In the summer of 1947, poet Galway Kinnell (Feb. 1, 1927 – Oct. 28, 2014) spent a brief two-week period at Black Mountain College. He arrived by way of Princeton, with plans to work on his thesis. During his stay, the poet witnessed the reality of the segregated South. The experience left a lasting impression. In a 2001 interview with Daniela Gioseffi, Kinnell spoke of his time in Western North Carolina:
In my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, I wasn’t really aware of the prevalence of segregation because, though practically everybody was an immigrant, they were almost all from Europe. There were no immigrants from the black populations of the South or the Caribbean in my school. In my childhood I saw very few people of color. In my grammar school, there was one Jewish person. I learned about segregation later, when I traveled about the country and spent time in the South. But when I actually came to discover it, I found it shocking and horrifying. I think when I first became aware of it, I was at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, near Tennessee. I went down there for a summer on my GI bill. And, there was a black writer who came to visit, and I went into town with him. He had to buy a train ticket and I went to the train station with him. Well, the amount of fuss produced by a white and a black man walking together was obvious. He grew worried, but I didn’t, because I just didn’t realize that it was a dangerous thing for us to walk together talking as friends. Afterwards, I talked with him about it and he conveyed the experiences of his life that made him … wary of the situation. Then, I came to know other black people, and heard more of their experiences and read more and more about the history of it all, and realized that it wasn’t a phenomenon confined to just the Southern states, but that it was pretty much a national phenomenon. Certainly New York was a segregated city then, and still is to a significant degree.
And then, not long after that, I was living in France when the Civil Rights Movement became news, and reading the Paris edition of The Herald Tribune, I read about the Freedom Riders, and thought, “My God, at last something is being done!” As soon as I got back, I sought out CORE — which I’d heard or read was going to do a voter registration drive. I realized that here was an opportunity to do something instead of merely stewing about it. As soon as I got back to this country, I signed up with CORE, The Congress of Racial Equality, and went to Louisiana for a summer of voter registration and a fall of attempting integration in certain businesses in Hammond, Louisiana.
On Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m., The Block off Biltmore will screen a 15-minute documentary titled: Hell’s Hot Breath: Galway Kinnell at Black Mountain. The film was made by Asheville poet and historian Laura Hope-Gilland is part of the NC Pulitzer Campfire project of the North Carolina Humanities Council.
“What I aim to do in telling this story is track how bearing witness leads to social action,” Hope-Gill says. She adds, “How long can a person stay on the sidelines after they’ve been thrust into the center of reality? I don’t think very long.”
Below is a trailer of the film.