3 march 2016
montgomery, alabama at the capitol inn
for scott peacock
I was tempted to say that I saw another side of America this week. I was lured by the indulgence of refraction, of division, of quilting: of segregation. When we draw boundaries—in chalk on in blood or in words—around ourselves, our communities, and our values there is less to fear. In the same way that we eat with fork and knife, we’ve been conditioned to build walls and we’ve been shampooed to maintain them into adulthood. If you notice, deeply, a child has not only innocence intact, but equality intact. The sandbox is not a place of discrimination, ever. I’ve never seen a child, without the influence of an adult, imprecate race or ‘otherness’ against another. It is a social, learned, and artificial behavior to castigate, ostracize, and shun. It is, in other words, only what grown ups do. And that is revealed in the burden of time.
I spent the week visiting a 5000 acre organic farm in the Black Belt of Alabama. It was an experience pregnant with Southern stereotypes: gothic, romantic, poverty, division, history. I walked through Flannery O’Connor’s garden with plenty of metaphorical peacocks, saw the candles burning in daylight. As I spent the time in these places—Marion, Selma, Montgomery, Greensboro, Demopolis—I was reminded that I was in one of the Union’s poorest states, in their poorest counties. The Black Belt; a pejorative, but so named because of the area’s rich, black, alluvial soil. Left when this area used to be a coast. It is also, besides rich in folk craft and pride in culture, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party and the crowning jewel, if there could be precious stones, of the Civil Rights Movement. This Deep South is a cradle of liberation, a grave of oppression, and the womb of love’s glory.
…The proof of gravity’s existence is our fear of it: of falling, of letting go. The more we relinquish, skirt, swerve away from the fundamental embrace of love, the more inconclusive our identities will grow. The success of the Civil Rights Movement was the willingness to let go. Unrequited faith. Vulnerability: these women and men put themselves into a fire because they knew their love, their presence was water. The had to be twice as strong, twice as patient, twice as disciplined, twice as peaceful, and twice compassionate in order to dislodge the system. And relinquishing strength, trust me, does not betray weakness. Flames will rage until the Kingdom Comes, but water like love will never be dry. Water will always triumph, always smother flame. The catharsis of smoke, its hiss…
And so I found myself, on Super Tuesday, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Sitting in the pews of Brown Chapel AME, passing through derelict downtowns. The low-calorie narrative of our nation is one that scolds the clichéd South: poor, illiterate, boarded up, and aggressive. The deluge of suppositions is dizzying; the underbelly of America, the spleen—the Delta is, geographically and metaphorically, the end of original America. It’s where the continent culminates, in its glory and shame, in its flesh and through its blood. The South is the catechism of America, it’s where we believe or betray the value of transubstantiation. Both today and yesterday.
As I drove through and walked through I stumbled emotionally in the belief that I was on the other side. How long we had come but how short had we fallen? The poverty and bereft downtowns were a different coin, a different side of an American currency. Were they? It was not until I spoke to people—out loud or to myself—that I realized how fundamentally wrong I was. I had left the sandbox with a notion of other, but that’s not how I had arrived. Because there is no other side of America; there is no region, no better, no worse, no richer, no poorer—it was that precise contradiction that founded this nation, and the same concept that created the Civil Rights Movement. And we have seen it patterned in so many other struggles: Gay Liberation, Women’s Liberation, Latinos, and Environmental: it is the same needle with different thread, wending its way through the veins of America, quilting the lungs and giving us all the warmth of breath. The danger, like the entertainment though, is the story. It was the narrative, and its control, which people struggled for in Selma. In Birmingham. In Little Rock. In Belfast and Johannesburg. In Palestine and Warsaw. Some used pistols, some used bully clubs, some used the crucifix, smiles, bullhorns, stones, pamphlets, prayer. Whatever the props of this eucharist, the theatre was control of the stage. Our narrative is our identity—how you feel about yourself, what you feel about yourself, what you share about yourself—is your story. Imagine if someone redacted your story, or censored it, or discriminated against you your choice of words, of grammar. Oppression of others is self-hatred. At the confluence of power and influence is control; we will forever vacillate between those poles, but we will never relinquish the control that liberty and freedom have lent us. When our mind grabs the chalk that keeps our bodies separate with faint lines, it becomes easier to distinguish invisible differences between us. But the only division amongst us is our bodies and the way we tell our story through them. Each of our stories is driven by the same content, the same love, the same desire, and the same architecture. We are human beings before we are anyone else. We are love in that sandbox first, we are innocence, we are vulnerability draped in soft flesh.
Selma comes from a word meaning “high seat.” And indeed it is a high seat of courage. It was the throne upon which thousands of people refused to sit; they refused the comfort of power in favor of the need for control. They culminated a collective journey in the high seat by their demands to share the story, not own the narrative. They regarded the oppressors as people full of fear, and they established from day one to defeat injustice, not those people who supported it. They used different posture, but never changed their position. They realized that, until the nature of language and its power came to be understood, no one could be free—the monuments may come down, but the oppression will stay up. Nothing which is separate will ever be equal. So long as it is admissible for us to have our partial ownership over another’s story, there will never be cleansing justice. What’s mine is ours, and until the courageous step up to surrender their control over someone else’s story, conflict will remain like a sleeping dragon. The issue is, precisely, the belief that your history, or anyone else’s, is different than mine. We all begin and end the same way: it is how we put flesh to that bone which distinguishes us. But do not think that our history is ever different than yours; trying to prove that you’re right only proves how wrong you can be.
And a million miles away is a beautiful farm. A thirty-minute drive from Selma, with some of the world’s richest soil, in its most poor area. Why are the contradictions of the South so superlative, so continental? But I understood then, immediately, that the best way to restore justice and foster equality is to remediate the land. Respect for ourselves derives from respect for nature, first and last. If we do not respect the system of life, we will have no moral ecology. Nature is a church and its rhythm a prayer. The democracy of food, that most basic human right, is the stewardship of our humanity. If we do not regain control of our food’s narrative—its quality, origin, price, preparation—we will become victims instead of protagonists. If we do not make affordable access to fresh, healthy, organic food the premise of our new system—if it remains distant, contrived, boutique—we will duplicate the systems of oppression we seek to usurp. Food is not a self-indulgent mirror to watch ourselves in pleasure: it is the organizing structure of our lives. It is the plasma in the blood of our community. The viscous gel, the binder, the gluten. We can no longer ignore the fact that Native Americans, Meso-Americans, and African Americans did more for and with American agriculture than all the Eli Whitneys combined. Especially the women. It is curious, shameful, but not surprising that those groups today are the most nutritionally disenfranchised among us. The communities that saved the seed, who nurtured the system, and gestated the system are today starving. Those who engendered Eden are now excluded—financially, culturally—from its aisles. Organic cannot be a price tag, but must be an invitation.
As we finished our tour of the farm on Monday, the elder agronomist leaned over to me in three-quarter time. If he had been 30 years younger, and not arthritic, it would’ve taken a simple twist of torso to reach my eyes. Instead, the lugubrious body moved like dry glue, and by the time he faced me we had passed what he had wanted to announce. His eyes were wet, and churning like glass before cooling—a strange pivot between clarity and potential. ‘That,’ he pointed in the distance, ‘was a patch of hemlock.’ He held up his fist and stretched out his thumb towards the sky. ‘A bite the size of my nail will kill a cow in 30 minutes.’ Provocative wisdom.