Summer Meditation: Notes From the Road

 

jeep-218956_640It’s sunrise and I’m on Route 95 headed toward Richmond. The early sunshine works its way through thick bands of pine and maple trees along the highway. Puffy clouds sit static behind the green backdrop. I’m glad to be on my way further down south from Virginia. This visit to my cousin in Raleigh means I get to explore what I’m told is the “real south” which is what I’ve been trying to do since I moved two years ago. Funny, when I lived in Boston I thought northern Virginia was the real south but apparently Richmond is a dividing line, it’s history as the Confederate capital still having significance.

I’ve been to Atlanta and Myrtle Beach but as I enter the city of Richmond it feels different. I can’t help wondering what this landscape looked like 150 years ago. Did the sun penetrate the foliage then as it does now when soldiers stood between the trees trying to detect the blue or the gray of the perceived enemy? Did any of my people run this route on their way from confederate North Carolina to the contraband camps in Alexandria where I live now? I see long swaths of grass between mighty trees. Were they part of battlefields? As I pass by I’m thinking about all those who might have been left lying out there. What a time that must have been! Were the issues of the Civil War clear-cut back then to the citizenry of both sides or did they seem as confused as the ones we wrestle with now; war, conflict, ideology?

I exit onto Route 85 and into North Carolina. The cops are less visible than on the Virginia roads. Are they waiting til they have a good breakfast of grits and eggs before starting their patrols? Old time asphalt reverberates and rattles my soul along with my wheels. I see a sign for Ace Hardware and Gun Store. Hills, valleys and pickup trucks. No helmets needed by the Harley riders here. Cigs three dollars a pack and a speed limit of whatever you can bear. Ghosts of tobacco plantations, dusty hills, slave-owning forefathers but license plates that only mention Kitty Hawk. Places like Creedmoor and Falls Lake; Ruin Creek, Nutbush Creek, and Bullsville inhabit this two lane stretch. I roll down the window a bit to smell the air. It’s hot and humid just the way I like and aromatic with bellflowers and jewelweed in full bloom. I know this place’s unsettling and violent history but like many folks, I still find the scenery beautiful and somehow peaceful.

I turn off the highway just outside Raleigh onto the Triangle Expressway. It’s a big, newly paved road dotted with the shiny office buildings of tech companies. I start looking for my cousin’s subdivision. There are so many of them here that have replaced old farms although, come to think of it, it’s the same in Virginia and Pennsylvania. I find the “Springwell” community and pull in. (All the subdivision around here are named.) I’m looking forward to the lilt in my cousin’s speech and his traditional southern hospitality. I hear there are only three Starbucks in these parts but that’s ok because I’m ready to try something else.

 

Winter Meditation: Tribes-Trying to Feel Connected

IMG_2285I wrote in my last post about how we cling to the tendency to divide into tribes and what I image a world wide tribe would look like. It was an optimistic post bordering on naive.  It’s a subject that’s important to me because I was brought up without a sense of being part of a specific population so I think a lot about who and how people form social groups.

I want to begin by talking about the positive aspects of the way I grew up. I never felt I was forced to have an alliance to any group, clan, or other homogeneous body and there’s a certain freedom in that. I always felt removed from the bubble of ethnocentricity. That can be beneficial. As Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation explains in the discussion of his  Second Stage of Spiritual Development,

“At Stage Two, your concern is to look good outside. Your concern with pleasing the neighborhood, the village, your religion, or your kind of folks becomes such a way of life that you get very practiced at hiding or disguising any contrary evidence. That’s why it is so dangerous… Your whole identity becomes defending your external behavior as more moral than other people, and defending your family, your community, your race, your church or temple or mosque, your nation as superior to others.”

So I was spared that kind of “tribal thinking” and that’s a good thing. I’m more apt to interpret the clan affiliation of individuals in a global context. It also allowed me to be more objective about human behavior. I could observe it without feeling too invested to be objective. I think the reason I studied journalism was to learn how to write social commentary that was as unbiased as possible. I’m glad and grateful for that.

The downside was that kind of “otherness” made for a sometimes lonely, always complicated  upbringing and personhood. It’s taken me up to this, the third trimester of my life, to internalize that humans are social beings and I’ve come to truly believe that we’re all connected in The One. But I was brought up divorced from the cultural group that I would naturally have been a part of, the African American community, so my socialization within it was cut off. I was disconnected and because of the way American society was when I was growing up, I couldn’t feel part of any white social group. Those groups saw me as part of the separate black world. On the other hand, I had a parent who told me that I wasn’t part of that community so it was hard for me to know where my place actually was. Eventually, I came to feel that my place was totally “outside”. My saving grace was that I’m naturally an introvert and need a lot of solitude anyway so isolation wasn’t completely intolerable to me. But still we all have an intrinsic need to feel connected to others. My feeling of being an outsider is also why its been hard for me to practice compassion (I posted about this in Back To The Bow) and conversely seeking connection is what’s made it so important to me.

My mother, may her soul rest in peace, I understand her rationale, I absolutely do. She grew up in a time when institutional racism wasn’t even questioned and she had the desire and the intelligence to do so much. She wanted to break out of the confines that were dictated by racism but felt as if she couldn’t in the life she was born to, so she ran. She ran from the south, from the memory of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction and the Great Migration. She had to reinvent herself down to the cellular level to excise all those memories. She was wasn’t unique. In his book How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston chronicled the phenomenon in other African Americans and even said at one point,  “..lots of black people have had the desire to escape their blackness.” But my mother went so much further than that. She was an African American Jake Gatsby. She reinvented where she was born. She reinvented her spirituality. She changed whatever she felt she needed to in order to mitigate the consequences of being black. I’ve written here before about the distance that put between my nuclear family and my traditional culture. (Conflict In Commemoration) There was an absence of things like a black church and trips down south for me to see ancestral homes or visit gravesites. My mother was trying to live up to her potential and by the sixties when things started to change she had hope that her children would not have to be afflicted with the limitations that she felt had hemmed her in. That’s why she didn’t want us to be defined by African American culture, which to her reflected those limitations.

There were of course, a lot of flaws in her thinking. One was that she assumed we would want the life she wanted.  I’ve come to understand as a parent that you can’t assume that about your kids.  The biggest flaw however was that she didn’t realize we might feel alienated in the larger society by not being able to relate to a specific culture. She grew up in an all African American community so I don’t think she ever understood what it was like not have that relationship. She could always relate because try as she might, she was never fully unyoked  from the culture. But she needed to see it as an intellectual exercise and not feel it as an emotional condition.

My mother did the best she could and she thought she was doing right by us. Unfortunately, it was a life fraught with challenges to our identities that the three of us found hard to get through to varying degrees. So that’s another one of the reason I had to come south.  I’ve been fortunate enough to form a strong sense of self that includes but is not exclusive to my African American heritage. Yet I still want to embrace the missing and difficult parts of our past that my mother felt she had to escape. Every time I walk around in Old Town Alexandria on ground where “contraband” slaves once lived during the Civil war, my history is finally personal. I can plot the place at Arlington National Cemetery that was once the Freeman’s Village. I drive around the VA countryside contemplating what my ancestors thought of the weather, the soil and the work. In those ways I create a link to people, place and time; a sense of sharing in a legacy. I didn’t experience the kind of intimacy with my familial history in New England the way I do here. I have a richer perception of my identity now that includes pain and sorrow. It leads me to feel sympathy for other people who are facing similar struggles and compassion for those of us, not just black folks, who live with the challenging aspects of our shared American story.  It allows me to feel part of something larger than myself.

The Conflict in Commemoration

Slave and Free States before the Civil War. Wikimedia

This coming November 19th marks the anniversary of the Gettysburg address and last July was the anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. Here in the southern U.S. it’s kind of a big deal. There were battle re-enactments in the summer and there will be a whole “Dedication Day” at the Gettysburg National Military Park on Tuesday.  Actually, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of several significant Civil War events. I mentioned this to a couple of friends of mine in Boston. Both had basically the same reaction, “And you still want to live in the south?” These friends are northeast liberals for whom the Civil War is a symbol of other people’s misguided ideas, other people’s shame and other people’s loss. (Sometimes it feels to me like every person I know who lives in Cambridge, Mass claims to have a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.) They seem to feel as though the facts of the Civil War don’t have anything to do with them. Here in the south I’ve seen people gaze on Confederate graves with sincere reverence for those who lost their lives. I think some of my friends up north would say there is no honor to recognize or commemorate. It’s interesting to me that both points of view can exist at the same time without a synthesis.

I freely (irony intended) admit that I’m as liberal as they come but I see the Civil War not as either/or but rather a both/and situation. And I think the difference in perspectives about the Civil War epitomizes the sad, oversimplified divisions played out in our national politics now. Instead of the gray and the blue it’s the red and blue. Why can’t we face both the repugnance and the importance of the War together? Maybe what we should do as a nation on this 150th anniversary is reflect on the both/and of the war:

-the US split apart and then was knitted back together through the leadership of one of the most effective presidents elected by its people.
-it was the most deadly conflict in US history and resulted in the constitutional end to the institution of slavery.

In an interview for CNN, “Mike Litterst of the National Park Service said interpretations at federal Civil War battlefields have evolved in the past 25 years. Besides telling the story of the battles and the homefront, exhibits increasingly stress the importance of the conflict to civil rights and the role of African-Americans, thousands of whom served in the Union Army.” (Thousands at Gettysburg for 150th… )

Personally, the Civil war represents the missing and mysterious parts of my family history.  I come from an African American family that chose to forget the fact of slavery, the Civil War and the legacy of both. It was too painful for them to think about because it didn’t allow them to believe that they could live equally in the U.S. They swept any knowledge of ancestors and relatives with connections to the south and slavery under the rug and began our family story with their lives in the north. Maybe by living here in the South and being present at events that commemorate the Civil War I can exorcise the ghosts of my family’s shame. I can reframe, as the National Park Service seeks to do, the way in which we look at our history into a both/and. We were enslaved in the south under a horrible institution and endured. We fully participated in the struggle of divergent interests and with slavery behind us we decided our fate by looking forward to a different place and time. Yes, I feel much more comfortable with the totality of both/and.

 Dedication Day at the Gettysburg National Military Park is November 19th. The ceremony “will observe the 150th Anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The event takes place in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery,”. There will also be a graveside salute to the U.S. Colored Troops.  For more information visit the website, Gettysburg Dedication Day

History Lessons III

Image courtesy of ushistoryimages.com

The other night I took in a lecture at The Lyceum in Alexandria, VA.  It’s a historic landmark and the lecture was on the role Alexandrians played in the Underground Railroad.  As I’ve mentioned before I’m very interested in studying American slavery, the Civil War and my family’s southern history so I was looking forward to learning something.

Unfortunately, I was distracted throughout the lecture. The first distraction was the presenter. I didn’t expect a speaker with the oration skills of Frederick Douglas but I didn’t expect a soft-spoken elderly woman reading from shaking notes either.  She was informative and clearly very dedicated to the subject but her style was challenging to the attention span.  The second distraction was the language. The presenter is a researcher from the “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” program and she said they call those who used the Underground Railroad “freedom seekers”. Really? I kept thinking about the term. It seemed to me that it makes the slaves sound like they were armed soldiers. It undermines the horror and indignity of their condition by framing it in positive language. The researcher also kept using the term “master” to indicate a slaveholder. I thought that wasn’t used anymore because it seems to elevate the status of those who simply dealt in human flesh. The program  is federally mandated and administered by the National Park Service. That probably explains both the elderly speaker and the language.  Anyway, the website is:  http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/index.htm .

I left the Lyceum with the discouraging thought that even when we try as a nation to take in the complexities of slavery and it’s effects on race relations, we can’t bear up under the weight. The next day I was reading a piece on the Pro-Slavery Constitution  by Paul Finkelman. In it he says,

The problems created by slavery-the moral and political legacies of slavery-were further complicated by the fact that the national constitution protected slavery in a myriad of ways…

We should not be shocked or surprised that the Constitution protected slavery. Slavery, after all, was a powerful economic institution…. But, slavery in the United States was more than simply an economic system designed to extract labor, at a relatively low cost, from those who were enslaved… 

Slavery was also a system of racial control.”

Even during the time of slavery the tendency was to try to frame it in the cleanest of terms (simply economic) without the ominous undertones (racism). And that’s why we can’t hold it. We want to think of ourselves as a nation of freedom seekers and not a nation of enslavers. I recommend the article. In plain, unflinching terms Finkelman speaks some realities we have yet to face on the national level. The “National Underground Railroad Network To Freedom” program attempts, in its own way, to hold a national conversation about slavery. We really need to have that conversation so it is a baby step in the right direction.

To read Paul Finkelman’s article search http://racism.org.  “How the Pro-Slavery Constitution Shaped American Race Relations”   

History Lessons II

I was exposed to a lot of history being brought up in the Boston area. Most of it had to do with the Revolutionary War period. It’s all about the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, etc., up there. As I discussed in my last post, now I’m interested in learning more about the Civil War so I’ve been going out to and taking pictures of, historical sites here in Virginia. I even joined a history meet-up group. (No easy step for an introvert!) What I realized while walking with my group last weekend is that where the Revolutionary War was about the U.S. creating itself, the Civil War was about the U.S. defining itself. That’s important to think about, especially in this election year.

Historic VA I Example of historical architecture of some VA homes 

 

I’m going to look into the history of this” free black” community

Ghosts in the doorways   

 

Next up for me are sites in Washington, DC . Oh by the way, I said in my last post that I’d let you know about any comments I heard about the Civil War. To be honest, during my meet-up I was too busy thinking to listen to anyone. (LOL!)

History Lessons

I’m taking advantage of being in the southern U.S. this summer by giving myself some American Civil War history lessons. I’ve decided that rather than WWII, the Civil War is the one that should be called “The Big War”. Although it didn’t involve other countries, I think it had more of a lasting impact on this country. Maybe it’s because I’m African-American that, in my mind, it’s the war that is the most significant in U.S. history. We still live with some of its obvious and not-so-obvious symbols.

Civil War Cemetery in VA

But it’s a hard war to completely understand. Multi-layered, prickly and complex, it was a briar patch of a war. I don’t know about you but I was only taught the superficial ” blue and gray, we freed the slaves” aspects in primary and secondary schools. (I was too busy partying and trying not to flunk out  to take challenging classes in college.) The biggest hole in my knowledge though, and the reason I’m undertaking these lessons is because I come from a family that ran from the enormous effects of slavery and the Civil War. I don’t just mean my family was part of the Great Migration although they were. I mean that the familial response to this part of American history was to deny and detach from the effects. All African-Americans have to face the legacy of slavery and we have varying ways of doing it. Some in my family chose to detach because they believed in the American Dream and so to believe they had to deny the things that made it untrue. They wanted to endeavor, achieve or fail and believe that the outcomes were the result of their own doing. I’m of the “Outliers” school of thought. “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like…It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”* I believe that the American Dream has a subtext in which slavery is a large factor. But some of my family who were actually from the south (but who have passed on) denied that subtext, choosing instead to detach from the past and redefine themselves. Some went so far as to change the birth cities to ones in the north on their birth certificates, much like when Jews anglicized their last names. They didn’t forgive or tolerate those who acknowledged what history had done to them. And so, much of my family history was concealed and then forgotten.

I choose not to deny and detach. I want to uncover and learn as much about the history that was too painful for many of my ancestors. So while I’m here in the south I’m visiting the sites, reading, reflecting and trying to understand more about the Civil War. And I’m honoring family who lived here before me. I don’t think they had the choices that I do.

Next week I’m going to a living history program. They’ll be asking attendees their thoughts on the effects of the War. I’ll let you know about the responses in a future post. What are your thoughts?

(Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Galdwell, Little, Brown & Co., 2008. * I did read the book but to be honest, the quote is from the summary on Wikipedia. I left my copy at home.)