“They say everything can be replaced/They say every distance is not near.”
In February 2020, I visited my friend Corey in the federal prison in Butner, NC, his last visitor before Covid-19 changed everything. Among those changes, he and some of his fellow inmates were shipped to a penitentiary in Yazoo City, Mississippi, along the way enduring two months of solitary confinement (ostensibly to protect them from the virus). Far from family and friends, often in lockdown (not enough healthy guards to allow freedom on the unit), he has not had a visit since mine. I promised him that after retirement, I’d drive down. These are notes from that 5-day journey, just completed.
Do people still name their cars? Our boys called mine the Batmobile when I brought it home during the Dark Knight-era of their childhood, a jet black 2012 Mazda 3 hatchback with a 5-speed straight shift, still chugging 100k later, hooking up via Bluetooth to my phone playlists, humming along on the Interstate and taking backroad curves with sporty precision. She’s not just an appliance to me; rather one of my favorite things. Endearingly, like me, she’s seen better days.
We hit the Chippenham Parkway out of Bon Air, VA at 10, Atlanta-bound, and cruise control I-85 most of the way, only slowed by intermittent showers along the outer bands of Hurricane Nicholas, and by a chain of accidents encountered along the jagged patch of roadwork that seems to stretch across the entire state of South Carolina. On the radio, a discussion about the Lee statue’s removal in Richmond last week. The most memorable quote, from a city councilwoman, “I’m not worried about General Lee. He’s dead. My concern is the racist sitting across from me in council.” A more succinct statement of our situation I have not heard.
“They say every man needs protection”
The other topic on Talk Radio, of course, is our interminable bout with Covid. We’re back to 2000 Americans dying every day, only a single digit percentage of Africans vaccinated, PTSD-stricken health professionals sobbing at wit’s end, yet knuckleheads stubbornly refusing to do the patriotic, self-protective thing and get the damned shot! Friends cautioned me about risking the maw of the anti-vaxx, ivermectin-ingesting Deep South. I wear my KN-95 mask at every brief gas stop, empty a bottle of hand sanitizer, and hope for the best, the little Mazda my own personal bubble – pandemic Ho! Interestingly, nearly all the Black people I see wear masks. Fewer White folk do, none in service stations anywhere west of Atlanta. (I get looks and sternly return them, eyes creased above my mask.)
I say “Deep South,” contrasted with the South in general, because folks from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have long questioned whether Virginia counts as Southern at all. Often I’ve found myself explaining, defensively, but the Mason-Dixon Line! The Capital of the Confederacy! Bull Run! General Lee! Which just goes to show how the old slave economy Confederacy still stands as the true cultural marker for what is and isn’t Southern. People nod, okay, I guess so then. But Virginia has turned blue in elections of late; we’ve dismantled most of our Confederate statues, thus insulting the white supremacists north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. MAGA’s popularity across mostly white, rural America shows that racism is not a useful delineator of what is and isn’t Southern, and Southerners have always known that anyway. If you judge by Trump votes, immigration resistance, or ivermectin-ingestion, then Idaho is as Southern as Mississippi these days. So if you can’t go by politics or racism, what do we have left? Geography, of course, that baleful history, and maybe fried chicken?
“I see my light come shining/from the west down to the east”
At sunset, after 9 hours of plodding Interstate, punctuated by intermittent rain, the accidents that upended the lives of one random sample of Thursday afternoon’s drivers, and a jarring pothole struck just inside the Georgia state line that could easily have ended my trip right there (but the little Mazda chugged along – whew!) I pull into the winding, leafy lanes of an upscale Marietta subdivision, home to my unofficial stepmom-in-law, widowed ten years. She lives alone now in the beautifully appointed 3-story MacMansion where she raised her son and nursed her mother and her husband in their last days. It’s a lily-white neighborhood, except for the maids and yardmen. Despite its luxuries, I’ve always felt uncomfortable there, reverse-snob that I am, my dirty little Mazda sneaking around curves owned by Land Rovers, Beemers and Lexii. Yes, one version of the American Dream achieved. I need to get over my peevishness. After all, my father-in-law earned his wealth honestly, a poor boy who rode the computer revolution up through the IBM ranks into his own software company, etc.
Roz, always gracious and accommodating, had picked up dinner at a taco place, waited for my arrival, and greets me with a hug. She stands in her chrome and marble kitchen with its dual dishwashers and other bespoke appliances like the captain of an abandoned ocean liner, our voices echoing when we call to each other between rooms. We sit down to eat, and I realize that we have something new in common. I’ve just retired, as she did years ago, and back home we’re reconfiguring our sons’ rooms to fit our empty nest. I’m curious how she spends her days. She doesn’t play tennis or — god forbid — pickleball. She doesn’t sketch or crochet. She is the lady who lunches, with longtime friends, and twice a week works out with a handsome Brazilian trainer, who she says has been a lifesaver amidst covid’s social contractions. She tends her orchids, feeds the backyard birds, and babysits her two-year old granddaughter once or twice a week. She seems caught in a lap dissolve between contentment and wistfulness. I feel that way, too, already in my third month without paid work. Her advice is to schedule at least one “event” each day to look forward to. On this day, we are each other’s event.
One of the “events” that has helped my wife and me through covid has been the delightful Youtube yoga instructor Adriene, who with her old dog Benjy at her side, has kept us both centered and flexible. Before breakfast I knock off one of her 25-minute quickie routines, then hit the road again. The direct route to Vicksburg, my eventual destination, is through Birmingham, but a slight detour will take me to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. That’s my stopover reward, today’s scheduled “event.”
“Yet I swear I see my reflection/somewhere so high above this wall.”
I don’t know how to describe the next several hours of my journey. Maybe it’s too soon to try. But like the fading of a nightmare that seems to hold important insights, I fear forgetting that harrowing experience. I’d read about the Legacy Museum back in 2018 when it opened, and promised myself to visit if I was ever passing through. By the way, here’s the website, where the tickets (free) can be downloaded, and where the museum’s mission is explained: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/museum. But let me tell you, you must go there yourself.
On your first steps into the museum, it becomes clear that the curators have followed the narrative model of the Holocaust Museum in DC, relying on personal anecdotes and multimedia exhibits that fit you into the minds and hearts of sufferers as you make your way through dark tunnels that press you up close to their experience. You are launched into the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean amidst grim busts representing the estimated million lives lost on the Middle Passage, stand before cells at slave markets, where ghostly holograms tell their woeful tales, find yourself in a huge exhibit hall lined with audiovisual accounts of slave sales, escapes, whippings, rapes and hideous murders. You find your own town – in my case Richmond, VA – indicted for its important role in the slave trade. But the museum is not done with you yet. This research institution holds the nation’s primary repository of post-liberation lynchings. Stomach turning photographs and news reports line the walls. Then we move on to the Civil Rights era, where the heroes of that time are framed anew against the institutions that resisted them. Finally, our current situation, the museum singling out the American justice system as the most overt means of racial oppression now in play. Mass incarceration, which, I learn here, was launched in the Jim Crow era, was always enslavement by other means. This is the shadow history you weren’t taught in school, and even if you think you know it all, the compression of these tortures within the museum’s confines can be staggering. No photography is allowed. People speak softly. Some weep. Among the few visitors, I find myself keeping pace with an elderly Black man. As the tunnel opens to each new exhibit, he pauses, looks around, and sighs, “Oh my.”
At last, around a corner, you hear the triumphant voice of Aretha Franklin singing a freedom song, and find yourself in a huge hall with a central crystal chandelier, the thirty foot high walls lined with photographic portraits of those Black heroes who have resisted oppression: Nat Turner, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Jackie Robinson, and so many more. I’m sure this final exhibit was conceived as a place of hope, an opportunity for Black visitors to reframe the museum’s documentation of victimhood as bracing lessons of resistance and fortitude. There is no such gesture offered to us Whites. Yes, the heroes on this wall are mine, too. But it was people with pigmentation like mine who forced them to resist, and here on this day, more dismayingly than ever before, I face the truth of our separation and our ongoing, irrefutable crime.
I wonder what the curators must have discussed as transition rooms out of the museum? Punching bags? Debriefing rooms? Sign-up sheets for equal justice initiatives? Instead, they offer a kind reprieve, a bright and airy restaurant serving Southern food. That’s a sly gesture, too, soul food prepared by black chefs, a hint perhaps to keep our eyes open out in the world, to attend to the roles we play, to the services we provide and are provided, and to the symbiotic nature of our relationships.
I drive away, still inwardly quaking. Wondering what it would take to get today’s opponents of Critical Race Theory inside those walls? How would anyone fail to recognize the importance of racist oppression in our nation’s history, fail to reckon with their own biases, fail perhaps to begin a study of all we have not been taught, maybe even to seek out ways of changing things for the better? Can there be a more important museum in America right now?
There was one more place I wanted to visit, the Legacy Memorial, just a half mile away. This is the stunning work of art – I would compare its impact to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC – dedicated to honoring (and naming) the 4,743 American lynching victims that we know of. Photographs are allowed here, and here is one of mine.
As you can see, this quadrangular outdoor monument aligns hundreds of hanging steel columns, each representing not a person who was lynched but a county in the U.S. where lynchings have occurred. On the columns, the names of victims are listed. Some columns have as many as a dozen names. I found a column for my home county, Fluvanna, too, with an 1899 lynching listed there. Of course, I knew nothing of this event, but I’ve reached out to the county’s best historians, the McGehee’s, and expect a full account from them.
I get back in my car, with 300 miles yet to go. It’s mid-afternoon, sprinkling rain, but I’m so glad I took this detour. And what I’m thinking, as I drive out of Montgomery on Highway 80, headed towards Selma and points west, is how essential this museum and memorial must be to whatever healing our divided nation may hope for.
Now, yonder stands a man in this lonely crowd/A man who swears he’s not to blame.
Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I cued up the first episode of Star Trek: Next Generation on Hulu, smiling at the memory of having first discovered this new crew and this new Enterprise and their arch-enemy, the creature known as Q, way back in the 1980s. A throw-away line by Captain Picard caught my attention, that at some point following a 21st Century nuclear Armageddon, the United Nations had declared a new day, forgiving all humans for their past misdeeds, thus somehow moving forward to a peaceful civilization without recrimination or conflict.
CRT opponents, clearly, would like to live that way. After all, they argue, I never owned slaves, one of my golfing buddies is African American, and my kids don’t need that guilt trip laid on their innocent young minds. The problem, however (one the episode glances at), is the importance of first recognizing and acknowledging, apologizing for, and yes, distributing reparations for, crimes committed in the past. CRT and the Legacy Museum would educate us about those crimes, invite us to recognize and acknowledge them, and begin to consider how oppressive racist tropes continue to thrive today. Which opens a whole can of worms many would prefer to ignore. It should be clear to all but the Stephen Miller’s of our conflicted nation, that If we are ever to arrive at a place where we might, as Star Trek would have it, forgive and forget, then we first must remember and then, one would hope, fix what’s wrong. You can’t skip steps straight to let’s forget it all. Germany, in its reckoning with the Holocaust, and South Africa in its reflections on Apartheid, provide examples of that path. We can do this, but try to get that notion through the thick red MAGA baseball caps, eh?
This battle over what is and isn’t remembered, about how to tell our nation’s story, is also personal for many of us. It certainly is for me. My family has lived in Virginia since 1690. On our dining room wall hangs a framed letter from a local historian that traces our ancestors back that far. As I pull out of the parking lot in Montgomery, a key sentence, so characteristic of White obliviousness in its blithe contradiction, jabs at my heart. My great-great grandfather, Benajah Gentry, born in 1788, is described this way: “He was a successful planter, had a number of slaves, was a man of fine character, well beloved by his neighbors, a leading member of the Baptist Church – very active and zealous in religious work.”
Well, you might say, that was back then, when things were different, which is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t really let me off the hook. If I am to honor my family heritage, such as it is, standing on the shoulders of those that have gone before, as we say, then shouldn’t I own up to the behavior of those shoulders down there? How can I be proud of my father’s service in WWII and fail to feel some measure of shame at an ancestor who – not all that long ago – treated people as property?
And how then, can I begin to discharge that shame? What can I do to help along the reckoning, the learning, the tipping toward equity and good will, that is so clearly called for?
My plan had been to take the Business-80 detour through downtown Selma, stopping at the storefront civil rights museum memorializing the police riot at the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965 (Pettus, by the way, was a KKK leader), and then crossing the bridge on foot, perhaps grabbing an ice cream cone at a shop in the quaint downtown area on the other side, or even, if I dared, a pig ear sandwich at a soul food place I’d read about. But I was running late, after lingering in Montgomery, and just as I came to the bridge the skies opened. I crossed the bridge in a driving rain, noting the Edmund Pettus sign above me on the girders, and headed on towards Vicksburg, clear across Alabama and Mississippi, sipping a deeply unSouthern unsweetened ice tea to stay sharp along the way.
Wait a minute, did you say “pig ears”? Yep. And no, you probably can’t make a silk purse out of one, but if you slice it in half, boil it long enough, then slap it on white bread with hot sauce, in Selma you can sell all you can cook. The place for this deep soul food treat is Lannie’s; there’s even a picture online of Lannie with Dave Letterman, who went for their barbecue. They sell pig feet, too. I promise myself I’ll try again, further down the line.
I’m quite familiar with pig parts, by the way. My first job – 60 hours/week in the summer of my 4th grade year – was assisting my father, the butcher at Ranson’s Supermarket in Fluvanna County, VA. We sold tons of chicken and hamburger, of course, but also pork intestines (chitterlings) in 5-gallon buckets, pig feet wrapped six to a pack (their toe nails would often tear the plastic wrap if I pulled the package too tight), and pig ears that still bore a few hairs, like those you see sprouting from an old man’s ears. On occasion, Daddy would boil chitterlings, a delicacy from his childhood as a sharecropper’s son. Even after soaking the split and cleaned pig intestines in bleach, when he threw them in a pot of boiling water on the stove, the house stank like, you guessed it, pig poop, for days. None of us kids would touch the stuff, which was fine with Daddy. He got it all to himself.
Most of the pig part sales went to our Black neighbors, whose ancestors had been making lemonade from lemons in this way back in slavery days, when the choice meats went to the big house. Carried forward, that tradition, soul food, makes up the menus of Mom & Pop barbecue joints all over the South. I remember my surprise, backpacking through France as a young man, discovering that the French, too, love organ meats and leftovers (pig ear terrine, for instance). As they say, everything but the squeal.
Bisecting Alabama and Mississippi on Highway 20 in the rain, the view is picked over cotton fields, grazing cattle, catfish ponds, and the remains of pine forests stripped down to the red earth to feed lumber yards every ten miles or so. The only stop lights are in the occasional small town, some quaint and Mayberry like, others run down like settings for a zombie apocalypse film. I’m in my little automobile bubble, moving in a straight line five miles above the speed limit, but the hard scrabble poverty of these two states cannot be denied. That they lead the nation in Covid deaths only makes things harder. It’s Friday afternoon, and every radio station talks only about the night’s coming high school football match ups. I count five games (that’s ten teams) canceled, because their coaching staffs are sick.
I might have overnighted in Jackson, MS, the state capital, but continue on to Vicksburg, hard up against a bend of the Mississippi River, because – history nut that I am – I want to tour the battlefield there. From either town, it’s an hour’s drive up to the prison in Yazoo City. I’d been warned away from staying in Yazoo; it’s one of the most violent towns in America. So around dinner time I pull up to the Steele Cottage, where I’ll spend the next two nights. In Old Town Vicksburg, on a bluff overlooking the river, the surprisingly inexpensive three bedroom BnB, built in 1833, had survived the Civil War’s bombardment and siege. The owners appointed it in antebellum style. But before nodding off in my high four-poster bed (I am the only resident of the place, which calms my covid worries somewhat), I walk across the street to the Walnut Hill Restaurant in another old house, and dine alone by the back door on fried chicken with nursing home soft green beans (the way Mama used to cook them) and mashed potatoes with gravy, the waitress – her mask around her chin – addressing me as “darlin'”. Reminds me of Mrs. Rowe’s in Staunton, VA. And like that Virginia mainstay, the menu includes good old homemade Southern desserts. Here’s a photo of their cake display. Oh my.
I order a slice of caramel cake for breakfast (recalling the version my dear Aunt Dorothy used to bake), head back to my room, negotiate a sit-down shower in a claw-footed tub, and plan my drive up to the penitentiary, back aching after clocking 1000 miles in two days. I mean, how do truckers do it?
MORE TO COME – NEXT DAY 3, my penitentiary visit, the Civil War battlefield, and hot tamales at Ubon’s in Yazoo.