I call my GPS Sacagawea. She’s been a tremendous help on this road trip across the United States. Don’t get me wrong, I love my maps, but when it comes to negotiating our way through, say, Montgomery Alabama’s inner city to the Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka the National Lynching Memorial) she rules. Unbiased in terms of the scenery, her focus is to get us there in the most direct manner. Which is how we found ourselves weaving through a dilapidated neighborhood full of boarded-up houses. Like everything in the south that sits unattended for too long, moss and vines were slowly reclaiming the once ornate homes, pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalks, winding up the trees and around the abandoned cars. But the neighborhood was by no means dead. Children played happily in the streets. Adults hung out on the rotting porches of the houses that weren’t boarded up. The heat was stifling, the humidity registering 90%!
For me, driving through that African American neighborhood made the memorial experience that much more meaningful. Strolling through the hundreds of large coffin-shaped boxes bearing the names, dates, and places of those who’d been lynched was shocking, sorrowful, anger-inducing. There were so many! It made me see the whole era in a new light. What happened was a holocaust. Whole families were murdered in a single shot, as were people who were trying to create change. The ones that made me the saddest were the ones marked as anonymous, as though their names weren’t even worth learning. I was surprised to find out that Georgia topped the list in terms of lynching. Then again, who knows how many backwoods lynchings occurred? And by that I mean, lynchings that were not recorded. I was also surprised to learn that lynching was happening into the late forties. And not just in the south, either.
Later, at a truck-stop Subway just outside of Montgomery, I’m standing next to a truck driver from Mississippi. He’s young, a gentle spirit with kind eyes. He asks, “Do you know what city we’re in?” His accent is so thick I have to ask him to repeat himself. I tell him we’re not far from Montgomery. I ask where he’s headed. “Texas,” he says. I ask what he’s hauling. “Don’t know,” he says. “They just load me up and tell me where to go.” He asks where I’m headed. I tell him about Dixie’s and my trip. Tell him we want to see this country we live in. Tell him that during this era of polarization, we want to see the actual people who make up the United States. “How’s it going?” he asks. I tell him so far, everyone I’ve met is really nice. He laughs. “One on one, everyone is nice,” he says. “It’s when people get into a group that you have to worry.” I guess I should mention, he’s black.
Cut to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, standing in the park office of a campground. We’re checking in for the night. We’re in between intense bouts of rain and eager to set up our site before the next onslaught. I note a sign indicating they hold worship services on Sundays. The amount of Baptist churches we’ve passed leads me to believe they mean Christian. The elderly couple signing us in are volunteers at the campground, married and pleasant enough, though the woman has glanced twice at the brightly colored Virgen de Guadalupe I wear around my neck. (Purchased a few years back from a gay man at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. “I figure we sinners need saints!” he said.) The medallion seems to disturb her. Or maybe it’s that Dixie and I are traveling alone together in a van. Or maybe she just has indigestion. Who knows? I do what I always do when people are grumpy or mean: attempt to make her day a little sweeter by simply being kind. And I was getting somewhere. The woman was lightening up, had started to laugh. Then another camper strides into the office behind us. She too is trying to beat the rain, and clearly a lesbian. Has a flattop and all. She says she’s traveling with her “roommate”, a euphemism I guess people still use here in the Bible Belt. Apparently it’s not safe to be openly gay. Much as I wanted to respond by saying, “Really? I’m traveling with my wife” I didn’t. If she didn’t feel safe, a woman I presumed from the plates on her giant RV was a local, I sure wasn’t going to presume.
And just like that we were polarized. The happy heterosexual camp hosts on the one side of the counter, and the happy but closeted lesbians on the other side of the counter.
There have been signs of this polarizing all over the place: in Texas, along the Rio Grande, a dumpster painted with the words Resist the Wall!; a Georgia governor wannabe proposing deportation busses. Prejudice is everywhere. Including inside me every time I see one of these Thank Jesus! signs stuck in people’s lawns, which seem to me not so much a suggestion as a demand, as if anyone who doesn’t take the Bible literally, or is, God forbid, not a Christian, is Other. And I find myself getting all defensive and thinking to myself, Hell yeah I’m other! And proud of it! without ever even getting to know the people who put the sign there. Or why they put the sign there.
It brings me back to something I read at the Lynching Memorial, how thousands of people came out to witness the lynchings. I think about the bus driver’s words. “One on one, everyone is nice. It’s when people get into a group that you have to worry.” Apparently it’s easy to do the unconscionable when shrouded by a group, or urged on by a group. And at the same time, coming together with likeminded people, like the Women’s March on Washington, is one of the most effective ways to create change.
Anyway, I’m not done thinking about this. I don’t suppose I ever will be. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. And remember, now more than ever, live the love. It’s all we’ve got.