Saturday, January 17, 2009

Toenails and Patterns in Columbia

SO, I'm on the toilet at my friend Peter Duffy's house in Columbia, South Carolina.  Now before folks get nauseous, I am clipping my toenails.  Anyway.  I'm on the toilet and in front of me hangs a beige shower curtain made up of a series of suede-like and mesh panels, each about 4x4 squares.  There are some spaces where there are no panels, just a square space.  I find myself desperately searching for a pattern of missing panels -- do the missing panels make up an "X" or a cross?  Tic Tac Toe?  Do the blank spaces make any shape?

I realized that my need to look for patterns has now nearly become pathological.  I wonder what other people need to look for in the world?  Do we all look for the same meaning in our world?  As we go through the south interviewing people, I've begun to realize that perhaps the reason there is so little in the way of cooperation between Yanks and Rebels, North and South, Blue and Gray, is because each of us is looking for a different kind of meaning in the world.  We interviewed Booker Mitchell, Peter's next door neighbor.  A very young looking brown-skinned man in his 80s, Mr. Mitchell is retired from both the Air Force and Police Department of Columbia.  He talked a lot about his experiences with Jim Crow when he came back to South Carolina after his stints in the military, but never said Mr. Crow's name.   He told us he was shot 9 times as if he were reading a laundry list.  It wasn't until near the end of his interview that we find out he was the first to integrate his neighborhood in Columbia.  He said they threw eggs on his car.  I asked who "they" were -- were they white?  He said something to the effect of, "I don't know.  I didn't see them throw the eggs at the car.  That could have been anybody. "

What kind of grace is required to keep oneself from looking for meaning where there just might be some?  I wonder what kind of anger I'd see from him if I didn't have a young white man sitting next to me, although I suspect that Mr. Mitchell, and I mean MR. Mitchell, is not afraid to speak his mind to anyone.  But the absolute NEED to just keep moving forward seems to be something of a mission for his entire generation of men and women of color.  Why?

I've tried on that kind of grace, but it just doesn't fit.  I'm still angry.  Someday I won't know that a white person threw eggs at Mr. Mitchell's car. 


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Update from Columbus, GA

So, it's late...very late.... And we're tired...very tired.... But we thought we would throw up a quick post tonight before turning in.

Yesterday we were in Columbia, SC and today we are in Columbus, GA. As if things weren't already running together.... This morning, on the way out of town, we went downtown to the state capitol, where we saw this:

Top left: a Confederate soldier; Top Right: the Confederate Flag; Bottom Left: My colleague eating an egg sandwich from Drake's Duck-In, home of "Quackin' Good Food"

This was disheartening after spending last night having a long conversation with our gracious host Peter Duffy, a transplant to the South who spoke very eloquently (those audio clips are coming, I swear!) about the presence of racism throughout the United States and the trap that Americans often fall into of using the South as a scapegoat for their own racism. It can be all too easy to say, "Well, at least we're not the South!" And he's right. It's easy to lay the burden of racism in the whole country on this region because of the long and well-documented story of race here. That story is an important one. It's why we're here. It's why we're doing this project. I can, however, tell you from my own experience that you would be hard-pressed to find a more racist place in the U.S. than New York City.

That said, it's incredibly difficult to remember that when you're staring at a symbol like that being brazenly flown on the front lawn of the State House. You might remember a huge controversy over the flag being flown over the capitol dome in 2000. It caused such a stir that the state finally felt compelled to take it down...and put it on the front lawn....

Then again, when we pan out, we can see the Christmas tree they've erected this holiday season about two feet in front of the thing:

So right now, when you look at the State House from the street, this is what you see:

Either they have a decorator with a highly conflicted subconscious or somebody knew what they were doing here.

After that we drove to Columbus, where we had another round of great interviews and we are looking forward to a whole lot more tomorrow.

As for the interviews we have "in the can," so to speak, here's a pretty simple breakdown of what we have so far:

A retired engineer.
A retired administrative assistant.
The director of a Civil Rights museum.
The press director of a Civil Rights museum.
A Civil Rights activist and retired business executive turned consultant.
A sociologist.
Another sociologist and Civil Rights Activist.
A Secretary to a governor.
Two coordinators at a Youth LGBTQ non-profit.
An administrative assistant at that non-profit.
The artistic director of a theatre.
The director of an artists collaborative.
A ski instructor.
A public school teacher/administrator.
A painter.
A minister.
A manager at a nightclub.
A retired police officer.
A professor/teaching artist.
An actor.
Another artistic director of a theatre.
Another actor.
A student.

I don't want to you to think I'm limiting people by their profession, implying that it defines their whole being, but I thought it was an interesting breakdown to take a look at while we try to build the most comprehensive cross-section possible. We have our ideas about who we still feel we need to hit, but if you can think of any, please let us know.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

On "The South" and a little bit of Greensboro, NC

One of my primary interests in this project since the beginning has been the opportunity that it presents to explore this notion of "the South" and what that means to the people that live here. Growing up in Fredericksburg, VA, I have always felt like I had my own ideas about what "the South" meant to me, but I never really felt like it was something I was able to or chose to participate in while I was there. It never became part of my identity until I left it and, even then, choosing to leave the South soon became as much, if not more, of a part of my identity than the place itself ever was.

So we've been asking people what they think "the South" is as a place, but, more importantly, as an idea. And in just a few short days we've already gotten a diverse array of really wonderful answers from Southerners, all of whom have embraced the idea as an extremely complex and often elusive idea. I would love to throw up a few audio clips, as we have promised (and still do promise) to do, to let them speak for themselves. We are, however, running into technical difficulties doing it, which is causing a delay, so you'll have to bear with me as I try to do their words justice on here.

Seth Croft, with whom we spoke in Richmond at the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (which you can learn more about here), had this to say:
"It means so much about tradition. Many people think of the traditions only in terms of...people go to church every Sunday, stuff like that, or hospitality, things like that. But I think there's a tradition of struggle and liberation."
Seth identifies strongly as a queer Southerner and spoke quite a bit about the complex identities and "shades of gray" the place contains. He warned against the conflation of "the South" and the Confederacy by outsiders but also by Southerners themselves. He hates those Confederate monuments Godfrey mentioned in an earlier post here and went on to say that he believed a more appropriate representation would be monuments to the struggle for justice in the South.

To Richmond and "the South's" credit, however, earlier in the day, Secretary Baskerville showed us this:

A monument to the Moton High School walkout in Farmville, VA. Here's the other side:

That's Barbara Johns in the center. It's really a very beautiful memorial. I highly recommend anyone passing through Richmond check it out. As monuments go, this may be a big step toward properly honoring that long tradition of struggle and the ongoing progress toward liberation.

Once we hit Greensboro, NC, however, we ran into this:

This is the Woolworth's where, on February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T sat down and refused to leave until they were served and began the sit-in movement throughout the South in the decade that followed. You can see that it's boarded up. They've been working on turning it into a Civil Rights museum for several years now, but every time it looks like it's about to open, a new problem springs up. We were told by more than one person along the way that it was "bad politics" in Greensboro to push to make this thing happen. Apparently there's still a lot of resistance in the community to having a memorial to one of the pivotal events of the Civil Rights movement. And so the struggle to honor the struggle is clearly far from over.