Aspen Times Weekly Q&A: ‘Madison Park’ author Eric Motley
In his characteristically erudite introduction of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before her talk at Greenwald Pavilion last summer, Aspen Institute Executive Vice President Eric Motely touched on the Goldberg Variations and quoted Sir Thomas More, included a personal anecdote, a call for civic discourse and got a laugh from the crowd. This is the Eric Motley that attendees of Aspen Institute programs know — a brilliant, quick-witted, bespectacled man in a crisp suit with a remarkable grasp of history and high culture who possesses a rock-ribbed belief in the ideals of American democracy.
In his new memoir, “Madison Park: A Place of Hope,” we learn how Eric Motley became Eric Motley and we learn the story of the extraordinary community that shaped him.
The memoir, to be published Nov. 14, traces the history of Madison Park, a rural Alabama town founded by freed slaves where Motley was raised by his grandparents. Motley went on to become the youngest appointee in President George W. Bush’s administration, but his book spends little time on Motley’s adult successes. Instead, it focuses the generosity, faith and values of Motley’s family and neighbors and how they nurtured his intellectual curiosity and confidence.
I talked to Motely about the book recently. These are excerpts of our conversation:
ASPEN TIMES: There’s a strain of nonconformity running through the memoir. You write about loving opera and Jessye Norman instead of Michael Jackson as a kid in the 1980s, about embracing being called “Urkel” in high school, about carrying a briefcase and Lysol with you everywhere at Samford University, about becoming a Republican. You’re unafraid to be different. What is it about your grandparents or Madison Park that gave you such confidence to be yourself?
ERIC MOTLEY: In its beginnings Madison Park was a group of vanguards who decided they would march to the beat of their own drum. The idea that these freed slaves could pool their resources together, buy a plantation and make that plantation profitable enough to buy another and create a community for other freed slaves was not a common story. It took courage and individuality. So in the community where I grew up, people were unafraid to be individualistic and courageous in their own pursuits and their own ideas.
Also, I grew up in a house where no one had gone to college before, so there was no norm. My grandparents’ great aspirations were for me to realize that I was created in something larger than myself, that I was part of something that was more complex than my household and that I would have the opportunity of enlightenment that only an education would provide. My grandparents were so encouraging of curiosity. And in my good fortune, I had these kids that I grew up with who recognized at an early age that I didn’t have athletic abilities, but they found ways of engaging me. I never felt ostracized for that.
When you go away to college, you have other people distinguish how you stand out. But by then you’ve developed such confidence, which I’ve never been short of, that you’re willing to say, “It’s worked for me thus far and will continue to. Why be ashamed?”
AT: You’ve been working on the book for more than a decade. What compelled you or enabled you to finish it now?
EM: There was an article written about me in the Washington Post in 2007 that surveyed my life and my upbringing in this African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama. A good number of people came up to me after that article had been written and encouraged me to tell the rest of the story. There was so much that hadn’t been told, so many blanks that needed to be filled in. So somebody encouraged me to realize that telling my story could be an inspiration to someone else whose own background was similar. So the inspiration for writing the book was twofold: it was at the encouragement of others who felt my story could be inspiring and that I wanted to celebrate an idea of the American spirit, about people — a group of freed slaves — who decided to make America work for them in this place called Madison Park in 1880.
AT: So who do you hope reads this book and what do you hope they find in your story?
EM: I knew I wanted to tell a story that the people of Madison Park could appreciate, because no story had been written about that place. There are also a lot of young men and women who feel that the American dream is inaccessible today, who are growing up in families with single parents or in economically challenged communities and they feel that all is lost. So I’m writing for them and to them, to assure them that there is still hope and still promise.
And I’m writing to my countrymen in a time of enormous polarization and fragmentation. I think we all need a reminder of the power of community and networks and our responsibility to each other in providing safety nets, and how those safety nets do not always have to be engineered by the government. Community is people working together and being tied in the single garment of destiny. In as much as I’m speaking to a larger audience, I’m speaking to the need for community.
AT: The book is coming out in a moment of, not just polarization, but amid a rise in white supremacist groups and violence. What role do you want to play in this fraught moment for the nation? What do you want to do with the public platform this book will provide you?
EM: I’ve been thinking about that a lot, of course. All of us are aware of the things that separate and divide us and we’re reminded of that everyday when we pick up the paper or turn on the news. This is to remind us what we actually have in common. This is to remind us of the ties that bind us, and the binding principles that our founding fathers and our ancestors – be them slaves or liberated individuals who came here. There are these superintending virtues that create the American spirit. If we can be reminded of that stuff that’s in our American DNA, we have a lot to celebrate and a lot to hold us accountable to how we should behave as citizens.
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