Keeping the Promise
In her book The Promise, Oral Lee Brown discusses how she set out with the intention of helping one little girl and ended up changing the lives of twenty three children. She starts her narrative with a description of a child whose poverty worried her so much that her face haunted her dreams, and recounts how her search for the child brought her to Brookfield Elementary where she adopted a first grade class with the promise of sending them all to college if they graduated high school. The book discusses the influences in her life that led her to do what she did, as well as the struggles that came with trying to help so many children with her own limited resources.
In the first chapter of the book called “The Education of Oral Lee Brown”, she explains how her early life in rural Mississippi helped to shape her later decisions in many ways. In the book, she describes how working the cotton fields with her family taught her discipline as well as how to manage with very little. She discusses Miss Grace, the elementary school teacher who inspired her to seek an education in hopes of a better life. Brown also recounts an incident in her childhood—when the local sheriff beat her brothers and her father decided not to pursue a lawsuit against him—that made such an impact on her that it changed the way she looked at the state that she grew up in as well as her view of her father as a man. Seeing her family’s opportunity to make a difference in the community turned down because her father feared the inevitable backlash made Brown and her brothers angry enough to do whatever they needed to do to leave Mississippi. It also gave her the determination not to miss another chance to make a difference in the community that she lived in and in the world at large.
The narrative then moves back to Oakland, California where the conditions of the neighborhoods when she moved to the city in 1962 stood in sharp contrast to the conditions that her “babies” (the students she adopted) faced in 1987. She presents a picture of Oakland before the drugs, loss of businesses and general decline of the area. Brown recounts a time in Oakland when:
“People kept their lawns manicured. The streets were lined with trees…East Oakland was full of department stores and banks and places for people to meet their neighbors and have a nice cup of coffee together” (Brown, 2007, p. 33).
Throughout the chapter, she reveals how her life as an individual in Oakland corresponded as well as contrasted with the changing conditions in the community. She got married and divorced, which was common enough. Like many women in the community, she knew what it was like to live as a single mother. However, unlike many in the area, Brown knew how to capitalize on whatever opportunities she could find. Throughout a time when white people who had lived in Oakland were moving away and taking their businesses with them, Brown managed to stay employed. With the help of...