a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The South that’s forever in my bones is not a place of ideas or history. It’s a place of sounds and smells, it is sticky heat, it’s all senses, and little sense. The South that calls me home tugs at my body, not my mind. I left a South ruled by the Bible and the belt. And I left a South heavy with the weight of history: the battle of Shiloh, the wrong side of the war; Jim Crow and poll taxes and Martin Luther King crumpled on the balcony.
Of my south then, my mid-south home, I will start with my eyes closed, because I can find my way around with just my nose. Early morning and dusk are the best times for such a tour. Out the front door, to the right. A mysterious piney perfume hovered at the base of the giant cedar tree that bordered our neighbor’s house and ours. It was an otherworldly place to hide. The filtered light was bluish green, cool and dim and fragrant. Way on the other side of the house, in the side yard, the magnolia. When she bloomed nothing else mattered, her velvety lemon-jasmine so insistent you almost felt and heard it.
Further South, forty-five minutes down highway 78, a mimosa tree in Aunt Mary’s backyard, smelling like cotton candy reborn as a flower. The sharp tang of sticky pine-tar as I shimmied down a leggy pine, and the acrid burning scent of the gasoline my uncle used to remove it from my hands and knees. I was a tree-climber. In our old house we had a pecan tree in the backyard, and I used to scramble to the top of it in minutes. I’ve climbed them all, and rested my head against their branches, and inhaled their bark, and flowers or fruits: pecan, crabapple, pine, magnolia, crepe myrtle, cedar, sweet gum, oak.
Florida is not the place most people think of when they think of the South. They conjure up palm trees and beaches on Christmas. Salt smells, sailboats gliding through darkness, a bridge lifting, moaning, to let them pass. But my Florida, Central Florida, is completely different. There were deserted back country roads, long stretches of single lane dirt or concrete that swung through farms and horse ranches, past abandoned boys’ schools, or Christian camps, hidden deep in the back woods. Cold springs that bubbled up clear from the bottom. Fountains of Youth like the ones Ponce de León searched for during Florida’s original incarnation. The marine world beneath is its own clear universe: plankton, fish, snails, and lone, slow manatee, like numb cows floating through the chilled fresh water. In the corners of these springs, like at the lakes, alligators or water moccasins hid in mysterious high grasses. Locals would point them out. “Don’t swim over there,” someone would say. “That’s where the gators live. If you do swim, take a dog. They prefer dogs to eat.”
How do you find this world? Travel out I-4 from Orlando, land of misbegotten, fantasy worlds – Sea World, Disney World, the Wizarding World of Happy Potter – pass the lesser galaxies – Wet ‘n Wild, Legoland, WonderWorks, Madame Tussaud’s. Leave behind life wrapped in plastic, built from fiberglass and spackle, dream landscapes of color and automation. Leave behind the strip malls and $5 tee shirt shops.
Head up the highway past yet another round of amusement facades. Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, and the Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park in possession of an exact replica of the tomb where Jesus was buried. Every day at 5 o’clock Christ is recrucified there to the horror and delight of visitors, hung up like a sopping wet towel in the streets of a cardboard Jerusalem. The farther north you drive the more the land turns to what it was before they all got here. Hot stretches of liquid green pastures, rippling with humidity, reptiles and weeds. Trees garlanded in ash-gray Spanish moss and thin, reedy grasses, shrubs gone ecstatic with flowers, and clouds hung like set pieces in a clear blue sky. Out here, there’s not much besides poetry, and poverty, and the poetry of poverty, everywhere you look.
To get to Memphis from Chicago, it’s a long straight drive south through cornfields repeating themselves beneath a flat unwavering sky. It’s one of the most boring drives imaginable. And yet somehow in that stretch of I-57 that takes you from Chicago to Cairo, probably around the time the flat suddenly becomes a hill and gully descent towards the Mississippi River, the world changes from North to South, and the accents change with the landscape, from flat Midwestern nasal vowels to a twangy drawl that Southern Illinoisans swear is Southern, and that as a child in Memphis I doubtless called Yankee.
If I’m the only one in the car (oh who am I kidding, even if I’m not) at some point I begin singing “Going Down to Cairo” at the top of my lungs.
Going down to Cairo
Goodbye, and a goodbye
Going down to Cairo
Goodbye Liza Jane
I always sing it fast and twangy and I get louder on the “black them boots and make ‘em shine” part. For those of you not from around these parts, I should probably tell you that Cairo is pronounced Kay-ro. If you need to back up and read again with a corrected pronunciation, go ahead. I will wait. The right vowel can make all the difference.
The southern accents I’m used to are different than that. Rangy, misguided, loose. What some might call “cracker”. The term “Florida cracker” comes from the cowboys that once rode cattle up the state, when it was used for its range and open feeding, early on. These are the sounds you’re most likely to hear in my small town of Eustis, Florida, population 20,000, soaking wet.
But there are other sounds, too. Before you get all the way up to my little town, you’ll pass one even smaller: Eatonville, the country’s first incorporated black town, following emancipation. Just 2,300 folks. Small as it is, it’s layered in history. The writer, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston lived and wrote in this tiny place, and the stories she collected there inscribed her own life. Hurston didn’t write much in the autobiographical “I,” but the Eatonville folktales told in her 1935 book Mules and Men, somehow transcribed her experience and that of being black at that time in history, all the mysteries, the fears, the role of nature and community. To read these tales now is to hear them hum with not just sound, but meaning. They’re a portal to a world comprised of signs. Hurston’s love of story was born of Eatonville and the townspeople who held what she called “lying sessions.” Stories of “God, Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat, Lion, Tiger, Buzzard1” and all the rest. These stories comprised her, and in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, it’s hard to see where Hurston’s own story begins and these stories end.
Cairo, Illinois, and the rest of the state, I had always believed, was above the Mason-Dixon line. My Uncle was a truck driver and he used to talk about driving up to Cairo. Now I’m a Chicagoan, Cairo is down. When I was a child and people talked about the North (boorish Yankees) and the South (home), they spoke of anything-above-Tennessee as being “above the Mason-Dixon line.” It turns out that line, demarcated by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon back before the Declaration of Independence, was way East, keeping Pennsylvania out of Virginia and Maryland, and biting off a little chunk of Delaware. There is no Mason-Dixon line for me to cross over when I travel from Chicago to Memphis.
But there’s something there. I feel it. I see it. I hear it. My heart simultaneously leaps up in joy and fills with a dull thudding anxiety. Usually the first rumblings of joy happen as the hills begin to bubble up, there are pine trees growing beside the highway instead of cornfields, and the blood in my veins feels the tug of the Mississippi River, slow and inexorable, so powerful it can’t be swum. The bridge is enormous, you drive over one more hill and then there it is, looming in the distance, a long high bridge of steel arches, and if I’m alone in the car, when I drive up the quarter mile of ramp it takes to get onto the bridge proper, I roll down my window and holler like Bo Duke. If my kids are in the car, I holler at them instead: “Look, y’all look, it’s the Mississippi River oh look!” And just like that, my accent is there, the second “look” has two or three extra syllables for emphasis.
In the summer of 1987, I was a high school junior. Eatonville celebrated its 100th anniversary – its centennial – as the first black incorporated town. For months, we heard on the five o’clock news how they planned a grand parade down Main Street. Then one night the news reported the unthinkable: Florida’s own Klu Klux Klan had petitioned to march in the Eatonville centennial parade. Their stated excuse? They claimed they wanted to show their support for black towns, separated from whites. It wasn’t an aggressive act, they said, but one done in solidarity with Eatonville’s cause. We could feel the fear and anger smoldering up the highways and backroads from 30 miles away.
Immediately, public debate cropped up over what should happen. Many people said they shouldn’t be allowed to march. Said they were stealing the focus of a peaceful event meant to commemorate African Americans and all they’d survived. The KKK’s presence would instead place the emphasis on their hatred, their history of oppression and violence. Some even suggested canceling the whole thing, even if it meant the KKK had won. The town council debated it, but in the end, it was determined the parade would go on and that the KKK’s participation was a first amendment, free speech issue. Everyone had the right to march in a town-sponsored parade, provided they’d filed the necessary paperwork, which the KKK had done. Eatonville had no choice. The KKK would march in their parade.
Is it the bridge? Is it the water?
It will be three more hours until Memphis, we will have to slip through a corner of Missouri and then wend our way through more flatness, Mississippi River flatness, passing soybean and cotton fields beneath an unforgiving sky, past ugly fast food marquees through dusty West Memphis, Arkansas, and then again “oh look girls look, there’s the bridge!” the second Mississippi crossing is right in front of me, wider than the first, I have a moment of panic where I try to remember am I supposed to take I-40 or I-55 and then I drive up onto the huge M-shaped bridge that is lit at night, I see downtown Memphis winking in the sun with it’s low-rise skyline, a sign in the middle of the bridge says WELCOME TO TENNESSEE, I holler one more time, and I am home.
The man down front called out: “If anyone here is ready to absolve themselves of their sins, come forward now.”
His small, dark moustache twitched nervously on his lip. His black curls hung on his forehead, too immature for his pot-bellied frame, his button-down white dinner shirt and polyester pants. He stood before a makeshift wooden cross they’d borrowed from the church downtown. For two straight hours, we’d listened to testimonies of how the Lord had saved and redeemed sinful lives. Now it was our turn; the uninitiated. We were here to be saved. That’s why the faithful had brought us.
I watched the aisle in the makeshift revival tent intently, fighting the urge to walk forward. Then fighting that urge to fight. Part of me felt perpetually sinful, and this was a solution offered, a balm. I was sixteen years old; I had a girlfriend. I sported short hair; I was awkward, ill-spoken, I never fit in. For those reasons alone I was circumspect, never mind my high school lover. The furtive gropings performed in her mother’s car on the dark, abandoned lanes near orange groves and the smoking Minute Maid plant.
I stood up and walked down the row to the altar. Someone had laid out a length of white tarp, so that it resembled a matrimonial aisle. The preacher, who in his spare time was my high school algebra teacher, laid his hands on my bent-over head. I felt my silk straight hair soft and lank running like water beneath his callused fingers. “You are absolved, sister,” he said. “In the name of Jesus. You are saved.”
Outside, the tents billowed in the night breeze, kicking up small swells of sand. My faith reared up but felt impermanent, like these tents, hastily assembled pavilions so like a traveling circus. I all but expected gray elephants to lumber by. The preacher/teacher and I climbed back into his scuffed minivan and headed home, driving silently in the dark.
One of the jokes about the South is this: you may not go to church on Sunday, but you know which church you don’t go to. We didn’t go to Christ United Methodist Church. This rankled my Grandmother no end. She was a charter member of the church, had helped found it, had been in charge of training Methodist Sunday School teachers all over the South. My mother, who had married her only son, was a great disappointment to her. Once I asked Mama (on Grandmama’s behest) why we didn’t go to church. “Oh,” shrugged my mother, rushed and distracted, not listening really, the way mothers do, “Oh, I don’t have anything to wear to church.”
In Eatonville, the parade went on as scheduled with all the townspeople standing by on the street and watching it pass. There was the local Eatonville High School marching band. There was the mayor. Various displays of the town’s great history had been cut out of cardboard. All that the people had accomplished in 100 years. Men and women stood on the sidelines and cheered, while their children waved small flags. It was as though the KKK wasn’t coming at all, as though no one had seen them line up at 7 in the morning, with all the other participants, down by the Publix grocery store, in their parking lot.
Then it was time for them to march by. Whether from fear of reprisal, or just lack of follow through, their sorry group consisted of just three country white boys and a couple of hand painted signs.
And the crowd? They simply turned their backs and let them pass. There was no violence, no confrontation. They just refused to give those boys their attention, as though there was nothing about them or their cause worthy of Eatonville’s time.
It was the greatest protest I’d ever heard of. One for the history books. Put that in the folklore along with Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and all the great tales Hurston heard spun at the local country store. If I could’ve listened, I’m sure I would’ve heard Zora laughing from her unmarked grave.
Memphis is a city built on a bluff, inside a primordial forest. It sits high above the flood plain; a good three hundred feet above it, on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi. Near the center of the city, in Overton Park, are 170 acres of virgin old growth forest. (The forest stopped an interstate in its tracks.) Trees are everywhere in Memphis, tall, climbable, shade trees. So even though I grew up in a city, I grew up in a forest. Or under the faint shadow of one. And underneath the forest, under our feet, three trillion gallons of pure soft artesian water. Until that water was discovered, around 1890, Memphis was a filthy, disease-ridden place, home to cholera and malaria and two yellow fever epidemics.
Call out to the senses. The musty mossy scent of old stone cemetery, something soft and brown-green, not decayed but not living either, a stillness. Sweet yellow honeysuckle vines, waiting for us to suck the tiny drop of nectar from the bottom of each blossom and toss it, discarded, to the ground. We never ran out of flowers. And cooking smells: you could tell the time at my grandmother’s house by the smell of sizzling cornmeal as the cornbread batter was poured into hot muffin tins: 5 PM. At 5:10 I would be pulling the heavy iron pans out of the oven, flipping each piece of cornbread over with a fork to cool, and begging to eat just one.
Church smells: air conditioning and Estee Lauder, grape juice, soap. Talcum powder, spray starch, and the spotless smell of a clean conscience. But the smells I miss are mostly cooking smells and green growing things. I grew up in a city but the wild was always there, singing at the doorstep, calling out my name.
 Hurston, Zora Neale. “Dust Tracks on a Road” from Southern Selves: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Anne-Marie Akin is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, and never wrote a damn thing until she moved up north to Chicago and got so cold she had to write just to keep warm. She is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Northwestern University, a recipient of an NEA teaching artist fellowship to Ragdale, a songwriter for Carnegie Hall’s National Lullaby Project, and a faculty member at The Old Town School of Folk Music. Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Mothers Always Write, and Pass it On, and her story “Maybe, Baby,” is in the anthology The Buddha Next Door.
Laura Jones is currently a thesis candidate at Northwestern University in the MFA Creative Nonfiction program. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Oklahoma Review, and a chapter of her forthcoming graphic memoir My Life in Movies will be published in Fourth Genre. Her feature length film script Creative Nonfiction was a finalist in Chicago’s Pride Film and Plays festival in 2015 and received a professional, staged reading in the city. She’s also a journalist and arts reporter working with papers and magazines around the country. She was born and raised in Florida, which is, contrary to what many believe, the South.
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