Posts Tagged “race”

After an very fine day working in Chris’ studio, Whitney arrived and invited us to join her parents at a special Thanksgiving service at Triumph Church. I am so glad to have had that experience: the first authentically multiracial church service I’ve been to on this trip, and for it to be here in Vicksburg makes me totally happy. The music was forgettable but heartfelt Christian pop, and there were video screens everywhere projecting the song lyrics, various announcements, and inspirational snippets: call it the Church of Powerpoint. But then the sermon, given by the cowboy-booted casual-Friday-dressed pastor, was quite a strong discussion of communion as thanksgiving. I feel a bit silly that had it somehow never occurred to me that the Greek word for thank you has the same root as the word eucharist. Of course!

I am definitely feeling very thankful these days, that is for sure! After church, Chris and Whitney took me out for a night on the town: first dinner and then to a blues club, and hanging out with the two of them was really great. Whitney is a nurse who used to do house calls to disabled seniors until the program got cut: I think she might know every impoverished old person in town. Her real passion is end-of-life care, but at the moment she’s working in a GP’s office. What kind of a world is it that won’t let people do the hard jobs they actually want to do!??!

Wednesday morning I got a glimpse of contemporary Vicksburg city politics, and boy, the Civil War isn’t over, in ways I’m not sure I’m really equipped to describe. It seems there’s been a concerted effort in the last few years to revitalize downtown by fostering live-work mixed-use development. Chris is a prime example: her gallery is on the ground floor of a building on the main downtown street, and her apartment is the second floor. A guy wants to open a second-floor dance club above his restaurant two doors down, and he’s got the new young mayor’s fierce support: to the point that the mayor decided to override all the existing architectural guidelines and allow the bar owner to install a staircase from a balcony down to the public sidewalk in order to meet fire department rules for two means of egress. It doesn’t matter that the staircase will intrude in front of the building next door and interfere with the flow of pedestrian traffic, it doesn’t matter that the egress problem could be solved by making a deal with the next door neighbors: basically, the mayor has decided to give the bar owner everything he asks for, no matter how ungainly, impractical, ugly, shortsighted, and just plain silly. And he calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. Hello?! Yes, the bar owner is black, the mayor is black, and most of the people currently living and working on that street downtown are white. But the staircase is a bad idea no matter what color skin you have. It seems to me that the trouble is that the mayor has no way of seeing anything but race in this story, and his anger is making him do foolish things. It was really painful to sit in that meeting, and to realize that what was going down had little to do with logic or practicality or common sense, and everything to do with the Confederate flags and Mammy dolls being sold in the Old Courthouse Museum. And my heart goes out to the mayor in his rage, but he is still wrong about the staircase.

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It was a rainy and gray weekend, and I spent most of it at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, doing some much needed housekeeping (my computer was misbehaving, laundry needed doing) at this quite wonderful spot that has free wifi and laundry and good showers. I did take a drive up to the town of Lake Providence, looking for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Saturday, and ended up having an excellent oyster po’ boy at a little place overlooking the lake. The town felt oddly exposed somehow: I could feel almost viscerally what high water must be like for a town like this, on a promontory almost completely surrounded by lakes and rivers, and miles from any other town. The fields surrounding the town don’t really feel like they count as actual dry land, somehow: you know that if the water breaches the levees it will just pour down and across however many miles of farmland there are. Five miles, fifty miles, once those levees are breached, the water will be everywhere.

On Sunday, I came into Vicksburg for church at Bethel AME, a tiny congregation with a new young preacher. The sermon text was from 1 John 4, about how it makes no sense to say you love God and hate your brother. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

My first view of the river from the town of Vicksburg really took my breath away. To be up on a bluff again, overlooking the river after so many weeks of being right down in it in the Delta, was somehow deeply moving to me. I guess because I feel like the river is part of me, or I of it, I immediately felt protectiveness and kinship for this town that so honors the river.

I spent the whole afternoon at the battlefield park, which is a pretty overwhelming place. Miles and miles of statues and markers and memorials dot a landscape of hills and mounds and ravines and trenches. I had talked a bit with Shawn, one of the rangers, in the Visitor Center, and I ran into him again at the Illinois memorial, a Pantheon-like structure with really beautiful resonance. We talked for a good long time about Native American as well as Civil War history: he’s worked at a succession of parks over the years, so he knows about lots of things that interest me. He showed me a name on the wall of the Illinois Memorial and asked if I knew the story of that particular soldier. Turns out he served the Union for four years, returned to Illinois to work as a handyman and gardener, was hit by a car and taken to the hospital, where they learned Albert was actually a woman. The sad ending of the story is that Albert ended up in an insane asylum, where he was forced to wear women’s clothes, and died from a fall he sustained tripping over unaccustomed skirts.

In the midst of all these Civil War memories, in a town that perhaps has embodied the Confederate spirit longer than any other place (they did not officially celebrate the Fourth of July here until World War II, because Vicksburg fell, after 47 days of siege, on the Fourth of July 1863), I finished Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Somehow I had never come across this book before, and once I started reading it, it was hard to stop, and it is definitely hard going. It’s painful to walk around rage-filled and mourning the casualties of racism as you visit a place like the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.

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(The caption reads: “$500 REWARD for the arrest and conviction of Johnny Black alias Possum, has black skin, white eyes, kinky hair, smooth face and has a frightened look.”)

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At a certain point on Monday, I reached a pretty dark place. I’d been looking too closely at the evil we can do convinced of our honor and virtue and righteousness, I’d been alone too many days in a row, that late-November desolation is in the air, and all of this together was beginning to be a bit too much. This journey is definitely about putting myself out there, but I had really reached my own limits.

And then in the course of a couple of hours, everything changed. Mary Rowell texted me to say she’s coming back out for Thanksgiving, dear Melissa was her unflappable and kind and competent self, organizing getting me insurance cards and audio interfaces, I talked with Mac, who told me he’s almost done with his grad school apps and he’s going to try to join on in ten days or so, and Linda Norton’s going meet me in New Orleans in December. Is that an embarrassment of riches, or what?!

But that’s not all!

My friend David Lehmann had introduced me to H. C. Porter’s gallery in Vicksburg and told me a bit about her powerful post-Katrina work. The gallery was closed on Sunday, but I stopped in Monday afternoon and met Lauchlin, who sent me to the cafe down the street and said Chris would stop in when she got home. And she came and retrieved me and immediately took me in and told me many good stories and gave me excellent dinner and a warm bed in her beautiful space that has a rooftop balcony overlooking the river, and we have approximately four hundred eighty six thousand things in common, and suddenly everything feels transformed, a light switches on in the darkness, and I can move forward, chastened by my awareness of how very much I need other people, how reliant I am on the kindness of friends and of strangers, both.

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Stephanie, Mark’s wife, is a dancer who splits her time between New York and Lake Village. (Mark grew up in Mississippi, but went to school at CUNY and Stony Brook, and we had met once in NYC a while ago.) She threw herself into this adventure with great aplomb! On Thursday, we took a good bike ride to explore north of Lake Village, where there’s a channel marked on the map as the Old River. We were looking for possible put-in points for a paddle, but the Army Corps maps don’t cover all the back channels of the Mississippi, since the maps are optimized for barges and towboats, not for kayakers who prefer the back ways and side trips. We rode past a huge dam out in the fields, and near it is a perfect boat ramp, completely empty and unused. I’ve been avoiding the main river when I’m traveling alone: my vision of this journey does not include drowning, or even capsizing. So every chance I have to get on the river these days feels like a wonderful gift, and the back channels down here are strange and mystical places. Towards the end of our leisurely paddle Friday, which we treated more like a float, I noticed that there is a back channel to this Old River, which is of course already a back channel of the present Mississippi, so I left Stephanie and paddled around the long way, which must once have been the main river, because the state line is drawn along this tiny back slough. We met up again at the pullout, and retrieved cars and kayaks and headed home for a quick shower and then over to Winterville Mounds, where Mark works. We got there in time for Mark to show me around a bit before dark, and he told me a great story about the Native Americans accosting De Soto’s people in huge canoes each painted in a different primary color, and the paddles and the men themselves painted to match the canoes. Can you imagine how terrified De Soto’s troops must have been to see these brightly painted warriors paddling out into the main river, with their drums and their fierce songs?!? They didn’t kill De Soto’s band, but would come up to their boats and rock them until they tipped over, basically messing with them, hazing them, before disappearing back up the Deer River to Winterville. De Soto’s people decided soon after that to forget about the gold and treasure they had been seeking and just go home. De Soto himself was already dead and consigned to the river: legend has it that he was buried in what is now Lake Chicot, the lake Mark and Stephanie’s house is on.

We drove up to Rosedale for dinner at a good restaurant with very slow service, so we were late to the show at Po’ Monkey’s, a storied juke joint way out on a farm road sort of near Cleveland. A group of electro-acoustic musicians had taken over the place for an evening jam, which Mark had been asked to join. None of the regulars were there, apparently last year’s version was enough for them. And I’ll tell you, I mean no disrespect, but the whole scene rendered me almost inarticulate with despair. Here’s this whole group of musicians and composers from all over the country, who have shown up for a festival of electronic music, and they come down and jam badly for one another, jamming after all not being exactly what they are skilled at, and they congratulate themselves for playing in a juke joint, despite the fact that no-one from the actual community, not one regular is in the place. And then I overhear one guy saying to Mark Snyder, the festival organizer, that another guy is “being a girl” about getting up and playing: he keeps saying he’ll join in after the next song. And to Mark Snyder’s credit, he called the guy on it, claimed not to know what he meant, asked for clarification that had the guy sputtering a bit. But sitting there as one of three women in the whole place, electro-acoustic festivals in general and this one not exceptionally being something of a boy’s club, I was not exactly offended, I think a better word would be heartbroken. In this day and age a full-grown nominally educated guy actually casually and unthinkingly derides someone by calling them a girl?! Are you kidding me?!? I don’t know that guy, he might be an otherwise lovely and talented human being, but I hope women steer clear of him for the rest of his natural life.

But Mark Snyder’s sly and effective response really got me thinking. I have had occurrences in the past couple of weeks where white people have said things I regard as racist. And I struggle really hard to know how to calibrate my response. I remember being in a cab once in New York with my friend Juliana, and the cabdriver said something racist and she immediately said something like, I don’t agree with or accept your way of talking, and please do not speak that way while I am in your cab. But that’s a slightly less complicated situation: Juliana did not have any relationship with the cab driver beyond an economic exchange. But when people are hosting you, or doing you favors, or being generous to you, how do you indicate your dismay and disagreement with the language they use, the attitudes they express? My answer so far has been to think more like an anthropologist: I’m trying to understand how people are rather than judging them or arguing with them. And perhaps my way has some tiny impact, however inconsequential. The person who made the most racist statements I’ve had to listen to also noticed and commented on my interest in black music and culture, and told me some useful information about the history and geography of black music and musicians.

The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.

But it’s easy to be shocked. I am definitely not at home. Black or white, rich or poor, in one way or another, I am aware that I am an outsider, I do not really fit in here anywhere. Which is why hanging out with Mark and Stephanie is very welcome right now. It feels like a break from constantly negotiating my own otherness.

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Monday morning, I drove down to Rosedale and headed first to the library, where Martha the librarian gave me an excellent orientation to the town and its history. Turns out this area was a big center for making moonshine during Prohibition — instead of the requisite cannon displayed in front of the State Park visitor center, there’s a whiskey still. The most famous moonshiner was a guy named Perry Martin, who was the son of a successful rice farmer, and had trained for the ministry. He lived on a houseboat on the river side of the levee, and had a bunch of stills set up on Big Island. He eventually built a house on the dry side of the levee, got sick the first night he slept there and never did again. But he would come over the levee every day for lunch with his wife.

I camped out for two nights like Perry Martin, on the river side of the levee, in the state park. The weather is beautiful–clear and warm–and I can sleep in the hammock without the tarp over me, so I get to look at the stars as I fall asleep, and wake up with the dawn. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading: finally got to Lanterns on the Levee, which is a heartbreaking book. The wisdom and the wrongness are so inextricably interwoven, there’s no way to pull them apart. And it’s not just that Will Percy is a white supremicist aristocrat living past his time, it’s also that he is so obviously a closeted self-lacerating gay man who knows he will never live up to his father’s standards. It is a tragic and awful book, but it is beautiful. Read it and weep.

The towns here are hideously far apart: to find an internet cafe, I had to drive 35 miles to Cleveland, where there’s a great coffee place in an old gas station, they roll up the garage doors and you sit in the former repair bay as if it were a terrace.

On Wednesday, I drove down a bit, past the town where Baby Doll was filmed, up to the levee and then biked around the area where the levee broke in the 1927 flood. There were No Trespassing signs everywhere, and I was spooked into imagining someone might shoot me for ignoring them, so I loaded the bike back on the car and drove down into Greenville, which, like all these Delta downtowns except maybe Cleveland, the college town, seems at first glance to be in such a state of decay and poverty that you can hardly imagine how people continue to live here. The buildings in best repair downtown are the churches, including the one built by Will Percy’s Dutch tutor and priest with his own money, (see pp. 86-91 of Lanterns on the Levee), and the synagogue (there has always been a thriving Jewish population in Greenville), and the First AME, which has been visited by Langston Hughes and Leontyne Price (and Herbert Hoover during the flood.)

I had made a plan to meet up with the musician and ethnomusicologist Mark Howell and his wife, Stephanie, at the BB King Museum in Indianola, so I drove out the back way through Leland, site of the old Percy plantation, where there is now quite a nice town with houses along a bayou, and arrived in time to meet up with Mark and Stephanie and hear an interesting panel discussion about this book. Afterwards, Mark and Stephanie and I had dinner and headed over to Lake Village, which is the town across the river from Greenville on the Arkansas side. Mark, with the help of his father and brother, has built a house right on Lake Chicot, based on a design adapted from excavation data for a Mississippian-era house in the Delta. It is a totally great place, surrounded by just enough trees to feel cozy but not obscure the view of the lake. And the light is gorgeous! I went down to the dock and watched the sun set into the lake while having a fine long call with Despina in Athens, and a little gray cat came and sat on my lap and sang a song to me, and I am very happy to be here.

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I went to church in Clarksdale Sunday morning. No one I had met in town could recommend a particular place to go, so I went over to Martin Luther King Blvd. and chose the first church along the street: First Baptist, which ended up being a relatively small congregation, with just a pianist and a few singers. This is definitely not Al Green’s church, with visitors from all over the world: I would guess they probably haven’t seen a white person at First Baptist in years. The welcome I got was authentically kind; the preacher, learning I was from New York, threaded the Yankees’ win into his sermon, people came up and spoke to me enthusiastically of having lived in Brooklyn or Camden; and at the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door. I am grateful and a little shocked by the warmth and welcome I am given by almost every person here. Church is after all the most segregated institution left in America, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

I spent the afternoon at John and Sarah and Emma’s house: which may be a sort of heaven. They have a big old rambling house right on the other side of the Sunflower River from John’s shop. It used to be a boarding house; in fact, a girl lived here with a collection of glass animals that inspired Tennessee Williams when he was living in Clarksdale. John has painted the house Greek blue and white, and has embedded decorative river creatures in wavy curlicues, and everything about it feels good. I had been working in the study for hours before running across Mara, who also lives there, and is a visual artist currently working with addicted mothers and their children. Everything about this place and these people is so excellent, it makes me feel kind of shy and awkward and self-lacerating. I begin to feel like my whole life has been one of self-absorbed elitism, living and working in the provincial bubble of the NYC new-music scene and its international tendrils, in an abstract self-congratulatory liberalism that actually doesn’t do much to improve the world or give hope to those without it. Yes, compared to an investment banker or a fashion photographer, I feel confident that my life and work have meaning and value, but compared to people like John and Mara, I’m really not so sure.

I didn’t want to leave Clarksdale without getting out to one of the clubs at least once, so I pulled myself away from Mara and Sarah (John was upstairs putting Emma to bed), and went over to Red’s, where Super Chikan’s son was doing a low-key solo Sunday night show, singing his original songs, and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. The songs were built from Casio drum patterns with funky bass lines and simple comping — the lyrics were about his girl being his best friend, about being glad to have had the parents he’s had: totally heartfelt and artless in the best sense. The audience was a couple of tables of locals, some of whom would get up and guest in on one song or another, and some very dear visiting young people from Australia.

The whole scene felt like a tiny glimpse into a community where basically everyone I’ve run across is making art of some kind: music, paintings, dance, whatever. And it isn’t separated from the rest of life, it’s not like there’s a professional class of artists and then a bunch of art-consumers. Everyone is making things. Who would have thought: Clarksdale is the Bali of America!

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Even though it was still rainy, we headed back up to Tiptonville Friday and I did a good long ride, mostly through open farmland, ending up pretty sodden and very grateful for the excellent shower at Fort Pillow State Park, where we stayed for two nights. Mary did the biking Saturday, and I spent the day driving around and checking out various towns (Ripley, Henning, Covington) looking for an open library or internet cafe, pretty much fruitlessly. These are the closest towns to the river around here, but they are all a good ten to twenty miles away from it, I guess because floods and earthquakes make it too unstable to site a town any closer. Towns that are right on the river can only add sprawl on one side, so if you keep your orientation to the river, you can travel for weeks without having to encounter McDonalds and Taco Bell. But these towns, even though they have an old town center that feels specific and real, are surrounded by Walmart and Pizza Hut sprawl in every direction, enough to make you weep.

Sunday morning, we explored Fort Pillow State Park, taking a hike up to the old fort, which has been reconstructed, and spending some time in the interpretive center. The battle here is notable because the Confederates, led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, massacred Union soldiers after they surrendered, because Forrest did not want to treat integrated troops according to the rules of war.

Here is a statement by the Confederate Secretary of War at the time: “I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.”

After the war, Forrest reportedly became the first Grand Master of the Ku Klux Klan. And all around these parts you can find memorials to him: Forrest Park in Memphis, Forrest State Park near Camden, Forrest City in Arkansas, Forrest County in Mississippi, and various statues and obelisks and markers sprinkled in government buildings and public places all over the south.

Call me an insensitive northerner if you like, but I really need help understanding how it is okay to have kids going to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Do we have Lieutenant Calley High School? How about a Specialist Charles Graner Park?

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