Tag Archive | Race

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.

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.

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.