A Lie of Stupendous Omissions
In 1961, the summer before my grandfather died, my father got the idea to bale kudzu. He was a city boy who grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, and had little experience with hay balers, but he knew a plentiful and cheap resource when he saw it. I think he had some idea that kudzu could be baled and sold as winter fodder for livestock. Paw Paw, my grandfather, had grown up on a farm, and it might have occurred to him that if anybody could make money selling kudzu, they would have already gotten rich doing it, but he was evidently game to try.
So one Saturday morning they dragged the hay baler out and set it up in the dirt road that led past the barn to the tenant’s shack. I would have been about five. I have a fragmentary memory of standing by with my mother, my sister, and my grandmother while the men sweated, hooking the baler motor up to the generator and threading the baling twine. In my memory, my grandmother is in her usual Saturday attire: her hair pinned up in pink foam curlers and covered with a hair net for church the next day. She wears a faded housedress, an apron, and an expression of disapproval. I bet she knew they were about to wreck the hay baler; I bet she knew it was useless to say so.
The generator came on, the baler started to vibrate, and my dad dumped a load of kudzu into the hopper. For a few moments, the leaves fed into the machine the way they were supposed to. Then we heard a metallic groan as the sinewy vines wrapped themselves around the baler’s inner parts and tied themselves in knots. Kudzu one, hay baler zero.
My past is like kudzu: it defeats all efforts to package neatly. I grew up in the cloistered world of a Fundamentalist white girl in the Deep South of the 1960s, and I cannot stop trying to make sense of how I got from there to here—from the hermetically sealed bubble of Jim Crow to the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter.
Why do I keep trying? Partly it is just growing older, the way we all try to make sense of our lives. Partly it is because most of my past has been literally erased. I lived on the side of Atlanta that the money left behind on its way north. Almost every residential area or open land I knew growing up has morphed into an ugly industrial site, a strip mall, a slum, a parking lot, a waste dump—all of it mute testimony to rampant consumerism and the degradation of our planet. My childhood home is gone. Of the grove of towering oak trees that sheltered my house, exactly one survives; the rest have been replaced by asphalt. My elementary school is an abandoned ruin; in what used to be piney woods near my old high school sits Creflo Dollar’s temple to the prosperity gospel, with overflow parking and shuttle bus service available for the suckers who arrive late. The rural world I knew is now ugly, polluted, and strewn with trash—or cultivated by monster machines operated by tiny humans who work for Big Ag, planting seeds they do not own to grow genetically modified crops.
Mostly, though, it is because the world I knew was defined by a version of history that turned out to be a lie of stupendous omissions. Historian Arnold Toynbee recalls watching Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and thinking that he was a citizen of a country that ruled the world and would forever, and that history was something unpleasant that happened to other people. But he added, “Of course, if I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.” History happened to my people, in my part of the world: that much I knew. But though the details were true, the story was false. My ritual indoctrination into the Lost Cause version of history came in 1964, when my mother took me and my sister to the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Gone with the Wind at the old Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street. The grandeur of that old theater, the swelling music behind the credits, the reverence with which everyone around me treated the movie—it all made clear that the red dirt I cleaned out from between my toes at night was ground where Important Things had happened.
But what were those Important Things? The bedroom window of my childhood home looked out on a stretch of the Atlanta and West Point Railroad where, one August day in 1864, General William T. Sherman’s troops methodically tore up the rails, made bonfires from the crossties, and then bent the rails over the flames to make “Sherman’s neckties.” On one April day in 1899, special chartered trains ran the same stretch of track, taking revelers from Atlanta to Newnan to watch the spectacle of a Black man being tortured—both ears and each of his fingers cut off—castrated, and then burned alive. The first event I learned from my grandmother, whose own mother had witnessed it as a child; later I found a detailed description in Sherman’s own memoirs. The second event nobody ever mentioned, even though it was international news at the time. There is no historical marker to commemorate the lynching of Sam Hose, even though it was an event that radicalized W. E. B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, and impelled him to cofound one of the premier civil rights organizations of the twentieth century, the NAACP. I knew nothing about it until about ten years ago, when I read an account of it in Philip Dray’s 2002 book, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.
In the South of my childhood, history commingled with the present, and the present was a symphony of cognitive dissonance. Jesus loved the little children, red and yellow, Black and white—except there were no children of color at our church. The South had deserved to win the war, but it was good for business that we had lost. Slavery had been bad, though not as bad as everybody made out, but anyway it was over and nobody in our family had ever owned slaves. White and Black people in the South understood each other, which was how we knew that nice Black people really preferred not to eat with us at the lunch counter at Rich’s. My father got his hair cut every week at a Black-owned barbershop at Five Points, where the floors were marble and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and white-coated attendants stepped forward to take his coat and (if my sister and I were with him) hide the girly magazines. But that Black-owned business would not cut Black hair. And then one day my dad changed barbershops; he was unwilling to deal with the civil rights protestors outside the one at Five Points. What was that about?
Trying to make sense of it all was exhausting. After a while, a person’s mind would groan to a halt, just like the hay baler.