To Rise Above: Leon’s Story
I read another Christmas present yesterday, this one from my friend Fernando. The book is Leon’s Story by Leon Walter Tillage, as told to and illustrated by artist Susan L. Roth.
Leon was born in 1936 into a sharecropper family, descendants of slaves and still subject to a no-win existence of working hard with not a hope in the world of self-advancement. And yet what Leon’s parents could give their children was the most important gift of all: unconditional love and a strong family life, largely based on faith and on certainty of justice, in the end. Leon took the lessons and love of his parents and, using what public education he has access to in mid-century North Carolina, he became an advocate for equality, a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., and a participant in the wave of demonstrations that spread through North Carolina in the 1950s. Having been subjected to hatred and violence his entire life, and tortured with witnessing a beloved family member die at the hands of ignorant bigots, Leon knew that no matter how dangerous the peace marches could be, present life was intolerable: “We’re getting beat up now. We’re getting killed now. So I’d rather get beat up for doing something or trying to change things. I mean, why get beat up for nothing?”
Artist Susan Roth discovered the story of Leon in the 1990s, when Leon, a custodian at the middle school her daughter attended, made his annual presentation to the students of the school — in which he recounted events from his life — and her daughter came home, awed by his story and stoked with questions about how such things could have happened in this country.
In Leon’s Story, Susan and Leon present his life in written form, giving shape to his stories of endurance and faith, spirit and kindness, and underscoring his unflagging belief in freedom as both right and responsibility: “We didn’t care who we lived beside. We didn’t care so much about walking in the front door. What we cared about was who are you to tell us what we can and can’t do in America, the land of freedom, of democracy. That is what we got beat up for. It was as simple as that.”
Leon’s Story is a short book yet it packs a powerful wallop of history and survival, human dignity and overriding grace. I recommend it for all ages, and particularly for a shared read among family, to be read aloud and discussed, and inspired by.