Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Your Circuit's Dead, There's Something Wrong": Let's Reboot This Experiment

It's been exactly 2 years since I posted a regular blog post. Aside from my ruminations on the march from Selma to Montgomery, it's been radio silence here. And that's been for reasons.

I don't want to say it has been for good reason, but just reasons. In fact, it was for bad reasons. The Civil War interpretive world is a very insular place. It's a very codified place. It's a very static place. And I was scared.

Yup. That's the best word for it. "Scared."

I think my fear was warranted. I was afraid I was ruining my career prospects by blogging openly about how we might do this whole job of discussing the Civil War with the American People better. I was.

I was afraid I was functionally making myself toxic and unhireable. I was.

I was afraid that I'd never work in the Civil War interpretive field again. And frankly, I likely won't.

Five years ago, a reply to this blog came in a letter to myself and my former co-author. It came on the email equivalent of official stationary from a major Civil War National Park Service site. In much longer, deeper and more rambling words, it basically said, "I wonder at your temerity."

That moment infected me. You can look back at the posts I wrote in reply (but at the time didn't overtly admit as such) and see the seething anger I had at that moment. And that, in the end, fueled my fear.

But I'm done with fear.

In 1931, in the building where I work in Harpers Ferry, a woman tried to stand up to the powers that be. And they denied her entreaties. Choir Director Pearl Tatten begged of the white Storer College President, "Do you think we should appear on such a program when we honor John Brown and feel that while he may have used the wrong methods, his motive was just?” He didn't listen.

Pearl's choir sat on the rostrum as the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated what they themselves called a, "Loyal Slave Monument." The black choir, with its black choir director, sat behind speakers as they praised racism, praised what America used to be, praised slavery and the, "black mammy."

The college president had been warned. He should have known better. He should have just cancelled the choir's participation. He didn't.

Pearl stepped up to the podium. She wasn't supposed to speak. She did.

"I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer, who wore the blue, who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are looking forward to the future, forgetting those things of the past."

The crowd sat gape-jawed.

"We are pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth."

The local black press called that moment a bolt from the blue, striking the crowd and electrifying the air. There were murmurs. There was outrage. Someone in the crowd, undoubtedly one of the daughters who were trying so hard to prove that the cause their fathers had fought for—the cause of slavery—was just, scribbled a note.

"I wonder at your temerity. Your untimely remarks were out of place, in poor spirit, and most discourteous. Such ignorance is colossal."

I've been thinking about Pearl Tatten more and more. About that moment when she literally laid her life on the line for the dignity of her students and the future of her nation. I think about everything she could have lost. As I've said time and again while interpreting her story in the building, women across the south were lynched for less.

And I think of how much privilege I have and my retreat into silence. And I feel shame.

I think finally shame is outweighing the fear.

I'm back.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

We've Got A Movement Down in Selma: Day 5

My friend and sister TK marching
for her uncle's memory.
"My people, my people, listen. The battle is in our hands. The battle is in our hands in Mississippi and Alabama and all over the United States.... And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering...."

One of my friends, a young woman who is like a sister after 54 miles of walking, got overheated as the speakers were on the rostrum yesterday afternoon. Together we had walked from Selma to Montgomery, a family welded together one the road. Quite a few miles back we had discussed her high school in Little Rock and the idea of ownership of powerful places. She was befuddled by the fact that some people think her high school — where nine brave sets of feet marched into a schoolhouse and changed history in 1957 — shouldn't continue its powerful mission to push America's youth forward. They think it's too important for students anymore; it should be an historic site and nothing more.

Meanwhile, as historians are asserting control over her school, the place goes to ruin because it can't be a living landscape. A stagnant pool of water breeds mosquitoes out front of the historic steps. But try as they might, teachers and students can't get anyone to get the water flowing, make the place healthier and more welcoming to the students who call that place home. It's because those steps, that building is historic. And in 1957 there was no positive flow system on that now-stagnant pool.

Standing on the street in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery, I get the feeling those historians have. I feel like, in some sense, I can understand the impulse. I feel like those steps are mine, my inherited heritage as an American. I've written about this before, running right back to the very roots of the blog. That story sings to my soul. This march has been a pilgrimage for me. I was so excited to be standing at the head of the column, leading "We Shall Overcome" through a bullhorn as my voice slowly went south from shouting. And hearing the speeches, seeing the spectacle, feeling the power were going to be the highlight of an arduous journey.

Then I saw my friend, her skin flush, looking like she would collapse in an instant. And I forgot where I was. She's family, my sister. I used my magical flat hat and badge to help part the crowds. We set her on a sunny hill. And I hoisted a protest sign to block the sun from her face.

From then on, the speeches didn't matter. The day melted away. Friend after friend came to the hillside. Some were veterans of a 54-mile march. Some had only traveled the last 3 miles with us up Dexter Avenue But they were all family. Some were marching to remember family members who died 50 years ago during the movement. Others were here to be witnesses. Still more just were looking for an activation, for a moment where they've find what they were fighting for. They were looking for their Selma.

I could say it's because I was wearing that damned uniform, that magical hat. But if I said that I'd be lying. I wasn't a park ranger yesterday. I might have had the arrowhead on my shoulder, but it wasn't some sense of duty making me fan folks, talk to them, joke with them about how much Bernice King's cadence is copied from her father's recordings. It was because we're family now. Toss that hat aside, throw the badge away? I'd still have ignored the speeches and helped my friends.

When she arrived, I promised my friend's mother that I'd make sure she got home safe. And yesterday afternoon her mom picked her up in the parking lot of the Lowndes County visitor center a bit battered and wilted, but none-the-worse for wear.

As we said goodbye, I joked. "And get that reflecting pool in front of the school fixed!"

"I don't know about that," she replied.

"Just rattle the cages," I said, "Make some noise."

"That's right," she said, her mother visibly not quite understanding anything that was going on, "I'm an activist now. I can change it."

My heart broke open at that moment and poured out of my eyes. We all changed the world this week. And we'll keep changing it. We are family in no light sense of that word.

We've got a movement going down in Selma.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Can't Turn Around, We've Come This Far By Faith: Day 4

"...today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. We are on the move now."

The last time I went to a Catholic Mass was on Easter last year. My head was in a bad place. I felt all alone. Mom was gone. and the landscape of the world looked entirely foreign. Even the Mass itself had changed. New responses replaced old ingrained phrases. My mouth didn't match the rest of the congregation. I was lost.

This morning, I stood with a group of people of whom I am eminently proud. What we've done in the past few days is fundamentally different than any other interpretive program undertaken by the National Park Service. Period. Full Stop.

We have embarked on a radical new form of interpretation, discovered almost accidentally. It's something I might call democratic interpretation if I was even so presumptuous as to name it. I'm not sure it can be named by any one person. There is no interpreter, there is no audience. There is only We. The playing field is leveled.

We are a community learning from one another. We respect each other but are frank enough to ask tough questions honestly and openly. And the answers we share are at once profound and simple. There is no way any of us will forget this week's events.

In some way, this week hasn't been about the march from Selma to Montgomery as much as it has been about being human. We've been recreating a march, but that quickly evaporated as a goal. This week has been about people making real, lasting, meaningful connections with one another, understanding each other in a visceral way that's hard to categorize.

I will never forget the long talk about popcorn and rice that Aja and I shared as she unknowingly helped me keep my mind occupied through a painful mile or two. Or exploding fist-bumps with Hanif, or the fact he realized being a historian means you can study all of history, ricocheting from decade to decade and not just focusing on some boring myopic corner of the past. He left for home too soon in the march for me to ask what the Arabic writing on his arm said. I'll never forget hearing how gay folks aren't really as bad off as I thought in South Carolina. I'll never forget hearing about how you can fight for social justice on the clock, then go right back to doing it when you get back home at the end of the day. I'll never forget shaking hands and hugging and laughing. I'll never forget we have lived as a truly caring community these past few days.

I won't forget the causes I've seen dangling from placards on backpacks and plastered across protest signs in crayon and glitter either. "I march for Education." "Women's Rights are Human Rights." "I march for Change." "I walk because this is the 'America' I believe in."

But mostly I won't forget the simple fact that I am not alone. Today we crossed into the City of Montgomery. None of us ever could have achieved the momentous feat alone. We are not individuals; we are a true "We."

Sitting in the sanctuary at the City of Saint Jude tonight, swaying to the tune of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," I realized it was the first time I've been in a Catholic Mass since two days before my Mom's funeral. I also realized I would never be truly alone in this world - even when I'm hundreds of miles from the people I love. If I just put in the effort, I can have every single human beside me as a friend. All I need do is stop to strike up a conversation.

And I knew that for the last three miles on the long trek to the capitol tomorrow I would be with my family.

All 300 of us.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Thunder of the Marching Men of Joshua: Day 3

"Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.... There is nothing wrong with marching in this sense.The Bible tells us that the mighty men of Joshua merely walked about the walled city of Jericho and the barriers to freedom came tumbling down."

I was thinking of Viola today. She drove the family's 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma from Michigan, desperate to make some sort of difference. She trekked 800 miles to try to put even a small dent in the color line's seemingly impenetrable iron curtain. And the home she left wasn't all milk and honey. Detroit was scarred with segregation, a literal 6-foot high "Berlin Wall" separating white families from their black brethren.

But the movement was in Selma. So Viola drove.

We came here too this week. The places we all left behind are pockmarked and scarred by new battles, new fissures, new cracks. But the movement is here. So we move with it.

Viola was white. In 1965 that meant she was "normal." Not in reality, but in society's warped sense of the word. And today, I fit that bill too. I'm white. I'm male and straight. I'm middle class. I'm steadily employed with health benefits and a loving wife who supports me constantly.

It means a lot to me that another "normal" person came here in 1965. It means a lot that this wasn't only a black man's fight, but a fight undertaken by all mankind. It makes it a little easier to feel like I'm allowed to fight for others' freedom from my highly privileged position. After all, if you don't leverage that privilege to the good of all mankind, what good is it anyways?

Viola was shot along the roadside after veering off of Route 80 to find shelter from rampaging Klansmen. White men, men who looked just like me, killed her. They killed her for sitting beside a black man in her car, for shuttling marchers back to their homes. They shot her in the head twice and the 1963 Oldsmobile with Michigan license plates veered hard into a ditch.

The black man beside her, Leroy Moton, dipped his fingers into Viola's gushing wounds and smeared her blood on his own face, his own body. Even in death, Viola Liuzzo was helping her fellow man. When the Klan members checked the car, they found the two bloodied corpses. But one wasn't dead.

We stood next to Viola's monument today, a giant tombstone shaped chunk of rock along Route 80. As some of the group shuffled down the hill to resume the long march to Montgomery, I lingered at that wrought iron fence for a few more precious moments staring into Viola's eyes.

She gave up so much for so many people. She died for an idea. She died for a simple act of kindness into which she had invested hours, fortune and heart. She died, in some ways, for me.

The iron bar was cold but I gripped it hard. She didn't need to die. Hate is irrational. And murder for blind hatred is doubly irrational. But it sometimes feels like a cycle that can never end.

Viola won in the end. She never saw it, but black men and women who lived just a scant few steps from where she died found their full citizenship in the ballot when LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6th. Viola was cold in the ground but America was still marching forward.

Two weeks after Klansmen took chunks from Viola's exquisite face with a shotgun, someone in Detroit burned a cross on her family's front lawn. No good deed goes unpunished.