A Friend of Mine Has a Book Out and It’s Good

“Now I can no longer imagine living in any other region of the country,” writes Martin Lehfeldt about the South, though the native Northeasterner didn’t always feel that way. In his thoroughly engaging and perfectly titled memoir, YOU’RE NOT FROM AROUND HERE, ARE YOU?, Martin tells the story of his transformation since the 1960s to naturalized Southerner.

An education about the South.

When I reached the last of his 45 compact, sharply insightful chapters, I felt I not only knew my friend Martin better, but also knew the South better, too. That’s saying a lot, since it has been my home for nearly 70 years now.

Martin’s unique take on the South began when he “liberated” himself from a planned career in the ministry and took a job with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. There, he recruited and placed mostly white PhD candidates on the faculties of historically Black colleges throughout the South.

That opportunity gave him a window into Southern life and culture that was fresh and unexpected … and laid the foundation for a lifelong appreciation of the place. It also led to an impressive career as a college development officer, fundraising consultant and president of the Southeastern Council of Foundations.

It was a lucky break for him … and for us.

His appreciation of our region shines through in story after story of his nearly 60 years in Atlanta and other points south. He married a native Southerner, and early in the book, offers a tongue-in-cheek warning to those readers above the Mason-Dixon line who might cast aspersions on the region. He writes: “I think I’ve earned the right to poke fun at or even criticize my fellow Southerners, but other folks better be careful about what they say.”

He often pokes fun at himself as well as the South.

One of the book’s highlights is a hilarious story about getting stuck on a muddy rural road during a working trip to Florida early in his career. Stories about learning to appreciate the Southern vernacular, the music and the food, including such staples as pimiento cheese, never-undercooked green beans and the all-important Waffle House hash browns, are a joy to read. So is the chapter, aptly titled “A Rite of Passage,” on hosting his First Annual Memorial Day Pig Roast.

A previously published author with a stint as a newspaper reporter early in his career, Martin has a keen eye for evocative detail. About the Atlanta landmark Manuel’s Tavern, he writes that “people pay for their drinks with both platinum American Express cards and crumpled bills.” He could so easily have said something trite about the varied demographics of Manuel’s clientele.

And his profile of Vivian W. Henderson, the former president of what is now Clark Atlanta University, is first-rate. Martin was vice president of development for the school in 1969, and as such was the school’s first white administrator since its earliest days. “For seven years Vivian and I worked hard and played hard together,” Martin writes. “It was one of the most productive and informative periods of my professional life.”

“He could be outrageous,” continues Martin. And then, “He could be witty… He could also be downright ornery.” In one of the book’s most vivid passages, Martin tells stories of his own experiences with Henderson to illustrate these descriptions, which serve as the structural backbone for the piece. That’s smart writing by a seasoned pro.

And how can you not love his description of a visit to the Walmart-built Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, on a 2014 family-roots road trip to Oklahoma: “I highly recommend it as an exquisite example of what God might have built and the exhibits she might have installed if she had as much money as Alice Walton.”

The book is not all praise and humor.

Martin notes a particularly hair-raising fact about our not-too-distant past: The New York Times for some years would not deliver to his Atlanta zip code, an area that became an upwardly mobile African American enclave in his early years there, “even though our neighbors like Andrew Young and John Lewis … were often front-page copy in that same newspaper.”

He mentions ongoing problems like underpaid teachers and clusters of homeless people on the region’s city streets “whose continued presence defies the best intentions of the good people who want to help them.”

But his approach is kindly circumspect: “My connection with the South is like a second marriage. I walked into it with reasonably open eyes–certainly not blind to the faults of my new partner but also not inclined to try to correct them with frontal attacks.” And he concludes that he does long for an “even better South,” quoting the weekly digital publication, The Bitter Southerner.

More than an observer.

Martin has done his share to make an “even better South.”

He proudly confesses to removing the controversial Mississippi state flag, with its battle pennant of the Confederacy, from a corner of a stage in Biloxi where the Southeastern Council of Foundations was hosting its annual meeting. There was no uproar over what he had done. A small gesture, sure. But today, the Mississippi legislature has commissioned the design of a new flag. Progress indeed.

In addition, his and his wife Linda’s Twelfth Night party each January 6 draws as diverse an array of guests as any host could hope for.

And yet Martin humbly writes that his promotion of racial and other diversity is more than morality or civility. “I like my life to be interesting,” he writes, “so I have become distinctly uncomfortable in monochromatic settings … Seeing oneself in the mirror gets mighty tiresome.”

I can only hope that this review will earn my husband Ted and me an invitation to the party … if there is a post-pandemic version. (Insert smiley face emoji here.)

A fully realized life.

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer Martin’s memoir is this: About halfway through it, I became aware that I was reading an important regional work as well as an enjoyable and often amusing one by a friend from church. It’s more than a gift to the author’s children and grandchildren. After all, it has garnered laudatory blurbs from the president of the United Negro College Fund, a professor emeritus at Emory University and a former mayor of Atlanta.

Why? Here’s my take on it.

It’s the responsibility of each of us to understand our surroundings, to learn our local histories, and, for some of us, to put the pivotal moments of our lives in some sort of framework that makes sense. The goal, I think, is to appreciate and come to terms with our environs rather than blindly glorifying them. This is what Martin has done in his remarkable memoir.

And an example for all of us.

For me, the book is proof that he leads a fully realized life … and sets an example for the rest of us to do the same. It’s also a testament to a truth I understand more and more deeply as years go by: Leaping out of one’s homeland, one’s comfort zone where we take solace in all things familiar, can often be the best thing to happen to us.

It was the best thing for me when I came out in 1977. And I’d venture to say it was in Martin’s case, too, when he drove out of New Jersey in 1969, pointed the car toward Atlanta … and never looked back.

Thank you, Martin, for an enlightening, entertaining book.

Note: Order Martin’s memoir on Amazon here. Other ordering options are available on the website of his publisher, Belle Isle Books, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia.

7 thoughts on “A Friend of Mine Has a Book Out and It’s Good

  1. Looksd even better the second time around. Many thanks.

    Martin Martin C. Lehfeldt Former President, Southeastern Council of Foundations Writer and speaker in the not-for-profit sector

    Liked by 1 person

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