For someone who so poorly plans trips, I have had a visit with friends, profs, and poets that has been both productive and invigorating—not to mention warm and nurturing. Friends have generously welcomed me into their homes and seen to my feeding—even while writing papers for conferences or helping run one while simultaneous playing host. Professors have listened to me ramble about my project and told me that my rambles are ready for recording, commiserated about the peculiar negotiations of career and life, and pointed me in critical directions I was to blind to see I was heading into anyway. I feel, as I write this before heading out for a last round of drinks with my closest friends in Cincinnati, invigorated and excited about my life, my colleagues, and my work—a feeling that was all too often muted during my coursework and exams.
This excitement remains tempered with what I’m coming to see as a necessary anxiety. Sure, I’m an anxious character by nature, and I almost certainly rely too much on authority for validation (which accounts more than a little for so many of my years of graduate study), but I think especially for this project that I’ve undertaken that this anxiety is constantly urging me to see my project beyond myself. Every time I feel I’ve found some detail or perspective that begs to be in the book, I also feel a sense of guilt with my fascination and excitement about my subject. I’ve found stories that I feel must be told and retold, must be worked through again and again, and while I recognize that they are compelling stories, I think it is crucial that I always remember that there are real people and real families, real heartbreak and real sin behind these stories. How do I speak the sin and not take part in it? How do I recover the voices of the dead for whom there is scant account and that mostly written by the aggressors—aggressors who are my ancestors? How can I both write about and respect the bodies of the dead? How do I consider the lives of the aggressors and the perpetrators of vile acts without rationalizing or apologizing for them? How can I assume the authority to write what I feel I must?
Beth Ash says, by way of Gayatri Spivak, that I can’t but I have to anyway.
I also suspect that this anxiety that I feel must in some form or another be shared by documentary poets and writers who draw from history. I suspect that documentary poetry, with its urge to quote and cite, is itself a mechanism shaped by the anxiety of authority and the anxiety of responsibility felt toward the subject.
History itself must be anxious. History without anxiety is mere ideology. Anxious history prickles self-consciously at its currents of ideologies—the currents that not only flow through but constitute it, as any history altogether devoid of ideology is a but mute corpse. I must practice a resurrectionist art and remember that whatever good I do I am only a thief and the voice that animates is neither mine nor that of the dead.
Though I haven’t written anything beyond this blog, the shape of the book is beginning to form in my head. Gone is the idea that I will dedicate equal sections to various historical instances or eras. Rather the main thread of the book will concern the “The Michael Donald Case.” I use quotes because something about “case” following the proper name feels coldly dismissive of the young man whose life was so violently, so needlessly cut short. Yet it would also feel wrong to say that the book is about Michael Donald himself. He of all people had no choice in the part he was forced to play in this tragedy. He of all people was never and will never be able to speak of it. But his name has become inextricable from the incident of his lynching and the resulting murder and civil cases. His name must be spoken, but it cannot be spoken for.
Instead I see something like an orchestral movement—the main theme built around the larger “The Michael Donald Case” but with a counter-theme—drawn from DeSoto and the Maubilla Indians through the Clotilde on up to Mobile’s more recent past—scattered throughout to reverberate against the main theme.
Tomorrow I will drive to Mobile through what will be the remains of Hurricane Ida. I think a hurricane is a fitting image. There is the dead silence at the center of a storm so big it cannot have but one voice within its storm walls that can stretch a width that spans the length and width of Alabama or as it breaks up and spawns tornadoes, pushing north into the heartland of America. It will likely follow the Underground Railroad—the systems of rivers and navigable water ways—the trains of the old Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad—the Great Migration—right on up into the middle of America.