Monday, September 21, 2009

Homeword Bound

Negroes in the North are right when they refer to the South as the Old Country. A Negro born in the North who finds himself in the South is in a position similar to that of the son of the Italian emigrant who finds himself in Italy, near the village where his father first saw the light of day. Both are in countries they have never seen, but which they cannot fail to recognize. The landscape has always been familiar; the speech is archaic, but it rings a bell; and so do the ways of the people, though their ways are not his ways. Everywhere he turns, the revenant finds himself relfected. He sees himself as he was before he was born, perhaps; or as the man he would have become, had he actually been born in this place. He sees the world, from an angle odd indeed, in which his fathers awaited his arrival, perhaps in the very house in which he narrowly avoided being born. He sees, in effect, his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable indentity. And the northern Negro in the
South sees, whatever he or anyone else may wish to believe, that his ancestors are both black and white. The white men, flesh of his flesh, hate him for that very reason. On the other hand, there is scarecely any way for him to join the black community in the South: for both he and this community are in the grip of the immense illusion that their state is more miserable than his own.

--from "Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South" by James Baldiwn


Teaching James Baldwin this semester and reading an incredible collected nonfiction works called The Price of the Ticket. Sometimes the writing is so powerful I forget to breathe. Thank God for the autonomic nervous system.

The first time I went to the south, I was most certainly a Northerner. Cincinnati may have some Southern parts, but it's a Northern city to be sure. After which I moved to Chicago, where I've stayed, excusing a two-year stint in Southwest Florida, which is truly not the South at all, but an entity unto itself. So after spending almost all of my life in the North, I had an opportunity to go south. In October 2005, I took a trip with a handful of other folks from my church to Gulfport, Mississippi to help clean and tend and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

I don't know what made me go down there. I know I was approached by church leadership to go, and I jumped at the chance; something went off inside my head that said whether it was for the life experience, for the good I could do and the community I might forge, or at least for the material, this is something I should do. So I did. I got a tetanus booster, I packed a sleeping bag and work gloves and hand sanitizer and work clothes and my bible and my cd player, and I piled into a 10-passenger van with eight white people and the leader of our group, an associate pastor, who was also black. We drove through Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee and into Mississippi and through the state all the way to the bottom, where the Gulf looks different than it did in southwest Florida. Quieter, more still and flat, with less tropical beauty and promise.

This kind of odd, out-of-body homecoming that Baldwin writes about in his account of his first trip South, it is exactly what I experienced. It's a strange feeling. I was so confused and so frustrated and so lonely for so much of my time there.

The Sunday we were there we went to the worship service for the church in the community we were serving. There were old black men in dark suits who sat in the front row and led the tiny body of congregants in hymns, hymns that I knew but hadn't heard since I was seven or eight, and I burst suddenly and joyously into tears at the sound. There were women beside me from my own church, sweet young white girls who'd probably grown up in a homogeneous, evangelical, complementarian Christian household, and so this experience was new for them, and no doubt fraught with a great deal of emotional volatility. For me it was Family. After church there was food. Barbecue, and beans and corn and potato salad: a party the community had created just for us. Someone made a Seven-Up cake. There aren't a ton of things I miss since going gluten free,only a few I think of wistfully as never being able to eat again, without doing damage to my body. Seven-Up cake is on the list. My maternal grandmother makes it: it's not really that special, just a pound cake with Seven Up in the mix, but it tastes amazing. Sitting in this church basement, eating barbecue and beans and Seven-Up cake, I began to see the place I had come from.

Gulfport is a small city right on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. There were a number of tiny houses raised up on cinder blocks. Lining street after street, they looked like squatting old ladies who had their skirts raised up to keep their hems from getting dirty. There were pecan shells everywhere falling off trees that littered the ground, and creepy palmetto bugs the length of your pinkie finger (not an exaggeration). They would skitter for the nearest shadow whenever you lifted a piece of roof that had gotten blown off the nearby house. I remember a nail went through the sole of my Adidas sneaker like butter and pierced my foot. I wasn't badly hurt, but was thankful for the tetanus shot. I remember taking a walk up the road from a site where we were working and having a chat with two National Guardsmen who were standing beside train tracks, presumably there to keep peace and order. One had a tight tidy blond moustache on his upper lip and wore dark sunglasses. He was from Arkansas, and seemed happy to have new people to talk to, even though he never smiled.

I remember feeling like I was walking through my own past, like I was looking relatives I'd never met in the face before. I knew my people came from Mississippi. My grandmother had said so, and recently my biological grandfather moved to Hazlehurst to be nearer to his folks. I could have met somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew my grandmother when she was a girl. Or who knew her still, despite her move Northward. I felt like I was soaking, at times even drowning, in a home that was so elemental to who I was in this country, a home that had made me the woman I am, a home that was in my hair and in the color of my eyes and the switch of my walk and the curve of my spine and the timbre of my voice.

Before going South, the facts and coverage of the hurricane had been brutal. Kanye West, for all his thoughtless, embarrassing, asinine behavior, I felt had gotten it right in his soundbite about George Bush and black folk. I was deeply saddened, but not at all surprised at the shitstorm that my own government had allowed to rain down on my people, due to a number of bad decisions, and one whirling category five that was worse than anyone thought. But now it was real. Now the spray-painted cryptography on abandoned homes had meanings, and people knew the family who used to live there. This misfortune had plagued the people I came from, the people I narrowly missed being myself.

I felt like my colleagues were really taken with the narrative of what they were witnessing. Houses were "charming", old ladies were "cute", there was just so much local color to be had, and so much charm and beauty to experience. I was absolutely furious that these young white men and women had no idea of the gravity of what they were witnessing. At the time I had no patience or understanding for them at all, I had nothing but fury and contempt. I know now that it isn't their fault. They were white. Their condescension came blithely and easily, and not out any place of malevolence. They just couldn't help themselves. But I couldn't take it. I felt like a granddaughter returning to help tend to a broken relative, in the midst of cultural ethnographers who were just using the poverty and injustice of this experience to fulfill some community service street cred, who came to get their hands dirty, and then hold them up to their white Jesus and say, "Look Lord, I care for the poor and the sick. I understand racial reconciliation." Something huge was happening inside me, and they were just looking for funny stories about poor black people to tell their friends back home.

I think perhaps that it is a wholly unrealistic expectation for me to expect that any white person--even one with the keenest and most salient racial awareness and sensitivity--could have understood what I went through on that trip. I know that. My struggle still, to this day, lies in the fact that some people, often but not always white, are able to look upon another human's struggle and suffering, and perceive everything except the tie that binds them both to each other. These kids (and they were, really, just big children) were completely unable to see the fate of themselves in the fate of the community of Gulfport, to see their own faces reflected in the faces of this community, and that is the thing that continually disappoints me. (Perhaps this is because these easy-minded white young people know in a way that I do not, that their country would never allow this kind of treatment toward them. Perhaps it is their whiteness which guarantees that quite literally come hell or high water that their privilege will protect them.)

A year later I went back with a Habitat for Humanity building project sponsored by a mega-church here in the Chicago area. We were in Waveland this time, less than an hour from my first trip, given the tasks of chalking lines and screwing 2x4s and hammering roof tiles putting up walls and doing the small things (and frankly, not doing them very well) that we could to do to put up homes for families who'd been displaced by Katrina and Rita. I had sufficiently low expectations of this trip, and was rewarded for them with much the same behavior.

I read James Baldwin and I feel as though he has seen into the wordless truth of my racial experience better than any person can. He wrote the essay quoted above on his first trip south, writing about desegregation in southern schools. I know about his career that whether in Harlem, Greenwich Village or in Georgia or South Carolina, he never felt safe, like he could be himself, and despite traveling back and forth to the States he settled in France, where he lived until he died. I haven't been back to the South. I don't know what occasion might take me there, and I don't know what I'll feel if I return. But the breathless feeling of being in a place that is at one and the same time utterly familiar and completely foreign is like living a memory and a nightmare. It is not one I will soon forget.

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