This piece originally appeared in the first Full Stop Quarterly. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.
I thought of how we all contain multitudes while I drove to Virginia, alone. Interstate 95 cuts through my family’s ancestral Richmond neighborhood, the black section of town known as Jackson Ward. Our family, free- and slaveborn, black, brown, and beige, moved there right following the Civil War. 1872 Freedmen’s Bank Bureau records place my granny’s grandfather there, an illiterate Union vet named Benjamin Franklin. Grandpa Ben Franklin walked, I said walked, from serving Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, in Texas clear home to Virginia, victorious. He built a brick home in Richmond, a house verily still standing. I considered Toni Morrison, an author whom I had long ago read: “If you go there — you who never was there — if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.”
In those way back times, Grandpa Ben Franklin fathered six children with the slaveborn daughter of a Confederate officer during radical Reconstruction. Behind the two eldest, Ben Franklin Jr. and Orpheus, came Morris. The elders tell me Morris, pushed by a mob of white boys, drowned in the James in 1888. He was eleven.
In Without Sanctuary, historian Leon Litwack determines that between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. How do we memorialize them? Bryan Stevenson writes, “Most southern terror lynching victims were killed on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized. The Southern landscape is cluttered with plaques, statues and monuments that record, celebrate and lionize generations of American defenders of white supremacy, including public officials and private citizens who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens during the era of racial terror.”
On the front porch of 100 W. Leigh St., that home my illiterate granddad Ben Franklin built — home of Orpheus and Morris, Ben Jr., Alice and Clara, Granny and Mim — thoughts flooded my mind. I been there before, as Huck Finn said. These living ghosts inform my waking hours, accompanying me throughout the years just as certain poses are transferred from canvas to canvas, or sculpture to sculpture, as artists quote master predecessors.
Down Leigh St., at my family’s old church, Ebenezer Baptist, congregants told me, You a man ahead of time. Calling me by my Richmond name — Kersey — they asked me if I wanted to move back South. Deacon’ll put you up while you’re looking for a place to stay. While I was there, Yvonne, a woman of Native American heritage stopped me, placing both hands on my shoulders, a gesture which previously had only been used by my sports coaches when my head was bowed, and looked deeply into my eyes. She said, I know my own. I protested, politely, as best I could. Was she laying claims on me? I’m not Native American, I said. My family is black, we’re from here. From way back.
My great-aunt Mim and my Granny, aged seventeen and seven respectively, took a bus bound north for New York in 1936. They had homemade sandwiches for the ride. Mim had to console Granny about losing her friends from Booker T. Washington School. They’d write, Mimi assured her youngest sister. Focus not on the loss, but the gain. The new schools we’ll attend. A new home. A new life. How to explain to a seven year old the true reasons why they had to leave the South? A pair of sisters traveling northward by bus, warmth of other suns hurtling them forward.
The only close family left in Richmond is in Evergreen Cemetery. Their gravestones are lost from the neglect of years. I’ve never been able to find Morris, and I never expect to. The inescapable hard currency of being despised and dead in the South. In brambles and scrub grass strewn with trash, eroding sunken graves fell victim to the sprawl of forest. A brown-skinned man drove in and around the one-way cemetery grass paths. He was smoking a cigarette and the woman beside him chewed gum. They never got out the car. In that swamp of a cemetery they were either fucking or drugging or both, maybe just yards from a burial plot that could have been their family. Yards away from my family.
Why did I come here, why this inquiry? I knew what was here, didn’t I? I knew and I wanted it, that second sight stories of tribulation bestow. I sought the pride and the pain, a channeling of empathy as the narrative resonated within my mind. But for a brief moment in the cemetery, I wished it wasn’t my inheritance. That this wasn’t my story. I knew why so many didn’t like talking about it all. Why they spared me of it for so long.
But on Monument Avenue, just a couple of miles from that burial ground, statues commemorating the Lost Cause of General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis stand anchored by the heft of a bygone empire. 100,000 turned out for the unveiling of Lee’s equestrian statue in 1890. But soon thereafter, ever more legions of Americans would no longer have to rely on monuments or Matthew Brady daguerreotypes to recall the past. All they needed was a ticket to the movies.
323 films about the Civil War were made between 1908 and 1914. In 1915, Americans were introduced to The Birth of a Nation, the most lucrative of all Civil War films, which dramatized the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and served as propaganda for that costumed organization. It was the first movie screened inside the White House, in 1915 during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Based on The Clansman, a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. (a classmate of Wilson’s at Johns Hopkins), The Birth of a Nation was a revelation in the history of cinematography. Dixon, bragging like a court sculptor peddling his wares to the emperor, would later write, “What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art — the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.” At three hours long in an epoch of twenty minute films, Birth is a monument to the Lost Cause, the defeat of the Confederacy. Adjusted for inflation, a strong case can be made for it as the most successful film of all time.
Set in the South during the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the film purports to tell the “true” story of how white Americans were oppressed by a Republican government, a government which empowered African Americans to seize their newfound roles as American citizens. Voting, though, doesn’t interest blacks nearly as much as does their insatiety for damsels of the Scarlett O’Hara variety (the actresses were themselves filmed under the brightest lights possible to accentuate their lily-whiteness). And so the glorious, berobed Klan is born to protect Little Sister from the foaming negroes intent on rapine and, thus, miscegenation.
Having seen it in the company of his daughters, President Wilson, a native Virginian and the first president from the South since before the Civil War, is said to have remarked, “It is like like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is so terribly true.”
The past had never been so present.
Historians commonly denote 1915, the year The Birth of a Nation was released, with the beginning of the Great Migration. What did a migrant know about the North? Did she dream of factories and storehouses along the rivers housing cotton, sugar, tobacco, the very raw material her ancestors (or she herself) cultivated in the South? Wealthy northern merchants didn’t operate in some parallel universe to southern planters; the two mutually reinforced one another.
Just last year, when artist Kara Walker had the chance to create her first public sculpture, she built a statue in situ in a derelict Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, at once the locus of the abolitionist movement and a node for the international sugar trade. And so Walker crafted an impermanent statue, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, out of 40 thousand tons of refined sugar. Sugar Baby, with the features of a black woman in a headscarf, is scaled to the same epic proportions of some of the larger Lost Cause memorials near where Walker grew up in Atlanta’s Stone Mountain Park neighborhood. There is, as Walker says, “this large carving of the Confederate generals on the side [of Stone Mountain], a kind of a Mount Rushmore style carving, and part of that land was owned by the Ku Klux Klan up until fairly recently . . .”
We’re all Sugar Baby: Ancient Roman sculptors depicted the orphaned twins Romulus and Remus mothered by the she-wolf, and I’m not convinced that this sculpture — nude Sugar Baby and what all she’s signifying entails — isn’t so different.
You’re romanticizing it, Granny says to me. Her glasses are at the very end of her nose. It’s nearly bedtime and her trusty television would deafen her if age hadn’t accomplished it. The tape recorder catches our conversation, and the local nightly news. Being twenty four, you don’t know the pain of this world. You can never experience it. If you walked around with a sign that said “I’m black,” you still could never experience it.
I want to know you.
Child, I am you. You know me.
I want to know where we came from!
But I am here! And you’re about white now.
I am my grandmother’s child — she likes to tell me she doesn’t always speak in truths — so if I told you I never intended to write about our Richmond family you’d be excused for not believing me. But it was a loss that made me write.
In the days before Christmas, Aunt Mim, aged 95, and living in Sonoma, California, stopped taking Granny’s phone calls.
Maybe you should try and reach her, Granny said. She’d answer for you. I didn’t want to call my great-aunt, feeling as if I’d interrupt what seemed to me a most deliberately hatched plan — Mim’s preparation for her retreat to the next world.
I tucked Granny into bed Christmas night, the night we learned of Mim’s death. Holding my hand in hers, the knuckles of our fingers pressed to her lips, she begins to sob. “I’m so lonely,” she says. “I feel invisible. Mimi is the only person to know me from my birth. To know me all my life.”
79 years after leaving the South, Granny, her two children and I traveled westward by plane to California for my great-aunt’s memorial service.
Mim had long ago specified that upon her death there was to be a celebration at her home in Sonoma. All of us, my Mom and her cousins and Granny and I, all of us descendants of slaves and slaveowners, were all traveling to celebrate the life of a nearly century old negro woman, a woman who, in the last years of her life would, in addition to seeing Barack Obama become president, witness the childhoods of her twin great-grandkids whose racial backgrounds are African American, European American, and Chinese. Sure, Mim was a little behind the times (she called them Orientals, benignly), but she loved them. On the very day Mim died, a century after The Birth of a Nation — the first film shown in the White House — Selma premiered nationwide. Barack and Michelle Obama hosted a screening party at their home for the cast and producers.
Much had changed over the course of Aunt Mim’s life. How could she express what it was like to live through the irreality of Jim Crow?
You know, honey, that’s just what it was in those times. I remember I was an early teenager. They had summer jobs for teenagers. I had applied under the WPA or whatever and I had the job and then I had to go in for an interview. Well, by the time I had gotten into this office, word had spread that here was this black girl who looked white. I had come to see this woman in charge of hiring. I went in and I could see these two little stenographers looking and snickering and I went into this office and a woman named Beatrice Rudes sat me down and talked with me and she said, “Let me tell you something. You’re not black. Get away from here. Go to South America. Go to New York. Go somewhere. But don’t hang around here.” And she said, “If you ever tell anyone I ever told you, I’m going to tell them it’s a lie.” There were people as we went north — it was kind of like the underground railroad — to help you along. Those that shared your philosophy, they’d help you out . . . We were stuck in a dead end. We weren’t going anywhere.
I learned the art of listening from her, following the contours of a story both mine and not. For centuries, black Americans in particular have relied on rich oral traditions — the word — to discover who we are. Leather bound books were written and statues and films were made honoring our slaveholding founding fathers while subversive tales for entertainment and survival (often simultaneously) were being shared amongst marginalized communities. The storyteller bestows power to anyone possessing the ability to listen. It would have been the only way to reach illiterate grandad Ben Franklin, or Ralph Ellison’s great-aunt, then nearing 100 years old when he met her. She told Ellison graphic stories of her and other relatives’ enslavement. Back when — in the time of Jim Crow — it could be unseemly for forward-looking black Americans to discuss their slave ancestors. Much better to discuss the antebellum freeborn relative, an exception, and a point of enormous pride for a black family. But for Ellison, his interactions with his aunt, occurring when he was in his mid-twenties, were inestimably important. Ellison turned from sculpture to writing right around this time. Ellison became disillusioned with the medium though he was the very first student of Richmond Barthes, one of America’s most illustrious sculptors. Instead, Ellison sought a vessel which would more speedily reflect his vision for America.
Later edited out of Invisible Man are stories his great-aunt told Ellison about his grandfather. That grandad (illiterate, no doubt) is reincarnated as Polk Millsaps, a trickster who, though a slave, is trusted by his master to guard the family fortune during the Civil War. Instructed to bring the treasure north, Millsaps, ever a good slave, takes his master for his word and brings the loot north all the way to freedom in Canada.
Deplaning in California, where Aunt Mim found freedom enough to live out her life, I guided Granny to the automated walkway to lessen the effort for her. We glided past the travelers, in all their dusky hues, staring at screens in airport bars. Advertisements for a Burberry store featured two dark-skinned women, a far cry from ginger-colored Granny and near white Mimi, but the models looked like sisters and the two pairs of siblings conflated in my mind.
Coincidentally, we met our extended family at a rental car kiosk. Gathered in a loose circle with our baggage, all the cousins bemoaned having hardly ever gotten together for anything less significant than a funeral in the days since they considered Shirley Temples an individual food group. We headed out together for Sonoma in a minivan.
My uncle, unable to honor an agreement that all passengers except the driver and navigator keep their voices down, asked Granny, “Mim’s cremated right? You wanna be cremated?”
“Well, yes. Your father didn’t leave much room for me in the grave plot.”
“Don’t you worry, Granny. We’ll do right by you for your service.”
“Plenty of bubbly?” she enthuses.
“We’re having your memorial service at KFC. We’ll screenprint your face on the bucket,” my uncle improvs. “Be good and it’ll be one of the big buckets, not one of those little boxes for the sides.”
“Oh, I want fried Granny leg!” Mom says, placing an order.
We spent a better part of the weekend laughing in Sonoma, remembering Mim during her memorial service and toasting her with champagne at every opportunity. A few dozen of her friends — friends from church, from yoga, friends she met from her many evenings spent simply sitting on a park bench — paid their respects at the quiet service. A former boyfriend (or two) of Mim’s visited. Her caretaker brought her ten-year old daughter along. In a lovely gesture, they stayed with our family until the very end. At some point a cousin whispered to me that the doctor who wrote out Mim’s death certificate listed her race as white. We couldn’t stop laughing. Every time I thought we had stopped, one of us alternated in picking up the giggling cadence.
It could be that last word of hers, getting one over on everybody yet again. Such slickery — even in death you can’t define me. But in the fading afternoon light, I thought of something Ellison wrote once: “that vanished tribe to which I was born — the American Negro.”
Vanished, he said, not vanishing — already lost and gone. In the days and weeks after the memorial I thought of those words of Ellison’s — how not only was it the tribe that had vanished, but the places, too. I am one of the fortunate ones — my ancestral Reconstruction home still stands. As does each one of the apartments my family moved to when they came north — 139 W. 138th St, 2106 Matthews Ave, 21 St. James Place. But elsewhere, in Richmond, my family’s graves are gone, and developers seek to build a minor league baseball stadium atop Shockoe Bottom, a slave market and burial ground.
I’m reminded of a character in Teju Cole’s Open City, a Native American treated for depression due to her long, thoughtful considerations of genocide inflicted on indigenous tribes by white settlers. “There are almost no Native Americans in New York City, and very few in all of the Northeast,” she tells her psychiatrist. “It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today; at least, it’s still with me.”
Cole’s character, like Yvonne in Richmond who, with that unfamiliar gesture claimed me as her own, is also part of a vanished tribe. I’d not truly considered that until I found out Ellison was a “wee bit Creek”. But Cole’s Open City burrows very much like this into this past, into what’s no longer “there.”
Our national past surrounds us. Refashioning our mythic heroes to fit the present moment is a Hollywood pastime. We hardly ever let an awards season pass without resurrecting one of our beloved dead — Lincoln, MLK, and LBJ, etc. Our films have become our national monuments, mighty engines for moulding public opinion. By the time I went to view Selma with a college friend — so many had told me I should see it, that the film would transform me, that it operated as some kind of national prayer — that I didn’t know if I reacted more to the film or to friends’ expectations. But in the theater my college friend and I stole looks at one another, we were both crying. Later I’d find out that Edmund Pettus Bridge, where so many were beaten and bludgeoned by the horsemen of the Alabama State Police, is named after a Confederate General, a Grand Dragon in the KKK. A monument within a monument. Obama visited in early March and declared Selma not even past. “Selma is now,” he said. And as we walked out of the theater, to train home at Union Square, the sculpture of George Washington caught my eye, as if this cross-platformed America wished to flaunt all her metamorphoses.
We descended below ground, comparing notes of what we had seen until we reached the overwarm subway carriage, its insulating smell of heavy coats and soup, where we grew quiet. I thought of the year I’d had. Sugar Baby had been dismantled, and the Domino Refinery, a metonym of New York’s ignominious ties to slavery and unpaid labor, had come down. Mim is gone, and Granny, who sounds of Virginia, is aging. What remains? For how long? But it’s the story that’s fiercely alive — Grandpa Ben Franklin walking home victorious from Texas whistling a battle hymn in his Union uniform, Barack, Michelle, and Oprah sharing a bag of popcorn watching Selma, Mim dying “white,” her sister memorialized on a bucket of fried chicken and illiterate Polk Millsaps plantocracy-rich in Canada and free, free at last. It’s alive and well, unvanished, and if not thriving, surviving. We know who we are by the way we story.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport is a middle school teacher, and a writer, in Brooklyn.
Art by Madeline Gobbo.