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Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene

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Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay
An accident occurred in June of 1971, long before the construction of the Interstate-95 motorway, involving two trucks on the old Highway 17. The highway is usually characterized by traffic slamming down passing through the coastal saltmarsh and the pine-woods found in McIntosh County, in South Georgia, on the road to Florida. One of the tracks was filled with shoes and the sheriff, Tom Poppell, generously permitted the black people who had gathered wordlessly around the burning truck to take one box after another. The boxes were filled with good leather shoes, red, black and green shoes that a vast majority of them could never be able to buy on their own; all draped in tissue paper. The sheriff stood throughout the day under a sky like coals with his legs spread on the highway. Giving directions to the flowing traffic while the road crews swept and shovelled, and hundreds of local households helped themselves to a box after box of expensive shoes. They showed gratitude to Sheriff Poppell for his licenced pilferage, and the Sheriff, to demonstrate his acknowledgement of their tribute, silently gestured with one hand.
It is with this expressive impression of the South, which is a mixture of feudal power, poverty and lawlessness, still enduring. Almost a decade following the end of the second great liberation of 1964, that the author, Greene starts the masterly book. The tenderness and the power of the book are only comparable to a Russian novel but is written in a manner that creates the casual tempos of contemporary speech against the massive, timeless scenery of coastal Georgia.

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The coast of Georgian is one of the places on Earth that is moist and sunny where life likes to experiment. The marsh appears new as if it has been newly created because it is flushed twice a day by systole of saltwater tined and diastole of the alluvial tide.
While nature in South George loves to experiment, the same cannot be said of the white residents. Since they reached the place after moving from the Scottish Highlands at the beginning of the 18th century and began to engage in slavery to get the manpower. Who would assist in cutting down timber, tap the turpentine, and eliminate shrimps from the steaming shore. By the 1970s, there was a little difference in the period of slavery. When Sheriff Tom Poppell took over from his father in 1948, and long after the disappearance of turps, pine and shrimps to allow room for occupation by the white inhabitants of the country, and to the great new business, the residents began swindling the Yankee tourists. With the assistance of crafty, cunning and extraordinary imagination, they thought of new techniques or rather new variations of proved methods, of forcing money from the residents of the shining file of trucks, sedans, Cadillacs, and Chevvies that passed through Darien in George on their way to Miami.
Sheriff Poppell managed to maintain law and order in McIntosh Country. He did not use the whip or the gun like most sheriffs had done time and again, but he was scheming. He became rich by collaborating with robbers, engaging in illegal gambling, and taking part in prostitution and dealing in drugs. He gained the acceptance of the black people by being friendly with them and by cleverly distributing favours to them. In contrast to the other sheriffs, he ensured that all the black people participated in the voting process and that they cast their vote for him. His power grew by the day, and his authority remained largely unchallenged in the Southern region. That was the case until the black community, also referred to as the ‘sleeping giant’ by the white people, came to their senses.
The author goes further and narrates emotionlessly how the black community started to awaken gradually as if the status-quo in McIntosh County would never change. Suddenly, the situation changes in a tragic manner in South Georgia. Greene begins to narrate the story of how a black man named Thurnell Alston with very little education but with great capability, started his rise from literally being unknown to become the County Commissioner. Sheriff Poppell had hoped Thurnell Alston would fail to live up to the expectations of his new role. He instead rose as a champion of the members of the black community. That was so poor that they whenever winter came they prayed for sheetrock. That was toughened plasterboard, to be brought by the bounty of Highway 17, in the same manner Sheriff Poppell’s shoes had been delivered, to help them shield themselves from the rain.
The irony in the narration is that the downfall of Thurnell Alston’ began following the activities that would take place on the highway. His favourite son Keith crossed the road to buy sweets for his other siblings, twin brother and sister. Something caught his attention as he was crossing the road and was hit and killed immediately by the oncoming traffic. His life changed in that his marriage did not recover, and he became a drunkard, and he started taking bribes. The county survived on rackets, together with drugs, and both Sheriff Poppell and Mr. Alston were ensnared in different Federal sting manoeuvres. While Sheriff Poppell managed to talk his way out of the sting operation, the black county commissioner ended up behind bars.
Nonetheless, the awakening started by the county commissioner was just the beginning. Armed with reproductions of the Constitution that they flapped below the noses of the law court band, the young attorneys woke up the black community. They assisted in the revision of the jury selection structure and initiated measures to elect members of the black community to the board of education. Their actions compelled a redrawing of the city and county voting regions so that the initial fairly elected black man reached countywide office in more than a century.
The book is relevant to the study of American history as it highlights some of the struggles the black community had gone through before they were awakened by the considerably educated members of the black community. They learnt to fight for their rights and fight for their place in the American society. The author highlights how those in power exploited the poor situation of the black community by providing them random favours that they were expected to repay by voting for those in power. The book makes it easy for members of the African American community to appreciate their history and recognize the long path taken by those before them in their determination to win their freedom and independence.

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