Another Generation Almost Forgotten
reviewed by Theresa J. Canada - June 05, 2006
Not your typical education text, the memoir of Jefferson Wiggins indicates how one life can be impacted by education. The author wants his readers to understand his educational journey during a time when opportunities for poor black men in America were limited. The story begins with his early childhood experience with racism, poverty and illiteracy. A traumatic incident of racism faced by his family especially affected the authors interpersonal relationship with his father. These factors led him to enlist in the Army before the age of 18. As a result of his position as a member of the armed service, Jefferson Wiggins met a librarian, Anna Marie Merrill who guided his learning process. Along with his mother, Mama Essie, Mrs. Merrill is seen as a key figure throughout the book. The primary focus of the book details how a young black man from such harsh beginnings becomes a commissioned military officer, is awarded a high school diploma, receives a college degree, and is eventually awarded an honorary doctorate.
The story begins around the beginning of the year 1942, in a small rural town in the state of Alabama. Jefferson Wiggins wrote this book in the third person, although it was about his life. The book aptly portrays efforts made by the author to receive an education in order to better his life and that of his family. In chapter 1, the author says, Jeff suddenly remembered that his mother often spoke of how she looked forward to the time when her children would be old enough to leave Alabama and the South to go to a place where they could find better opportunities for an education and jobs (p. 20). Dr. Wiggins took advantage of the opportunity provided by the Army in an attempt to fulfill this goal.
Dr. Wiggins describes his exposure to the Ku Klux Klan in one of the first chapters of his memoir. The appearance of these individuals at his home sets the tone for the book as the author struggles with his identity as a black man in America. Dr. Wiggins father barely escaped the lynching and eventually deserted his family. This harrowing experience was a theme that permeated throughout various chapters. Although several chapters of the book were devoted to his military experiences, the most memorable one was when Dr. Wiggins received a field commission from the legendary General George S. Patton.
Once he completed his basic training, Dr. Wiggins was stationed at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, New York. It was at this time that the author thought about continuing his academic learning. When he asked one of the officers where he could find a source of great knowledge (p. 42), he was told to go to the public library. It was at the local library that he met Mrs. Anna Marie Merrill. The majority of the book describes the mentoring relationship provided by Mrs. Merrill. It outlines how she supported Dr. Wiggins to pursue his education while in the Army and to continue his college education beyond the role of an Army officer.
Mrs. Merrill initiated the process that led Dr. Wiggins to return to Alabama, where the school board reluctantly awarded him a high school diploma. She also assisted with college applications and his eventual admission to Tennessee State University. These accomplishments, in conjunction with his life experiences, led Briarwood College in Connecticut to award him an honorary doctorate in 1999.
It is not often that one sits and completes the reading of a book in two sittings. My rapid reading illustrates how much I enjoyed reading about Dr. Wiggins' passion for education. During a time when many young men of his generation settled for the status quo, Dr. Wiggins was willing to risk his life for a chance at a better life in a segregated society.
Another Generation Almost Forgotten raises several issues for todays educators. The old adage of picking oneself up by your bootstraps was impractical for Dr. Wiggins. He had no boots to pull up, yet he found a way to learn and achieve. How can todays generation of young people, especially those of color produce similar results? The quest for an educated life needs to be paramount to any young person. As our world becomes smaller by the use of technology and globalization, it is more critical for the future of this country and the world that its citizenry be educated. Although he did not have the same opportunities as todays youth, Dr. Wiggins exemplifiedthrough his life experiencesthat education is a necessity.
The chapters that related to his leadership as an Army officer were not as captivating as the rest of the chapters. Yet, they give the reader a glimpse of his leadership style and passion for excellence. Somehow, Dr. Wiggins discovered that there is a correlation between success in the military and life away from the military.
Dr. Wiggins can be commended for writing about such difficult situations, both in his early personal and military life. Although it may not relate directly to the field of education, the reconciliation with his father may have had an impact on the direction of his personal relationships. As he astutely learned from his experience in the Army, developing relationships are important aspects of the educational process. Dr. Wiggins knowledge led him to define who he was and where he wanted to go in life.
The memoir ends abruptly when Dr. Wiggins finds a job that better meets his needs. I would have liked to know more about Dr. Wiggins life during the turbulent 1960s through the 1990s. It is hoped that he will write a second installment of his memoir focusing on his later life. The next book would provide a better perspective of the impact of education in his life throughout these decades. There is also the hint of spirituality that is not fully developed in this writing. The connections made between Mrs. Merrill and whether she is an angel need to be clarified.
As a memoir, it is difficult to suggest improvements. Still, an extension of the memoir to include the myriad ways that Dr. Wiggins has used his life experiences is desired. What is obvious from his writings is that Dr. Jefferson Wiggins made the right choices, and by telling us his life story, it is hoped that future generations will recognize the importance of education. All who read this memoir will be inspired by this author's ability to excel despite the odds.
Another Generation Almost Forgotten provides exposure to issues related to race relations, multicultural education, and spirituality. Therefore, I highly recommend this memoir to both scholars and students interested in reading a book that shares as much about the aforementioned topics as any academic text.