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Grandma made famous by Obama speech publishes book

Just after the first World War, a young, black and gifted teenage girl began to evolve into a beautiful woman in Nashville.

Ann spent her leisure time with her cousin Irene, who was 13 years older and a schoolteacher at the all-black school in town.

They spent a lot of Saturday afternoons in a dance class that attracted young men from nearby Fisk and Meharry Medical colleges. Ann was allowed to date slightly older men, once Irene approved.

And there were many who were interested.

"I have to tell you, I had a lot of admirers back then," Ann writes in her new book. "I was little — well under 5 feet and under 100 pounds — but I had a womanly build. I had a really good figure — people always told me so — but I was proudest of my legs. They were great legs and still are.

"Fortunately for me, the style at the time called for shorter dresses so I got to show off my legs a lot. And the young men appreciated that."

This is just one of the stories Ann Nixon Cooper, my 107-year-old grandmother, recounts in A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name.

Ever since President Barack Obama made her remarkable life the cornerstone of his election night speech, she has enjoyed newfound celebrity.

She immediately became the subject of television and newspaper interviews, and that soon gave way to book-deal offers.

I couldn't be more pleased with how author Karen Grigsby Bates wove together interviews and photos from my grandmother and her friends and relatives for the book, published by a division of Simon & Schuster.

The book goes on sale in January.

It is both heart-warming and awe-inspiring to read about how historical moments have touched her life. Segregation forced her to birth her two oldest children in a makeshift clinic.

"If you were black, you could not go to the white hospitals in Atlanta to have your baby," she explains in the book. "You could go to the doctor's offices to be seen, but if he had white patients, you had to wait out in the hallway or on the porch."

She also describes enjoying a Coca-Cola when Atlanta's downtown eateries, such as the old Rich's department store lunch counter, finally became integrated.

"I don't even drink soda, but I had to sit down and have one after that."

I've heard many of the stories before, but Bates has crystallized the moments while capturing all of my grandmother's Southern-flavored charm and sense of decorum.

Grandmama explains she could never imagine going to church without a hat.

And she couldn't believe it when blacks began to grow afros and fluff up their hair with "picks."

"I used the same kind of fork to cut angel food cake for the ladies when I hosted a tea that some of the young folk used to comb their hair."

Such culture shock humor is rooted in the high-minded values she learned as a child. I kept finding pearls of wisdom from her yesteryears that I want to share with my children.

They can divine so much from the adoration she had for my grandfather and her sense of community service.

She longed to instill the values of the Boy Scouts in her son and his friends, but the group wasn't integrated back then. So she petitioned Scouting and eventually started Atlanta's first all-black troop.

My kids could also learn from her ability to laugh, love and enjoy each day.

Despite the book and the fame, health challenges have made this my grandmother's most difficult year.

I'm not sure how much longer she will be with us here, but she often says she persevered through heartache and hardships not only for herself, but for all the people depending on her.

This book is just the latest example of her perseverance.

That's all I'm saying.

Grandma made famous by Obama speech publishes book 12/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 11:29pm]
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