Birthrights and Wrongs

I’m heading south and east this week to dig into some family history, the in-person research I can do only in person Ole Maryin Alabama. I’ll be staying in Jasper, with forays into Birmingham and down to Alexander City and Hackneyville. Part of the research will be digging into libraries and part will be driving around to see the environs where my forebears were slaveholders.

I’ve found what I could find on Ancestry.com and at my local library; I have looked through old photo albums (hence the photo of Ole Mary washing clothes, from about 1915; it’s very possible she was a former slave). I have purchased deed-mapping software and found information in the strangest of corners online, but nothing beats feet on the ground.

I’ve never been to the south before. The furthest south I’ve been is Charlotte, Virginia, to visit a former relative by marriage, and to Baltimore. But I’m talking deep south, this Alabama journey, into the Black Belt where cotton was king. It’s a new experience for a California native — and part of my evolution. The paradox of moving forward is going backward, to see where I came from, which will help steer me ahead.

In the summertime when I was a child, we had lots of farm chores to do, especially before we went off to play. When I was about 12, my mother left a list of chores for us, and mine was to clear some weeds from the garden. I took the shovel, and I dug and sweated and shoveled, turning over the dirt, breaking a whole new row, fresh soil with no weeds. It took me about two hours in the hot sun to break that row. When I finished, I was so hot and tired I didn’t want to go out and play with a friend.

When my mom got home later that evening she said I hadn’t pulled the weeds.

“Yes, I did — look!” I showed what I had done.

But she shook her head, and showed me where the weeds were still standing in the rows already planted. What I could have done in ten minutes — pull the weeds and be on my way — I had not seen, had missed altogether. I still had to pull those weeds the next day — but I had broken ground, made the garden bigger.

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for privilege — just pulling a few weeds and skipping away, when someone has done all the work of breaking the soil, throwing the rocks aside, making it friable and fine enough for seed. I’ve done it both ways, the easy and the tough, and believe me, it was galling to think how hard I had worked when I could have had it easy. I imagine if I always did the hard part and someone else always did the easy job, I would be pretty fed up.

Am I a good person? Am I in integrity with my roots, with my future actions? Am I standing on the backs of others who broke the path? Enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labors? Am I bold enough to tell the story I find, regardless of what it is? Of how, or whom, it hurts?

I have many thoughts going through my mind as I prepare for this first venture into the past. But consider this a vow: Whatever I find, I’ll write about it, unflinchingly. I hope to tell it well enough so you want to read it, too.

 

Writing as Though I Had Wings

hand with penI’ve come to that cross-road in a writer’s life where she has to choose between writing what she wants and writing what earns her bread. It might even be one of those modern five-way stoplights where several roads merge and one must decide whether to turn gently to the right, to join the path ahead, or — most alarming of all — veer to the left and go against the traffic, hoping for a break in the rush to slip across. What to do?

And I think I might go for the difficult and risky choice.

This is absolutely one of those moments where, if speaking to young writers, I might say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Because who would counsel a writer to leave off the path toward Easy and instead push forth into the Difficult? You want success? Don’t do this.

But then I think of all the advice given to me, especially in the past few years, about “Follow your bliss,” and “Do what you love.” Let the angels lead you where they will. I think of the quote from poet Mary Oliver, “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” Angels, again. So, I think, well, maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to chase this.

What is the this? It’s a long story, so to speak: My family history, reaching back into long ago when my people first 1545231_10153695308530455_1715698475_nput foot on American soil. Before it was American. Or after, just a century ago, before two great wars and women’s suffrage and Prohibition. I’m looking at my roots, of getting here, of what was left behind and what they came for, and what they achieved, and what it cost. And whom it cost.

So think of slavery and the Trail of Tears. Think of the British Raj and the Industrial Revolution. Think of the Orphan Train, of blood and bones. And — of healing, atonement, and mercy.

Oh, I don’t know how to write any of it, either. I’ll have to get there and see. But I’m finding myself obsessed with the vision I have for this story, and the possibilities. Maybe I’ll give it a year and see what happens.

Maybe I’ll be afraid of nothing as though I had wings.

Because I Haven’t Known What to Say

Because the events of the past week — the horrific shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church by a young white racist, and the — maybe — final straw that will bring down the Confederate battle flag, and bring the longed-for change, I am trying to say —

Because when we were children, in the extremely white liberal suburbs of Marin County in the late 1960s, we used to say, “Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe,” called Brazil nuts “nigger toes,” and when someone asked, “Where’d you get that?,” the response was, “Stole it off a dead nigger.”

Because the one African-American girl in Scan0029my elementary was so beautiful, but so different from me, and the time she invited me to sleep over, I felt so strange at being the only white person in the house that I never slept over again.

Because when I was in junior high, we watched “Roots” on TV and saw the story of slavery in America, and then named our black cat Kunta Kinte and my sister’s sheep Kizzy.

Because the most strikingly odd groups at my white high school were the exchange students from Germany and Norway, or the handful of punk rockers dyeing their hair blue or green in 1979.

Because I never talked to the one African-American boy in our class, and to this day I still don’t know his name.

Because my father still says things like “black as the ace of spades.”

Because as a young adult, although I was beginning to meet people of color, of all colors, I still used to say that Richmond (CA) was where all the black people lived and was careful never to go there.

Because I married into a Nicaraguan family, I got to hear skin-toned racism as my then-husband swore at African-Americans and Afro-Hispanics.

Because I learned from them that being “pure Spanish” (white and cultured) was better than being “puro jincho” (a peasant, a country hick).

Because when I was suddenly a single mother in 1986 and went down to the welfare office to see about getting help, and was one of few white women there, in shame, I never returned.

Because when I married again, into a Portuguese family, I found myself sitting in a relative’s trailer home watching the Super Bowl in 1991, when Whitney Houston sang the most beautiful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and listening to a spew of racist slurs from the man of the house. He said he’d rather kill himself than ever hear the song sung by a black person, and I did not speak up. (But I told my then-husband I’d never go back, which was something.)

In between then and now, I grew, I learned, I opened up and am continuing to ruthlessly self-examine my words and my actions as a citizen of the human race. I don’t always succeed.

Because as I now examine my family’s American history, I find slaveholders among them, as well as casual racism in every generation (the vintage Valentine above is from my grandmother’s childhood scrapbook, circa 1910).

Because it took so long for consciousness to dawn, and for me to understand and own my own racism, I offer this apology to my African-American brothers and sisters for not speaking up before, and my pledge to be an ally going forward.

As we all are, I am a work in progress. May my movement be forward, never backward. It’s not about guilt. It’s about being accountable and owning our history.

May I be as brave, some day, as Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole in Charleston and pulled down the Confederate flag, in seeking to change the world.

Fishing for stories

fishing 1
Willie Doris Upshaw Bailey, fishing — with a veiled hat and white gloves.

I spent Saturday digging through old newspapers to see what frolics my great-grandmother was up to as president of the Daughters of the Confederacy in Portland, Oregon, 100 years ago. Let’s just say there plenty of genteel hijinks that involved white women doing the Virginia Reel, reading nostalgic poetry in “slave dialect” and guest speakers telling “many clever darky stories.”

Can you tell I died a little bit inside when I read that?

I did a lot of family research while working on the two volumes of the Doris Diaries (I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do and Reaching for the Moon, from the 1920s). In those hours of internet and library research, some at home and some in other states, other cities, I went looking for Doris and her father for the books, and often found her mother instead. Willie Doris Bailey, nee Upshaw, was my great-grandmother, and she was a Southern lady. She left the south when she married my great-grandfather in about 1901 and they moved to Boston so he could study architecture. When he finished, they moved to Portland, Oregon, where they remained almost the rest of their lives (except for a brief stint in Phoenix in the early Depression years).

fishing 2
…and she caught one, too. #whitegloves #pinkiesup

And in all that time, she never lost her accent, Doris recalled. I keep reading about Willie Doris, whom I remember as a very old lady (she lived to be 99, dying in the late 1970s). And in everything I read about her – well, I’m not sure I would have liked her. She was a fervent admirer of Robert E. Lee and claimed that they were distant cousins (I have traced our names through the Sewell line and there is cousinhood there, but still quite tangled).

She was a leader in the Daughters of the Confederacy, holding teas and exhibitions to celebrate Shiloh Day and Jefferson Davis’s birthday, in Portland, decades after the war ended. She was even a DOC delegate to the veterans’ reunion in Atlanta in 1919, one of the last, since few veterans remained. She did not shrink from her heritage, not at all. She owned it like her family had owned slaves.

I follow her activities in hundred-year-old news tidbits and I shake my head in dismay. Your side lost, lady, I want to tell her. Let it go! Slavery was not a sustainable model. It was bad for everyone – and the aftereffects are still damaging today. I sit here, a California progressive, a Green Party member, looking back at my slaveholding ancestors and I have no words for the apologists. What is there to say but it’s over – and yet, just this week I have been signing petitions to tell South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag that waves over the dead bodies of nine people who were praying in a church when they were gunned down.

It remains to be seen what I will find in my quest for answers. I’m not even sure what I’m seeking. But I sense, as a West Coast native with nothing but love for my multicultural, gender-fluid, tree-hugging, pot-smoking neighbors, that I will have a pretty rude awakening ahead of me. The reckoning between what was then and what is now remains to be seen. Come along with me, won’t you, as I figure it out?