Tag Archive | History

Eviction: A Little Story of Race and Power

IMG_3069 (800x532)In my first job out of college, I learned who needs to be present to evict someone in the state of Oregon:  a representative of the property owner, a sheriff’s deputy, and a locksmith.  I worked for a non-profit community development organization in inner Northeast Portland which had grown out of a local neighborhood association.  The group wanted to fight blight in their neighborhood as well as preserve the diversity of the community, particularly in terms of race, culture, and social class, as they were starting to see the potential threat of gentrification.  So, part of their strategy was to acquire, renovate, and manage housing at rents that would be affordable for people with low incomes.

About the time I started working there, the organization purchased a building at Northeast 20th and Alberta Streets that had four one-bedroom units.  When we bought the building, one of the units was occupied by a woman who had been a problem for the neighbors.  She had a long police record for using and dealing  illegal drugs in her apartment.  The neighbors complained that there were visitors and noise at all hours, and based on the noise and activity, they suspected that drug dealing was not the only illegal activity going on there.  She had several family members living with her in the one-bedroom unit, which was a violation of the lease.  And she hadn’t paid her rent in several months.  So, as the new property owners, and as an organization whose mission was to improve the neighborhood for the sake of everyone in the community, it fell to us to evict her.

The eviction was scheduled for a Friday afternoon.  That particular Friday afternoon, everyone in the office was going to busy.  The director, who was my boss and had been through this process before, was not available because she had another meeting.  The woman in charge of acquiring and renovating properties did not work on Fridays; neither did the woman who ran our program for women who had graduated from addiction recovery programs.  The bookkeeper wasn’t even available.  So I agreed to be the representative of the property owners at the eviction.

The notices for the eviction went out according to the law.  They had to be delivered in every possible way well in advance of the date to give the tenant a chance to either resolve the issues which were leading to eviction or move out.  Usually, such notices made the situation easy:  when the necessary parties showed up, the apartment was empty.  Then, the sheriff posted their notice, the locksmith changed the lock, and the representative of the property owner handed out the checks and collected the new keys.  But that was not the case that day.  Instead, the woman who was being evicted was still there along with a couple of her friends and several of their children.  She was running around yelling at people as she and the others were frantically tossing clothes, furniture, toys, household items, and other contents of the apartment off of her second-floor balcony into the front yard.  It was quite the sight; it looked like Oliver Twist was going to poke his shy little head around the corner at any moment.  I pulled up and waited in my car for the others to arrive, already feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole situation.

And as the others arrived, though, I became more and more uncomfortable.  The locksmith came up in a pickup, and I saw that he was a white man, like myself.  Then the sheriff’s deputies arrived, two of them, and they were also both beefy, young, white men.  And everyone else there, the woman being evicted as well as her friends and their children, was black.  As our crew of four white men walked up the sidewalk, climbed the stairs, and did our work, my apprehension turned to a horrible, icky feeling.

On one hand, everything going on at the property at NE 20th and Alberta Streets that day was right.  Not only were we following the law, we were doing so in the interest of the whole community.  We were helping the neighborhood, with all the diversity of its residents, accomplish its vision for itself:  a place that was safe and comfortable for all of the people who called that place home.  The problem was not with what we were doing.

The problem was with the way we did it:  four white men, who were agents of the people in power in the situation, invaded a space occupied by black women and children, who had no power in the situation.  The scene evoked the long history of white oppression of blacks in the United States.  The scene reified the stereotypes many people have of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in this country.  The scene played out the fantasies of many people who, explicitly or implicitly, would be just as happy if “those people” were not in their community.  The scene illustrated the truth that the systems under which we all live do not treat people equally, and the scene did not provide a vision for how things could be done differently.  The scene was all wrong, even if everything we were doing was right.

I have been thinking about the scene of the eviction that day as I have watched the news in the past week.  I am not an attorney, and I have not read all of the evidence presented to the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri.  People I trust know more about the laws and the evidence than I do, and based on what they have said in the past few days, I am less and less convinced that the evidence was so inadequate that they could not at least have a trial for Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown (this is one of the better interviews on the topic I have seen).  But even in the days after the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision, when I still wondered if it was possible that the grand jury was right, I got that same feeling that I had that day almost 20 years ago at the scene of the eviction. I don’t know if the grand jury was right, but nonetheless, there is plenty wrong with the whole scene.

What would have made the scene of the eviction better?  I went back to my boss the following Monday and told her that, at the very least, we needed to work harder to make sure the people present at the eviction represented the local community.  We did not have any control over which deputies the sheriff’s office would send to an eviction, but the scene would have been better if they represented the diversity of the community they were serving.  We could do business with a locksmith who did not look like me.  But mostly, my boss and I agreed, I did not need to be a part of any more evictions, not because I was unwilling to do work that was uncomfortable, but because, as a white man, I did not need to be in that scene, at least not by myself, because my presence did not support a vision for how things could be done better.

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Artifacts

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The intersection of Third Street and Cedar Avenue in South Pittsburgh, TN, where the shootout took place.

My great-great grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, was the well-respected Sheriff of Marion County, Tennessee, when he was the first one killed in the Christmas Shootout of 1927. The incident made the newspapers all over the country. The town of South Pittsburgh, where the gunfight happened, was caught up in a labor dispute between the owner of the factory which was the largest employer in town and his unionized workers. But, as is usually the case in these sorts of things, it was more complicated than that. Among the five other men killed that night was the man whom Wash had defeated in the election for Sheriff the year before.

When he got the call that he needed to respond to an incident that night, Wash took with him two deputies and his revolver. He left his revolver on the front seat of the car when he got out. One of his deputies was killed with him in the gunfight; the other waited in Wash’s car and got away unhurt. That deputy who survived was my great grandfather, Roy Beene, who had married the second-oldest of Wash’s seven daughters 28 years earlier.

After the killing, everyone in the county seemed to agree that the man most qualified to succeed Wash as Sheriff was his eldest son and Chief Deputy, Turner Coppinger. But somehow, Roy Beene got to keep the revolver. When Turner had completed a couple more terms as the Sheriff, he decided not to run again in the election in 1938, and threw his support to Jack Beene, his nephew and Roy’s eldest son. After his success in the election, Jack’s younger brother, M.C., moved his young family back to Marion County from California so he could take a job as a deputy. M.C. was my grandfather.

M.C. didn’t have a gun of his own, though, so his father let him have Wash’s revolver.  M.C. kept the gun after his law enforcement career ended when his brother did not win in the next election. Later, Jack made it clear that, if M.C. should ever want to part with the revolver, he would be happy to have it. At one point, though, M.C. lost the gun. When my dad pushed his father about what happened, he swore someone stole it; my dad thinks it just got lost somewhere along the way. Either way, it is gone.

Sheriff "Wash" Coppinger

Sheriff George Washington “Wash” Coppinger

When that gun was just a gun, Roy’s generous offer to let my Grandpa Beene have it made sense; the young man needed a gun to do his job, and no one was using that revolver. But by now, we have figured out that it was not just a gun. Because of who had carried it before, and because of the noteworthy way that he had died, that particular revolver had become an artifact. Like others in the family, I wish it had never been lost. I do not wish our family still had it because it was a gun. I wish we still had it because it was an artifact. Although I do not keep any guns in my house, I imagine taking it off of a high shelf and using it to tell my own child the story of his great-great-great grandfather: of the position of respect he held in his community, of the turmoil of labor relations in a small Southern town that aspired to be an industrial center in the early 20th century, and of what happens when people let political rivalries become personal vendettas. All of those seem like good things for my child to learn about as he grows up.

Why do we turn tools like that gun into artifacts? I wonder if we have come to see it as a tangible sign that the people in our family are important. Somehow, our lives would be more meaningful if we had an object to connect us to the meaning which Wash Coppinger’s life had. Somehow, it seems like the respect that his fellow citizens showed him would add to our self-respect, the honor with which he carried himself would make us more honorable, and the significance of his life and death would make our lives more significant. And even when an artifact like that gun evokes tragedy, then somehow possessing the artifact gives the owner a feeling that, in the way the owner lives, there is an opportunity to redeem that tragedy. And so, I would even be willing to make an exception to my distaste for the idea of keeping a gun in the house; it is a small price to pay for such a tangible sign of importance.

And I wonder, too, what is the alternative to craving artifacts to connect us with our history?  Are there other ways to evaluate the significance of our own lives, remind ourselves what it means to live respectably, and even redeem the sins of our parents?  Can we tell the stories anyway:  honest stories of people who did some good things, who made some mistakes, who participated in the events of the places which surrounded them, who allowed themselves to be swept up in the movements of the times in which they lived?  Can we learn whatever we can learn from our forebears without objects to connect us tangibly to them:  how to build up our communities, how to deal with the turmoil of our own times and places, how to show grace in ways that lead to peace instead of rivalry and murder of the bodies and spirits of the people we share this world with?  Or do we need our ancestors to give us that gun to serve as a tool once again, something which we can use to do the job we have to do?

Recently, we learned that the South Pittsburgh Historical Society and the Tennessee Historical Commission dedicated a historical marker in the center of downtown, near where the Christmas Shootout of 1927 took place, describing the incident. It is a nice sign telling the story of the labor dispute and political rivalries that swirled together to cause the tragedy, and it lists the names of all six men who were killed without making judgments about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I have photos of the sign now to show my child, and I hope to take him to see it for himself soon, so he can hear the story and learn whatever he can from it about honor and history and politics, about self-respect and significance and even redemption. But still, I wish I had something more tangible to show him.

Grandparents

IMG_3083 (534x800)One day recently, I found myself longing to talk with my grandmother. There was nothing in particular I wanted to talk with her about; I just wanted to have a chat: to comment on the beautiful afternoon, to tell her about the stunning view I was seeing, and to let her know what is going on in my life.

This longing came over me because I was standing by her gravestone in the Chapel Hill United Methodist Church cemetery in Sequatchie County, Tennessee, the place where she was laid to rest after she died 15 years ago this summer. Well, it was the place where half of her was laid to rest. When she died, my dad and my uncle deferred to their sister to decide where she would be. My aunt had been the one who had done the most to care for their mother in the last years of her life; she helped make the arrangements to see that Grandma got the care she needed, and she and her daughter went to see her almost every day. Aunt Susy decided that she wanted Grandma to be remembered with a grave in the small town in New Mexico where they had lived since the early 1950s. But she also realized the importance of Grandma’s connection with her family in rural Tennessee. So she put a stone and a portion of her mother’s ashes in the public cemetery in their town, and she put another stone and the other portion of the ashes in the church yard, up the street from Grandpa Hamilton’s farm where she was born 88 years earlier, right next to the grave shared by her parents and her sister, Ellen. It seemed like a fine arrangement to me.

In some sense, it was strange, though, to have this longing to talk with my grandmother. I don’t believe I had ever felt such a longing before. I knew my grandmother as I was growing up, but we never lived close to her. Every year or two, she would come to visit us, and she made a special effort to make it to big events like graduations and weddings, even when the trip was hard for her. We would go and visit her, too, for holidays or on family road trips in the summer. My dad would talk with her on the phone. My mother would write her letters, and as I got older, my mother would help me read the letters Grandma sent back. And when my grandmother sent a five dollar bill in my birthday card every year, my mother would make me write a nice thank-you note, detailing how I spent it or saved it for something special later on.

Although I knew my grandmother, I knew that she loved me and was proud of me, and I loved her as much as I could, my longing to have a chat with my grandmother did not come from warm nostalgia of memorable conversations with her. Instead, as I stood in that church yard, I felt a longing in my soul to belong somewhere in this world. For good or for ill, friendships, professional relationships, church connections, and even marriage are all understood in the postmodern world as personal choices. I felt the need to be affirmed in a connection that went deeper than that. I wanted something tangible I could see and touch and listen to and speak with to reassure me that I would be welcome whether the one welcoming wanted me there or not. Seeing that slab of granite which represents my grandmother, sharing an eternal resting place on a hill with her parents and sister, I wanted to sit and visit a while.

After I left the church yard, that unexpected longing had not gone away, so I drove the forty five minutes or so to the Bean-Roulston Graveyard, where portions of six generations of my ancestors have chosen to spend eternity, including my grandfather. He died in 1962, eleven years before I was born, so I only know him through the memories my father and other family members have chosen to share with me. A few years ago, I had a chance to ask my dad’s cousin about my grandfather. She said he was very attractive and very charming, and she always found him quite likable.  But he was also never settled, and she always thought his troubles later in life tied up with his feeling of never being really satisfied where he was.

My grandfather died when he was only 46 years old, a week after his daughter’s wedding. By the time he died, he had been divorced for five or six years. He was an alcoholic, and although his younger sister had taken him in and cared for him when he had surgery to treat his colon cancer, he had alienated much of the rest of his family with requests for money and other kinds of help over many years. His only friends in town were his drinking buddies. And so it fell to my dad, at the ripe age of 24, to take care of him as he was dying and to make arrangements for his burial after he died. I remember seeing my grandfather’s death certificate in a trunk my dad keeps in the garage when I was young. It listed his place of death as a “sanitarium” in Albuquerque. I didn’t know that was just another way of saying that my dad got him into a hospital before he died, rather than letting him die in the apartment my dad rented for them with his wages working for the railroad in the last months of his father’s life.

I don’t know, but I imagine that my dad had help from his aunts and uncles with my grandfather’s burial; it is neither easy nor cheap to get a body from New Mexico to Sweetens Cove, Tennessee. He is buried in the shadow of his own parents’ gravestone. Next to their large stone, which reads “Beene:  The Family of Mamie and Roy,” are his siblings who died young: his brother Lemuel, who was not yet two when he died in 1910; his brother Alton, who died of appendicitis at age 12, four months after my grandfather was born in 1916; his sister, Clara, who was what we would now call developmentally disabled, who died in 1932 when she was almost 30. In the two rows in front of my great grandparents, though, are their sons who survived: Uncle Pete, Uncle Jack, and M.C., my grandfather. Those are not their real names; they were nicknamed at birth by their grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, whose imposing plot is directly behind his daughter, Mamie, and her husband.

Looking at that plot in the Bean-Roulston Cemetery, I saw the grace of God for my grandfather. I let myself imagine that he had found there a peace that comes with being settled. He belonged there: connected to people whom he both charmed and frustrated when they were all alive, who welcomed him back into that place when he died too young, who were connected to him in a way that went deeper than simply a personal choice.  I enjoyed a picnic supper with my grandfather that evening. I am sure he had no idea what I was eating; as I spread my roasted red pepper hummus on crackers, then scooped out my Greek yogurt flavored with blood orange, I could only imagine how his face would have gone from puzzled to indignant and back to puzzled again. At least he probably would have recognized the Triscuits. But it was a calm evening, with only the cows bellowing in the field on the other side of the stone wall to disturb the peace, and we had a nice time. The memories of that evening calm my soul.

Grandpa Hamilton’s Forest

IMG_2861 (800x533)In 1907, my great grandfather bought a farm in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. He had lived in the Sequatchie Valley all his life; in fact, his family had farmed in that valley since his own great grandfather settled there long before Tennessee became a state. Grandpa Hamilton had deep roots in farming, and even deeper roots in that part of the world.

The Hamiltons were not wealthy; he bought the land only after he sold another farm which had been given to him when he was married 18 years earlier. I would love to know who gave him a farm as a wedding present, but I don’t. Once he bought his new farm, he built a small house on it for his family to live in. There are three rooms in the house, plus a kitchen and a hallway, and off the side porch, there is another small room. In the back, there is a small building which covers the well and a small room behind it. I am sure there was an outhouse in the vicinity at one time, because there is no way to meet those needs in the house. There is a shed out front and a barn a hundred yards or so to the north of the house. In 1907, he had six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16; two more children were born in that house before his first wife died in 1916. I have no idea how ten people all got along in those four rooms, plus a kitchen.

Although the house is not large, Grandpa Hamilton did not seem to skimp on the details. Every room in the main part of the house has a brick fireplace. The ceilings are high, and there are plenty of windows. There are porches on three sides, a few cabinets and a good-sized sink in the kitchen, and a crawl space underneath. There is asbestos siding on the outside, a hazard now but a quality material then, and a metal roof on the top, although those may have been added later.  The house was built to last a long time.

And it has lasted a long time. 107 years later, it is still standing. The porch floors have rotted in places, and one corner of the roof covering the front porch has caved in. The wallpaper is peeling to reveal the lath boards underneath. Some of the faces on the fireplaces are crumbling, most of the windows are broken, some of the doors don’t close all the way, and the floor is a bit uneven. But the house is still there.

Besides building that simple but sturdy house, though, Grandpa Hamilton did a remarkable thing. With roots as deep as his in that valley and in the business of farming, he knew the value of the land he owned. However, he set his house off the road a good bit, and around the house and between there and the road, he preserved several acres of trees. They were large trees of species native to that area: walnut, hickory, oak, cedar, and others. My dad wrote to me a few years ago recalling about his grandfather that “squirrels and birds thrived, and he allowed only very limited hunting when damage could be observed in the barn bins.”

Grandpa Hamilton and his sons mowed the weeds around the woodland, and they planted acres and acres of corn and other crops out back. But they left that land around the trees undisturbed. His grandson and great-grandsons who still farm the land have kept up that practice, and the woodland has remained so thick that it is impossible for a person to penetrate. It is much like I imagine most of the land in that part of the world looked before people came along to cut down the trees, hack out the undergrowth, till the soil, and sow their crops.

For the past 30 years or so, no one has cleared the brush from around the house, either. And while Grandpa Hamilton’s trees and their offspring have almost overtaken the house now, with some of the trunks so close that they seem to climb the exterior walls, I wonder if the trees he preserved are part of what have kept that simple building standing for so long. The unused houses and barns up and down the valley which are not surrounded with trees show their vulnerability to the wind and the rain. They have roofs and walls which are caving in and frames which are leaning. But protected from the wind and all but the heaviest of rains, Grandpa Hamilton’s house still stands in the forest he set aside out of his farmland.

Grandpa Hamilton was no progressive. From what my dad tells me, he called Franklin Roosevelt one of the worst things to happen to this country. I can just imagine my father as a young boy listening as his grandfather repeated that strongly-held opinion to him, loudly, over and over again; he would not have been the first old man who held tightly to his view of the world as the world changed around him. But he was ahead of his time in at least this one regard: he valued nature, and he worked to preserve it, even if that meant giving up some of his precious farmland.

In the suburban community where I live, I recently had a conversation with someone about trees. I have made my feelings about trees and the way they are treated in our suburban community known before. In this conversation, I talked about whether it would be possible to plant some new trees where some ancient but dead specimens of native magnolia, sweetgum, live oak, and hickory nut have recently been removed. The person I was talking with agreed that it would be good to replace the removed trees. But the varieties were another story. “Those trees are all messy,” she said. “They drop leaves, branches, and litter all over the yard. Maybe we can find some modern hybrids of those same kinds of trees. No one is going to want those trees around that they have to clean up after!”

And I was mystified. I wanted to scream: “They are trees; of course they drop leaves and branches. The leaves and branches can be removed, or even better, they can be chopped up and used to enhance the soil under the trees. That is the way those varieties of trees have thrived in our area for millions of years before we came along!” But I let my suburban sensitivities get the better of me, and I just smiled politely.

I think Grandpa Hamilton and I would have at least a few things in common.

The Daffodils at Monticello

IMG_0132 (800x533)“Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people.”  I actually read those words out loud to my son last fall.  He was only a month or so into first grade.  His class had already finished their first unit in social studies on Benjamin Franklin and moved on to their second unit, which was on Thomas Jefferson.  Those words were printed on the study sheet which his teacher sent home so the students could prepare for their upcoming test to conclude that unit.  The line under the word “equality” meant that this was one of the facts which our son had to know.  The study sheet was clear:  Thomas Jefferson should unequivocally be associated with the virtue of equality.

My wife and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.  I might have let a quiet yet exasperated “ugh” slip from my throat.  We both learned to think critically at our liberal arts colleges.  We both have graduate training and spend our professional lives working with religious things.  We recognize hagiography when we see it, whether it is in the curriculum of the church or the curriculum of civic religion.  People deemed important in American history are treated no differently than saints of the Bible and our faith:  the stories told about them are selective.  Their virtues are lifted up, but too often, their flaws are not mentioned.

We know, too, about the problems with putting people on pedestals and calling them saints.  When folks find out what King David did to Bathsheba, not to mention Uriah the Hittite, or when they find out that Mother Teresa’s faith involved intellectual and spiritual wrestling that was never resolved, they find themselves confused, they seek the comfort of denial, and they feel betrayed by the teachers and institutions which taught them so poorly.  Truth can be traumatic, especially when it contradicts stories you have always been told.  And here we were watching, and even participating, as our child was being set up for the trauma of confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust.  Ugh, indeed.

Since nothing escapes our child, he asked what was wrong, and we told him. We told him that Thomas Jefferson said and did some great things which promoted equality.  But, we explained, Thomas Jefferson also owned people who served him and his plantation as slaves, and we defined slavery as simply and clearly as we could.  Then, we encouraged him to ask his questions, so he did.  Was Thomas Jefferson really a bad guy?  No, but he lived in a time and place that accepted slavery as part of normal life.  Had his teacher lied to him?  No, we said; she was just following the curriculum and getting him ready for the test he had to take.  Was the curriculum dishonest?  Well, maybe not on purpose; some people think that children his age are not able to understand complicated things like slavery.

There was a lot we didn’t cover, but that was enough for that night; he knew how to answer the questions on the test, he knew that we love him and we would be honest with him, and he was not ready for more new information.  And frankly, we were all tired by that time.  He aced the test, and the class has gone on to deal with such figures as Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln in their social studies classes.

But we all remember that conversation, and it has led us to have more conversations about history, about slavery, about fairness, and about truth.  Some time after that conversation, but with it still in our minds, we decided to take a Spring Break trip to Washington, DC, to learn more about the stories he was hearing in school.  And yesterday, as we were on our way home from our trip, we gave our son some choices, and he said he wanted to go to Monticello to learn more about Thomas Jefferson.

We took two guided tours at Monticello.  One was the house tour.  Early on that tour, almost as if she was anticipating what was really on our family’s minds, the guide did an excellent job of explaining Thomas Jefferson’s complicated feelings about slavery.  On one hand she said, raising her right hand palm upward about as high as her shoulder, mimicking the action of an old-fashioned scale, Jefferson admitted in his writings and other communication that slavery was unjust.  On the other hand, she said, raising her left hand in a similar way, he did not see how it could be abolished without destroying the stability of the young country and the prosperity of its (white) citizens.  The tour guide made it clear that her job was not to pass judgment, but only to present information.  Our son stood right in front of her as she spoke.  The other tour we took was called the Slave Tour.  The guide on that tour showed us where the slaves worked and lived on the plantation’s farms.  Although the cabins are long gone, she described the kind of work they did, the age at which they started working, the conditions of their living, and other details of the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children owned by Thomas Jefferson.  She also went into great detail about the story of Sally Hemmings and her children.  She ended her talk by describing a ledger Jefferson wrote assigning a monetary value to each of the people he owned, noting with a special poignancy that a 67-year-old woman was described as having “no value.”  Again, our son was in the front row as she spoke, absorbing the information.

I will leave it to our son to reflect on his feelings as he participated in those tours; it is not my place to speak for him.  And I will not pretend that he understood every bit of information he was given on the tours.  However, I am more certain than ever that, when the curriculum said that “Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people,” it not only set my son up for confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust.  It also showed it does not respect a seven-year-old’s ability to understand something as complex as slavery, and it was unfair in its disrespect.  It was not easy for our family to go through those tours, just like it was not easy to go through the exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History the day before.  We had to explain a lot of details.  We had to encourage him to ask questions, and we had to take a break after a while and get some ice cream.

But he got it.  He got that the world cannot be neatly divided into heroes and villains.  He got that people can think something is unfair but have no idea how to stop it.  He got that values and virtues look different now than they did in other times and other places.  He got that it is o.k. that he has complicated feelings and ideas and questions rattling around inside of him.  And I think he even got that, if the curriculum writers are going to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson, they really ought to respect the children and teachers enough to trust them with truth.

The daffodils are blooming right now at Monticello.  I find the shape of daffodils fascinating; instead of blooming upward like daisies, they have those strange cups facing out from their petals, making them look almost like they have faces.  However, their faces rarely look you straight in the eye.  They always seem to have their gazes shifted toward the leaves rustling on the ground around their feet.  When someone doesn’t look you straight in the eye, it is not always because she or he is telling you a lie.  Sometimes, it is because that person knows that the truth is a very complicated thing: that justice is an ideal which is not easily reconciled with reality, that righteousness is like a stream in that it is never static but keeps flowing, and that even heroes can have a hard time reconciling their beliefs with their behaviors.  I took some photos of those daffodils because I thought they would be fitting souvenirs from our day at Monticello, so full of complicated truth.  That, and my son has always liked daffodils.

Paula Deen & the Place Where I Live

IMG_2928 (800x533)Long before Paula Deen opened a restaurant, built an empire, and then chose to answer truthfully when she was asked a specific question in a deposition, the place where I live has been a place where race matters. And I am not just talking about Savannah, the city in which I live. I am also talking more specifically about the place where my house was built a little over a quarter-century ago.  Before my house was there, that place which is now my neighborhood was a part of the Cedar Grove Plantation, where Black slaves and White masters both had roles in the work of growing things on the land. Later, if my guess is right, the land on which I live belonged to the community of Nicholsonboro, a group of people who had been freed from slavery, traveled to the edge of the Vernon River, and then managed to get the owner of the Cedar Grove Plantation to sell them 200 acres of his property. I have written about what I know of the story of that land here and here, if you are interested.

For generations, one’s race mattered a great deal to the people who lived on the land where my home and neighborhood now sit. It determined where you lived, where you worked, where you traveled and whom you traveled with, what you did with your time, and even where you were buried when you shook off this mortal coil. It determined whether or not you were considered someone else’s property. It determined whether you were part of the community, or if you were someone who was just passing through. For a long time before Paula Deen came along, race mattered in the place where I live.

But now, race is a hard thing to talk about. I know a lot of good, kind people who have gotten themselves in trouble at their workplaces, in their neighborhoods, in their churches, and in other important relationships in their lives because they said something about race, and someone took offense. This is, of course, not a phenomenon unique to my current community; the same thing has happened in other communities where I have lived. And it is not something reserved for other people; I, too, have been challenged on my behaviors in relating to the people around me who do not look or act or think like I look and act and think.  Frankly, those challenges have been gifts which have led me to really look at my behaviors as well as my feelings, to understand those forces that have influenced me, and to commit myself to acting better. But those conversations and challenges are always, always awkward for the people involved, the people around them, and the whole community.

So I long to be able to have real conversations about race and about racism. I want to be able to talk about what prejudice is and where it comes from for each of us, what stereotypes are all about, what power is and where it comes from, and what it means to have privilege and to not have privilege. I long to talk about what policy issues like the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act means to different people, even in my state, where the problems addressed in the Voting Rights Act were historically most problematic. A post I saw on Facebook this week identified one problem with the Supreme Court decision: the writer claimed it divorces the concept of equal access from history. So I long to talk about how history, both the history of our state and nation in general and the history of the place where I live, affects the meaning of race and racism in the present. Mostly, I long to talk about what it means to live in a community where not everyone looks, acts, and thinks alike, where some people say things that offend others, and where some people challenge others in ways that help them to productively examine their behaviors and feelings.

And it is clear to me that the whole mess that Paula Deen finds herself in is clearly not the way to have that conversation. Paula Deen admitted to saying a particular word sometime in the past, and that confession has led her to be tarred with the label of “racist.” I am no expert in these matters, but I do know some things. I know that racism is not chiefly about a particular word spoken by a particular person. I know that it would make life a lot easier if racism was really about single words spoken by individual people. If that was true, then I could simply banish those words from my speech, and then I would know for certain that I am not a racist, and I could even begin to believe that racism doesn’t exist outside of the people who use those words. But I know that is not how racism works; I know that racism is about power added to prejudices, and I know that, when you start talking about power, you move beyond any individual’s words and actions into a place where you have to talk about systems, institutions, cultures, and other things that are out of any individual’s control. I know that these conversations are fraught with fear, anger, anxiety, and mostly awkwardness.

I just received a book that was written this year by Bruce Reyes-Chow, who is someone I know, but do not know well. The book is called “‘But I Don’t See You as Asian:’  Curating Conversations About Race.” One of my favorite lines so far in the book speaks to my longing. Bruce says that he wants to talk about race because, “just like that couple who can’t make the time to see a counselor, if we do not tackle our problems head-on, we will condemn ourselves to the building up of resentment, anger, and distrust” (p.24). If you want to read Bruce’s book for yourself, you can find it in various formats on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I don’t want resentment, anger, and distrust to affect the relationships in my communities any more than they have to. I want to be challenged in a way that leads me to receive and to give gifts with the people around me. I want to talk about things that matter. I long to have real conversations in my community about race and racism.

Cedar Grove Cemetery

As my dog, Otis, and I explored our neighborhood today, I got to thinking:  little can subvert the power of modern suburbs like a cemetery.

At one time, the land I live on was a small part of the Cedar Grove Plantation.  I have not been able to learn much just yet about what happened on the plantation:  the precise boundaries, the lives of the owners and slaves who lived here, what they grew, how they came to be here, or the answers to any number of other questions.  What I know is that after the Civil War, a group of freed field slaves came from a plantation on St. Catherine’s Island, down the coast a ways from Savannah, and settled on a portion of the plantation.  A few years later, the owner of the plantation, John Nicholson, sold 200 acres of his land to those freed slaves, who set up the community of Nicholsonboro.  Part of that community’s land was developed in the mid-1980s into the suburban neighborhood where I now live.

In looking for information about Nicholsonboro and Cedar Grove Plantation, I ran across a reference to a Cedar Grove cemetery.  According to a newspaper article from 15 years ago, some of the settlers of Nicholsonboro were buried there.  My imagination started to make some connections.  Of course:  the old plantation would have had its own cemetery, where at least the slaves would be buried. After the plantation began to be subdivided, new residents of this land would live and die and probably be buried in the same place.  A cemetery would not be bulldozed to make room for the tract after tract of houses which now fill the area that was one time the plantation.  So, the cemetery must still be around here somewhere.

I was curious.  I searched online for Cedar Grove Cemetery; none of the mapping services could point me to a Cedar Grove Cemetery anywhere in Savannah. The only references I found were in the archived obituary pages of the Savannah Morning News, offering only information like, “After graveside services in Cedar Grove Cemetery; a repast will be offered in the church hall.”  These references only gave me hope; people are still being buried there, so it must still exist.  I tried driving up Cedar Grove Road, which turns off of the main White Bluff Road some distance north of my street, but that only led me through another suburban neighborhood and to a fence surrounding the grounds of the Savannah Country Day School.  After a chance conversation at work last week led me to a website called “findagrave.com” I finally learned that the Cedar Grove cemetery is at the end of Largo Drive.  So this morning, I put my dog on the leash and headed that way.

Largo Drive is a main thoroughfare through the Windsor Forest subdivision.  At its southern end, it is lined with moderately sized, single-story, ranch-style homes on average size lots.  They look like they were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s, although they are very well-maintained.  Some of the homes have brick facades, some have wood or vinyl siding, some have a tasteful mix of both.  Most have two-car garages and driveways to match.  They have well-kept lawns, many of which have one or two large oak trees in them.  As I approached the end of Largo Drive, I saw several American-made pickup trucks hitched to flat trailers parked on the side of the streets, a familiar site in neighborhoods where lawn services are contracted to mow and trim.  I saw a middle-aged woman taking a handful of items through her wooden gate to the trash cans in her back yard.  I saw an older man on a motorized wheelchair passing along his driveway, looking like he was ready to do some chores on the other side of his fence.  It is a quiet, pleasant neighborhood which seems to fulfill all of the promises of a suburban development:  cleanliness, order, comfort, privacy, and relative affordability for the middle class.

I came to the end of Largo Drive.  At the end of Largo Drive are some barricades placed by the city traffic department.  They are painted with reflective paint in diagonal orange and white stripes.  They are set up in a way that it makes it clear they are intended to stop any traffic, auto, pedestrian, canine, or otherwise, from traveling beyond the end of that street.  On the other side of the barricades is a tall, wooden fence, which defines the back of the yards of the much-newer houses in the next development over; that is a gated community, and the developers apparently didn’t want to put in an additional gate, not to mention lose a couple of developable lots, by extending Largo Drive into their tracts.  Between the reflective barricades and the tall wooden fence, though, there runs a gravel-covered alleyway.

I was confused; there was clearly no cemetery here at the end of Largo Drive.  More exploration was necessary.  Otis and I could just fit through a careless, narrow gap in the traffic barricades, so we entered the alleyway and headed to the right.  The alleyway was lined with the high wooden fence of the new development on one side, and the wooden fences delineating the boundaries of the back yards of the ranch-style homes on the other side.  Between the alley and the fences on each side were trees and brush which shaded the gravel we walked on.  Soon, the wooden fence on the side by the older homes changed to a chain-link fence, and we could see a plot of land where no house stood, only trees.  In front of us was a gate.  The “Find a Grave” website had warned that the 10-foot fence surrounding Cedar Grove Cemetery would only be opened by the caretaker at the request of a member of the family of someone buried there.  But today, the gate was wide open, so we walked in.

Parts of the cemetery were well-kept; parts were cluttered with weeds and old arrangements of funeral flowers.  A section of the hollow steel pipe which topped the chain link fence along one side had been bent low by a fallen limb.  Some grave stones stood proud and gleaming, while others had faded or broken.  Some of the graves were clearly very old; a couple others bore dates from 2011 or 2012.  Several of the graves were built with vaults surrounded by brick which stand above ground, topped with concrete, probably owing to the proximity of the marshes and Hoover Creek a few hundred yards away.  In a couple of these, the name and relevant dates of the deceased were written in the concrete top by a finger,  rather than chiseled in block letters by a skilled craftsman or engraved in a bronze plaque like on the other graves.  Several of the stones noted important service rendered in the lives of the people they remembered:  “PVT 1st Class, US Army, WWII,” “Deacon of the Church,” “Loving Mother.”  A number of older stones lay on the ground; one or two still stood, albeit somewhat eroded, and I noticed that the date of birth inscribed on at least one was before the time when life for the slaves on Cedar Grove Plantation was interrupted by the secession of the Confederate states and the subsequent war.

As Otis and I explored, I realized that it felt like the cemetery didn’t want to be found.  It had hidden itself down the narrow alley, behind the houses, surrounded by tall oaks and chain link.  The weeds gave it a wild feel.  Sharp-pointed burrs grabbed onto my socks and shoelaces, and one even jabbed itself into my dog’s front paw, requiring both Otis’ teeth and my fingers to try to get it out.  I am not sure why that cemetery doesn’t want to be known.  Maybe its desire for privacy is driven by deference to the pride of the honorable people buried there.  Maybe it wants to show respect for the grief of the mourners who seek peace and comfort in the face of death.  Maybe it feels some shame for its disorder in the midst of the lawns which are so meticulously cared for by the contractors driving those pickup trucks hitched to trailers lining the streets a few yards away.

Despite its attempts to be lost, though, the cemetery still took up that space.  And I found a significance to its steadfast witness in the middle of the modern suburbs.  Suburban neighborhoods like those I walked through and the one I live in were designed, laid out, and developed to feel like nothing occupied the land before them.  They promise that they will be clean, ordered, comfortable, and private for the people who live in their houses.  They are modern, not only in design but also in philosophy:  they embody the triumph of human ingenuity, technology, and power over nature, over history, over poverty, and over just about any other force which might introduce confusion or disorder or chaos into our lives.  They represent progress, so all that is in their view is the present and the future.

But no one would dare to bulldoze a cemetery, so it remains, and as it remains, it forces its neighbors to look to the past.  It remains as a reminder of the plantation which once occupied the land now taken up by the suburban neighborhoods.  It remains as a reminder of the evil foundation of the plantation system:  the idea that a person can gain personal wealth by owning another human being and requiring that human being to work until he or she dies.  It remains as a reminder of the chaos of war, of the disorder which comes after the defeat of an evil system, of the confusion of what to do when the inevitability of death hits each of us in the face.  It remains as a reminder of the nature of nature:  of trees whose limbs can crush a suburban fence, and weeds which poke at domesticated life, of rain and wind which erode our memorials to honorable soldiers and deacons and mothers.  And as it remains there, surrounded by tall fences and well-kept houses and lawns and driveways, its power subverts the promise of the suburbs, and along with it, modernity itself.