“Sad to see the old slave mill
Is grinding slow, but grinding still” ~ Damian Marley.
In the summer of 1966 I visited Savannah, Georgia with my parents and brother. My older siblings had exams to finish, so they were spared the torture of sightseeing along the eastern coast of the US in the hottest months of the year. My father’s carefully drafted plan involved travelling by night (on the Greyhound buses) and visiting various cities to see the ‘points of interest’ by day. We flew into Miami, and then days later, out of New York to go to the UK. My brother, a lover of large vehicles, was unable to sleep on the overnight trips, and stayed awake for the six or seven days and nights of the adventure, making friends with the bus drivers.
My impression of that whole trip is one of being miserable and unimpressed by any of the sights and sounds. All I remember was being hot and sweaty and dragged from place to place. No one sold bottled water in those days, we either drank from water coolers or drank the very sweet sodas which did not quench your thirst. What I did not have to worry about was where we could drink water, where we could sit, or whether our presence would offend anyone. We were a white family; our only concern was understanding southern accents and being understood. This was only two years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Laws may change, but habits are hard to break. I imagine if we were a black family traveling through the south at the time, our attitude and experience may have been quite different.
On my recent trip to Savannah, I had a much more pleasant time. Of course, the temperature dipping into the 50’s, and sleeping in a bed at night ensured that my creature comforts were met. Savannah is a graceful old Southern lady, her historic district not quite as blinged out as N’awleens (New Orleans), but the delicately carved gingerbread of the well-preserved homes along canopied streets speak of a prosperous past. But now, with my knowledge of US history, I found myself wondering about the true history. Not the external signs of a well-planned city with huge imposing buildings and tributes to successful soldiers and business men, but the souls that labored, the black lives that were sacrificed to ensure that white privilege could sleep comfortably at night.
Down by the riverfront, where old streets are cobbled with round river stones, tourists pop in and out of stores and restaurants. To get to the riverfront from the streets above you can descend the ‘historic steps’ – slabs of slate worn thin by a couple centuries of feet. You were warned to be cautious, as the steps were uneven, risky. And all I could think of was who had walked these steps? Had they been chained together? Were they hauled off ships having been stolen from their motherland, only to be sold into slavery? Who trod on these historic steps?
St. Augustine in Florida (founded in 1565, the oldest continuously occupied town in the US) was another stop on my tour. Here we were able to find the history of the Africans, in Fort Mose, a place where Africans escaping slavery in South Carolina were welcomed by the Spanish and lived free (so long as they converted to Catholicism!). The Spanish view of slaves was quite different from the other European countries apparently. In Fort Mose the free community of Africans helped to defend the town from the British. Ultimately the British defeated the Spanish, and the African descendants fled to Cuba, since the British would enslave them once again.
We found the African American Museum (Lincolnville), which told the history of African Americans in the town, and the role they played in the fight for Civil Rights. It was in a (segregated) St. Augustine motel pool that a few African Americans attempted to swim, only to have the manager douse the pool with acid (an iconic photo from the era). Historic steps.
As we were exploring the old town, Georgians were making history, electing their first senator of color. Yes, Georgians were making history and changing the balance of power in DC – despite years of gerrymandering and voter suppression. A victory of great significance.
Unfortunately, the victories of Warnock and Ossoff have been overshadowed by the images that were broadcast around the world from Wednesday’s insurrection. So many questions, so much to analyze from the breakdown of law and order. How could the authorities have been so ill-prepared? How much collusion might there be from within? How can a country be led by a man who called for, encouraged, stirred up this response? Where is the accountability? What about those who have fed the beast, encouraged the beast, supported the beast only to say ‘enough’ when the wolves were at the door? And of course, can you imagine what would have happened if those who breached the steps and doors and offices and windows of the Capitol had skin of a different color? What would the body count be?
We may be shocked, appalled, horrified, distressed, embarrassed by the images of disruption, disrespect and outright vandalism, but we are none of us surprised. It has been inevitable from the start. The more important question is: where do we go from here. The historian Timothy D. Snyder has written a small book ‘On Tyranny’, a guide for surviving and resisting tyranny. Yesterday he tweeted about the ‘Big Lie’ that can destroy democracy, and can only be overcome by the truth, spoken clearly. It is time for the US to face the truth, the truth about its past and its present. For so much that has happened over the past four years is merely the uncovering of what people of color have always known: systemic racism exists at every level of society and has been permitted to flourish. Only by acknowledging the causes of the deep disparity in the society will healing begin.
On this Friday morning in early 2021, we must be prepared for the hard work ahead of us. There is much truth to be told, and some will not find it easy. We must hold our leaders accountable (if you live in Florida, please call Rick Scott (202) 224-5274– he was one of those who voted against certifying the election results, he voted for the Big Lie) and continue to support all of those who are fighting to make this country a more perfect union. After the fire comes a cleansing, a rebirth. Perhaps these days of destruction will give rise to a new possibility, new hope. Let us be unafraid to take these historic steps!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!