September 16, 2019

You Can't Go Home Again

By Isiah Smith | July 28, 2018

In “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway wrote that anyone lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man carries the memory of Paris with him wherever he goes.

I think that’s true of anyplace one happens to have spent considerable time during their formative years. Echoes and memories move across time and space, and they follow you wherever you go. But not all movable feasts nourish one’s soul.

After three failed attempts, I recently undertook a journey that cannot be measured in mere miles: to Blakely, Georgia, where I was born in the middle of the last century. Anticipating this journey had filled me with fear and dread, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

I don’t think any African-American male in reasonable possession of his sanity and relative consciousness would have volunteered to be born in Jim-Crow Georgia decades before the term “Civil Rights” entered America’s collective consciousness.

This is especially so if that place happened to have been Blakely, Georgia. In the 1950s, Blakely was not a place to be nobody — doubly so if you possessed an ounce of melanin, which I possessed in great abundance.

Some say that you have to know where you’re from before you can know where you’re going. To which I say you have to know where you’re going in order to know where you’re going.

Isabel Wilkerson wrote about Blakely in her award-winning book about the black diaspora, “The Warmth of Other Suns.” She reported that because of a particularly savage lynching of a black veteran of World War II, the great literary figure Carl Sandburg gave Blakely the sad moniker, “The meanest little town in America.”

Private William Little, the victim in this tragic tale, was mutilated, disfigured, and killed for the crime of refusing to remove the uniform he had worn while fighting the Nazis.

My recent visit to Blakely was half over before I happened to walk through the center of the city square. There I saw a white marble memorial. Pristine and, apparently, recently white-washed, it proudly proclaimed:

 “A tribute of love, to the noble confederate soldiers who cheerfully offered their lives in defense of the right of local self-government, and to those who fought and survived.”

To my knowledge, no person, black or white, has ever been moved to protest, or even comment on, this memorial and its willful bending of facts and distortion of history.

Hear me out: I do not advocate tearing down all offensive memorials. I do, however, advocate telling the truth about what it was that those “noble” soldiers were really fighting for.

Fingers trembling, sweat dripping down my face, I turn and stare at the tiny movie theatre directly across from the memorial. A flood of childhood memories flood my brain and tears sting my eyes. As small children, my older sister, Rubye Nell, and I, collected and sold pieces of scrap iron to earn money to watch western movies where we rooted for cowboys as they slaughtered Native Americans.

We were consigned to sitting upstairs. Up there, sweat ran down our backs in the summer. During the winter months, our teeth shattered from the cold, and we could see our breath floating between the small screen and our faces. We gained a measure of solace and revenge by launching occasional globs of spit upon the heads of the white kids sitting comfortably below us.

Walking around Blakely, then driving past the government housing I lived in until I was nine years old, I see not much has changed, except perhaps to have gotten worse. I suddenly realize how far I have travelled since the Eisenhower administration and the current regrettable one.

To have lived through those dark days and escaped with a measure of dignity is to have earned a certain form of endurance and an unshakeable belief that, no matter what happens, we’re going to be all right.

The day came that I left Blakely behind, never looking back. I refused to look back because, hey, that’s not the direction I’m headed. Everything that matters lies ahead.

But there’s one last lesson to be learned by trying to go “home” again. And that is this: Although things might seem worse than they’ve ever been, they are not. So never lose heart.

There’s no airport in Blakely, of course. So I drove 36 miles northeast to Dothan, Alabama. My flight back to Michigan wasn’t until the next day, so I had time to explore. I found my way to a Barnes and Noble bookshop.

As I paid for my purchase, the clerk looked at me with eyes the color of Lake Michigan in the summer time and asked with arched eyebrows, “You’re not from these parts, are you?”

“No,” I muttered in a voice cracking around the seams. “No, not anymore.”

Isiah Smith Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a master’s degree in psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a deputy assistant general counsel for administrative litigation and information law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife, Marlene.

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