Cathy Eads, of Atlanta, Ga., describes her awakening to the racial inequities that remain endemic in U.S. society. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
I was blind, but now I see.
As Black History Month 2021 comes to a close, I’m also marking nearly a year of much more time, and need, for mulling over the human condition. So, I’ve been reflecting on the evolution of my awareness of racism. I grew up a cis white female in central Kentucky. I went to a very small elementary school with zero Black students and a high school of 800 kids with around 15-20 Black students. I had much more experience with the Huxtable family, Sanford and Son, and the Jeffersons than I did with real Black people. It would be generous to describe my view of the Black experience and racial inequity as narrow.
When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, the scales fell from my eyes. At the time, my second son, a white boy, and his close friend and neighbor, a Black boy, were 12. It struck me suddenly that my son’s friend, my kind neighbors’ child, could have easily been killed in cold blood for walking around at night in a hoodie, just like Trayvon. This fact made me sick to my stomach, and it readjusted my understanding of racism. I hadn’t fully realized until then how a person’s Blackness still made him or her a target, and how a person’s whiteness gave him or her protection.
That day I started to understand the concept of white privilege. I realized I had never felt the need to have a talk with my sons about how to act around police in order to save their lives during a traffic stop, or anywhere else. I never had to tell them to keep their hands out of their pockets when in a store, and to make sure they got a receipt, and a bag, at the checkout. I never feared that when they went out at night with friends, they might be shot and never come home. I felt guilty and embarrassed by my depth of ignorance around racial issues.
In the last few years, I’ve learned more about the history of policing, cash bail, and mass incarceration. I’ve read the statistics on Black women’s health and rates of Black maternal death. I’ve watched the reports of how the coronavirus has stolen a disproportionate number of Black lives. I’ve heard the stories of racially motivated voter suppression laws, the higher rates of toxic pollution present near neighborhoods populated mostly by people of color, the racial bias in education and testing, and systemic racism that permeates nearly every institution throughout the United States and weaves its threads throughout our culture.
I used to claim, “I’m not racist.” Now I know this: it’s impossible to escape the effects of racist ideas in a society that was built on racism and has laws that support racist policies still today. I believe it’s time we all consider getting on board with the Avenue Q song and just admit it—“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” because we have grown up in a deeply racist society.
Ibram X. Kendi explains that the only way out of this quagmire is to become antiracist. It’s not enough to try to be “not racist.” If people want to bring about changes that promote equity, we have to actively work to become antiracist individuals. From that place, we can work to bring about antiracist policies. His book How To Be An Antiracist has helped me see even more of my blind spots and learn how to overcome them, along with ways our communities, organizations, and laws can become antiracist. He shares stories of his lived experience along with the history of race as a social construct created to achieve a sense of supremacy and privilege for some people, and to strip it from others.
Regardless of our physical characteristics and beliefs, I am certain that until all of us feel safe, cared for, respected, and valued, none of us truly are. Working at becoming antiracist is one step I can take toward promoting a more secure existence. I still have much to learn.
And so he has been acquitted, as we all anticipated. His loyalists never abandoned him, not really, even if some publicly wavered moments after he put their lives at risk. Because of that undying fealty, and despite what some pundits are saying, I fully believe he will run again. Why wouldn’t he? He craves the white-hot heat of that spotlight in the political crucible. He will crush all comers.
As I watched the brilliant impeachment managers present their evidence last week, I alternated between traumatized, tearful, and comforted. Comforted because I realized how much I needed someone to confirm that this has all been real. I needed to see the horrors of his presidency presented in a cogent and organized way. Seeing the chaos neatly packaged helped me breathe again.
It wasn’t just a terrifying, perpetual nightmare. Others saw it, too. Around the world, they were watching.
I wish I could believe it is over. But his chilling words on Saturday tell us otherwise: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun.”
We are all exhausted, and I intend to heed our duly elected President’s calls to move on. But we must remain vigilant. We cannot allow our hope and our relief to blind us to the anger and the violence of Trump’s toxic brew. We watched it boil over on January 6. He will turn up the heat again.
Back in December, in the awful year of our Lord 2020, I happened to flip on a news program just as author Salman Rushdie pronounced, “Lies are a way of obscuring the truth. Fiction is a way of revealing the truth.”
Having taken numerous classes and read many books on fiction writing in recent years, this concept was not novel to me. (Sorry…) Nor is it original to Rushdie, of course. Writers Albert Camus and Jessamyn West, for example, famously used nearly the same words to relay the same idea.
But I hurriedly scribbled the words on a pad of paper that I’ve learned to keep in front of the TV—my oracle for inerrant wisdom—and they’ve rolled around in my consciousness ever since.
This week our nation will be subjected to yet another impeachment trial of Former President Donald J. Trump (or “the 45th President Donald J. Trump,” as he evidently prefers to be addressed). He is in this predicament once again because of his lies. He lied about the fairness of the election before the election, and he lied about the results of the election afterwards. He also pressed other people, such as Georgia election officials, to lie for him. Many, many people believed his lies, and, ultimately, his lies led to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. People died, and other people’s lives were threatened.
Trump obviously felt it was to his advantage to “obscure the truth.” If he is not convicted, if he never faces any further accountability for his lies or the damage they caused, what deterrents will there be for other elected officials not to lie to further their agenda? Or to cry “Fraud!” every time they lose an election?
In fact, our country seems to be so awash in lies that I’m not sure how we ever find our way back to the truth. Perhaps that’s why Rushdie’s comments have stayed with me.
Some of the most powerful—or memorable—fiction tells the stories of ordinary people who find themselves in horrific situations: war, poverty, imprisonment, abuse, persecution, pandemics, social or political upheaval. It’s by temporarily inhabiting these fictional characters, seeing their world through their eyes and ears and emotions, that we can begin to understand their truth. It’s not until we actually feel ourselves in that battle or in that degrading circumstance, or we feel that hunger or those taunts or that pain, that we begin to fully grasp their reality.
It may seem odd at first to think that a made-up story taking place in a made-up world is where we may logically find the most truth. But perhaps that imaginary incarnation permits greater honesty. Or perhaps it helps remove our own prejudices so we can see things more clearly.
Which leads me to ask: Will we have to wait until some great works of imagination are written about these dark days—these days spent watching our democracy teeter on the brink—before we are able to fully untangle all the lies? Or can a nation of disparate peoples with disparate experiences and viewpoints finally, through sheer will, recognize a common truth so we can heal this country?
This week the impeachment managers will carefully present all of the facts they have collected, drawing the clearest picture they can to support their contention that the former president incited the insurrection. But can they “reveal the truth” in a way that the majority of our citizens, let alone two-thirds of the Senate, will accept it?
We’ve already seen most of the evidence. Many of us watched it play out in real time. But, still, we don’t agree on the appropriate response. The truth remains elusive. Fiction may be our last hope.
It’s Black History Month, so it’s time for more reckoning.
I have written freely in this blog about my family’s role in the lynching of a Black man, George Carter, in Paris, Ky., in 1901. I have written about my horror in learning about that incident. I wrote last summer about my rising fury at the unending injustice in this country that has led to the unconscionable loss of Black lives, tragedies that have been ongoing for generations but which have become more public with the advent of cell phone videos. I remain angry and disgusted with the lack of progress on the underlying issues that allow this to continue. I hope to write more about that before February comes to an end, and we give ourselves permission to stop thinking about these things until next February.
Right now, however, I need to talk about the family Bible.
I remember this Bible being displayed on a dropleaf cherry table in front of the picture window in our living room in Lawrenceburg, Ky., when I was a child. It was an enormous, handsome, heavy book, in good condition for a book of its age. I remember flipping through it; I remember noticing handwriting on some of the pages. But I don’t believe I could have told you what branch of my family it represented or anything about the people whose births and deaths and marriages had been noted.
Recently a family member shared some photos she had taken of those pages. I immediately recognized that the Bible was yet another relic of my missing grandfather’s family, the grandfather who abandoned my mother shortly after her birth. The Bible was published in 1848, so the Bible first belonged to my grandfather Lyons Board’s grandparents, Dr. L. D. Barnes and his wife, Mary Parker Roseberry Barnes, of Paris, Ky.
After all the research I—and others—have done into that family over the past ten years or so, I now recognize the names. Those of you who have read Next Train Out might, too. There’s the marriage of Dr. Barnes’ daughter, Mary Lake Barnes, to William Ellery Board, originally of Harrodsburg, in 1888. There’s the marriage of their only surviving son, William Lyons Board, to Nell Hardeman Marrs of Lawrenceburg, in 1920. There are the births—and the deaths—of all the children who didn’t live to adulthood, or didn’t even survive infancy.
And there are the births of the “servants.”
The servants are identified only by first names: Mary Jane, John, Harriett, Alice, Bell, George, Dan, and Maria. The listing is separate from the “Family Record” listed in a fine hand on decorative pages. The handwriting on the servants page is less careful and difficult to read. It grieves me that I may not have all of the names correct. Another thing we have learned this year is how important it is to say their names.
All of the servants were born between 1828 and 1860. All were born, I have to assume, into slavery.
I don’t know that for certain, of course, And it’s possible they had been freed by the time they were listed in the family Bible. But any other scenario is hard to imagine in central Kentucky before the Civil War in a family of some status living in a county with a large population of slaves working expansive agricultural land. The fact that they are included in the Bible makes me want to believe that they were indeed considered members of the household and were treated gently and respectfully and were well loved by the Barnes family.
None of that excuses the fact that some or all of them were at some point the property of the Barneses.
I had already discovered some time ago that at least three of the four branches of my family once owned a small number of slaves, probably all doing domestic household work. I had already reckoned with that in some small way. It was not a surprise to discover this listing of the Barnes family servants. But it remains painful to see the evidence handwritten in such a personal way in the family Bible.
Many of us from the South share a similar family history. It’s remote to us now. We’re talking about more than 150 years ago, after all. Nonetheless, I feel it’s important not to deny our intimate connections—no matter how tenuous, no matter how seemingly innocent—to the national shame our country has to bear, and bear witness to. My family played a role. The Bible tells me so.
The words leaped off the cover of the February-March issue of National Wildlife, the magazine of the National Wildlife Federation. Looking directly at me on the cover was an adorable young American marten—a tawny brown weasel with a bushy tail, a species I knew nothing about that evidently builds tunnels under the snow for warmth and easy hunting.
The phrase stayed with me—“The Solace of Snow”—as I awaited a little snowfall here in central Kentucky. This morning, I awoke to Kentucky’s version of a winter wonderland. Out walking Lucy, I talked to a neighbor who was headed to Florida for some sunshine and golf. The mail carrier stopped to chat and said she’d be fine if this were the last snow she ever saw in her life. I piped up, saying, “I’d like to have snow on the ground from December 1 to March 31”—and the conversation abruptly stopped. They stared at me. My undying love for snow is not popular.
A snowfall calms me. It purifies the landscape, covering all the world’s blemishes, all the ugliness, all the winter rot. I love the crisp, cold air. I love crunching through the snow or kicking up the powder. A beautiful snowfall renews me, the way crocuses pushing through the snow might give others hope.
For me, snow does indeed offer solace, something that has been in short supply over the last months.
Reading the article “A Fading Winter Blanket,” I learn how diminishing snowfall is affecting a wide range of animals, from the marten to the polar bear to ruffled grouse to the tiny Karner blue butterfly in upstate New York, which lays its eggs on the stems of wild blue lupine, expecting them to be warmed and protected by persistent snowpack all winter. As the earth has warmed, that hasn’t been the case, so the Karner blue butterfly population is at risk. Polar bears are struggling to find the deep snow needed for birthing dens. Mountain goats in the American West seek increasingly rare patches of snow year-round to prevent them from overheating.
The natural world as we know it depends on snow, for a wide variety of reasons. As our weather becomes more extreme—too much snow in some places, too little elsewhere, glaciers melting, sea levels rising—many species suffer. Some will adapt. Some will disappear. We’ll grieve them when it’s too late.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep longing for the blanketing snows of my childhood, for long days on the sledding hill and soaking wet snow gear draped around the house. For the break in routine that a heavy snow compels—the only excuse you need to revel momentarily in its enchanting beauty.
Joe Ford, of Louisville, Ky., may have found what we're all looking for. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
What? I can just take a bus to a happy new year?
No diets, no yoga, no therapy, no counseling?
I found you do have to be careful though, about where you want to go. This destination rotates with, say, “18th and Broadway.” If you get on when it says “18th and Broadway,” you end up at, well, 18th and Broadway. That may be OK if that’s what you want.
Ahh, but the bus to Happy. Catch it if you can.
Where should you get off, you say?
Indeed. But don’t you know?
Over this year of disruption and isolation and sorrow, I have heard many people say they intended to dedicate some of the time they were stuck at home to sorting through family photos. While I seem to have frittered away all those months with nothing to show for it, some of you apparently followed through.
A week ago I was delighted to receive an unexpected text from a former classmate and old friend, Anne Moffett Simmons, who I hadn’t heard from in decades. Attached were photos that she and her sister had discovered while going through family albums.
One photo shows my mother, around age six, with her arm around the younger David Caddell, Anne's uncle, as he sneaks a kiss.
In another photo, there's my mother sitting next to her friend Dot (Dorothy) Caddell, Anne’s mother and David's twin sister. David stands to the left, looking a little sheepish, and my mother’s cousin, George McWilliams Jr., is on the right, seemingly disinterested in all the commotion.
I cannot explain the sheer joy that photo elicited. There was my mother, surrounded by her pals and playmates when she was a very young girl, holding what appears to be a bouquet of flowers. She’s smiling at the person taking the picture, whom she seems to completely trust to capture her pleasure in the moment. Dot looks like she can barely tolerate sitting still for these ridiculous shenanigans and is already plotting her next move. The boys stand as unwilling sentinels on either side.
It’s only since I began working on Next Train Out that I have become more fully cognizant of the depth of sadness my mother endured in her lifetime. The loss of her husband in mid-life was just the final blow. There had been the loss of two children and her mother while she was hundreds of miles away from family. The permanent absence of her father who had never bothered to contact her after disappearing shortly after she was born. And, after returning to her hometown to raise her two daughters, the eventual recognition that her old friends had largely moved on with their lives.
While I can recall moments when my mother laughed or acted a little silly, those were few. By the time I was old enough to pay attention, she seemed more commonly somber and somewhat melancholy. It has taken me a lifetime to reflect on why that was.
But in this photo she radiates happiness. Happiness to be seated beside her friend Dot. Happiness that she's the focus of someone's attention. Happiness that someone wants to take her picture. I wish I could ask that little girl what she’s thinking.
As you come across family photos while sorting through the detritus of your rich and complicated lives, I encourage you to consider who else might relish a glimpse into the moments captured by the camera. Because our connections with others have been so restricted over the past year, many of us are aching for a little time with those we love. You might be surprised how healing it can be to have your emotions stirred, even by a black-and-white photo from a time long ago.
Ed Lawrence, of Frankfort, Ky., shares his response to the images of January 6, 2021. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
In the wake of last Wednesday’s events, my preferred media outlets have been spewing a lot of powerful words (also words related to power) like tyranny, sedition, rebellion, revolution, coup, conspiracy, and insurrection. I felt like insurrection might be the right word to describe the mob effect of that day in our history. I asked my Google Home device for a definition. “Violent uprising against a government or authority” seemed to me to best fit the bill for my perception of what happened.
As I watched the video clips of the insurrection over and over again, I started focusing on the flags waving in the air. In 2020 I took a class in visual rhetoric and so I began doing an amateur rhetorical analysis on the flags carried by the insurrectionists.
Of course, there were many Trump flags, which would be natural given the person who incited the insurrection. I feel like those carrying those flags were self-appointed members of the Trump militia.
Those carrying the American flag clearly felt it was their patriotic duty to bring back an America that only exists in their imaginations. A country that is solely white, Christian, and English speaking.
I noticed a couple of state flags: Florida and New Mexico to be precise. Were there Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania flags? I can only suppose the carriers were making a case for states’ rights.
Media personalities kept saying the insurrection was surreal. My response to that was that they had never dropped acid. The insurrection was real, not surreal. Then I saw the huge flag bearing the name JESUS in bold letters. Is Jesus really prepared to run our government? I mean no disrespect to Jesus or to Christians of any stripe, but why was Jesus represented at the insurrection? The Jesus flag did seem surreal.
And then there was the Confederate flag in the Capitol. I understand why most people in this country were incensed by the sight. But for me, I travel the backroads of Kentucky making landscape photographs and come across Confederate flags so often, I’m numbed to outrage.
The flag that has me outraged is the flag of the Thin Blue Line. Why did I spot several policemen’s flags at the insurrection? Were police really in attendance trying to overthrow our government? I thought police take an oath to serve and protect, not riot and insurrect.
Today, the breaking news is that many Capitol police aided and abetted in the insurrection. Troubling indeed, but I still think about local police who were there. And with that thought, how many of them were complicit in the murder of Black citizens of our country? I’m generally not one for retribution, but I hope those carrying the flag of the Thin Blue Line are found and banished from policing forever.
I already didn’t much like 2021. My dog had been mysteriously ill for days, not eating, never moving off the sofa. A buck mistook the side of my moving car for a toreador’s cape. I longed to talk to friends who were struggling with impossible family situations, but understood that they didn’t need my meddling.
I was stressed.
And that was before the insurrection that has roiled our U.S. Capitol building since early afternoon. Today, our president incited mob violence that spilled into our halls of governance, where Republican members of Congress were arguing that an election certified by all 50 states was fraudulent. A woman who was shot has died. Our elected officials were whisked to bunkers or barricaded in offices. As evening falls, some of the mob has dispersed, but officers of the law are still working to secure the area.
Our nation is even more broken than most of us can grasp. It will not be fixed in 2021. It will take patient, united efforts from government officials and citizens alike over a very long time.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus rages on. Yesterday we once again recorded the highest number of deaths and hospitalizations since the beginning of the pandemic. Over the holidays, friends and relatives across the country avoided family members rather than gathering in quiet celebration. Some couldn’t hold the hand of an aged parent. Couldn’t race to the emergency room with a spouse. Had to initiate difficult conversations via phone.
Here in Kentucky the damp gloom seems to have settled permanently over our lives. 35 degrees. Drizzling. Without end. I have found myself sapped of all purpose, feeling helpless amid the continuing horror.
Then, as the drama unfolded at the U.S. Capitol, we learned that Georgia voters had successfully finished the job that we voters in Kentucky couldn’t: breaking Mitch McConnell’s grip on the U.S. Senate.
Glory be, they did it.
They did it despite ongoing voter suppression in Georgia. They did it thanks to an enormous commitment by a dedicated few to register new voters and trumpet the importance of these elections.
In November 1872, Samuel [George] Hawkins, a Black Kentuckian working to register voters in Fayette and Jessamine counties, was accosted by a mob of white men associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Hawkins, his wife, and his daughter were all taken from their home and murdered by the mob, leaving behind six younger children.* Newspaper accounts vary as to whether their executions were by hanging or by drowning. Whatever the grisly tactics, white Democrats weren’t going to allow Black Republicans to “steal” the election from their candidate, New York newspaper publisher Horace Greely. Despite their efforts, incumbent Republican President Ulysses S. Grant won.
In November 1900, three men in Bourbon County, Ky., carried out a scheme on behalf of the local Democratic party that lured Black men into games of craps. Over 60 Black participants were then arrested and jailed long enough to prevent them from voting in the November 6 presidential election.** The Republican won anyway, when incumbent President William McKinley defeated his Democratic challenger, William Jennings Bryan.
And in 2021, despite newly creative efforts at voter suppression—including, perhaps, allowing a pandemic to race unchecked through minority communities—the voices again could not be extinguished. They could not be hidden under a bushel. The people have spoken.
Amid the shocking images we have watched today, perhaps there are still glimmers of the hope that we are all searching for in 2021. The sun is still hiding, but if our nation can navigate the next 14 days, perhaps we can finally shift course. We can try something different. Perhaps this year we can try compassion, humility, and respect while serving others.
Earlier today, I foolishly imagined that might be enough. Tonight, I’m clinging to the idea that this change in leadership may at least present a first step toward gluing together the shattered pieces this administration will leave behind.
*George C. Wright, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings,” Louisiana State University Press, 1990, p. 51.
**“Conspiracy to Oppress and Injure the Negroes,” Morning Herald (Lexington, Ky.), November 2, 1900.
Joe Ford, of Louisville, Ky., responds to my recent posts, offering paths to hope and joy during this holiday season. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
My family occasionally hosts an activist who lives in Nicaragua. I think of her now, and her adopted country, and her regional neighbors in El Salvador. They have lived through what we imagined in horror would be Trump unleashed: a government that does not serve its people, but rather suppresses and murders them. How is it she and her circle survive? How is it they remain activists, remain the opposition, after decades of repression? They do not give up hope. I do not know how. But perhaps that is the mantle that we need to take on.
It appears that we in the U.S. have faced down that threat…for now, although there is a formidable group of elected officials who still support those authoritarian impulses. But where is our collective hope? Our shared, spontaneous joy? The bonfires and front-yard dances that erupted in my neighborhood the day the election was called?
Perhaps that jubilation has been muted as we continue to confront a second, physical menace. Each day COVID-19 steals thousands of Americans from their families, each one a cruel separation amid devastating national loss. Nonetheless there is hope even there, borne of the vaccines, if we can remain cautious and disciplined for another half a year or so.
At my workplace, a few of us were asked to gather some best practices for dealing with the stress of being an employee, parent, nurse, cook, spouse, and caretaker for elderly parents all at the same time, all from our home office at the kitchen table—while also striving to remain stable, confident and supportive to all (when we really have no idea what is going to happen, when the pandemic will end, when our kids can go back to school, when we can go back to work—or if we will have work). The most common advice:
My plea to you is to not lose joy, to continue to find pleasure where we found it before. Things may seem hopeless and dark, but as my wife, the anthroposophist, reminds me, the shortest day of light has already passed. The light—and hope—will gradually return.
Many of us who read this blog are confessed bibliophiles. So pick up a book. I’d suggest The Secret Life of Trees if you want to be reminded that the rule of nature is not survival of the fittest, is not red in tooth and claw, but is rather the way of mutual cooperation.
Next, perfect a recipe for a drink. A Hot Toddy, or a Manhattan. Something that promotes reflection. Not beer. Maybe port.
Then set aside an hour or two each night to read and sip your drink. Post a comment to this blog with your choices. Let us in on your secrets.
I’m going to choose To Kill a Mockingbird, because it’s been a few years. And I’ll continue my ongoing experiment with the classic Manhattan.
If you cannot do both, do the reading. Do not just drink. :)
Merry Christmas to you all.
2 shots Rye whiskey
1 shot sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 twist orange peel, or a dash of orange liqueur or orange bitters
Mix liquid ingredients together in a glass with a single ice cube. Stir 30 times.
Twist the orange peel over the glass and drop in.
Garnish with a cherry and add a few drops of the cherry juice.
In cold weather, remove the ice cube.