• 59°

Gloria Burgess – My father and Faulkner

Gloria McEwen Burgess, an author, professor and inspirational speaker, is returning to Oxford this week to share the story of her father’s friendship with William Faulkner.

In her latest book, “Pass it On!” Burgess tells about her father, Earnest McEwen, jr., who spent the early 1950s working as a custodian at Ole Miss. McEwen was a man who understood the value of education and loved to read, and he had a dream – a college degree. Although he was an African-American man in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, he didn’t hesitate to tell students, professors, anyone who’d listen, that he wanted to obtain a college education.

This outspokenness, Burgess said, is what led her father to cross paths with Faulkner in 1953 after a dean at the university heard his story and relayed it the Nobel Prize-winning author.

“When Faulkner heard my father’s story, he really saw the fire, the determination, the passion in him to go to college, and I also think he saw the leadership qualities my father had,” Burgess said. “He really wanted to invest in my father’s future, and he generously gave him the gift of tuition and paid for his room and board, the whole shebang. He told him, ‘No strings attached, but when you’re able to do this, pass it on to other people.’”

McEwen graduated from what is now known as Alcorn State University a few years later. Not long after, he was able to move his family out of Mississippi to Michigan and bring them out of poverty.

None of this would have been possible, Burgess said, without Faulkner’s generous gift and more importantly, his reminder to always pass on that generosity when the opportunity arises.

Burgess said passing it on is “keeping the heart and soul of a gift alive,”and not expecting anything in return. Through the example set by her father, Burgess said her family has been able to do just that.

“My father was the first person in our family to go to college, and he was the first person, actually, to even understand the value of what that could mean in terms of not only his own life, but future generations as well,” she said. “Some families gather for reunions, some gather for weddings – we gather for graduations. Education opens up so many doors that otherwise, you wouldn’t be aware of, let alone be able to walk through. It really has changed the arc of our entire family.”

For Burgess, who was 5 years old when the family moved from Oxford to Michigan and now lives in Seattle, that arc has included a doctorate, a Cave Canem poetry fellowship, three motivational books and successful careers as a professor and inspirational speaker.

It was during her time at Cave Canem, a collective of poets and writers of the African diaspora, that she said she first felt inspired to write about her father’s story.

“As a writer, sometimes, you’re not in charge. What I mean by that is, you’re not in charge of what comes through, the genre or the form that it takes,” Burgess said. “In Cave Canem, they really emphasized going into your family history and the culture of origin, knowing who you are, where you come from. So I started free-writing about my father’s story and I remember Nicky Finney, a wonderful African-American poet, said, ‘Don’t let your hands stop. Write it all down and then lift out what needs to come forward.’”

Burgess listened to her friend, and it wasn’t long before she realized her story was taking the form of a picture book. It took about a year and a half to polish the story, and another 17 years to find a publisher who would “do the story justice.”

Part of doing the story justice included portraying Faulkner as she knew him, she said, focusing solely on the man he was, not the eccentricities he exhibited. While Faulkner’s gift of tuition is remarkable in itself, Burgess said the friendship that developed between the writer and her father was also an integral part of her father’s success. 

“I love literature, and I loved Faulkner long before I knew how central he was in helping change my family’s story and legacy,” she said. “While I was writing the book, I decided that I wasn’t going to read anything about Faulkner or by Faulkner, because I didn’t want to be influenced. I knew that Faulkner had this reputation as an eccentric kind of recluse and an alcoholic, but the way that we knew him was so different from that. We saw his humanity, we experienced his humanity, and that’s the Faulkner I think people should know about and appreciate.”

On trips home, Burgess said her family would always stop by Rowan Oak to visit with Faulkner. While she and her mother and sisters sat on the porch, Faulkner would mentor her father and offer encouragement, telling him not to give up in the face of adversity.

Remaining focused on one’s goals in the midst of obstacles is one thing Burgess said resonates with all people in one way or another. Waiting nearly 20 years to share a true story about someone who did just that, she said, was worth it. 

“God is a very important part of my life, and He would just not let me go. Every time I put it away, it was like, ‘No, this is your story, you’ve got to tell it. Keep going,’” she said. “I think my father would probably say something like my mother said when I asked for her blessing to tell the story. She said, ‘If it blesses one person, if it changes one person’s life, then it’s worth having done it.'”

Now, 65 years later, Burgess is telling her story to children around the country. While in Oxford, she will be reading at Della Davidson Elementary School on Friday, April 13 and Off Square Books on Saturday, April 14 at 4 p.m.

For more information on Burgess or “Pass it On!” visit http://www.gloriaburgess.com.