to work with migrant workers, during which time Coles befriended the legendary farmworker organizer César Chávez. Coles also met an elderly Mexican couple in New Mexico who had been married for more than sixty years. He writes about the pair in “Una Anciana,” a chapter in Lives We Carry With Us and his favorite piece of writing ever. The book’s longest chapter, “Una Anciana” is the only piece in the book to appear in its original version.