Did you feel that lurch? That was the earth shifting on its axis Monday night when GSA Administrator Emily Murphy finally acceded to a peaceful transfer of power. I can’t say that she officially recognized Joe Biden as the president-elect, because she didn’t. She never mentioned his name or his new role in her letter of ascertainment. But that doesn’t matter.
Those pleasurable frissons that followed on Tuesday? Those were the aftershocks we experienced as President-elect Biden’s new security team introduced itself to the country. Oh “the coherence, the humanity, and the sincere humility,” as my cousin Charley said. “So adult. So refreshing. So encouraging,” said cousin Sandy. Charley again: “I had to stop and sit down and listen to what normalcy and rationality and world leadership actually sounds like.” Ever reflective, cousin Vince added: “What a restorative influence he will impart to our allies… My spirit was buoyed by the quality and experience of the new team as a whole.” In short, as cousin Barbara said, “The adults have returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Cousin Myra summed up our feelings: “WE ARE FINALLY BACK TO THE GOOD OLE USA !!!!”
I realize you may not fully share my family’s enthusiasm for this week’s turn of events. You may be fearful of the policies this team will support. You may feel it’s reactionary to celebrate a return to a state of decorum that emphasizes civility and diplomacy and compassion. You may agree with Sen. Marco Rubio that these individuals, if the Senate confirms them, “will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline." You may have been uncomfortable seeing that diverse group of vastly experienced leaders on the stage with President-elect Biden. It may feel to you that the earth shifted in a more dastardly direction.
But I hope, on this Thanksgiving eve, we can all exhale and count our blessings. Our democracy is intact. Record numbers of Americans were able to vote in the middle of a pandemic in a variety of sometimes novel ways, despite widespread and creative efforts at voter suppression. Amid fears of malign intrusion, the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council said the election was “the most secure in American history.”
For 20 days after the election we held our collective breath, wondering if we could indeed come to a peaceful settling of the score. It appears the proverbial guard rails, though strained, have held.
Nonetheless, nearly half the nation stands to be unhappy with this outcome. Although President-elect Biden received over six million more votes that President Trump, the election revealed a deep and lasting bifurcation in our philosophies of how government should work and how leaders should behave. It will take remarkable effort on the part of our elected officials and every American citizen to pull together and address the harrowing list of challenges we face, starting with an out-of-control global pandemic and an economy that has abandoned a wide swath of the electorate.
So let’s all take that deep breath. Let’s see if we can reset our expectations, our hopes, and our vision of what this country can be. Let’s look to our right and our left and see who most needs our help. And then let’s get back to work.
Vince Fallis, of Rabbit Hash, Ky., gets this week's last word.
To all those who portrayed the Black Lives Matter protesters as looters and arsonists, I point your attention to the crowds gathering in the streets of New York and Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well as other cities, this weekend. This is what a peaceful demonstration looks like when people are delivered from the threat of autocracy and the evil that it, by necessity, brings. It is a spontaneous outbreak of shared joy and brotherhood, and a vision of opportunity and equitable treatment for those with the most to those with the least.
It will not magically cure all the ills that have accrued, but will breathe hope into those so desperately in need of it. Who knows, maybe some of the least likely will eventually come over and join the party.
Hope springs eternal.
If you haven’t already—and many of us have—Tuesday you must vote. It is our responsibility as citizens to exercise our franchise. It really shouldn’t be optional, and in some countries it isn’t. In 22 countries, voting is mandatory. Many of those countries are in Central and South America, including our neighbor to the south, Mexico. In Australia, failure to vote can result in a $20 fine.
Despite Americans’ typical apathy about voting—which is incomprehensible to me—it looks like we may have record turnout for this election, and that is good. In some places, such as here in Kentucky, voting is easier than it has ever been, thanks to remarkable bipartisan collaboration between our governor, Andy Beshear (D), and our secretary of state, Michael Adams (R). One of the few positives that we can attribute to a global pandemic will be the expansion of voting options across much of our country. And despite transparent efforts by some to suppress voting in certain communities, U.S. citizens are coming out in droves. As of October 31, two states, Texas and Hawaii, had already surpassed the total votes cast in 2016.
If you feel that none of the candidates has sufficiently wooed or inspired you, get over it. I haven’t heard a single candidate address the unique challenges of an aging sub-five-foot female who navigated the world most of her life as a redhead. I can’t sit home and wait for a candidate to speak to my truly special needs. I am responsible for carefully assessing the candidates and their plans for this nation’s future and voting. That’s not just my privilege as an American citizen; it’s my obligation.
As U.S. citizens, we are awarded munificent benefits. In exchange, we assume certain duties. It is our job to vote, whether there is a candidate who passionately inspires us or not, whether there is a candidate who speaks to our specific needs or concerns or not. We must make a choice among the candidates on the ballot, human though they may be. We must choose the candidate who best aligns with our values and our goals for this country.
That last statement is important. Our vote should not be solely self-referential. We should not look for the candidate we think will increase our personal wealth or grant us superiority over other citizens or anoint us with some special power. We should choose the candidate we believe has the vision for making the country better for everyone. Our fate as a nation rests on the success of us all.
Eddie Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, recently said, “Liberty has become a synonym for selfishness.” We must change that. We can only be free when we take the steps to ensure everyone’s freedom. Our embrace of liberty should lift up others, not hurt them. Or sicken them. Or impede their ability to succeed.
In his comments, Glaude also said, “The idea of national sacrifice seems not to be in currency right now.” We must change that attitude, too. The first “sacrifice” we all can make is to take the time to vote. After we have taken that step, perhaps that will lead to making other small sacrifices necessary to tamp down the pandemic that is raging across this country. And then, who knows? Perhaps we’ll discover that these small sacrifices—doing something that may be inconvenient but that may help our fellow citizens—make us feel better about ourselves and our prospects as a nation. I can only hope so.
So if you have already voted, take a moment and see if you can identify one person in your circle who may be reluctant to vote. Call that person. Ask whether he or she has voted. If necessary, ask what you can do to eliminate obstacles for that friend or family member. Urge them to fulfill their civic duty. Urge them to make a choice that will lift us all up and move our nation toward a more perfect union.
Tessa Bishop Hoggard, a native of Paris, Ky., who now lives in Texas, shares how she stumbled across Clearing the Fog and helped connect me with Jim Bannister.
Have you ever experienced a time in your life when the stars were perfectly aligned and from that perfection flowed precious nuggets of gold? It’s as though Sagittarius’ arrow struck its target on the Milky Way, releasing hidden treasures for such a time as this.
And what time could that be? It is a time of a ravaging pandemic and a nation fraught with political, economic, and racial turmoil, yet in its midst virtue is found. I’m left pondering how events, encounters, and circumstances were well-positioned to uncover the details of a crime and bring healing for two families.
The catalyst for the unfolding events was the 1901 lynching of a black man in Bourbon County, Ky. In 2014 I learned about this story from my mother, the biggest supporter of my genealogy research. Immediately I applied my research skills to finding answers to the “who, what, and why” of this tragedy.
My first discovery was the “who.” Two individuals are prominent characters in this story: Mary Lake Barnes Board (the accuser) and George Thomas Carter (the accused). Though I got a good start on my research, a busy life put this project on hold.
By 2020, six years later, I had the opportunity to speak with James (Jim) Bannister, great-nephew of the victim. Jim inspired me to revive my research efforts and write a story for him. Within two weeks of restarting my research, I Googled "George Carter Paris KY 1901.” Several pages of results appeared, but one result was promising: a Murky Press blog that included an entry titled “Time Stands Still” dated 11/30/2019. Its author stated that her grandfather “spent a lifetime coming to grips with the perverted justice he witnessed as an eight-year-old boy in Paris, Ky.” My interest was piqued, and I reached out to the author for any information that her grandfather may have shared.
On June 17, 2020, the author replied that she didn’t have the specific information I was looking for; however, within her words were nuggets of gold:
“A friend of mine was doing some genealogical research for me and, upon searching for information about my great-grandmother Mary Lake Barnes Board, initially stumbled across a story about the lynching in a California newspaper.”
Whoaaaa!!!! This is incredible! Do you mean to tell me I’m communicating with the great-granddaughter of Mary Lake Barnes Board, the accuser of George Carter??? I sat motionless, telling myself to breathe, and trying to wrap my brain around the author’s response. What are the chances of encountering a close relative of an 1800s Bourbon County family that you’re researching? My only response to Sallie Showalter was, “May I now call you on your cell?”
Since that momentous call, Sallie and I have exchanged numerous emails and enjoyed many telephone conversations. I’m continually blessed by her kind, fierce, and generous spirit as well as her beautiful writing/editing skills.
The providential encounters with Jim and Sallie led to their now well-publicized meeting at the Hopewell Museum in July 2020 in which they discussed their link to the 1901 crime as well as its impact on their families. A 120-year-old crime was laid bare and two individuals exemplified the meaning of courage and forgiveness for not only Bourbon County, Ky., but a strife-ridden nation.
Ahhhhhhh, behold the golden nuggets that radiate like diamonds within the mighty and vast universe for such a time as this!
“If you had been a boy, we planned to name you Lazarus.”
My mother told me that story over and over. I was never sure whether I believed her. Would she really have dared to give me such an unconventional name, a name with such a specific Biblical story associated with it? I was a serious Sunday School student and understood the weight that name would have carried. Thank goodness I was a girl.
“The doctors told me you were dead,” my mother would continue, usually after my unrelenting energy and general rambunctiousness had worn her down. While pregnant with me, my mother had been advised that she was carrying a dead fetus in her womb. That presented enormous risk for her, and her physicians felt they had to take extraordinary steps to save her life.
But it was 1959. And a doctor could not legally “take” a baby before birth. So a courageous and determined Dr. George Heels admitted my mother to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.—for an appendectomy.
My mother was never convinced that any of this was necessary. Although the doctor had not been able to detect a fetal heartbeat during her recent appointments, she knew I was kicking and moving around. She knew she wasn’t carrying dead weight. She protested vehemently when he tried to tell her otherwise.
My mother had already successfully carried one baby to term. She had experienced the stillbirth of another, and the agonizing death of yet another shortly after his birth. Her life had hung in the balance both times. She was no novice.
“When they wheeled me into the surgery prep room before my appendectomy,” my mother would explain to me yet again, “Dr. Heels gently laid his stethoscope on my abdomen one last time. This time you kicked the stethoscope out of his hand. You finally proved to him that I was right. I knew you were fine all along.”
I expect that nearly every adult woman has a story of a doctor who didn’t believe her, who minimized her complaints, who explained impatiently, in a condescending manner, why he (in that era they were usually men) was right and she was mistaken about her own body and the symptoms she was experiencing. It still happens today, of course. It is at the root of our ongoing discussions about whether women should retain control over their own health and their own bodies.
In January 1973, when Roe v. Wade changed the law of this land, I was 13 years old. I had heard my mother’s personal story many times by this point. I had heard her share details of the suffering and the horror and the deaths of women who had sought “back-alley” abortions, or who had tried some granny’s remedy to terminate a pregnancy. She was a fierce supporter of legal abortion. She was a fierce supporter of women knowing their own bodies and making their own decisions.
Sadly, it’s time for all of us once again to drag these stories back out in the open. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan recognized that. This week, he shared the painful story of his first wife’s abortion, a procedure that probably saved her life. As Peters said, “It's a story of how gut-wrenching and complicated decisions can be related to reproductive health." Many women, many families know the importance of having this procedure available when needed.
My mother’s story ended with an unexpected twist. She and my dad became close friends of Dr. Heels and his wife, Vera. They socialized and traveled together. It was as if helping my parents through a series of traumas connected the two families emotionally.
And that’s what we need to do again now. We need to recognize the shared humanity in all of our stories. The shared pain. The shared hope. We need to ensure that hope is available for women who find themselves in life-threatening or life-altering situations that they cannot endure. We need to trust the women when they know it is so.
This week I’m offering something completely different. Friday night, after trying—fruitlessly—to keep up with the news relating to the COVID-19 cases swirling among our government’s highest officials, I woke in the middle of the night with the following words running through my brain. I finally got out of bed and wrote them down.
You will see, clearly, that I have no training as a poet. I know nothing about proper forms or meter or rhyme schemes. So I hope you’ll read this as my nocturnal wordplay, an example of what happens when my subconscious wrests control from my conscious thought.
I have not altered what I captured during those feverish moments. I have not allowed subsequent news or insights to inflect these thoughts. I offer this simply as one citizen’s subliminal attempts to make sense of the harrowing world we live in.
As the Dominoes Fall
I wake up and wonder:
Was it all a dream?
Swampiness holed up inside my head
For what seems like millennia
But was only long enough
To topple democracies
And eradicate futures and pasts,
Fury and white-hot hate
Scorching our throats and
Trampling our dignity
Until one by one they started to fall,
Hubris humbled by truth,
Surrendered to a force
So tiny it arrived
Undetected by the
Armies forming in our streets,
Long guns tossed over shoulders,
Chants rending the night,
A force too subtle for their
Rigid minds, too potent for their
Star Wars defense.
We had thought it a scourge,
Nature doing battle against
Man’s unconscionable crimes.
As we watched helplessly
Thousands succumb—a million--
Our heroes, our warriors,
Who shared this precious gift and
Delivered us, our nation,
From certain death.
I’m going to meet George Carter’s great-nephew.
Even if you’ve read Next Train Out, the name George Carter may not ring a bell. My calculations indicate that I called his name five times in the narrative, but I’ve learned over recent weeks that I probably should have cited his name more.
George Carter is significant to Lyons’ story, and he’s significant to today’s story. In this era of reckoning—and, one hopes, some sort of reconciliation, eventually—the George Carters of the world need to be remembered. We cannot forget. And those of us whose ancestors are directly tied to these stories, we need to face the music. Now.
Next month I will sit down with a descendant of the man who was lynched in front of the Bourbon County courthouse because he allegedly “assaulted” my great-grandmother.
I’m not sure how to relay to you the awe I’m feeling, the anticipation, the relief, the gratitude, and, yes, the shame that shivers up my spine as I contemplate this meeting.
I won’t detail the machinations that resulted in the heinous act on February 10, 1901. I will say that the single news story about the initial incident, which occurred in early December 1900, described what we today would call an attempted purse snatching.
But perhaps it’s important to keep in mind that the newspaper where that article appeared, the Kentuckian Citizen, was published by Mrs. Board’s cousin. The newspaper’s offices occupied a building once owned by Mrs. Board’s father, a prominent physician. After her father’s death, Mrs. Board inherited that property. One of the competing papers in town, the Bourbon News—which carried a fulsome story of the lynching two months later—was published by the husband of Mrs. Board’s closest friend.
I point that out to show how the power structure in town was stacked against Mr. Carter. Whatever transpired between him and Mrs. Board, he didn’t stand a chance. He was black. She was white, and she was connected. Two months after the incident, when the mob formed, whatever had actually happened on that cold December day was long forgotten. Rumors and innuendo and wild imagination had successfully altered the truth. For some in town, the crime now justified taking the life of a young man with a wife and two daughters under the age of two.
We have an opportunity to address some of this ongoing injustice now. Our country is awake. Video recordings provide unshakable truth. We must find the courage and the determination to start fixing these inequalities and addressing the resulting brutality.
I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to speak to one of Mr. Carter’s descendants. I am grateful that he wants to meet with me. I have no idea what I will say. There is no recompense. I cannot change the past. But I’m eager to see what I can start doing today.
Tim Cooper, of St. Paul, Minn., shares his experiences living in the Twin Cities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
Your eyes open to the sound of gunfire, a pitched battle on the far periphery of your being. The shots—staccato, syncopated—lay siege and surround you in fear. Immediately you wonder, do you flee or do you surrender? Do you hold firm or do you seek shelter? Where could you go? To whom or to what would you capitulate?
And then you realize that distant roads have been reopened, that the sound you hear is nothing more than semis on the faraway interstate rebounding over undulations in the road. Why have you never heard this before? Is it the silence of the recent curfew, of inertia, of comfortable isolation, that awakens you to a noise that was always there?
But this fear, this pervasive fear—how do you account for it? You remember two days previous, unthinking as you take your dog for her normal 5 a.m. walk. Ah, the comfort of your routine, your beloved sense of order. Behind you, flashing lights from a police cruiser as you trek down the deserted street. When he pulls up beside you the policeman wearily reminds you of the curfew’s hours, suggests staying closer to home. He attempts a comforting smile but doesn’t receive one from you in return. Later, you’re simply grateful that he didn’t turn the siren on full-blare. The thought of being physically accosted and harmed by him had never occurred to you.
And why not?
Because you have armor that shields you even as you defy your city’s curfew. You are white, male, middle-class, educated, not tall, not overly muscular—in short, not a threat. You’re not black, brown, yellow, or red; you’re not a recent immigrant; your speech sounds local. Without this armor, would you have been gently prodded to return quietly to your home? Recent events tell you no.
Your beloved city is on fire, and you can measure the anger and trepidation everywhere you go. There is a despair that permeates, that is all-encompassing. Drug stores, gas stations, grocery stores, banks are boarded up and closed. You drive across the state line to Wisconsin to put gas in your car. A branch of your bank is there and you can get medication from a pharmacy. The grocery stores appear well-stocked. You carry on with the charade of normalcy.
But you know better.
You recall that you also live in a time of pandemic, that participation in demonstrations of solidarity for George Floyd and for those without power or voice involve calculated risk. You do the arithmetic, and it still demands that you participate, that to do less than all you can will result in an amputated life of insidious horror—for you and for others.
Solace is an ephemeral commodity. You try to comfort your friends—both near and far—and they do the same for you. You try to galvanize them to political action, and you plot strategies of engagement. You want desperately to affect change.
And then you recall that June 6 is the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Bobby, killed advocating for change, killed because he believed in the power of existential action, killed because he cared. You consult his speech in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King’s murder, a speech that always comforts and calms you. And Bobby, quoting the Greek poet Aeschylus, said:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Joe Ford, of Louisville, Ky., responds to a recent blog post—and to our times. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
Just three weeks before her death on August 5, 2019, I attended a showing of the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am at the Speed Museum Cinema in Louisville. Frankly, I had not read any of her works and knew next to nothing about her—I attended only after prodding from my wife, who consumes books at a prodigious rate and had read a couple of Morrison’s books. A wonderful film, if you get the chance.
The documentary spent some time, not surprisingly, on Beloved, for which Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The novel is based on a true story—that of Margaret Garner, a slave for the Gaines family of Maplewood plantation, Boone County, Kentucky.
In January of 1856, during the coldest winter in 60 years, the Ohio River froze over. A pregnant Margaret, her husband, Robert, and their four children as well as eleven others crossed the river just west of Covington, Kentucky, and made their way to Cincinnati, then split up to avoid detection. Nine slaves made it to safe houses and eventually to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Margaret, Robert, their children and Robert’s father and his wife made it to the residence of Margaret’s uncle, west of Cincinnati. Her uncle went to the abolitionist Levi Coffin for advice on how to get them to safety. Before her uncle returned with that advice, however, slave catchers and U.S. Marshalls first surrounded and then stormed the house. Though Ohio was a free state, the federal Fugitive Slave Law allowed return of slaves to their owners if caught in another state.
Realizing that they would be captured and returned to slavery, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter and wounded her other children, preparing to kill them and herself before she was stopped.
And this is where I cried.
There is first the almost inconceivable pain and anguish of a mother who would kill her children to save them from a life of slavery, suffering and brutality. Infanticide was not unknown for this very reason.
But the legal ramifications about the case gained the most attention: would the Garners be tried for murder, which meant they would be tried as persons (and that their daughter was a person)? Or would they be treated as property to be returned to their masters? That is, is the issue murder or the destruction of private property? Property won, and they were returned to Kentucky and a life of bitterness, despair and abuse as slaves.
Somehow this juxtaposition of human despair and societal degradation affected me profoundly; it wasn’t so much a change of opinion as a change of degree and a recognition of the cultural structure that supported slavery, free state or not. All pretense fell away. There is no confederate monument that should still stand. There is no argument about fidelity to preservation of a “culture.” There is only evil masquerading as something else, only another inexplicable example of man’s inhumanity to man. If we fly the Confederate flag (and my nephews do) we show our ignorance, and we say that rape, torture and forced labor are fond traditions, sort of like Thanksgiving at grandma’s.
This is our legacy. It is how we got here. You tell me: is the despair gone? Is the degradation any less structural?
So, no, in response to the question at the beginning of “Our Sins,” I don’t know when the outrage ends. But I, too, believe the looting will obscure the reason for the protests. We’ll follow our sad excuse of a president and concentrate energy and focus on the looting and completely lose sight of why there is so much anger. And we will feel justified to dismiss the true cause, because, you know, property is more valuable and more important than human lives. Legacy indeed.
Certainly we have to transform ourselves first. And then our words and actions.
Yes, we agree with the business owners whose neighborhoods have been looted or burned. It’s wrong. And, yes, we care about our police officers, many of whom have behaved in truly brave and Christian fashion during this unrest. But we have to speak to them and to others of what the protests are about. Black men are routinely killed, often by police. It is not right. Have that conversation. Speak up! The death of our fellow citizens, like George Floyd, should not happen in America. You don’t die for (allegedly, since there was no trial) trying to buy a pack of cigarettes with a $20 counterfeit bill. Keep the conversation focused on that.
We need to care. Because it is the right thing to do. And because next it will be our sons and daughters, compliant after an arrest, after a mistake, or after a march for justice. Will they deserve to die?
This week our dark times got darker.
Over the month of May—still sheltered in place or cautiously emerging into society while simultaneously mourning the 100,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19—we have learned of three American citizens killed, needlessly, inexplicably, by police or those assuming law enforcement duties. All the victims were black. All the perpetrators were white.
Will this outrage never end?
The rage incited by these events has engulfed our cities. Protestors have blanketed the streets. Some agitators have destroyed property, burning and looting businesses with no association to the injustice. A response that initially felt rational now feels insane.
In the midst of all this horror, another related story caught my attention. On Monday in Central Park, a 57-year-old birder asked a woman walking in the wooded Ramble area to leash her dog, as the area requires. She refused. As he calmly offers the dog treats in an effort to convince her to control her dog, she accuses him of threatening her and says she will call the police. With that, he takes out his phone and begins to record the incident. The woman, who is white, then calls 911 and tells the dispatcher, in an increasingly hysterical voice, that she is being threatened by an African American man. (CNN story)
We all know of famous incidents in our nation’s history where a false accusation from a white woman cost a black man his life. But how many others, never reported or denied by those in power, stain our past? Today we’re finding that an immediately accessible recording device may be the only way for the black victim to get justice, even if it’s posthumously.
In the Central Park instance, which thankfully did not go that far, the man and the woman actually have a lot in common. They’re both sophisticated New York City dwellers who take advantage of the beauty of Central Park. They’re both highly educated—he at Harvard, she at the University of Chicago. They’re both successful in their fields. They even share the same last name (although they are not related).
But Amy Cooper felt that her whiteness gave her tremendous power over Christian Cooper. And she decided to use that power. If he had not recorded their interaction, she very well may have succeeded in having him arrested for a fabricated crime. And convicted. Because of his skin color.
As I worked on Next Train Out, I had to wrestle with my own family’s story of a white woman’s alleged assault leading to a black man’s death. The only information I have about the incident is what was reported in the local and national newspapers, during a time when purple prose and editorializing were evidently acceptable. None of the news articles offers any details that might indicate that what happened should have been a capital crime.
The only witness was an eight-year-old boy, my grandfather. In my fictional telling of the story, I chose to assign him the natural empathy and compassion of a human innocent, someone not yet indoctrinated into the mores of his community’s power brokers.
Over our long and tortured history, I suppose we humans have always sought to subjugate others. To demonstrate power through domination. To cover up weakness by claiming the upper hand.
At risk of repeating a tired refrain, this has to end. We must stop snuffing out the lives of others simply because we deem ourselves superior. The color of our skin does not grant us that privilege. We have to be better.