“The Song and the Silence” by Yvette Johnson (Simon and Schuster/Atria Books, 336 pages, $26)
Booker Wright was a black waiter during the 1950s and 1960s in a Mississippi restaurant with a mostly well-off white clientele. He could recite the menu, in a slightly singsongy way, and he had, most noticeably, a beaming smile.
His savvy as a waiter at Lusco’s, which is still a notable eatery in Greenwood, Miss., made him a favorite of many regular diners who had clout around town.
But in one brief riveting appearance caught on film, his menu ditty and ensuing remarks about racism brought an end to his job at Lusco’s – and made him a civil-rights truth teller whose personal courage resonates decades later.
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Thanks to Yvette Johnson, a granddaughter born after Wright died in 1972, his story has been brought to the forefront in her new memoir, “The Song and the Silence.”
Wright first drew wide, sudden notice in 1966 when the NBC documentary “Mississippi: A Self-Portrait” was broadcast. The film includes a segment in which Wright performs his singsong recitation of Lusco’s menu, then veers into a candid commentary about the racism he endures from white customers, how he manages to deal with it and why.
“I got three children,” he says. “I want them to get an education. … Night after night I lay down and dream about what I had to go through with. I don’t want my children to have to go through with that.”
To that end, he says, he puts up with racial slurs and demeaning comments by holding to an internal code: “Just remember, you got to keep that smile.”
Wright, who began working at Lusco’s when he was 14, saved enough money to own and operate his own restaurant and bar, named Booker’s Place. After the documentary aired – the indignation among many whites in Greenwood was immediate and fierce – Wright’s job at Lusco’s abruptly ended. Six years later, he was shot and mortally wounded in a late-night confrontation with a black man in Booker’s Place.
Johnson learned of her grandfather’s historic TV monologue when a college writing course fortuitously led her to John T. Edge, who had been fascinated by the story of Wright and Lusco’s while doing graduate work at the University of Mississippi. Edge, who would become a guru of Southern food culture, had never seen the documentary – this was before YouTube, where Wright’s segment now can be seen easily – but he offered important details that helped guide Johnson to it.
She was moved to tears when she learned that her grandfather was described by a Mississippi state senator as “a catalyst for the movement.”
Johnson’s book is a personal memoir that weaves her own family history around the racial and regional history of her grandfather’s era. It moves back and forth in time, a bit disconcertingly at first, but is richly descriptive, unsparing in its account of life under Jim Crow, and a touching account of love that extends over generations.