Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Who Goes There?

Oh Alabama.
Can I see you and shake your hand -- Neil Young


On Sundays we would have eggs, bacon, grits, and biscuits with redeye gravy at the Waysider, then we'd head off on the country roads of Alabama. Often we'd have no plan at all but to wend through the rolling hills of baked red clay and thick kudzu vines, pulling into small towns with fabulous names (Smut Eye, Mulga, Moundville, Tishabee) and less-than-fabulous panoramas. In places, strip mining cleaved ugly wounds in the ground. Just a mile outside most any small town there were shotgun shacks, piled atop brick foundations above ground that flooded when the rivers and creeks rose in the winter, homes with dirt floors and Black children sitting in cutoff shorts, barefoot on the stoops in the morning sun in a glade of willows. It was the landscape of Faulkner's a Yoknapatawpha County, where heat and poverty were a synecdoche for a great theme of endless strife.

It was uncanny reading fiction and history of the South while living in the heart of Dixie. One fraternity on campus insisted on flying its Rebel Stars and Bars out the window despite university policy. When a Black sorority applied to move from the ghetto of off-campus Black greeks to a vacant white portico mansion on frat row, a small cross was set afire on their lawn. The college president, an Alabamian educated at Harvard, called it a "college prank".

It was 1984, but at times felt like 1894 to me. In the blistering sun and humid weight of an autumn afternoon, we passed a road crew near campus where shirtless Black utility workers labored in a ditch while their white foreman sipped from the thermos in the cab of his truck. Once I held the door open for an elderly Black man at the telephone company office and he lowered his eyes and said, "Thank ya, thank ya." In the stores, the clerks would say, "My, you'll not from around here are you?" Even if you only bought a stick of gum, they'd offer, "Come back, now!"

We had come from a California beach town and couldn't piece all the parts together in a coherent way when we were turned down for apartments for not being married. I refused to wear the Duck Head slacks and tasseled loafers the Alabama men wore on campus or at the office, pushing my differences in their face as some kind of political statement. When I won a teaching award, I put on some of my sweetheart's make-up, donned a single, jangly earring, and went to the President's Mansion. It wasn't working for me.

And yet, and yet, there was an unmistakable energy beneath the tangle of history and culture that pierced your heart. The full moon a-sail in a sky of puffy clouds, the dense air fragrant of honeysuckle and four o'clocks and magnolias. It could stop you like a bullet. But so could the supper house near the racetrack in Green County where heavyset Black women in white aprons and Aunt Jemima scarves brought you plates of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and okra and canning jars filled with sweetened tea.

So we took our weekend drives with delight and dread across country that looked like a runny watercolor painting, shimmering in three-digit heat through the windows of our air conditioned car. One Sunday we headed west out of Tuscaloosa on Route 82, switching to a smaller road in Gordo, wending along fields and ponds toward the Mississippi line.

The road ran into the intersection with Road 17 at Carrollton, a town with less than a thousand residents, with all roads linking to the town square. We had a habit of stopping at historical plaques and we found one at the base of the Pickens County Courthouse, the centerpiece of an otherwise unremarkable town. Most of the plaques we found celebrated the founding of a mill or mine, a scene of a Civil War battle, or discovery that led to cotton-trade efficiency.

But in Carrollton, the plaque celebrated the portrait of a lynched Black man, etched by lightening (so legend has it) into the upstairs window of the courthouse. A sign with an arrow was mounted on the side of weathered brick wall, pointing at the window where, with binoculars, you could make out a dark face in the windowpane.

Carrollton held little distinction during the Civil War, save for its elegant courthouse, the epicenter of commerce and law for a modest land of farmers and slaves. But the Union Army found the best possible means of humiliating residents when it torched the courthouse to the ground in November of 1876. Two years later, residents charged a local Black man, Henry Wells, of trying to burn down the new courthouse. Someone certainly had set fire to it.

Wells, who had a criminal record, was being charged--depending on folklore and conflicting newspaper accounts--of arson, burglary, and carrying a concealed straight-razor. An angry, drunken crowd assembled at the same intersection where we stood looking up in the heat, bent on a lynching. Wells, according to reports in The West Alabamian looked down in horror from his garret window, proclaiming that if he were hanged, his face would scowl down upon Carrollton for eternity.

Suddenly, accounts say, lightning struck the side of the building, etching his anguished silhouette into the glass. Shortly afterward, the crowd had its way. It was the evening of September 26, 1877.

The story remains uncontested on the plaque, and I admit to seeing something in the glass window, a shadow, something. Meanwhile, folklore insists that the image won't be washed away. That new glass in the pane assumes the image shortly after it's installed. A curiosity.

Even more curious is The West Alabamian report that windows had not been installed in the newly constructed Pickens County Courthouse until February 20, 1878, five months after the lynching. Like most of what we found, the parts never quite added up in a way would could digest them comfortably. And afterward, when I lived in the Midwest and discovered more virulent racism and antisemitism than I had expected in the South, I began to notice that pictures never quite added up anywhere. Three minutes off the country road where I live in California, you'll find pickup trucks with Rebel flags. On warm evenings, you can hear gunfire down the ravine.

On that summer day in 1984, we walked around the courthouse, bought cool cans of soda pop from a liquor store -- "You cain't buy beer on Sundays out of deference to Our Lord," the clerk told me-- and we climbed back into the air-conditioned sedan. We didn't speak much on the way home. We had seen something.

4 comments:

Char said...

I'm glad you turned it around a bit - though the heritage of hatred sometimes rears it's head, even now....not all of us are that way.

Yoli said...

Gaby you speak of a foreign land to me.

Mark R. said...

Oh Gabby, While reading, I felt as if I stood beside you looking up at that window, amazed at what people could and would do. Thanks for taking me along on your journey.

A Cuban In London said...

Oh, man, how I loved this one. The offbeat amongst the locals. I can very well identify with the narrative.

Greetings from London.