I always fancied myself an actress or a director or a producer or a playwright or a costume designer . . . or all of them at the same time. In other words, I wanted to be in show business. From the way I memorized every show tune from every hit musical in the late 50s through the 60s and performed them in front of our dining room mirror ad nausea, I knew I was destined to shine as brightly as any light in Times Square. “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, sung, or rather warbled in full Spanish accent, waving a ‘lace’ fan I fashioned out of paper doilies and twirling, wrapped in one of my mother’s starched tablecloths, was one of my favorite numbers. Did I say there was a long, lean crack in that mirror that my parents never got around to fixing? Well, I think that may have been a sign.
I never made it to Broadway but after more than twenty five years of chasing other muses (a wanderlust satisfied by traveling extensively on four continents and living abroad on two as a diplomat, and a love of art fulfilled by teaching art and architectural history at a university), I returned to my childhood dream of writing . . . books instead of plays. The first of which, an award-winning family memoir, was a love letter not only to my ancestors but also to a whole generation of black Americans who fought the good fight way before the more publicized civil rights movement of the 1950s.
I also wrote it because their stories were left out of our history books.
I’ve resurrected my thespian talents as a public speaker, talking about my book and unknown civil rights activists and their accomplishments at more than sixty venues (and counting) in Europe, the United States, and North Africa, with my all-time favorite being Oxford University. I’ve also produced art exhibitions, directed conferences, and organized film programs.
My book was recently translated into Italian and I have been presenting it at bookstores and on television and radio in Italy.
I am currently working on a novel, loosely based on some of the characters from my memoir and I find fiction a lot more challenging. Stay tuned.
So, I really did get to be in the ‘business.’ It just took a while.
Singing? Well, I confine my trilling to the bathtub or in a group where I can’t really be heard! And costumes? Just look in my closet!
Oh! And by the way, did I mention I live in Rome? An outdoor theater without parallel!
At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights
AT THE ELBOWS OF MY ELDERS: One Family’s Journey Toward Civil Rights
While America is familiar with the modern civil rights movement begun in the 1950s, little has been published about black families, spread throughout the country, who had been fighting segregation in their local communities for decades. Their everyday battles (both individual and institutional) built the foundation for the more publicized crusade to follow. In this memoir Gail Milissa Grant, a member of such a family, draws back the curtain on those times and presents touching vignettes of a life most Americans know nothing about. It recounts the battles fought by her father, David M. Grant, a lawyer and civil rights activist, and it describes the challenges she faced in navigating her way through institutions marked by racial prejudice. It also illuminates the culture of middle-class black families in those difficult times. Grant details how her family built a prosperous life through the operation of a funeral home, the practice of chiropody, and by working on the railroad and pleasure boats that plied the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
During the 1950s the Grant family home on the South side of St. Louis was a stopping off point for many celebrated African-American entertainers and political leaders who were refused accommodations by the major hotels. Their home was notable because it was located in a predominantly white neighborhood. The war against fascism had been won abroad but St. Louis was still in the grips of a system of laws and customs, known as Jim Crow laws, which divided blacks from whites --- in schooling, housing and most public facilities. The black community chafed under these conditions but they also built their own institutions while fighting against the restrictions that barred them from full participation in society. It is the tension between what they could and could not do for themselves that energizes this memoir.
The Grant family is emblematic of many black, middle-class and blue-collar people who, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, went to school, paid their dues, and forced America to face its degrading treatment of “Negroes.” Through one act of courage after another, they set in motion a social movement without end.
Awards and Recognition
- Benjamin Franklin Book of the Year (2009), memoir/autobiography for "At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights" (Missouri History Museum 2008). Award of Merit (2010) from the American Association of State and Local History for "At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family's Journey Toward Civil Rights" (Missouri History Museum 2008).