I’m simultaneously reading bunches of books, which hopefully accounts for why I’m so slow to finish any one. For the past couple of days, I’ve been alternating between Ravi Howard‘s Like Trees, Walking and the selected transcripts of the civil trial brought on behalf of Beulah Mae Donald by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Howard’s novel mixes the factual and the fictional. At center is a family of fictional undertakers charged with caring for the body of Michael Donald. The book is meticulously researched, and doubtless I’m reading much of the same material that Howard consulted. At times, shifting between Like Trees, Walking and the court transcripts and reading mostly at night, I forget where I read what. Among my reading last night was the brief testimony of Donald’s aunt who was only a couple of years older than Donald. She set the family scene so clearly that today I wondered whether my memories of it had been formed by Howard’s novel or her testimony.
Here, briefly, is what I remember. That Friday night, Michael Donald watched a basketball game, probably a University of South Alabama game, at the home of his aunt and her mother. After it was over, he went out for a pack of cigarettes but never came home, and the family worried about him most of the night because it wasn’t like him to stay out all night, much less when they expected him back within a few minutes.
The next morning while his aunt’s mother was making a cake for a niece, they got a call from Donald’s grandmother. The aunt, who was, I think, in another room, heard her mother answer the phone and almost immediately gasp or cry out. She said she knew instantly it had to do with Michael because they’d been worried about him all night, and his failure to return when he was expected was so out of character.
I don’t know what to do with this. So much of the testimony that I’ve read has dealt with the planning of the lynching, why they waited until that Friday (not just for the verdict on the Josephus Anderson case, but for Bennie Jack Hays to close on property that he was selling on Herndon Avenue), who provided the rope, and so forth, that this domestic scene of a young man spending his Friday night visiting family is so tender it’s unnerving.
The aunt describes the same clothes I’ve already seen itemized in the coroner’s report. Here, they are brand new purchases from a recently cashed income tax refund—white sneakers, blue jeans, a new jacket. Here, I see them as pristine, neatly-cared for, not as items logged into evidence— not muddied, not bloodied, but tidy. I imagine the cake baking as not only a way to care for family, for the niece who’d suffered the stroke and whom the cake was for ostensibly, but also as a nervous charm to occupy a worried mind. I see not only the young man who worked for the Mobile Press Register and was attending classes at Bishop State, but the family he spent his Friday nights with, the family who worried about him into the night and morning.
I think it is this domesticity that overlaps with my reading of the Howard novel that quite brilliantly focuses on the family and community response to the murder more than macabre details of the crime and its motives (at least as far as I’ve gotten into the book). Which is not to say that Howard swerves from horror of the crime—the book is honest and forthright, especially in the scenes in which the narrator Roy, his father, and his grandfather prepare Donald’s body for viewing—but that Howard captures the impact the tragedy might have had not just on individuals, but on whole families. It fleshes out that world of family and community only hinted at in the small portions of family testimony in the transcripts.
I don’t see myself in competition with Howard (I’d lose!), but rather I see my project as a complement, a supplement. It’s these family scenes that I’m most fearful of appropriating. Which isn’t to say that I plan on neglecting them altogether, but I see one of the benefits of a collection of poems is a focus that is scatter-shot and fractured. I’ve been toying with the idea of having, smack-dab in the middle of the book, a page of silence to mark the voice that was silenced and can not now be adequately spoken for (not by me, for sure). But I am also drawn to tell the stories of the murderers, not to glorify them or apologize for them—nothing could do that, and the more I read about them the more I’m horrified—but to suggest perhaps how mundane the path to horror is.
And that’s what gets me: the subtle chain of escalations from a backwards thought or vague bigotry into a calculated, group-planned and -executed cold-blooded murder of a random man pulled off the street.
From my first inklings of this project, I’ve known that I want to play with implicating myself, the culture, and my readers. I’ve known that I want to avoid the easy demonization of the perpetrators as so monstrous as to be deviants utterly unlike me or my readers or people we all may know. I want to suggest that we’re all capable of the subtle deviations that amplified could make any of us deviants. Not that we must police ourselves for any deviation from the norm or from political correctness—these “deviants” were ultimately disciplined to adhere closely to a strict hierarchy and unified ideology—but that I think we must always question ourselves and realize that relatively small untruths or backwards ideas left to grow and fester can have real, flesh and blood consequences.
This weekend I had a heated argument with a much-loved family member about race relations. As a Southerner who grew up hearing things as a child that I now find repugnant as an adult and who knows good people who admittedly hold prejudices but strive to not act on them, I’ve struggled to figure out a balance between what I guess Christians might call loving the sinner and hating the sin. I do believe, and maybe this is backwards, and maybe it’s a rationalization, that there are different shades and levels of racism, that racism isn’t, forgive the unavoidable pun, black and white, but is subtly nuanced and all the more insidious because of it. What is a racist? Is it something you say, do, or are? Does a single slur or off-color joke make its teller a racist? What about a Freudian slip? Is a racist someone who actively pursues a racist agenda? Can someone be a racist and not know it? Is it then something like a cultural inflection? Is the very idea of a “racist” itself an essentialist category? Is racism something like Foucault’s notion of power: is it an institution? does it flow through individuals based on their position (and thus explain how particular groups can both identify as the victims of racism on the one hand and on the other perpetrate racism against another group)?
All I know is that no matter how tired of it we might be, race is an issue that is not done with us. I suspect the easy answers, the easy delineations, the very desire to be done with race and pretend we’ve moved on is a deflection. I suspect that to truly open one’s self to questioning this category that is perhaps the defining category of America, whether as mixing pot or colonized or colonizer, is to risk questioning our conception of America and of ourselves as Americans (which makes me wonder why racism is so often linked to a particular kind of patriotism). Everything could fall apart. Everything we think we know about ourselves could fall apart. But how can we know who we are if we don’t understand how we can hate?