Several years ago a friend pointed out to me that if you are of African American linage, you don’t have a specific country to point to your heritage; you have a continent. A genetic test off the internet might give you a region, but it’s still quite non-specific.
Am I European American? Not likely, I’d say I’m Irish, Scottish or part German American. Do you have any old black and white ancestral photos hidden inside a genealogy book?
I am quite aware, thanks to my friend who was ‘black’ that my path has been easier because I am as white as white. I am so white as to be translucent depending on where the sun gazes down on my relative position.
The photo I am sharing was from my 9th grade basketball team, can you pick me out? I was on the “A” team…
My friend no longer walks amongst the living. He was a wonderful human being. He was quite successful in business and at home. I miss my friend. I learned a lot from him about racism.
Given the cultural climate, and in his memory, I have shared below chapter 39 from my novel 5th&Hope.
I created the entire novel, in part, based on this chapter. The content is quite ugly and deeply personal.
A little context from the novel to help the reader understand.
The characters are on a road trip from California and they are driving through Lexington, Kentucky. The major character is Bobby, and he is retracing his grandparents journey, guided by his grandfather’s diaries. He’s learning about his family and his culture. It’s not a pleasant moment.
I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. The setting for the chapter is Cheapside and the old courthouse. Back in the day, on those grounds, there was a slave market.
In this chapter, the character, Amy, is pregnant from an interracial relationship. She’s not sure she wants the child. She grew up in Southern California.
The Bobby, Ruth and Rebecca characters are all middle-aged and hardened to the Southern culture, and they are observing Amy, who is an academic historian trying to process the simple state government signs and the Confederate general’s Civil War monument.
Cheapside was a grassy, innocent-looking spot in Lexington next to the old, domed, Romanesque courthouse, which was made from native greystone topped with an aged slate roof. It was surrounded by the green, Kentucky State government historical signs that I had grown up walking and driving past as if they were as common as grains of sand on a beach. If you were an outsider to the Southern culture, or born in Southern California, and you had never been exposed to the Old South, looking up at the pale greenish-bronze of a proud Civil War general atop a horse might just be the moment you understood the Civil War had been a reality.
Amy read the historical markers aloud and she read them several times more, as if she hadn’t been fully able to understand them.
“Lexington was the center of slave trading in Kentucky by the late 1840s and served as a market for selling slaves farther south. Thousands of slaves were sold at Cheapside, including children who were separated from their parents,” she read. “I don’t believe this!” She walked back to inspect the first historical marker. She appeared to be in total disbelief.
“No,” I said. “It was quite real.”
Amy inspected the bronze statue again, and, with her mobile phone, took photos and researched the confederate general’s losing story.
“On the north-east corner of the Fayette County Courthouse lawn stood the whipping post established in 1847 to punish slaves for such offenses as being on the streets after 7 pm,” she read. “I don’t get it! Maybe I’m just hormonal. He lost, but he got a statue. They whipped people to death, right here?”
“We don’t talk about it much,” I said. I looked up at the weathered bronze monument. “But when I said you’re in the South, this was what I was thinking about.”
“Why the statue to him?” Amy asked. She looked at me. “Where’s the memorial to the slaves?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A lot of senseless killing…”
It wasn’t a romanticized Civil War reenactment party where no one would die. Robert E. Lee wasn’t a soft grandpa character from a novel and, like Ulysses S. Grant, was a hard, well-trained military man. Each had done their duty. I thought their armies had done all the talking, and the issue had been settled. It was about looking at yourself from outside to seek the truth about life. The truth about our heritage was not pleasant. What I had been numb to, though; what I had thought of as common place from growing up here, had triggered Amy’s emotions. She realized it wasn’t a myth.
“I have a child inside me; it would have been a slave,” Amy said. She covered her face with her hands. “I don’t understand.”
“I was emotional, first was worst,” Ruth said. She looked over at Rebecca. “The first time; my second boy was totally different.”
“I’d like to see them,” Rebecca said. She tried to smile. “It’s been a very long time.”
I acknowledged a passerby as I stood staring at the sign. It had been a nightmare for real, sentient human beings who happened to have dark skin and who had prayed to the same God as my grandparents. They must have wondered at night, sleeping on dirt floors, where their Moses was. I suspected Amy had a sick feeling, like I did. It reminded me of the first time I had toured the Anne Frank house. I was neither Dutch nor European, but if I had been standing in Amsterdam in front of that house in 1943, I would have been shot dead on sight by the Nazis. I wasn’t Jewish, but I was a Jew-loving American. They had to protect the fatherland from the Jewish infestation; it was their final solution for biological purity.
If the four of us had been standing at the same street corner in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1843, before the Civil War, we would have witnessed the unthinkable. Like a large, naked man with dark skin shackled to the ground so he couldn’t run away, whipped with a leather belt like a dog. I had experienced that from my own father until I was big enough to fight back, but I wasn’t a captive slave who had been paraded in front of an auction crowd in all kinds of weather, full of families holding their babies, enjoying court day within the Lexington town square, beneath the oak and sycamore trees. The slave would have been paraded around like a prized bull at a stock yard, his teeth checked to prove his good health, his body examined, gawked at, to determine his worth. And then the auctioneer would have asked for bids for the future estate chattel. The same process had been repeated thousands of times, as explained by a sign at the same quiet spot where I’d stood drinking my morning coffee, an active farmer’s market behind me. Those auctions had also included innocent women and their terrified children. Whole families were either purchased together or separated at the same spot, ten feet from where we stood on a sandstone sidewalk near a line of oak trees.
“Are you okay?” I asked. I put my arm around Amy’s shoulders.
“I feel sick,” Amy said.
“It’ll pass,” Ruth said. “Just part of it.”
“I’m not sure,” Amy said, “I want to feel it.”
“You can’t be serious?” Ruth asked. She touched Amy on the shoulder. “That’s a life inside you.”
“Let it go, her choice,” I said. The downtown traffic whizzed past us as random souls walked across the street from the six-story, modern, pre-cast, concrete parking structure to investigate the market with full baskets of heirloom tomatoes, yellow corn, and jars of local-produced, golden bee honey. “My hometown is full of these historical markers. I forgot they even existed.”
“It reminds me of those cobblestones in Amsterdam,” Rebecca said. She walked closer. She gripped my hand. “Holocaust victims, chilling…”
“Oh yeah,” I said. I nodded. “We walked over them until, finally, someone told us to look down. There they were.”
“It makes me sad, this place should be sacred,” Amy said. She had re-read the historical marker for Cheapside, again and again. “This was ground zero for slavery; it’s like there are ghosts here, ghosts searching for their families.”
“Can you feel them?” Ruth asked. She shook her head and walked closer to Rebecca. “As if they’re with us?”
“Totally,” Amy said. She kneeled down to touch the Kentucky bluegrass. “They’re with us, all around.”
Rebecca and Ruth stood together, sharing a black coffee from another shop adorned with a double-tailed mermaid.
“Lexington was a crossroads, still is,” I said. I pointed into the cold breeze. “Down this street is Henry Clay’s estate.” I pointed in the opposite direction. “Down there is Mary Todd Lincoln’s home. Behind me, Transylvania University, where Jefferson Davis went to school. Everything intersected here, it’s just our history. I guess you take the good with the bad.”
“No, history comes alive here, take yourself there,” Amy said. She wiped tears from her eyes. “I can feel it. I can hear the whip, I can hear the scream. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Rebecca said. She handed the coffee cup to Ruth. “Never apologize for how you feel.”
I grunted and nodded in agreement. I sipped warm coffee from a white, paper cup with a plastic lid. Amy seemed more agitated, more emotional than her normal well-below-boil temperament. Beneath her surface there boiled a passion for history. I had admired that passion when we’d first met her at the library. It was in her eyes; a passion similar to that my grandparents had held for Christian missions. I wished I had their passion.
“We forget Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky,” Ruth said. “They likely passed each other in the streets.”
“That would be weird,” Rebecca said.
I stared the wrong way down one-way Main Street as I felt the whoosh of several cars passing by me. I noted a street corner from where I had taken my driver’s license test. I stared up at the gray, stone-and-mortar courthouse that looked like it was straight out of something Emily Brontë would have described in her novel Wuthering Heights. I wondered if Heathcliff would appear behind the dark windows, which were set below a series of triangle arches.
“When I was a young man, not far from here,” I said, “I used to drive down the same road, Old Frankfort Pike, that Abraham Lincoln used to take a horse and buggy on to visit his father-in-law, who owned a hemp factory that produced rope, not dope.”
“You don’t understand,” Amy said. She pulled one of my grandfather’s leather diaries out from her bag. “I didn’t understand. I feel stupid.” She sat down on a rolled-steel, black-painted park bench set between oak trees and surrounded by blooming chrysanthemums. She adjusted her reading glasses, pushing them back up against her eyes. “He wrote about this, again and again, I just missed it. I didn’t understand what he was really saying.” She had marked numerous sections from his diaries. She began to read as she pressed the pages down with her fingers to keep them from blowing over. “Went to Lexington, saw Negros. Sad day. Don’t understand.” Amy turned the page to another section within his diary that she had marked with a paper receipt for chewing gum. “They shot a black man, dead. I don’t understand. Violence. They do the same thing in California. Read from the monthly news we get from LA. Why? Where is God?” Amy pushed the diary back into her bag. She pulled out another old diary. She had marked several pages with a variety of papers slips, sticky tags, and even a Kleenex tissue. “Killed ML, why? The violence, why? I don’t understand. How can I protect my children? I prayed. Where is God? Are we in end times? Hazel agrees. We must trust God.” She took a breath, looking up from the diary. “He wrote… He and your grandmother would talk about it,” she said. “He wrote about his time; I just didn’t understand what he was saying. I’m a historian, and I missed what he was saying. I am so stupid.”
My sister clutched the white coffee cup. She glanced at me as she walked over and handed the warm cup back to Rebecca, who had followed her. She sat down next to Amy as a car full of children in the back seat parked behind them. The car’s brakes squeaked loud enough that, were he available, I would have sent Wylie over to administer emergency repairs.
“You’re not stupid,” Ruth said. She hugged Amy. She shook her head. “We allow stupid. My grandfather, my grandparents, they were kind people. I miss them every day. But they made their choices; they lived the life they chose.”
“It didn’t occur to me,” Amy said. She stared at her cowboy boots. She sniffled. “He was angry but helpless.”
“No,” Ruth said. She closed her eyes as she hugged Amy. “He, they, were not helpless. They told the truth, but nobody wanted to listen to them. Nothing has changed.”
Amy stared over at people shopping for produce, strolling up and down the temporary aisles. She gripped one of the diaries. She read a section that was brief.
“Disappointed. I failed.” She put the book away, glancing at Ruth and then up at me. “What was your father like?” she asked. Her face was hard, stone-like. Her blue eyes were that of the inquisitor.
“He was complicated,” Ruth said. She looked up at me. “Why would you ask that?”
It was a question I had suspected would appear. After all, Amy was reading my mother’s father’s diaries. Nevertheless, I still wasn’t prepared for it. Over the years, the decades, I had developed the non-answer skill first employed by President Eisenhower during his televised news conferences. It was a technique for answering an unwelcome question with a garbage dump of useless information.
“Let me guess,” I said. I crossed my arms. “Grandpa didn’t like the young man dating his daughter? That’s a not-so-uncommon feeling for fathers, then and now. It would seem every father isn’t supportive, for a variety of reasons. It’s as common as sunrise and sunset.”
“I’ll vote for you in November,” Ruth said. She frowned at me. “Answer her question; you can’t control everything.”
“You know what he did? Don’t you?” Amy asked. She stuffed the diary back into her bag. “I don’t understand. Why would she marry him? It makes no sense to me.”
“You don’t need to read that part,” I said. I examined my shoes and waved at her to close the diaries. “I guess we have a conundrum, don’t we?”
“Yeah, you almost didn’t exist,” Amy said. “She wanted, you know… but your grandparents would have none of it. Your grandmother was tough.”
“What’s she talking about?” Rebecca asked. She looked down at Ruth and back over at me. “What am I missing?”
“My father raped my mother, before marriage,” Ruth said. She said it with the tone of a stone-cold killer. Her face was as blank as a corpse. “My dear brother exists only because of Hazel.”
“Apparently, I wasn’t noted in the black-and-white photos,” I said. I watched a squirrel scurry up the bark of an ancient oak. “I was at the wedding that no one smiled at, but I was hidden under the bride’s dress.”
“That explains a lot,” Rebecca said. She held her breath as she tried to master her emotions. “Now I feel sick.”
“Amy, he turned out okay,” Ruth said. She pointed at me. “Even a bastard child like my brother…”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. I gripped the car key. “Well, now you know why I’m such an asshole.”