Miami University alumni Laverne ‘Bernie’ Merritt-Gordon and Beau Grosscup recently published the biography “Tell Them What You Want.” The book depicts Meritt-Gordon’s coming-of-age story in Oxford from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Born in 1946, Merritt-Gordon was sent to live with a foster family in Oxford at age 6, where she graduated from Talawanda High School and later Miami with a bachelor’s degree in science.
The book begins with the meeting between Merritt-Gordon and Grosscup as children, and routinely refers back to the two’s friendship of over 65 years.
“Over the years, Laverne has shared little bits and pieces of her ‘secrets’ to some of us, several who encouraged her to write her memoir,” Grosscup said. “I first mentioned the idea of helping her write the memoir, but it wasn’t until five years later that she said, ‘Let’s get going. I know you will get it right.’”
Although “Tell Them What You Want” largely focuses on Merritt-Gordon’s experiences as a child and young woman in Oxford, it also details the racism Merritt-Gordon faced as a Black teen mother in the 1960s.
At the beginning of each chapter, the memoir presents a list of the racial injustices occurring at the time of the story, many of which are referenced in the chapter by the characters. The lists place the narrative in a timeline to provide for more socio-political background to the story.
Merritt-Gordon’s co-author, Grosscup, also grew up in Oxford and graduated from Miami. Currently, he serves as professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Chico. Grosscup felt drawn to Merritt-Gordon’s experience growing up in his hometown.
“Given my 40 years of teaching and research on class, race and gender issues, we agreed I was well-equipped to add the [political] dimension to the story,” Grosscup said. “Having also grown up in Oxford, I was very familiar with most of the people, places and events.”
“Tell Them What You Want” is Grosscup’s fifth book, with his own creative memoir, “Rebel Without a Clue,” published in June 2020. Grosscup’s other three books focus on international terrorism, his concentration at CSU Chico.
While the memoir uses creative aspects to give a more detailed account of Merritt-Gordon’s life, such as revolving the narrative around Merritt-Gordon’s inner thoughts, “Tell Them What You Want” still provides an accurate look at not just Merritt-Gordon’s life, but the history of Oxford and the Civil Rights Movement.
While Grosscup and Merritt-Gordon have stayed friends throughout their lives, their vastly different experiences growing up in Oxford add a unique element to the memoir.
“What stood out to me about her story was, even though the same age, living a quarter mile apart and with many of the same people in our lives, how different my Oxford experience was as a white professor’s son,” Grosscup said. “It was and remains a fascinating revelation.”
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By giving readers such an intimate look into Merritt-Gordon’s life, “Tell Them What You Want” allows its audience to feel not just that they’re listening to Merritt-Gordon account her life’s story, but compare their own experiences to hers.
There’s a moment in the book when Merritt-Gordon is speaking with her mentor, Mr. Jacks, about the lack of support at Miami for Black students. His response stands out to both Merritt-Gordon and the audience clearly.
“You’ve got to reach down somewhere inside of you and pull it up,” Jacks tells Merritt-Gordon. “You say they don’t want to hear? Make them. Then tell them, not what you think you want, but what you want.”