Both of my parents are children of the South. My mother was born in a small town just outside of Jackson, Mississippi. For over a century, her family had lived on the same lands they had first worked as enslaved people and then later as sharecroppers. As members of her family sought warmer suns, they ventured to California and came back with stories of the simple yet unknown pleasures they found there. “You need to get out of this place” said one, so the story goes. “In California, a colored man can walk down the street and pick oranges right off the tree and nobody will bother you.”
Shortly thereafter my grandfather went to check out this land of freedom and riches for himself and within the year had relocated the family to San Jose. They found a home in the city’s Japantown not long after the forced evacuation and internment. Although it’s not clear who lived in the house before them, I’ve often wondered if my family’s hopes of securing a piece of the American dream were built on those hopes being dashed for a Japanese-American family.
My father’s hometown of Phenix City, Alabama, was so infamous for its long history of “wickedness” and corruption that at one point it was nicknamed Sodom. The tale of what it took to clean up the city inspired the film noir classic, The Phenix City Story. My grandmother was an unmarried teen when she gave birth to my father in the family’s lean-to shack on top of Glover’s Hill not far from the Chattahoochee river. His childhood memories are threaded with stories of navigating through the waterfront saloons, gambling houses, and brothels in search of an uncle who could toss the family a few dollars to get by. Their California dreams landed the two of them in Soledad in 1948. My grandmother got a job as a cook on a farm, and for the next few years they lived and traveled with the farm workers throughout the Salinas Valley.
Although my family had left long before I was born, the South permeated our home. It hung heavy in the air on Thanksgiving when the stink of chitterlings would linger long, long, long, after they were cooked and eaten.
Although my family had left long before I was born, the South permeated our home. It hung heavy in the air on Thanksgiving when the stink of chitterlings would linger long, long, long, after they were cooked and eaten. It would ride in on a wave of laughter, “book taking,” and trash talking when family and friends settled in for a game of Bid Whist. On Easter, it would push up against my father’s atheist tendencies until he relented and took us to church to recite Bible verses before my grandmother’s congregation. And on those relatively rare occasions when we would cross paths with another black person in our corner of suburban San Jose, it was my mother’s Southern sensibilities that led her to always smile and “speak.”
And yet, my understanding of the South was fixed in time. It was fueled by ingrained customs, bits of ancestral memory, and what I learned from reading about slavery and the southern black freedom struggle of the sixties. For the most part, family members shared little of their experiences. Instead they seemed to hold on to their stories until the weight of them had lifted or, had grown so heavy that like dew collecting on a leaf they sagged and dropped one detail at a time. No one in my family longed for the South. Most never returned. And with each passing generation, its grip on our family’s traditions loosened. A few years ago, I realized I needed to visit. In part to explore my family history, but also to better understand the region and the persistence of its imprint.
Southern air is insistently intimate. Moist, clinging, warm. It lies on the skin coaxing sweat out of pores. Trees hug highways, byways, back roads, and dirt roads. In the summer, visible heat waves emanate up from the pavement, penetrating shoe bottoms and warming soles. The environmental embrace of the region is hard to escape. Visiting the South for the first time, Harlem-born writer James Baldwin observed that even though he was in a country he had never seen before “something in me had come home.” And so it was with me. Something in the air, the land, the brown faces I passed on the street, felt familiar and welcoming, as if the ancestors of my blood and of my people had been waiting to receive me.
Baldwin spent several weeks in the South shortly after the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was so terrified of traveling in the region. he flew between most of his locations. Sixty years later I had trepidations as well, particularly since I was traveling solo during this time of Neo-Nazi and KKK revivalism. However I decided to drive. My road trip began in Atlanta, and ended 900 miles later in Jackson, Mississippi, with stops in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Phenix City in Alabama, and Carthage, Edinburg, and Philadelphia in Mississippi.
To reach the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, (better known as the Lynching Memorial), my mapping system routed me past the First White House of the Confederacy. Secessionists consecrated the house to their unholy cause in 1861 and the city has been known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy” ever since. When Baldwin visited in 1957, locals shared that people still wandered the halls of that house and wept. Nearly one hundred years after the fall of the Confederacy, one can only guess what exactly they were mourning. Lovingly preserved by the State of Alabama and the ladies of the First White House Association, the birthplace of the Confederacy represents the finest in Italianate architecture. White, pristine, manicured, with brick red chimneys fortifying its frame.
Less than ten blocks away, the Lynching Memorial sits at the top of a gentle slope. It is massive, spanning over six acres. Tarnished steel sculptures of black men and women, chained, kneeling, screaming, pleading, rust running down their naked bodies, mark the entrance. Over 800 corroded steel columns representing the counties where lynchings have been documented hang from the structure, much like black bodies hung from trees.
Inscribed on each are the names of the 4,384 African Americans known to have been murdered in the period between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, although the full death toll is far greater than that. As I walked between the columns looking for the counties where my family had lived, at times I would reflexively reach out and touch a name, calling them in for just a moment. Near the end a guide asked me what I thought. “Overwhelmed” I answered. “Yeah,” he said. looking off into the depths of the memorial, “it’s a lot to take in.” Following his gaze through the vast field of stolen lives, I had no words. Several silent moments later, “I feel you” was all that came.
And so it goes throughout Montgomery, in fact throughout the South. The Legacy Museum which charts the unbroken history from African American enslavement to mass incarceration, stands within Montgomery’s former slave market. In Birmingham and Jackson, Confederate monuments are minutes away from sites commemorating the Civil Rights Movement. In Alabama and Mississippi, the legacies of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr., are celebrated on the same day. Historian Barbara Fields captured the significance of this perpetual contest over memory and meaning succinctly, “The Civil War is still going on… It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.”
From the South to San Jose, the seventeenth century to the twenty first, the war rages on. My family did find a good life in California. At times we also found ourselves navigating the minefields of race without the solace of living within a black community. Our California dreams were complicated. Reporting from the front lines of the 1960s, Baldwin feared that all that was left of “the great dream that was to have become America” was the illusion of greatness, a narrow narrative used to justify the wanton exercise of power. Illusions rarely go down without a fight, and this one is particularly tenacious—as Trump-supporting crowds chanting “make America great again” attest.
However liberation begins with truth telling, and that truth holds both shadows and light. It is the Lynching Memorial uncovering the brutality at the heart of the well-trod narrative of the gallant South. It is also the story of ordinary black folks rising up and facing down a centuries-old system of oppression wielding “unarmed truth,” a belief in our inescapable connectedness, and faith in the inevitable triumph of justice. These are the stories of the South. These are the stories of the nation, and both need to be told.
That which weaves us together transcends time, histories, identities, and geographies. My travels through the South revealed that this holds true whether we know it, honor it, like it, or not. We can flail away in our ignorance and bump up against each other like leaves on the wind, as fate allows. We can give in to the tyranny of our darkest impulses and allow fear to flow freely through our social web manifesting as chains, bars, and walls to justify delusions of superiority and separation.
Or we can embrace the inescapable truth that my liberation is inextricably bound with yours and act with courage and humility to foster a reverence for all life. We can choose. Given the challenges we face as a human community, we must choose.
The Berkeley Blog
From the upcoming volume, “Civil Liberties United”, edited by Shizue Siegel, to be published June 2019
Since 2015, Sandra Bass has served as the Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Public Service Center.