For years, I’ve recommend acupuncture to friends because I believe it helps many things that can befall us. Because everyone has talked about “needles,” however, I’ve never used this ancient Chinese healing method. I am coping with serious collateral damage resulting from minor surgery that was itself easy and totally successful. My surgeon has said that I am so thin that there was not enough patty tissue to surround and protect several nerves, so I am left being unable to raise my left arm laterally or horizontally. The nerves affected at those controlling one’s rotator cuff. This fall-out rises above being a nuisance because I am seriously left-handed. A friend brought me delicious matsa ball soup the day I came home from the hospital. At dinner time, I heated it and got it into a bowl. When I sat at my kitchen table and tried to eat it with my right hand, the broth kept falling onto the floor. Patches, my dear kitty, thought she’d hit the culinary jack-pot but I determined I needed to plan meals with discrete pieces of solid food that could stick onto a fork that I could eventually maneuver to my mouth. So lots of chicken and fish, broccoli and cauliflower. Breakfast is till a challenge after about ten days of dealing with this complication: I eat shredded wheat/bran with a little skim milk every morning but Sunday. I like my cereal to be as crunchy as possible which means I do not linger of this meal. Now I cannot do otherwise since each spoonful requires mental concentration which delays anything actually being eaten.
But I persist.
The worst part of this challenge comes because it feels like someone is lighting small matches under the skin from my left wrist to my left shoulder. The pain and discomfort is so severe that I am startled at times by how extreme it becomes. At night, I find it almost impossible to find a good position to sleep, so I have become desperate to get relief. So I talked with various people about their acupuncturist, decided which one to choose for myself, and went yesterday for my first session. I told the Chinese doctor of my phobia about needles and she said, brightly, “Oh, let me show you a needle.” Then she opened a packet of several things, one of which she took out. It looked like a piece of hair on a stick, but she confirmed that it is a “needle.” As she put in many of these little objects, beginning right at my left ear and going to my left pointing finger, I was vaguely aware that something was touching my skin. But there was nothing remotely resembling a “needle” by my experiential understanding derived from childhood shots that left me wailing or simple blood draws that still cause me minor panic.
This whole matter clearly exemplifies the old adage about anticipation being worse that the actual experience or event. For me, I have to register that anticipation has been an enemy that has kept me from seeking this alternative treatment at several moments in my life when traditional western medical solutions were not solving what was the matter with me. And I have to ask myself why I didn’t at least go ask an acupuncturist to show me their “needle.”
As we left our motel around nine in the morning, I knew rain was near because the air was familiarly humid and dank and close. Because of that forecast, we’d decided to visit the outdoor Memorial first and the indoor Museum later, but the woman who sold us tickets urged us to reverse our schedule. A group of 400 was to arrive in half an hour–half to go to each exhibit–so she promised us time in the museum with very few other guests, so we stayed at the Museum site. Whereas the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. is encyclopedic in scope, this one has a single focus–everything in it is about the enormous number of lynchings that have taken place in this country–4,000 and counting. What that means is the depth of research is overwhelming in detail. One whole room is made up of long gray strips at the bottom of each is a white panel on which is written the names of victims of this barbaric behavior. The panels also have a short entry detailing why each person was lynched. We could have spent an entire morning just moving from strip to strip, absorbing how absurd these incidents were and taking in just how heinous and inhumane each was. I decided to read just a few since there was no time to concentrate on this room because there were many other rooms I wanted to visit. One of mine listed three names–two women and one man–all of whom were servants in some white person’s home. They were hanged because their employers accused the servants of poisoning them. Of course the white people were fine a few days after their accusation. They probably just ate something that gave them momentary food poisoning, but that caused the legally sanctioned deaths three other human beings.
As my friend and I had spoken about what we might see in this museum, we wondered about photographic evidence since it seemed unlikely that people would take photographs of such horrible examples of white racism. Well, that was naïve. Like the Nazis who photographed life in the concentration camps with great alacrity, white Southerners seemed fascinated with recording for posterity the actual events at which blacks were lynched or burned or shot or all of the above in sequence. While many of these photographs are of angry white men in the act of killing someone, others show crowds of people, often dressed up as if for church or a party. Mothers are there with children and picnic baskets and parasols to protect them from the Southern sun. The lynching has to have been advertised to bring so many to the location outside jails and courthouses as well as in open fields or protected woodland sites. Standing in front of so many pictures made me have to face just how callous these atrocities were. Angry bigoted whites had no need to conduct their torturous deeds in seclusion or under the cloak at night. And newspaper write-ups often told us that a given black person had been dragged from the local jail house, leaving little doubt about the tacit support from so-called law-enforcement officers or sheriffs. These newspaper accounts seem excited, even proud, to tell readers how many people attended and how much satisfaction everyone seemed to glean from watching and participating in what they called “justice.”
One of the most moving rooms in the Museum is the one containing the many jars of soil and other material dug from official lynching sites. These jars occupy an entire wall and, if they were not evidence of such horror, they would be beautiful since soil comes in myriad shadings. Some part of me that was detached from the reality of what is inside them had a few moments of thinking this wall was like some of Louise Nevelson’s or George Morrison’s compositions made of strips of wood in so many similar shadings. That response was quickly replaced by a feeling of being in sacred space, since inside each glass receptacle were remains of some human being’s DNA, lovingly or respectfully or, perhaps even guiltily, salvaged from where a black person or persons lost their lives to satisfy a crazed mob’s hysterical need to assert absolute power over a fellow human being. In order to have a jar included in this display, the locale involved has to demonstrate to the staff of the project that the community is doing something right now to assist some non-white group in their midst, so the wall also reminds viewers that in 2019 we still discriminate against some group we have defined as “other.”
The part of the Museum exhibits that moved us the most, however, was a video in which several people who were filling a jar allowed camera people to film them. I will never forget two such vignettes. One involved an older black heterosexual couple, the other a long black man. The couple were dressed in such a way to suggest that they were solidly middle class. She sat on some grass while he was scooping dirt and grass bits with a trowel. When the jar was filled and the lid screwed on, he said “Let’s say a little prayer.” His words were few and heart-felt before he handed the jar to her. Clearly it was important for each of them to hold the precious material while they prayed. She spoke more personally about the person being honored–clearly she was a distant relative and wanted to verbalize that connection. The other subject was a middle-aged black man recently released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence that turned out to be all wrong. DNA had proven that he was innocent–something he’d been saying all along. His jar had been filled with soil and other natural material gathered from a shoulder of a two-lane road that had no traffic on it during the filming. He held his filled jar close to his chest, rubbed his hand over its lid and said how glad he was to have his relative’s remains in the special jar. He also said “I’m just glad I can take you to someplace where you’ll be respected and honored—and not just leave you on the side of a road somewhere.” Both these filmings make clear just how sacred that space is in the Museum and how powerful is the act of filling each one by whomever has claimed that person as their own.
After about half an hour, just as our museum guide had said, a large group of black women and men began to fill the rooms where my friend and I were slowly making our way through informative and powerful displays. Usually I can quickly feel oppressed in such situations, but not that morning. I noticed that many of the lanyards around the men’s necks had names beginning with “Rev.” indicating that they were ministers of some sort. My friend finally asked one of the women what group they represented, and we found out that all 400 were members of a national faith-based group working to promote justice for current black people and another racial or ethnic minorities. They’d organized a conference to share their efforts, and people from all across this country were in attendance. The conference was being held at a hotel across the street from the Museum and that day focused on the group’s visiting both the facilities built through the heroic efforts of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) based in Montgomery. Rather than feeling oppressed by all those bodies occupying the same relatively small space with me, I felt surrounded by people intent upon translating their belief system into concrete healing action. It felt comforting to move among them as we all were trying to absorb the results of ten years of research by the staff of the EJI and then figure out what to do with what we were facing about the depths to which white supremacists had gone and still can go to insure their position of ascendancy over people of color.
After about two hours inside this storehouse of hard data and deep emotion, my friend and I left for lunch. Then we’d brave the humid afternoon and go to the Memorial for Peace and Justice a mile or so from the downtown Museum. How did I feel as we exited? Ashamed of my fellow white people and deeply grateful to Mr. Stevenson and his staff for helping me face and move past that shame so that I can actively work against current manifestations of that same impulse to eradicate through any means available people somehow deemed to be outside some mythical definition of human being.
What Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have built in Montgomery is unlike any other civil rights project I know of. A good friend and I flew from Minneapolis about a month ago to see both the indoor Museum and the outdoor Memorial to the astounding number of lynchings executed all over this country. Upon my return, I was moved to write a blog much like I did after spending two intense days at the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Each time I’ve sat down to begin that blog, however, I have burst into tears. So I’ve told myself I just need more distance from the actual event. Recently, however, the friend with whom I went to Montgomery helped me figure out another reason I may have been unable to write. As a child growing up in Fairfield, AL, a near suburb of Birmingham, in the 1940s and 50s, I was surrounded by blatant racist speech and behavior. I recall with frightening vividness waking in the night when I was about six to see flames out my bedroom window. When I asked my parents the next morning about what I’d seen, they just said it was a fire in “Colored Town.” Haunted by the angry flames that must be burning down people’s houses, I remember asking my father, who read the Birmingham News every day, to tell me what the paper said about this frightening event. There never was a word written about that fire. When I got to junior high school, I often cut through a black neighborhood adjacent to our house because it was quicker than going in the white part of town, and because there was a little store I ducked into many mornings to get a handful of hard candy from the ever-so-friendly older black man who ran it. I saw white school mates stomp on beautiful flowers growing in the black people’s front yards or throw rocks or sticks onto their porches. I also heard them shout horrible epithets at the adults sitting on those porches in the early morning, talking with friends. In high school, I heard boys snicker often at their lockers about hearing of another “coon” pulled out of a nearby river or about a black body found by their dads who hunted in the woods on a weekend.
Occasionally the newspaper did include photographs of white people dressed in their Sunday best, going to or coming from a hanging of a black person whom the paper said had committed some heinous crime–usually having to do with a white woman and having distinctly sexual overtones though at that time nothing explicit could be printed in the paper. Because each of these articles included serious words about law and order or getting justice for the white victims, and because no counter-narrative was ever offered to me, I silently assimilated the images and explanations. While these atrocious moments seemed somehow “wrong” to me, I had no language with which to speak about them. And I came to intuit that asking my mother or father why those boys did or said such nasty things to “Negroes” ended in mutterings or attempts to distract me so I’d shut up about such things. So the impressions just accumulated over the years. Even as an adult, I didn’t speak about them very often with friends, but seeing the several hundred bronze rectangles hanging in the Memorial building as my friend and I walked toward them brought it all back, I believe. At one point, we drove across what a sign told me was the Coosa River and I felt a coldness that had nothing to do with the thermometer. My father spent many a weekend with his friend Mr. Kelton fishing the Coosa River. Though he seldom brought home any fish for my mother to cook, it now haunts me to consider that he might well have snagged one of the nameless bodies of black youths. After all, those high school boys’ lewd narrative accounts often involved dragging bodies of blacks out of nearby waterways.
James Baldwin once said that not everything that is faced can be healed, but that nothing can be healed until it is faced. It’s entirely understandable that I had no language with which to handle white atrocities against black people as I was growing up. I can no longer, however, retreat into prolonged silence by telling myself I just need time to gain “distance” before writing about what I experienced in Mr. Stevenson’s created spaces. So I will soon write Part 2 about my visit to Montgomery, Alabama, that has forced me to face the fact of thousands of lynchings of innocent black people by white people who acted as we did because we could do so with impunity.
The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) tells us stasis means equilibrium, coming from a Latin word meaning “stopping circulation or movement.” When this word comes into my mind, I picture two people on an old-fashioned see-saw when they are eye-to-eye and the board is perfectly horizontal. I also picture a perfectly still small pond in a quiet wood just before someone tosses a pebble into its midst, making lots of “circulation or movement.” In the Renaissance, scientists and philosophers believed that each planet, newly observable because of the invention of the telescope, gave off its own special sound. They then posited that if the planets were perfectly aligned, those individual sounds merged into perfect harmony, something they called the Music of the Spheres. This paradisal moment was possible only when the universe was in stasis–hence it was rare indeed.
The closest we come today to any understanding of stasis occurs on March and September 20th, when we mark the Vernal and Autumnal Equinox, 24 hour periods in which there is exactly the same amount of light and darkness. We’ve just experienced the 2019 Vernal Equinox, so I let myself sink into how it felt to know of this delicate and short-lived perfect balance: light was on one end of the planetary see saw while darkness was on the other. They looked each other squarely in the eye and some of us marveled at the ontological significance of this momentary secession of one state’s having dominance over the other, even if only for a few seconds.
In the Canadian Native writer Tom King’s wry Pan-Indian novel, Green Grass, Running Water, we encounter three very ancient and very dead Native American elders who keep showing up for brief visits to the land of the living. They make these visits at the two Equinoxes because they believe that on these magically static days, the world has a chance to wipe the old slate full of the white man’s dominance, abuse and trickery clean. In other words, these wise old visitors from the dead hold out hope that those in power will see the error of their ways, start over, and do better. Though all the evidence that accrues on the days and months following the Vernal or Autumnal Equinox show the old men that we whites are not facing our errors and vowing to do better, they promise to return at the next moment when light and darkness experience equilibrium. They keep believing that if we have the courage to stop all the bad wheels and just remain at rest for a few hours, there is hope. I thank their spirits and Tom King as their creator for being so optimistic. And, on March 20th just past, I sat quietly in my sun room with my companion kitty, Patches, and imagined a world in which all sorts of principalities and powers stopped their gyrations and hovered long enough to glimpse a more equitable world.