Noel Ignatiev's Blog

The Revolutionary Moment

By Noel Ignatiev

What brings the revolutionary moment? I am not referring to the political struggle that takes place within every mass movement—unions or workers’ councils, soviets or provisional government, abolition or free-soil, black power or civil rights, etc.—but the moment when subordinated individuals no exhortation, not even free beer, can lure out of their homes become subjects no external force can stop—the indispensable starting point for revolution.

Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew provides insight into this question. The novel is set in a small town in eastern Oklahoma. Among the principal characters are Robert John Brown (!), who is in jail awaiting trial for defying a state law making it a felony to shelter illegal immigrants, and his friend Oren Dudley, pastor of the First Baptist Church. Dudley had been sharing with others the Biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger.” Now he and two church deacons are having a faceoff with Sheriff Arvin Holloway who is trying to enter the church where Brown’s grand-daughter’s illegal Mexican husband has taken sanctuary. The crucial moment:

The townspeople had arranged themselves into little bunches of sixes and sevens as they tried to find the best location to see from. A few were talking on cell phones. Colton Springer and his little pregnant girlfriend were both texting, it seemed. [The pastor] and the deacons remained in perfect alignment in front of the Fellowship Hall doors, and directly across from them, the deputies and a few local men were rowed up in front of the vehicles, the sheriff glowering in the midst of them with his hand on his gun belt…

The sheriff hollered, “Preacher, I’m about to lose patience.”

Oren Dudley held the large Bible squarely out in front of himself as if to say, See, Sheriff? No tricks. “I just wanted to look up a passage of Scripture!” he called. “Then we’ll have a word of prayer! I believe that’ll help calm things down a bit, maybe!” Arvin Holloway was boiling, but what could he say? No Bible reading? No praying? The preacher thumbed through the onionskin pages. He didn’t actually have a particular passage in mind, but the book was here, and he thought he ought to use it. As things went, though, a new verse wasn’t necessary, because it was at this juncture that Ida Coley detached herself from the clutch of women standing nearest the sanctuary and started toward him. Alice Stalcup followed her. The two permed, powdery, elderly ladies arranged themselves on either side of the two deacons. “Why, I thank you,” the preacher murmured. “I truly thank you.” Not to be outdone, Claudie Ott and Edith Martin came tottering along the walk and stood, both of them, next to Ida Coley. The Phyllis Wentworth crossed over and stood on the other side of Alice Stalcup. “What the hell are y’all doing!” the sheriff shouted, then he remembered to use the bullhorn. “WHAT IN THE WORLD DO YOU PEOPLE THINK YOU’RE DOING? YOU CAN’T DO THAT!”

Later some of them said they did what they did purely because Arvin Holloway told them they couldn’t. Others claimed they hadn’t really known anything about the law; if they had, they might have acted differently. Some said they just surmised that if the pastor of the First Baptist Church aimed to stand against the law (and here they didn’t mean statute but officers) then, by gosh, that was good enough for them. In the long run, there turned out to be a whole host of reasons—conscience, ignorance, rumor, the making of a good show—but for whatever individual private reasons it started, the order went like this: Curtis Shawcross and his wife, April, then Tommy Joe Holbird, then Gladys Chester, then the Alford twins, then Sue Ann Whitelaw, then Floyd Ollie and Wade Fee. These were the names of the next bunch that crossed the scrap of yard to stand in front of the glass doors.

A lot to think about. Kind of Kin is the fourth work of fiction by Rilla Askew I have read; the others are Harpsong, Fire in Beulah, and Strange Business. High praise for all.

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