The media, local and otherwise, will follow the Esther Dozier story from now on, and I’m sure we will be told much that is later revealed to be untrue and more than we ought to know about some things. I realize that curiosity about our neighbors is part of being human, and I enjoy gossip as much as the next person. But in this event I see nothing but loss and tragedy for all concerned, and doubt that there are any general lessons to be learned. (“Avoid boyfriends,” Rachel suggested last night.)
Two occasions come to mind. First, a beautiful evening last summer when we had a dinner for the key people involved in Berkshire’s African American publishing projects. It was a celebration of work completed, a couple of months before the actual publication dates in September and October. We set up a long table on the deck, and my son Tom and daughter Rachel catered the meal entirely because I’d sprained my ankle in San Francisco. Henry (Hank), who is being arraigned for murder this morning, was generally quiet, as the news reports keep saying. But I remember we were talking about injuries because he’d just had some kind of surgery and the recovery was slower than promised. Esther was charming as always and most impressed by Tom’s culinary skills.
I also think of the meeting between Esther and William H. (Bill) McNeill, at the launch of David Levinson’s book about the Clinton AME Zion Church. Bill McNeill is one of the world’s most eminent historians, and a dear friend and colleague. We invited him to the event knowing it would be quite a different experience from the grand university occasions he’s been used to, or the awarding of the Erasmus Prize or the National Book Award. But we felt it would interest him and because David, an anthropologist, was publishing his first book of history, we also thought it appropriate to have Bill with us. (Bill, by the way, has written local history himself, a wonderful and beautifully presented account of the town of Colebrook, Connecticut, where he now lives.)
The first part of the event was held in the church, with readings from the book and music from the small choir and a visiting choir from Pittsfield. Pastor Dozier spoke movingly about what it meant to her and the church community to have their story told, and memorialized. She talked about the struggles of the black community, and the centrality of faith. (Esther was not one to pull any punches, and she knew was mattered and what didn’t. When there was a lengthy argument about whether the word Black should be capitalized in the two books, she said sharply that she was used to the word Negro. She didn’t pretend that things had been, or were, easy for people in her community, and the white people she cared most about, it seems to me, were the ones she saw working, not just talking.)
After the reading and service we walked across the parking lot to the Masonic Temple for a buffet meal. (Normally, the congregation gathers in the low-ceiled basement of the church, but there were too many people that day.) I was with Bill McNeill when Esther came over. She’d been told that we had a famous historian with us, and graciously greeted him. “You have great éclat,” said Bill. “What’s that?” Esther asked. “Ah, that was French,” said Bill, “how about charisma? But that’s Greek.” Esther still didn’t seem satisfied; she wanted to know exactly what he meant. I knew – because her presence in the church was striking, warm yet powerful – and was intrigued to see how Esther kept after Bill till she really understood what he was praising about the way she interacted with her audience. If anyone had asked how she had become such a poised speaker and community leader, I feel sure she would have attributed it entirely to God, and to her sense of having been called by God to lead the congregation. No wonder she never seemed intimidated by people with lots of degrees or worldly renown.
We cut peonies from our garden this morning and took them to the church, where I’m sure many people will be paying their respects, honoring Esther, and remembering that the community she devoted her life to needs our concern and support now more than ever.