Deeper Than The Skin: Part II – The Land is Blameless

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Friday, the day of so much anticipation, has arrived. The cornerstone of our 1,400 mile journey lay an hour away. We drove across miles of low causeway over murky Lake Pontchartrain, through the lowlands west of New Orleans to the broad expanse of sugarcane country that holds the Whitney Plantation. The Mississippi Delta, this lowslung invitation, is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.

For someone raised on a high hill above a river, it is unsettling to descend onto ground that is lower than the massive weight of water that is just on the other side of a levee. It’s a little like passing the cage of a huge, languid tiger and unconsciously looking back over your shoulder for the rest of the day. But, this is why we have come, Reggie and I, to go to the unconfortable below and tie it to our histories on the James River. Reggie’s forebears almost certainly were brought ashore from that same James River – one mile from where I grew up. We were now driving to the far point, the last, most pernicious extrapolation of what began as survival on the James, and morphed and formalized into wildly profitable factories whose machinery was human beings. Even to this day, it has survived as the shadowy subtext to a great rift, an abyss of denial.

For all of my foreboding and gravitas on the eve of this momentous day, I found the grounds of the Whintey Plantation completely devoid of ghosts. It was almost shocking. The atavistic red stalks of the sugarcane spread everywhere, looking as if they had grown exactly there from the beginning of time. The long stretches of green grass were innocuous, obscuring nothing. There was a pleasant breeze beneath the early fall sun. The Big House, as it was called, was not ostentatious. It was more of an outpost from the lavish home in New Orleans. The widow who brought the plantation to its money making pinacle was a self-exiled outsider as well. As with the rolling farmlands of the battlefield at Gettysburg, at the Whitney Plantation, you have to bring the backstory with you. The land was blameless.

It was left to the sharp edge of our guide, Adina, to lead us through the buildings and monuments, to portray the inhuman landscape of a working plantation. During its richest period, 250 enslaved individuals worked its seasonal production schedule. Two iron cages were the only physical affront, but even they – as tortuously hot as they must have been in the Louisiana summer –  were where “bucks” were fattened up and preened for sale. Perhaps it was me, my expectations of a museum in its infancy, but being told and not shown, was disappointing. Unlike the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, I could not feel the people.

As compelling as our guide endeavored to be, I was almost completely lost to her the moment we entered the transplanted Antioch Baptist Church. The church was built after the Civil War and was originally called the Anti-Yoke Society. It was formed to allow former slaves to have proper burials. Coming into the sanctuary, you realize that the church is populated with “The Children of the Whitney,” a collection of forty life sized statues representing the children present on the plantation at the time of emancipation. They are possessing in the way that only great Art can be. The artist, Woodrow Nash, stylized them most effectively – eyes left vacant, attention straight ahead – but their body postures are so convincingly human that the corners of your eyes accept them as living, breathing individuals. I knew instantly the reason the fields felt so empty, the ghosts of the past were all here in the church.

children-of-the-whitney

These innocent souls, small and attentive, awaited freedom. Reggie and I went back at the end of the tour to sit with them, separated by four generations, knowing what they could not know: that lynching would move indoors into courtrooms, that the money making machine would find new names for old descrimination, that their children and their children’s children would struggle against oppression in every form, institutionalized and most sadly, internalized.

But, we listened in the silence and heard what they had to teach us. It was a haunting lesson about love and hope and perseverance beyond imagination. A descendent of slaves, and, most probably, a son of indentured servants have come here to hear you and bear witness – and to tell you that one of your children’s children’s children will one day stand on the steps of the Capital, before a newly elected president, and refute hundreds of years of lies and oppression with what you carried inside you and passed on.

…History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again…

From “On The Pulse of Morning” by Mya Angelou

On The Eve of The Whitney Plantation

Once in Decatur, Georgia, a conversation on Race led to one of my hosts getting up and coming back with a folded white piece of paper. He extended it out to me and my hand reflexively lifted until my mind finally could process what my eyes were seeing. I couldn’t bring myself to touch the piece of paper. It was a flyer for a KKK rally that he’d found on a hike on a mountainside in rural Georgia. Merely ink on a page, I couldn’t touch it.

I have had that same feeling in my gut as I’ve visualized walking onto the Whitney Plantation and Slavery Museum in Warren, LA. Tomorrow, it will happen. I will walk in this place. I will do it with my friend, Reggie Harris, knowing that our ancestors were on opposite sides of what we are about to experience, knowing that history funneled them through a tiny fifteen mile space on this huge planet, knowing that music brought us together.

I once sat on a stage with a full blooded Mohawk on Columbus Day. In jest, I said something to the point of “Columbus Day, there goes the neighborhood.” He looked at me and replied in earnest, “those Eupopeans were oppressed for thousands of years.” Tomorrow, I’ll witness the physical reality of that “training.” History is a brutal place. History is now.

Our entire history as a species is carried in the strands of our DNA – we are built to survive any and all conditions. It is a broad approach by necessity. The code that makes us has made Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Aristotle. It has also made Hitler, Nero, and Stalin. This is our horrible and beautiful potential. I have to be grateful that these same forces will allow two sons of disperate history to take a journey together, to walk in this place of ignominy, to see and feel the dark reality of the past, and commit ourselves to making the light of what has brought us here together, the reality of the future.

Selma #2: Thursday Afternoon, “There Is Power In The Blood”

Camera lenses, like childhood memories, make spaces appear much larger than they are. Like the Dallas book repository, like the Lorraine Motel, Selma emerges, from the cold rain, small – only a few blocks in each direction. Our three modern buses took an opportunistic driving tour, making turns every two blocks or so, winding carefully through the narrow streets as veterans of the ’65 action provided commentary. The ones who’d been there spoke, as they would for the entire conference, like war veterans, expansively of the larger experience, modestly of their own part.

Our first impromptu stop was by the marker for Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister whose fateful wrong turn out of a restaurant cost him his life. (The movie, “Selma,” called Rev. Reeb a priest, the smaller of many unexplainable inaccuracies) Rev. Reeb died days later of head wounds from the blows of White attackers. Such was the state of justice in Alabama that none of the local men were convicted by the all male, all White jury. But, in the small town of Selma, it was common knowledge who wielded the metal pipe – his auto dealership was pointed out on our August planning trip. It was business as usual in the the Jim Crow South. (I’ll get to Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death later).

I stepped carefully off the steep narrow steps of the bus into the rain to feel a space hallowed by blood. I didn’t know him, but I did. I met him in planning meetings, in hallways, and ballrooms throughout the conference, in those who would describe themselves in the movement as interchangeable parts – one soul with many faces. It could have been any one of them.  They answered Dr. King’s plea to the nation, they put themselves in harms way.

As we were to hear later that night, “There is power in the blood.”

My eyes were drawn to where people had gathered under a small funereal tent.  The soft unpracticed voice of a young women had drawn everyone into a close huddle, silently leaning in, straining to hear. The word “grandfather” rippled the palpable sadness. I could only sporadically understand what she was saying, but words weren’t necessary. Standing solemnly together in the cold felt like the very roots of human experience. I was drawn to Selma, as probably everyone was to some degree, to experience it in my guts. It was happening.

We moved on slowly, thoughtfully, back to the buses – reticent to let go of what we’d just experienced. In front of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church we stopped for the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. It was explained that this was the SCLC church, while SNCC was typically down the street at the 1st Baptist. Word spread that we were being allowed into the sanctuary and it was confirmed by the minister of the church striding past, articulating loudly to himself the full names of those who had paid our admission: “James Joseph Reeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo” (the UU murdered days later by the Klan as she was driving back to Montgomery). As a member of the planning committee, I wish I could say that we had arranged this, but it was a tremendous stroke of luck.

To walk into Brown Chapel is to walk into history. Martin Luther King, Jr. defined moral courage from this very pulpit on the day after Bloody Sunday.  Under pressure from every possible direction to back down (including the President of the United States), under the constant and very real threat of assassination, King defiantly said that “a man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice.” He and the marchers the next day went on to defy for the first time, an order of the very Federal Court that had been the movement’s staunchest ally from the beginning. Brown Chapel has been filled with indescribable tension and fear,  blessed by brilliance under fire, and sanctified by ineffable courage and hope. It is humbling to stand in that space.

The sanctuary, itself, is unusual in that the pews slope downward to the pulpit, more like a theatre. The minister is not on an elevated platform above the attendees.  Being there in the afternoon, it’s emptiness was a little like being on a jet, powered down on a runway. The organ, directly behind the pulpit, drew me and led me to imagine what hands had earned that honor. I was taking photos of the keys when I felt a tug on my sleeve. I turned to see a beckoning finger – we were going to get to sing in this incredible place.  Kim and Reggie Harris led us: “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” “we shall not, we shall not be moved.” Everyone in the church stopped, came forward, and immediately joined in.

To sing in Brown Chapel with Reggie Harris was, for me, at once the most normal thing in the world, and an unforgettable apogee in a conversation that began more than two decades ago. Born three days apart, we share many many common life experiences. But I have never presumed that I could any more understand the experience of being a Black male in America than I could understand being pregnant. So we have always talked about Race. In fact the first line of “In The Name of Love,” (“when I get tired”) comes from a phone call I made to Reggie years before I wrote the song. It had become apparent to me that I could cut my hair, say the right things, play the game, and blend seamlessly back into mainstream America. I told him that I couldn’t imagine how tiring it must be to be responded to every second of your life on your most superficial characteristic.  Without hesitation, he responded, “you have no idea.”

We have sung together, cried together, laughed together (everyone should know Reggie’s laugh). I have helped him walk the halls of the hospital where he’d just received a new liver, I’ve told him things I’m not proud of, I’ve felt his wrath when I didn’t pass him the ball when he was open. For as much as I  comprehend the word, we are friends. He is my chosen brother. To sing with him in Brown Chapel was a transcendent moment, a tribute to openness, understanding, respect, and love.  It is no accident that those words were uttered manifoldly throughout the conference as to what took place – and as to what must take place.

“When I get tired, it’s like I was dropped into the sea,
you could swim your whole life and be nowhere you want to be.
Everyone gets tired, and the water is so wide,
Then somebody comes and shows you, shows you the other side.”

 

 

 

 

Marching in the Arc of Justice,Thursday Morning: The Skin I’m In

In the dim gray light of a rainy Thursday, reluctant Birmingham looks like every city. From my 12th floor window, I’m thinking about my mother in Richmond, Virginia, 96, spending most of her days now in the chair where her mother died thirty years earlier – one step away from the spot where my father collapsed getting aspirin for the searing headache, the cerebral hemorrhage that killed him. These are the lives that gave me mine, the minds that, like those of all people, held incredible contradictions, who, like the progenitors of Birmingham, put their hands over their hearts when “Dixie” was played.

These wonderfully warm, humorous, kind, generous people, like the culture they grew up in, gave me all of the traits that anyone who knows me would recognize. But, the borders of their reality began to fray as the South, America, and I came into adolescence at the same time. The peeling away of this mythology, this misplaced nostalgia, the finding and facing the truth, was a slow and painful rending of the heart. The romance of the lost cause of the South was a pernicious lie.

Being the youngest of three boys by several years, coming of age in a suddenly vacated house with Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag” lying on the bed beside John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, I was left to fashion my own realities. From early on, a youngest child can instantly identify and harbor a silent bond with the least powerful person in the room. Anyone caught, as children are, in that world could see in the distorted facial postures, so invested in the word “nigger,” what happens to violently blunted intelligence, perverted by generational ignorance. It was readily apparent, even to me, that as Martin Luther King, Jr. was grudgingly afforded the front page, as Mohammed Ali forced them to spit his new name, those who defined themselves by hate were watching their illusory power and privilege slip slowly away.

Someday a change was going to come.

Then, without realizing it was a choice, I made mine. I would have never been able to vocalize it then, but I chose my heros over my family. It was a luxury afforded me by that complicated, pivotal time in history. My heros – White or Black – didn’t look like me, didn’t talk like me, didn’t live around me (that I knew). They lived in books, on albums, in the TV set, beyond my understanding on every level but the one that mattered – the ideas they served. How could I have been at odds with my own culture had I not been allowed, like all of America, to see something else?

Sitting here now, on the eve of this commemoration, it is almost impossible to explain the vestiges of the old South that are a part of me. It is a remarkable statement that a culture steeped in 350 years of rationalizations was so self-absorbed, so blind as to not see the inherent threat of the idealism it taught its children. The only explanation is Race. Modern genetics shows that Race is not a biolgical reality, it is an idea, a very powerful idea, bent and tortured to allow millions of good people to deny the forest for the trees.

The cars and trucks passing silently below my 12th floor window fade into a sailing ship, a team of oxen. As in Breughel’s “Icarus”, life goes on. My ancestors, probably the indigent, ignorant castoffs of the British Empire, surviving unimaginable privations, dying some years at a rate of four out of five, fleeing oppression, beg me to look in the mirror.

“I washed my hands, down by the river.
I washed my hands of you.
But, you keep staring back from the mirror
to remind me again
of the skin I’m in.”

It’s complicated. But, today, I wake up, Ms. Angelou,
and say,
“Good Morning.”

On The Death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I am writing a song now that I do not know how to write. The music came in the case with my new ukulele. Honestly, I picked it up and started playing the song. I was clumsy and ignorant. It took a long time to learn how to play it, but somehow in the middle of this process, I became aware that I was having a conversation at a table with a small man in a white suit. It was al fresco, there were palm trees. There were gypsies in the conversation.

I felt all at once that I had everything and nothing to tell him. In the track of my mind, long stretches of highway rolled past, love and sorrow, the faces of people who had patiently accepted me and taught me who I am. I saw the mirrors that insisted that although they told the truth, my eyes had so much to learn about seeing it. He had told so much, seen so much, understood so much. When he spoke, I hardly heard the words for all of the journeys I took between them. Then I had the sad thought about what is lost when someone dies — the unexplainable composite of self, polished by time, romanced by hope, crushed by misfortune, informed by everything. All of this is lost when a person dies. I felt him reading my thoughts and I knew that he preferred to speak of life. For he had taken the time in his life to put so much of it down for the entire world to be enriched by. Immediately he said, “I discovered to my joy, that it is life, not death, that has no limits.” “…human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

We sat with birth, life,and beauty at the table – he in his white suit, me in my daily black. ”
“May I quote someone?” I asked.
“Please.”
“Death is the mother of beauty.”
“Wallace Stevens.”
“Yes. Death affixes us to time and place, as if we could escape it in life. Have you experienced so much that you have escaped your attachment to things, to people, to ideas, to place and time?”
“I died but my words didn’t. But, even they are unfaithful. They mean something different to you than I could have ever possibly intended. I am at once reduced and enriched by you. My hope is that there is something universal, above and beyond both of us, that will allow you to recognize my crazy aunt,
that the palm tree in the courtyard of my grandfather’s house will be familiar shade. But, these are my attachments. There is your answer. It has never
been my intention to escape anything. It’s just the opposite.”
“Thank You for explaining that.”
“Young man in black, pick up the ukulele, that melody is what brought me here in the first place. But those words…”

The Unforgettable

I was walking out of the front door of Westover Hills Elementary School, unfurling my yellow safety patrol flag with the word “please” on it.  Wrapped in the eternal present of childhood, I would only spend a few more steps there. A boy on the sidewalk turned from a person in a car and uttered the unthinkable. With every atom in my body, I resisted the reality of what I heard. I struggled. The unfairness was overwhelming. I remember what I said. “Now we’re in Johnson’s hands.”

Days of muted drums, backward boots in riderless stirrups, and subdued voices glued everyone to the black and white TV set – as unreal as real can be. A gloom, a forlorn saddness blanketed everything and everyone.  The very word “November” became ominous and dark.

How could this have happened?

Soon after, the legendary Phil Ochs brillianty captured the wilderness of these emotions in “The Crucifixion” – an incredible song about how the world creates and destroys heros. I first heard it at the Village Gate in New York City through the profound voice of David Massengill. I was moved in the way that makes me silent for a long time. I had to wait several years before Phil’s sister, Sonny, would allow me the honor of performing it in a Phil Ochs Song Night.

On Friday night, November 22, 2013, fifty years after the day that changed everything, I will have the chance to sing it again. This time in as beautiful a setting as I’ve ever sung in, The Larz Anderson Auto Museum. I can already feel Phil’s words reaching every corner of that amazing space. Forgive me in advance if I seem not all present on Friday. I will be, it’s just that so much else will be present with me.

50th Anniversary March on Washington

Marching with folks from the Williamsburg, VA UU
Marching with folks from the Williamsburg, VA UU

“So deep, so wide.” I sing with Peter Gabriel (“Washing of the Water”) as I think about all of this. “River, river, carry me high:” river of people, York River, James River, rivers all around me, the rivers of Virginia where life has surprisingly returned me, rivers of Virginia that first brought human beings in chains to this soil – those who came with no luggage, whose past was erased, whose future was a daily indecipherable horror.

Now we are a river of humanity marching together, smiling, singing past the marble monuments of Washington, D.C., past a white house built by slaves. All of us, the sons and daughters of slaves and slavemasters, joyous in our commonality of purpose, healing. Just as my venerable friend, Sonny Ochs, had related to me about the march in 1963, the most obvious and memorable part was the people, people of every color, shape, and size, together, with no stress, no distress.
Imagine.

On Saturday, I was one of tens of thousands – and glad to be. My story was one of tens of thousands. It came to me moment by moment, for to be in this moment was to be in a river of memories.  Some are jolting to an adult so long gone. So much was paved over with the cobblestones of my home town, Richmond, VA. I remembered driving to find the Reconcilliation Statue in Shocko Bottom and looked up to see the familiar clock tower of Main St. Station, where my father went to work on the C&O Railroad. Three hundred thousand slaves were sold away just yards from where we would wave goodbye to my dad. This was a couple of miles from where I grew up playing Yankees and Rebels, a few more from where the marching band would play Dixie at halftime of the high school football
games and everyone would stand up and put their hands over their heart. I knew the name of every Confederate general, hated U.S. Grant. But no one ever, ever talked about the slaves.