*Featured Image: The Poet Lucille Clifton as a child. Photographer unknown.
As I drove further away from downtown, the houses and sidewalks became progressively neglected. Like forgotten memories in an old attic. Like the unloved pages of an old dusty photo album, some complete, yet frayed–overflowing with used-up cheer. Others, abandoned, with only the peculiar unblinking gaze of an unnamed child–questioning and accusing all at once—staring out from among dubious, brown, square-shaped stains, the only proof that there was more to the story; that more had once existed. Proof that here was once a happy, bustling, productive community. A thoroughfare of dreams, once cherished and kept tidy and neat, to proudly display the depth of love, the fullness of life, of one family. One community. With its empty lots between every other house and its broken sidewalks and time-tested aluminum fences dislocated by century-old oak trees, Columbia’s North Main Street was such a forgotten piece of history.
I remember late spring mornings in the 1970s, when milk bottles waited by screen doors on front porches lined with rocking chairs and a profusion of flower pots bursting with a multitude of bright, colorful southern promises; virtual assurances of lazy summer days ahead, of shiny new opportunities sure to come to those who worked hard and kept their heads down; I remember the brawny men in suspenders and wide-brim hats, with five-o’clock shadows, booming laughter, and infectious grins, proudly clutching their paychecks, coming home at dusk to the smell of fried chicken, okra, and candied yams. The dreams, the laughter, the promises; all gone now. And in their place lay crackheads on cracked sidewalks, empty-looking, like haunting brown squares in a dusty old photo album abandoned in an attic.
What changed everything? What changed a once-vibrant thoroughfare into half-abandoned rot and ruin? After twelve years abroad, I return to live in the United States and am faced with this need to know.
I worry about what this says about me. How I come from here, but have changed–I’d like to think–into a better version of myself. After living abroad in cities barely altered through centuries of pestilence and conquest, I am ashamed that the place I come from is such a broken shell, apparently devoid of the spirit to renew or reinvent itself.
I ask my eighty-year-old grandmother about this and she says that crack cocaine is to blame. I ask my uncle and he patiently explains that the Prison Industrial Complex, minimum mandatories, and the War on Drugs are the reason. I ask an older cousin on her way from church who waves a dog-eared bible in the air and exclaims it’s “all on account of the loose morals and lack of faith in God!”
I even ask the nun who runs the oldest women’s shelter in Columbia, South Carolina, the nun who I am going to visit that day to offer my services for volunteer work with displaced women. She responds coolly, “These women do not need positive thinking or self-esteem workshops. They are just drug addicts and all they care about is their next fix. We keep them here for a couple of days until they move on. They don’t want to change anything.”
She says this to me after looking me up and down through the locked screen door and skeptically asking, “Mary? Mary for the appointment? The volunteer life coach is you?”
Ouch! I am not sure how I was supposed to be looking—No, wait. That’s not true, I do know. I was supposed to be looking white.
Now, I could be wrong. She could have had all kinds of rocks in her shoe that day, or simply been the rare unpleasant non-profit director with poor communication skills. But I expected a nun and representative of a charity would to at least have an open mind. So even if I had shown up with sixteen heroine needles sticking out of my arm, her crestfallen response still would have made me think her a racist. Because that is always what a black person thinks when a white person is rude. We can’t help it. The way an abused woman might flinch when someone next to her raises their hand unexpectedly or a veteran with PTSD ducks when they hear a sudden clang of a garbage pail cover falling to the ground. To a hammer everything is a nail. And we? We are the hammer.
I thought, so much for my idea to volunteer as a way to learn about and try to help this situation, before judging. The person (yes, one person, as in, there is just one women’s shelter in the capital of South Carolina, and seventeen in the state) entrusted with helping seems to consider herself a gate-keeper of misery. Only there to make sure these women suffer in peace.
Many neighborhoods across the US that were vibrant in the 70s and 80s now look like they have been through war. Half-abandoned, worn-out streets, stripped of children and life.
My family has suffered a similar decline.
We all live twenty miles outside of town on the overgrown haphazardly sub-divided remnants of my great great grandfather’s 200-acre farm. Five years ago, at the age of fifty-six, my mother died of a ruptured ulcer. She was home alone and her body lay there for three days until one of her three sisters (who live within sixty feet) came in to check on her and found her laying in a pool of her own vomit on the floor by the foot of her bed. Her sisters say she must have gotten up to make it to the bathroom. I am dismayed that her body lay there alone for days. I think my family unloving but, in fairness, she was mentally ill and often told them to stay away. Mercifully, the coroner says she was dead before she hit the ground. I decided to write about her so her tortuous young life would not be forgotten. This is why I moved into the three-bedroom luxury trailer I bought her years earlier on our family’s land. I figured it would also be my chance to do some aquaponics projects I’ve been wanting to do. The government paid my grandfather to stop farming the land years before. I secretly believed this was the impetus for our decline and this was a chance to bring back the purpose to this place and to myself.
My fancy European and New York fashion friends would never approve, though. They would say incredulously, “You are now living in a TRAILER? As in a trailer park?” No. Not as in a trailer park. As in, my family has lived here on this land for over 200 years and when seven southern siblings reach adulthood and don’t want to leave home, they simply buy a movable residence–I prefer to call it a mobile home–and place it next door, on said family land.
But I don’t say that, instead I will say that I’m going to build a Tiny House, and ditch the double-wide. That way they will be awed by my quirky ingenuousness, and believe I want to live here. Not that I have to live here because I am broken, by promises and their men, profound overwhelming sadness and disappointment, and the relentless strivings of city life. Besides, I own this un-sellable land. I have nowhere else to belong. It’s hard barren dirt is in my blood.
And they don’t know anything about our complicated tenancy-in-common land ownerships or that black people come in hillbilly too. That some black people even owned slaves. I don’t know why that comes as such a surprise to some. The real story of the American South has more plot holes than an episode of the Dukes of Hazard. With astounding frequency here blacks and whites are related by blood, yet no one can really get ahead. Everyone is stuck, working hard to maintain a distance that, no matter how polite, simply isn’t there By what magic could black people, living on the same spot for 200+ years, possibly develop green eyes, red hair and Irish last names? Not since the Great Migration has anyone ever moved away—except to die in all major world wars. You do the math.
My fancy friends also don’t know that, like whites, all black people are not created equal. Poor and rich, city and country folks, the educated and uneducated are often worlds apart. Let me put it this way: You could grow up in Philly and become a filmmaker, or perhaps a judge, and end up in Bel Air, and your sister still lives in Philly and sends you her son when he gets in trouble on the inner-city basketball court. Or your cleaning business could boom and you and your family could move from the ghetto up to the east side. But that’s all city blacks. We are more like Queen Sugar after the farm died. Small town children of generations of farmers, we are not particularly ambitious, criminal, or even street smart. But they wouldn’t know that, because there are so few media representations of rural African-Americans. My family isn’t poor or desperate, nor are we wealthy and cultured. We are just country and mean and squabbling and vindictive. We keep valuable cars on cement blocks until they rot right before our eyes, like our unsupported dreams.
Our intentions are on blocks too.
We marry our third cousins and we hold grudges for decades with other parts of the family down the road or through the woods. And when someone dies, we sneak in the back door and steal their photo albums and hide them until our sisters stop asking about them—even if that takes years. We are jealous. We’re superstitious. Selfish.
Long ago, before cellphones and credit cards, we milked cows, gathered eggs and planted okra and squash and ate rabbits, possums and squirrels, raccoons and deer. Now we are strictly Mountain Dew and drive-thru windows. But more than ever, we are the big C. Christians, more Christian now than we were thirty years ago when we were merely “good people” and our few white cousins that didn’t try to burn our house down or run us off the road for fun were “good wat folks.” My pre-teen first-cousins have $600 cell phones and the lights are often out at their house because after driving up and down the road all month, eating fast food and buying more extravagant clothes to wear nowhere, there is never anything left over to pay the electricity bill—the only actual bill they’ve got, since their trailer is paid for and their water comes from the well out back. I expect they charge their cellphones in the car. Laptop? What laptop? That was either stolen by another cousin long ago or destroyed by some destructive child and no one has ever bothered to get it repaired. Why? Well, that’s just not something we do. Repair stuff. Their mother, my aunt Lettie Mae, has designer furniture, and bags and bags of dirty clothes stacked in her bedroom closet. Instead of fixing her laundry machine, she buys new clothes and buys new cell phones for her children. Presumably this will make them better Christians. My aunt used to be a vibrant fun girl, with big ideas and laughter quickly bubbling from her lips, but now she is someone important in the family church, riddled with disease and only smiles at gossip. She calls me “devil child” behind my back and won’t speak directly to me since the day I told her I was a Buddhist and I didn’t agree that God was sending her sister, my aunt Zee, to hell because she married the Pakistani Muslim guy from the Sizzle Spot gas station. Buddhism, according to her, is the work of the devil and merits the coldest of shoulders.
My aunt Zee’s car breaks down frequently because she only fills the gas tank $2 at a time. Someone’s got to go get her with a can of gas. It has to be me, I won’t lend anyone my car. I’m the only woman at home during the day (all others work twenty miles away in town) and the men can’t drive, they’ve all lost their licenses. The women drive them everywhere, until the day the men get drunk or find another love interest, and then they steal the women’s cars and get arrested for driving drunk or without a license—country boys think driving drunk and without a license is their God-given right. And then the women defend them, bail them out and the whole mess starts all over again.
My cousin, Eli, is the pit bull whisperer and he appears from the woods at all hours and drinks little airplane bottles of liquor in my back yard at the tree line. I know because he is the only person who could do this—my aunt Alfie’s pit bulls nor any other dog in the region dares bark at his arrival. One day, he has a huge argument with my grandmother and I try to restore order. He replies that he is a gangster. As if that means he can fly. I say, Sure, all gangsters live with their grandmothers and have to beg them for gas money.
I realize then that he is severely mentally ill, not like cousin Gaddy with the three purple hearts and plate in his skull who walks the country roads in alternating states of agitation or inebriation, but ill, like my cousin Andy, my aunts Lacey, Roberta, Zee, and Lettie Mae. Like my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mother—the only one to actually seek the psychiatrist’s couch, which only got her drugged up, ridiculed, and estranged. Were they always ill?
Generally, we southerners, and black people, don’t look kindly on the mental health professions—like they aren’t really jobs or maybe life has taught us that talking to strangers in confidence is something deadly, outrageous and unthinkable. So, people stay sick– but no one recognizes it or calls it that–unless they’re to the point of mumbling incoherently. Instead, mental illness is chalked up as personality quirks or something that can be prayed away in church. I see the same symptoms all across the south and I wonder if that’s what made the North Main Street and similar communities decline or did the illness come with the decline of the communities? That it was never just the crack, the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. Not the loose morals or the lack of faith in God. These are all just symptoms of a collective madness that grips us.
*A previous version of this essay was published in The Nervous Breakdown.
*names have been changed, because the truth hurts
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