Archive for Thursday, June 4, 1998


June 4, 1998


Joyce Carol Thomas hopes to give children a new way of looking at their elders.

For writer Joyce Carol Thomas, her latest children's book is proof that not just kids, but adults, too, can learn something from their elders.

"I Have Heard of a Land" (HarperCollins, $14.95) is the story of Thomas' great-grandmother, who participated in the Oklahoma land run of 1893. It's a story she almost didn't hear.

She was helping a beloved 80-year-old aunt fill out burial insurance papers, a task Thomas repeatedly put off because it was "too painful" to think about, she says. Responding to an insurance agent's question, the aunt indicated Thomas' great-grandmother, Judy Graham, was born in Tennessee.

"I just sat straight up in the chair, because I never knew this before," she says. "I was startled to realize there was so much of my family history that I didn't know."

Later, Thomas asked her aunt about their ancestors.

"She told me the story of great-grandmother Judy and her journey from Tennessee to Oklahoma, and I was just mesmerized," she says. "I thought, `How could I live this long and not know this part of my own history?' It haunted me, and I started to write about it."

Thomas and illustrator Floyd Cooper will be at The Children's Bookshop, 937 Mass., from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to give a short talk and sign copies of "I Have Heard of a Land."

"Children are so often astonished that their older relatives were children, too," Thomas (a grandmother herself) says with a laugh.

"I'd like them to come away with a sense of their own history," she says. "Our families are people we can go to and ask how we got to wherever we are."

"I Have Heard of a Land" recounts Graham's long journey from Tennessee to Oklahoma, as well as the difficulties endured as she struggled to build a homestead.

The land runs of 1889 and 1893 were intended to draw settlers into what was once called Indian Territory. Participants gathered along a line, and a gunshot signaled the start of a mad dash, as settlers rushed forward on horseback or on foot to stake their claims on the land.

As Thomas sees it, the hardships (namely harsh winters) were well worth it for Southern blacks like her great-grandmother, who faced even greater trials in post-Reconstruction Dixie.

The Oklahoma Territory was also one of the few places in late 19th-century America where women were allowed to own property.

"I Have Heard of a Land," written for ages 7 to 11, accentuates the positive. Short verses of poetry celebrate the land's bounty, the communal pioneer spirit and the promise of liberty.

Cooper, who also had ancestors who participated in the land runs, contributes to the uplifting theme. His oil portraits of a flapjack feast in a snug winter dugout, a congregation worshiping beneath a lush arbor, and neighbors arriving for a cabin-raising depict a generous land and generous people.

Happy endings were not guaranteed, Thomas cautions. Only about 52,000 of the 150,000 participants got land. Some drifted away. Others became merchants and bought property from successful land runners.

The important thing to keep in mind, she believes, is that they were willing to take the risk.

"Our ancestors had to have a vigor, an understanding of what it was they were doing and that it was worth it," she says. "That's what I was trying to remember as I wrote -- what they had to keep before them. I think they had to have a sense of hope, an understanding that they had the power to make a difference in their own lives."

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