Tag Archive | Georgia

Cherokee Rose

IMG_5499 (533x800)“Yuh see dis lill bush–it call Cherokee an mos uh duh folks yuh plants it at duh doe. It bring um good luck.”

So said Sophie Davis in the late 1930s.  Sophie Davis was born to slaves who worked on St. Catherine’s Island along the coast of South Georgia.  She did not know what year she was born, but she was eight years old at the time of the war that would result in her freedom.  After the war, young Sophie and her family were among the former slaves from St. Catherine’s Island who settled several communities along White Bluff Road south of Savannah:  Rose Dhu, Cedar Grove, Twin Hill, and White Bluff.  One group of the freed slaves negotiated with John Nicholson of the Cedar Grove Plantation south of Savannah to purchase 200 acres of his plantation.  They named their community Nicholsonboro and built the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church at its center.  My best guess is that the land where I now live and garden was either a part of the Nicholsonboro community or very near it; anyway, most days, I walk my dog past the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, just a block and a half toward the river and across White Bluff Road from my house.  I’ve written about Nicholsonboro here and here and here.

In the late 1930s, someone from the Georgia Writers’ Project came to these communities along White Bluff Road.  They were a part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a program of the Works Progress Administration, part of the New Deal to try to get the United States out of the Great Depression.  The purpose of the Federal Writers’ Project was to record in writing oral traditions, local histories, and other such information.  In 1940, with the information they gathered in their study of the communities of White Bluff, they published a sort of anthropological ethnography called Drums and Shadows.  Since the copyright was not renewed on it, the entire text can be found here; the section on the White Bluff communities can be found here.

Drums and Shadows focused primarily on the folk traditions of the former slaves:  mystical traditions, ghost stories, folk remedies, and other “primitive” aspects of culture.  The book is respectful enough, if condescending in that way academic ethnographers tend to be.  The words of the writer are in precise, proper, academic prose; the pronunciation, syllables and grammar of the subjects are literally transcribed in their Gullah accents in ways that make them sound illiterate.  But there is interesting information here for those of us who want a picture of who lived on this land before us.

Among the many stories and traditions with which she obliged her interviewer, Sophie Davis gave the quote above.  She said that the people of Nicholsonboro and surrounding communities would plant this Cherokee bush near their doors for good luck.  A little later in the interview, Sophie called to her neighbor, Susie Branch, who had grown up with Sophie on St. Catherine’s Island and at White Bluff, to join in the conversation.  Susie also told the interviewer, “dis lill plant heah called ‘Cherokee’ is spose tuh bring good luck ef yuh plants it by duh front doe step.”

I would be fascinated to learn about this Cherokee bush which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described.  I would love to plant some of it near my front door; who couldn’t use a little more good luck?  But I would also be fascinated because this time of year in the trees and shrubs which line Old Coffee Bluff Road, across the street and down a bit from the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church, blooms a beautiful specimen of Cherokee Rose.  And I wonder if that could be the same bush Sophie and Susie described.

The Cherokee Rose, pictured above, is a large, creamy white, single rose with a pronounced set of pollen-makers protruding in a ring around a yellow center.  It is a beautiful, if simple, plant which grows wildly around here.  And it has its own story.  In 1916, the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs lobbied the Georgia General Assembly to name the Cherokee Rose as the state flower of Georgia.  It seems the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs had adopted the Cherokee Rose as their emblem when they first formed as a statewide federation twenty years earlier, so, I suppose the logic went, why not remedy the lack of a state flower by promoting the symbol of their own club, which happened to grow as if it was wild all over the state?

I wish that Sophie Davis’ and Susie Branch’s Cherokee plant which brought good luck to them and to their neighbors on this land is the same as the Cherokee Rose which the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs adopted as their emblem and promoted as the state flower.  There would be such a terrific irony to these layers of meaning.  The Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs could not be further in any way from the doorsteps of Sophie Davis and Susie Branch.  In their lifetimes, the color of their skin would have been enough to exclude them from membership in any of the local chapters of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs.  But according to their website, the women who first formed the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1896, when Sophie Davis would have been about 40 years old, were described by their first president, Rebecca Lowe, this way:

“We, as Southern women, … have been the exotics of civilization: reared in the lap of luxury, with more time at our command than ordinarily falls to the lot of women, guided by mothers and grandmothers, not only endowed with superior intellect, but with that graceful tact, which enables a woman of education and brilliance to carry conviction in all she says.”

Sophie Davis and Susie Branch would not have been welcome in such a company of “exotics of civilization,” and for a lot of reasons in addition to the color of their skin.

But imagine that “dis lil bush” which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described is the same as the state flower and symbol of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs.  And imagine that I planted a specimen of it here, near my front door, in the soil of this community.  The meaning of that bush would be taken away from those women who, without much of what I would consider grace or tact, bragged of their rearing in their parents’ “lap of luxury.”  Instead, its meaning would be defined by survivors of one of the most awful systems of oppression our nation has ever conceived.  It would be given its meaning by women whose families had enabled those “exotics of civilization” to live with the decadence to have “more time at our command than ordinarily falls to the lot of women.”  Its significance would have been granted by people who were denied the ability to exercise their right to vote for those who considered such important business for the good of the state as that which was presented by the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs.  Sophie and Susie were Southern women, every bit as much as Rebecca Lowe and her subjects in the Women’s Clubs.  But, although these Southern women could not exercise power in the way the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs could exercise power, they had a power all their own:  the power to cultivate good luck for themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their communities, right at their doors, with their own strong hands and hard work.

As much as I would appreciate the layers of ironic meaning of a specimen of Cherokee Rose growing in my yard, I have my doubts that it is the same bush which Sophie Davis and Susie Branch described to their visitor from the Georgia Writers’ Project in the late 1930s.  The bush they pointed to was described by the ethnographer as “a small bush growing beside the doorway of her little cabin.”  The Cherokee Rose, though, is a vine with long, trailing stems; the ones blooming now across the street from the Nicholsonboro Baptist Church climb forty feet or more up the trees and power poles.  A friend who lives not far from me showed me her Cherokee Rose the other day, trailing along her low, split-rail fence near her driveway gate.  She said with a smirk that I should be grateful she finally trimmed it back; if she had not, it would have had me for lunch.  Unless Sophie Davis and Susie Branch worked each year to cut theirs back hard, the bush could not be described as small.

Still, I would like to know what the Cherokee bush they talked about is because I would love to plant one near my front door.  Who couldn’t use a little more good luck?

A footnote:  There is a further irony in the story of the Cherokee Rose.  In the resolution which the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs drafted and the Georgia General Assembly approved in 1916, among the supporting arguments, was this claim:  “…The Cherokee Rose, having its origin among the aborigines of the northern portion of the State of Georgia, is indigenous to its soil…”  The Cherokee Rose is not, in fact, indigenous to Georgia.  It is native to China, Taiwan, Laos, and Vietnam.  In one of those mysteries of globalization, née colonial trade, it probably came here to Georgia by way of England, probably only a little more than a century before the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs adopted it as their emblem.  The Cherokee Rose found itself mixed up in the same systems of transatlantic trade as the ancestors of Sophie Davis and Susie Branch and millions of people like them.  It is an immigrant to Georgia; maybe it came here with the intent to dominate the land and people, like Rebecca Lowe and her ancestors, or maybe against its will, like Sophie Davis and Susie Branch and their ancestors.  But it is not a native species.

Acts of Religious Freedom

IMG_5401 (800x533)Today, as I was sitting on my back patio having lunch, I looked up at the dying live oak tree near the fence.  The tree is in sad shape, as far as trees go.  A few years ago, not long after we moved into the house, we noticed that it seems to have started dying from the top.  We are not sure if lightning hit it or some plague of insects, bacteria, genetic malfunction, or simple old age got to it.  But the ends of the thick trunks are now splintered.  The woodpeckers and flickers have gouged holes in those trunks as they hunt for protein while dropping a shower of shavings to float in the bird bath below.  The lower branches have gradually died, ending up as lichen-covered sticks which fall on our back lawn as gifts for the dog to chew.  But the middle branches of the tree have endured somehow, and what I noticed today was that they are now covered in blossoms.

They called to mind the oak blossoms which covered our live oak trees every spring when I was growing up in Northern California.  Our yard had four large, strong, healthy trees:  two live oaks and two deciduous oaks of some indeterminate variety.  Each year, small strands of green started to form on the trees, then fell to the ground as they turned brown.  The strands had small nobs on them, not much bigger than cracker crumbs, strung like tiny nuggets along a thread, and their color was no different than the stems.  My parents kept calling them blossoms.  That was absurd to me.  I knew what blossoms were.  The lilies in our yard would explode with vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and whites; the camelias would open their soft, round, pink blooms; the irises would stand tall with their bearded heads of purple; the roses would open their poetry-inspiring buds, and wherever those marvels didn’t show off, there was room for daffodils and tulips and pansies and petunias to fill in.  Those plants all had blossoms to be proud of.  But the mighty oaks, many times bigger in stature and deeper in root than any of those others, only produced those spindly, weak, little threads of green-drying-to-brown crumbs.  I still imagine the other plants and bushes in the yard were laughing at the mighty oak trees when blooming season arrived.

And now, around here, I hesitate to imagine what the magnolias say when the oaks aren’t listening.  But still, sitting on my back patio enjoying my lunch, I realized that the blooms lend a beauty and a grace to still living, yet dying, oak tree.  They are plentiful enough to make a visual impact, and from the distance across the width of my yard, they rustle like curtains in the breeze.  While the color isn’t spectacular, the gold-glowing green freshens up the place a bit while we wait for the trees, bushes, and plants to fill out with their new leaves.

I’ve been thinking a lot today, too, about the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which is making its way through the Georgia State Legislature this season.  They had to call it the Georgia act because it’s not just the Georgia Legislature considering the bill; variants of this same bill are making their way through a number of state legislatures this year.  The need for this bill, as well as the language of the bill, was conceived by a national organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition.  Supporters of the bill have come forward with all manner of dramatic language to say that the bill is necessary to protect religious people, who, they allege, are under serious threat of persecution throughout the nation.  Some politicians have been more clear: they are promoting the bill so that private businesses would have legal grounds to refuse to serve people who are LGBTQ.

There are so many thoughts in my mind about this bill and the agenda of those promoting it.  I have my gut reactions:  I am repulsed that we are having a serious conversation about how to codify bigotry, and I am scandalized that some think  religion is a useful tool to do that.  Stepping back from those reactions, though, I also wonder why a business would want to refuse any paying customer (for a great story about that from Idaho, see here); I am afraid that is one of those questions to which I do not really want to hear the answer.  I think about a colleague of mine in Texas, who recently wrote that their version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would nullify a 15-year-old act that was crafted after a broad process involving a wide range of political and religious leaders.  That makes me wonder why our state needs organizers from a national organization representing a narrow segment of the population, which is far from representative of the range of religious perspectives in our state, to set our legislative priorities and to write our legislation for us.  I wonder if there is any way for the cooler heads of more seasoned politicians to prevail in our legislature and governor’s administration, where the conversation is dominated by the voices of radically conservative Republicans.  And I think about my favorite line from one pastor’s testimony against the bill:  “is there a more religiously free people on God’s green earth than Georgia Baptists?”

But I also think about my live oak tree and its blossoms.  I am the pastor of a congregation which I like to describe as radically tolerant.  We have some members who align on many issues with the political right, and some members who align on many issues with the political left.  We have members and friends in our congregation who are gay and lesbian, and we have members who do not support extending marriage, ordination, or other civil and ecclesiastical privileges to people who are LGBTQ.  But we manage to get along most of the time, and more than getting along, we manage to exercise our religious freedoms together.  We pray with and for each other, we visit each other in the hospital, and we bring casseroles when we think someone might need them.  We break bread together, both in the context of worship and in some really great covered dish lunches.  And we serve our community together:  we provide food and housing for homeless people, we tutor children from our local public school, we mentor Boy Scouts, we build ramps for people under Hospice care, and we welcome a whole bunch of different community groups to use our buildings.

Such a tolerant community of people committed to a common ministry and mission seem like my live oak trees.  When I was growing up, such communities were strong and healthy; now, they seem like they are dying because folks seem to prefer to live in enclaves of people who agree with them on controversial issues.  In fact, I have heard supporters of LGBTQ rights talk about their support for bills like the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Their reasoning goes that they want to be able to easily identify those businesses who do not agree with them so they can stay away.  But if we all retreat into our own enclaves of like-mindedness, when do people who disagree encounter each other?  When does a traditional-marriage bakery owner witness the love-struck excitement of the gay couple who is ordering the cake for their wedding?  When does the progressive activist find out that the local dry cleaner with the faded Romney-Ryan sticker on his bumper proudly displays in his shop the photos and certificates of appreciation from years and years of sponsorships of the youth soccer league?

In this metaphor, the vocal activists like the Faith and Freedom Coalition might be compared to the plants and bushes that produce the bold, brassy lilies, irises, camelias, roses, and all the rest.  They quote Sarah Palin on the front page of their website, and you can’t get much more bold and brassy than that.  I can imagine them, perhaps unfairly, mocking institutions like my congregation, large, old trees with our tiny, plain blossoms of church suppers and after-school tutoring programs.  Our blooms do not command as much attention; they have less splashy color, less noticeable shapes; they are less outspoken, less dramatic, and get far less attention from the politicians or the media.

But our blossoming acts of religious freedom have their own beauty and grace.  They may seem small and spindly, but taken together, they have a significant impact.  And they freshen up the place where we are, filling in when the splashier, more dramatic plants and bushes fail.  Life in a community of radical tolerance is not always easy; some days, I worry that the whole thing is going to fall over dead, becoming nothing more than fodder for the woodpeckers.  But on other days, I notice that even when the breeze starts to blow and our blossoms rustle, they look like a curtain dancing with the wind, and I think such places where religious freedom is enacted are the only hope our culture has.

I hope our representatives will have the good sense to vote no on the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Update:  So this happened later on Thursday.  Once an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill passed, the supporters no longer supported it.