July 06

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Forever (Bogalusa) This Summer by Leslie C. Youngblood

I was born in a town that forever reigns in my heart and mind: Bogalusa, Louisiana, the setting of my second novel, Forever This Summer.

A town of close to twelve thousand, Bogalusa was crowned the “magic city” because of the speed of its construction in 1914. I was a tween before I realized it was a small town, not known by many, forgotten by some. Its claim to fame was a national heart study, a papermill that flooded the air with fumes that lingered in the heat, and a stranglehold on racist ways. 

Bogalusa, like most hometowns, is a repository of memories. Although I reunited with my mother in Rochester, New York, when I was six, I’ve returned to Bogalusa throughout my life. Childhood memories are akin to a continuous stream of images playing out like an amateur short film: choppy, linear, with the core stories unraveling.

Thoughts of Bogalusa bring forth images of summer road trips from Rochester (1,254 miles, Georgie, the protagonist in Forever This Summer, would note): baloney sandwiches, slathered with Miracle Whip and mustard, with American cheese; cold fried chicken nestled in paper towels to absorb the grease; and homemade pound cake. When I think of road trips, I hear static and music snippets as my mother searched for a station that played “our” songs.

There’s that love-hate sibling dynamic as you sit elbow-to-elbow, breath-to-breath with the anticipation of a 20-hour drive and lulls between spurts of the Alphabet Game, I-Spy, and “That’s My Car.” And the inevitable “We’re almost there,” as a parent unfurls a map as wide as the windshield.

We would head to the home of our great-uncles, great aunts, great-grandparents, grandparents, and cousins. My grandparents would later make the trek to Rochester to live with us, so intergenerational connections are normalized and central in Forever This Summer as in my real life.

Connecting with the “greats” proved more challenging. Even the great-uncle I was closest to, Uncle McClurie Sampson — I named a park after him in Forever This Summer. I still wish I knew him better and seized more opportunities to revel in his wisdom and his quest to have a Boys & Girls Club built in Bogalusa. I had the forethought to record him talking about his story-filled life.

Our “interview” was on one of those mini-cassette recorders. Every minute I watched it, ensuring it captured his every word. I relocated a year or so after that and the moving company lost those tapes. Whatever amount they were insured for wasn’t enough. 

Now I’m a great-aunt and I aspire to be storyteller to my nieces and nephew, but distance, even in this time of Zoom, encroaches on the indelible memories I long to create. 

A consistent source of stories for our family are memories of our family’s hotel and diner—The Sampson Royal Hotel (TSRH). I’ve never worked there but imagined it many times over. One of my aunts told me that as kids they were often paid in “pig lips and crackers” for helping out. My imagination soared. 

In the ‘50s through early ‘80  TSRH operated in Bogalusa. My aunt vividly remembers the Freedom Riders taking respite there. The Sweetings Family Diner, my restaurant in Forever This Summer, is how I’ve imagined our family restaurant over the years. A diner seemed a perfect setting for my girls to bond.   

My protagonists in Forever This Summer — Georgie, Markie Jean, and Nikki — are compilations of every young girl I’ve ever known, myself included. I wanted them to experience what I was blessed to experience in Bogalusa, such as the taste of sweet watermelon sold from the back of a truck, made-from-scratch biscuits with homemade syrup, sun-drenched clothes pulled from a line, and the love of flawed yet loving adults.  

But along with the good memories of Bogalusa are unsettling ones, too. I was four or five-years-old playing in front of the house. The screen door flew open.

“Get inside,” Grandma said. In the living room there was silence. Until my grandmother called me to the window. “Look at them,” she said. She parted the curtains enough for me to witness figures in white robes marching down our street. Without her saying a word, they had to be the closest I’d seen to “the bogeyman” if we had to hide from them. I later learned in middle school in Rochester, probably during Black History Month, that Bogalusa was nicknamed “Klanstown USA.” Outside of the one sighting, I had no idea how prevalent they were in my home town.

I’ve never written about that experience until now.

When someone learns that I’m an author, they often assume that I’ve immersed myself in books all my life. During my early childhood, the Bogalusa library was segregated. And even after segregation ended, a cousin said, “You had to fight your way in. And fight your way out.” In Forever This Summer, the library is prominent and is what all libraries should be: a nerve center, a welcoming haven for all.

For me, it’s been “tell me a story,” more so than “read me a story.” My great-aunts and great-uncles were the epitome of human libraries. Stories were stacked deep within their chests, pages of their lives turned with each breath. Same for my mother and aunts and uncles.

It wasn’t until I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain that I heard some of their language, some of their stories coming back to me. I had to be in my mid-twenties when it connected that I could capture these stories in fiction. And that people who looked like me could write novels as a career. Your world can come to life on a page if you have characters and setting. I credit my family and Bogalusa with the impetus for understanding that I was born into a place with both.

It seems only natural now that Forever This Summer is set in my hometown. Georgie explores Bogalusa with a curiosity that I had as a child but wasn’t able to indulge. With the setting of Forever This Summer steeped in soul food, music, and stories, young readers can delve into a town with dynamic characters and secrets to unearth.

Bogalusa has suffered the ills that plague most cities — drugs, poverty, joblessness — but Bogalusa is rebuilding. The joy and community that shine forth in Forever This Summer are there in the town. Townspeople are making new memories, keeping old ones alive, and writing Bogalusa’s next chapter. Forever This Summer speaks to that present and future. A summer adventure awaits in its pages.

Leslie C. Youngblood received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A former assistant professor of creative writing at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, she has lectured at Mississippi State University, UNC-Greensboro, and the University of Ghana at Legon. She’s been awarded a host of writing honors, including a 2014 Yaddo’s Elizabeth Ames Residency, the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize, a Hurston Wright Fellowship, and the Room of Her Own Foundation’s 2009 Orlando Short Story Prize. In 2010 she won the Go On Girl! Book Club Aspiring Writer Award. Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and raised in Rochester, she’s fortunate to have a family of natural storytellers and a circle of supportive family and friends. Love Like Sky was her first novel.