A year ago yesterday, as I sat in church listening to the service, my mind filled up with thoughts and words. I pulled my notebook out of my purse and started jotting down all of those thoughts. A year ago today, I took a tour in my head of my city, my country, and my world, and wrote a piece I called Today.
Yesterday I was reminded of all of this again in church. As I was an assistant in my son’s Sunday school class, I wasn’t in most of the service, but I did get to hear our minister of music and choir demonstrate how the slave spiritual Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around was transformed into the freedom song of the civil rights movement Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around with the change of a few words, tempo, and the addition of stomping to simulate marching. It was fascinating, and I was startled when my eyes filled with tears which spilled down my face. How does the body feel emotion before the brain does?
When my husband and I re-met almost 12 years ago, he introduced me to bluegrass music which I immediately loved. I loved the old ballads, some of which I knew from my love of 1960s folk music, and I liked hearing the same bits and pieces sung over and over again in different old and new songs. Nothing makes me happier than hearing a song today with a line or a phrase taken from a song that is hundreds of years old. I kind of thought back then I should be an ethnomusicologist, so I could study the ways and reasons songs change over time, the power of a single word, and how something old and beautiful can be remade into something even better.
So here is what I wrote last year. I might have written the exact same thing this year, and I have a feeling it will feel timely again next year, as my thoughts seem to be drawn to this same place and these same words.
Today, I’m at home with my children.
I’ve been thinking about where I live. My house sits at the bottom of Peach Orchard Hill, where some of the harshest fighting and most severe casualties took place during the Union-won two day Battle of Nashville. Troops of all colors fought here, and every December I can see present day people recreating history for us. I’ve never taken a metal detector out in my yard, but I’m pretty sure I would find remnants of those two days in December of 1864.
I can drive south into the country 15 minutes away and be on the Battle of Franklin site. I used to be able to see 145 year old bloodstains on the lower porch floor of a house that served as a makeshift hospital. Last December, I couldn’t find those stains and I saw that the porch had a new coat of paint. I wondered about the lasting effects of covering up history, especially the darker and sadder aspects.
On this same drive, I can marvel at the beauty of the slave built dry stacked limestone walls outlining so many farms and roads, and know that there are very few people alive today with the knowledge of how to build those structures. I can also shed a few tears trying to imagine what it was like to build these walls for other people, to make no decisions about your own days – the work that you did, the food that you ate, the place where you slept, and the family you had around you.
I can take the bus downtown and see historical markers for the less famous but still important Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. All those department and drug stores are long gone, either torn down or turned into office buildings or condos.
I can go visit one of the oldest and well known historically black universities, and see an amazing collection of art and photography given by Georgia O’Keeffe from her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s estate. I can know that the university has tried to legally separate the two paintings that are the pinnacle of the collection and sell them, because the small endowment cannot keep up with the needs of the university and the need for new cash sources is ongoing. I can also see the beautiful, newly restored murals by Aaron Douglass painted on the walls of the library, and say a little prayer for all the people who in large and small ways helped to return the murals from the disrepair they had been in for so long.
I can walk across to street to the first black medical school in the United States where some of the leading research on AIDS and sickle cell anemia happens every day, as well as the education and training of many people of all colors in the medical field. This is also a place where many people of all colors receive their medical care. I can say hi to my Dad and give him a hug because he works here.
I can pass by the former homes of some of the most famous African-Americans, like James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B DuBois. Some of these houses are renovated, some are boarded up, and I even think some have been torn down because there are always too many projects and not enough money.
I can drive past and lose count of the many private schools (mostly religious affliated ones) established at the end of the 1960s, so white children had new schools to attend when their old, public ones were finally desegregated. I can know that these public schools today are disproportionately attended by people of color, and that over 70% of the students qualify for no or reduced cost lunches.
I’ve been thinking about Haiti as I look – then have to stop looking – at photographs online today. So much has been said by so many people, but I’ve been especially thinking about the babies. I hope they all have access to mothers’ milk, which is even more important in places and situations where there is no clean water and nothing can be sterilized. I think about how the knowledge and practice of this basic way to feed people has been undermined for decades and decades all over the world. It makes me so very sad especially in this week after the earthquake, which reminds me so much of those weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
And, of course I’ve been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and of my years living in Alabama, the state that was center of the Civil Rights Movement. I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of MLK and what he said and did, but I don’t think I truly understood the words and events until the day I visited Montgomery, AL for the first time. I wanted to see MLK’s former church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he was the pastor when he orchestrated the Montgomery bus boycott. This church is a tiny red brick building with white trim built in the late 1800s that literally sits at the foot of the large, white domed Alabama State Capitol building. As I turned my head to take in the entire panorama before me, it just blew my mind. It couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought, that so many important events were tied to this place and to the people who worshiped here under the shadow of buildings and government that did not give them the same rights as other people. The symbolism and irony I felt in that moment were powerful. I remember wondering if history would have been different if this church was located across town or even a couple of blocks over. I do not know.
I didn’t march today, nor participate in a community service project. I did talk to my children, and think, and write. What I want most for Ely, Agnes, and myself to get out of today is the knowledge that any kind of change is only possible through the (seemingly small) actions of many people, and that just because change is often slow doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We can learn this every day, but it is more easily taught and felt on days like today when we celebrate the birthday of a man who inspired and achieved real change.