Sunday, August 27, 2017

Can a Tree Teach Race Relations?


I've been thinking a lot about race, as many of us are these days. I've been crying and losing sleep over events that I wonder if I have any control over. I spend nights imagining how it will all turn out. I ponder over why people hate so much. I march. I teach. I write about these issues in books. I've read blogs and articles on the subject. I hear progressive people say "You cannot say 'I don't see color,' and I agree. I see color everywhere. But to me, it's not so much as, "I don't see color" as it is, "I see color and find all of those colors fascinating and beautiful." 
 
Look, I'm a Jewish woman, was married for 25 years to a Filipino man, I have two interracial children ~ children of color. My middle sister is happily married to a Brazilian, whose parents were both adopted, origin unknown, and so might actually be of Middle Eastern, African or Latino descent, or maybe he's just straight up Brazilian. They have one interracial child. My youngest sister was in love with Ghanaian man, has two boys with a Mexican/Aztec and is now happily in a same-sex relationship. My middle sister and I are ESL teachers. We are advocates for immigrants, we celebrate diversity. I studied Language & Linguistics and Anthropology at NYU. I travel. I am fascinated by culture, by language, by customs and how people think, communicate, love... I want to know where your ancestors came from. Who they were, how they lived. If I ask you about your ethnic background, it's because I want to find out more about my own. For me, it's to feed my soul. To know I'm not alone on this human journey. 

My mother spit into a cup and found, as she expected, that she is 94% Ashkenazi. Jewish. The surprising other 6% is comprised of Iberian, Celtic and unknown. I find the unknown most intriguing. How many white supremacists would be surprised by what their spit reveals? Would that change any minds? Maybe. Perhaps we should bring 23 & Me spit cups to "Free Speech" rallies.

I am heartbroken at the hate and vitriol spewing these days. I know the pot has been stirred and the dregs at the bottom have come rising disgustingly to the surface. But so much anger. Is it fear? I think it is. What is there to be afraid of? But here's why I'm writing this blog today; I wrote a story just published in Writing Fire, an anthology of 75 women writers, that I need to share. I wrote it and wondered when the time would come for it to be ready to offer to the world, and unfortunately, I believe the time is now. 

Here's how it came to be:

I often dream entire passages or lines for books I'm writing and one night, I woke with this line, "I remember the Winter long ago, the one that lingered like regret." I had to rustle around in my bedside table to find paper and pen to write it down. I wasn't writing anything at the time that could use a line like that and I wondered what it would be for. I knew it would have to go somewhere. When your dreams offer you lines like that, you don't say no. Later that same day, my husband came into my office and said, "You need to write a story about a lynching tree from the point of view of the tree." And he walked out. I wanted to say, "Uh, no. You do it." But he was already gone. I thought about it and went about my business. But the idea stuck. And then I remembered that line and I knew that was what it was for. And I began to do research into that most heinous practice. That most insidious, hateful, malevolent and evil practice. It was a hard place to go, let alone write about, but I knew I had to do it. Had to go to those incredibly disturbing places. I researched lynchings and based my gruesome tale on the real, horrific, brutal murders of Sam Hose and Emmit Till. And I began to write. In dialect. Southern tree speak. All made up, based on what I thought/hoped it might sound like.

When this story was done, I had no idea what to do with it, who to give it to. I shared it with a few of my friends, some from the South, one of whom said, "My grandmother from Mississippi talks just like this. How'd you do that?" Her great-grandmother had been enslaved. I knew I was on the right track. She, actress Tammy Denease suggested we turn it into a play. We're working on it now. 

It's very disturbing and quite graphic, so please be aware. If it inspires you or calls you to action, please share this blog. If it changes your mind or opens it, I've done my job. If it offends, apologies, but not really. It has to be told.



Warning: Contains graphic and disturbing images.
Excerpt by permission from Writing Fire, published by Green Fire Press


Magnolia Justice
by Jana Laiz

     I remember the Winter long ago, the one that lingered like regret. And the Spring that waited…But I’s jumpin’ ahead of myself. I’ll start from my beginnin’. First thing I want to tell you is, I have consciousness. That’s right. I feel. I see, I hear, I smell, and I dream. Thing is, I do it slower. I do everything slower. I started out small, like we all do, tryin’ to reach up and feel the sun’s warmth like a blind child reachin’ out to find her mama. I managed, hard as it was. So many of us tryin’ to find our way. But it was quiet then, easier. Birds and rain and wind. Those were the sounds of my smallness. And they were the sounds of my middlin’ too. ‘Cept for the steady hum of the blood runnin’ and the loud movement of the underground. Most folk think it’s quiet under there, but it ain’t. Them worms makin’ a path through the Earth ain’t easy and we feel it and hear it, too. Maybe how y’all hear a bulldozer nowadays. But then, we’s connected in ways you ain’t and never will be. And I don’t mean that figuratively. We’s really connected, gotta be, or we’d just fall. So my lullaby was the stars singin’ their high-pitched song. The soft wind ticklin’ my body. Even the gentle rain pourin’ down on me, findin’ its way into the ground around me, beneath me. All those things were my lullaby, my early melodies. But all that changed. Now I cain’t forget. But never you mind. I’ll get to that later. 

     My first season, my first buddin’, I was young and small, but oh, I was fragrant! My blossoms were the sweetest in the county. I heard them say it. “Ain’t that Magnolia the sweetest in the county?” And I was. I could smell my own self, and I smelt real good and heady. And I stood straight, though still small. That first season, things were quiet around me. I stood out in a field of flowers and fruit trees and pecan trees, all of us quiet, hardly speakin’ to one another. Weren’t much to say at that time. Nothin’ much happenin’, ‘cept for the critters comin’ to steal the fruit from my neighbors’ branches, the folk comin’ and admirin’, but not much else. We saw the folk from the big house and them that worked in the fields, but no one paid us no mind, ‘cept, like I said, admirin’. The light folk walked by at twilight, commentin’ on this, that or the other, arm in arm. Once when I was still small a man took a knife to my trunk and carved something there. I never did know what he wrote, but the girl he was with was sure happy, so I knew it couldn’t be bad. Hurt mighty, though. I cried out, but of course none but my own kind heard, and there weren’t much they could do, ‘cept sympathize.   
     The dark folk, the ones that worked in the fields nearby me, they never said much, but they sang loudly. I liked their singin’, though times were, made me feel sad. But I swayed to their melancholy tunes. Them days, I didn’t understand why their songs always sounded sad. That was before. Now I knows. Wish I didn’t. 
     Sometimes, when I was more spread out, wider and taller, they’d come out from the fields and sit down by my side and lean against me, breathin’ hard and smellin’ like cotton and sweat. They never stayed for long, someone always hollered for them to get back out to the fields. And they’d get up, tired like, defeated, and trudge back out to the cotton. Sometimes they patted my woody hide, sayin’ “Thankee for the shade.” I liked their company, though their smell was strong, but I didn’t mind. They never carved into me. Once in a while one of ‘em might pluck a flower from my bough and give it to another, but I didn’t mind that, neither. I wish I could’ve talked to them, or rather, I wish they could’ve understood what I said to them when they sat there, restin’ in my shade, tryin’ to feel like people. 
     As I grew, my blossoms were fat and pink and perfumed. I was the prettiest out there in my field. The pecans were attractive, the great Spanish oak around the big white house with all their moss decoratin’ up the place, they was pretty too, but none held a candle to me. I never lorded it over no one, that’s not my way. But I knew.
      Later years, they planted more Magnolias, lining a path on either side, but I was the first one. Now they calls me the old one. I’s still standin’, all these years later, not quite so straight anymore, not quite so fragrant. But back in those days, Lordy, I outshone them all. 

     The light and dark children often climbed upon me, sometimes together, sometimes separate, and I told them the old stories as they sat on my limbs, breathin’ deeply of my perfume. Whether they understood me or not is anyone’s guess, but I’s always hopeful. Seemed funny to me that the children could play together, but not the big folk. No, from where I stood, it didn’t take me long to learn their story. The light ones stayed in the big house and told the dark ones what was what. Those dark folk hopped to it, too; I seen the consequences if’n they didn’t. But like I said, the children played together, but the light ones always had their way, always told the dark ones how to move, what to say. I didn’t like it much, but that’s the way it was. I watched them children grow into big folk, and then there was no more playin’ together, no more laughin’ at each other’s silly antics. No, the light ones followed their mamas and daddies and got demandin’ and the dark ones put down their heads and their dark eyes and said, “yes’m” or “no sir,” and the like. Made me sad to see, but ain’t no one listenin’ to the thoughts nor opinions of a tree anyhow, so I just kept real quiet.
     There was one time I shudder to recall, one big dark feller he fell  down in the fields. Must have been sick or something. Done fainted right there in the cotton. Overseer tell him to get up! Hot, fiery words that made me tremble. The dark man couldn’t get up. Sick he was, but that overseer didn’t care one whit. He dragged that man up on his staggering feet, and what he do?! He done brought him over to me. I trembled and shook, but weren’t nothin’ I could do. That overseer leaned the sick man against me and took a whip to his naked back. I really don’t think the man even felt it, he was already half gone. He lay there by my underside for hours. I felt his blood seep into the soil at my roots. Late that night, a dark woman came out of a little shack, silent, stealthy, and stooped beside him, cryin’, ministerin’ to him with cloths of cool water and unguents. He groaned some, and finally got hisself up off the ground beneath me and leanin’ on her, made his way back to his sleepin’ place. I felt sick with relief when he left, though I had tried to comfort him. I sang to him, whispered words, but I’m sure he didn’t hear. He was heavy with sickness and sorrow and it made me sick and sad, too.
     There were some happy times, I do admit. The light folk from the big house had big tables brought out and placed all around me. Sweet smelling, steaming vittles were placed upon them tables and scores of fancy folk would come over and eat and sit on chairs around me, admirin’ me, talkin’, gossipin’. Music was played by some fellers. The gentlemen and ladies danced some. I swayed to the rhythms. Gentlemen smoked cigars, ladies fanned themselves and fancy light children held hands and danced around me. One even tried to climb me, but was hollered at, somethin’ about Sunday best and such. Some of the dark folk were dressed fancy, too, but they weren’t eatin’. They was only servin’ the food. I saw the dark children hidin’ and spyin’, their mouths salivatin’. When them parties was over and done, the dogs and pigs got the scraps. Not one crumb went to them dark, hungry little ones. No sir, not a one. 

     Years passed, the fullness of the moon came and went in unending tradition. I grew taller and broader. Things didn’t change much from where I stood for some time, but then everything got a little faster. The birds woke me at strange times during the new moon, when everything was dark and warm and the night lay heavy with sweat. I sees from every angle, you know, and I saw shadows in the darkness, movin’ shadows, following other movin’ shadows away and away. And I understood. I never said nothin’ to a soul. But every time, next day at sunup, the dogs would be a-barkin’ and light folk were a-hollerin’, runnin’ around with guns. Sometimes the shadows came back in shackles. Mostly them shadows got away. I hoped they made it to the land of the Maple and the Fir.
     This is how it started. Dark folk and some light ones trying to change things as they were. For my kind, we change some, but mostly, things change around us. And we stand and watch, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with grief. We weren’t sure what to make of these changes, but I thought they was good. And that’s when the folk with guns came. Scores of ‘em, sleepin’ in the fields, wavin’ flags, shootin'.
     It were no pleasant time, you can be sure of that. Them guns were loud and everything smelled liked blood. Not the sweet blood of my kind, but the hot, slick, spicy blood of folks. I noticed something strange though. Blood of the light ones and blood of the dark ones, well sir, they was the same. Couldn’t tell them apart by color nor of smell. If them red pools lay there in the field, you wouldn’t know one from another. They mingled together out there, seepin’ into the earth. Them harsh folk with their clothing all the same and their guns, well, they couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see what we saw. To us, folk were folk. Big, small, light, dark. Same blood, same bones. Didn’t matter the color of the hide. We saw the way the water fell from their eyes when they was sad, light ones or dark. We saw their crinkly faces and the lightness of their step when they was glad. But it didn’t matter to them harsh folk that they was the same. They saw somethin’ else. Difference. They thought they was better and they was fightin’ to keep it that way. And them dark folk weren’t treated right. No sir. Trees ain’t the judgin’ type, but I saw what I saw and I knows what I know. They wasn’t treated right. And it got worse. A lot worse. 

     The fightin’ raged on and on, from buddin’ time to flowerin’ and back again. It got so I was used to the smell of it and the loudness of it. But it rankled me and mine. We could only talk of it in the stillness of the night, when there was respite from the beatin’ of the drums, the shootin’ of the guns. I was one of the lucky ones, never havin’ a bullet pass through my flank. I know others that weren’t so lucky. Bullets don’t make us fall, but they do their damage just the same. We shook ourselves and wondered when it would end, when we’d be able to hear the birds and the wind again. For myself I can only say it went on too long. By the time it was over I felt stiff in my limbs. My blossoms felt grimy. My kind, well, we hear things, we’s connected through roots and earth and the seasons and we communicate in ways unlike folks and I learnt the truth. Them dark folk were free. Free to live like people and the light folk in the big house couldn’t order them around no more. I watched the dark ones, confused lookin’ and mighty scared, wanderin’, wonderin’ where to go, what to do. Some of ‘em stayed on, havin’ been birthed and grow’d up on the place. But I watched and listened carefully to the light ones. There was a difference in their tone and manner toward the dark ones. I’m thinkin’ t’was fear. I never heard it comin’ from them before, but I was sure that was what it was. I, for one, thought they had it comin’. 
      But from where I stood, things didn’t change so much, ‘cept the dark ones tryin’ to get along, almost more fearful than before. At least before, they knew their lot. They had their sleepin’ places, their meager food. Now, they weren’t sure what was what. Some went away, to colder climes, I heard. But them that stayed, well, bein’ freed didn’t make the light ones any better towards ‘em. Different maybe, like I said, scared and even angrier than before, but no better. It was worse for some time, neither of them knowin’ how to act. The dark ones had to ask the light ones for work to make the coins and papers to buy their bread. And it seemed to me, though the light ones now paid the dark ones, they knew who was still master.
     Times went on like this and gradually, it became quiet again and my kind could fall asleep to the stars’ lullaby and the wind could rock us again. But it never felt as clean nor comfortin’. I, for one, tried to put the past from my mind and stood straight as I could in my advancin’ age. And still I watched. Things were changin’ again. The dark ones were beginnin’ to rise up a bit, tryin’ anyways. The light ones didn’t like it none. That’s when the nights got all blazed up. That’s when the ghosts appeared with their burnin’ sticks and their fiery talk.      They torched the little sleepin’ places where the dark ones lived. I seen the dark ones runnin’ and screamin’, grabbin’ their young ‘uns. Sometimes there was no escapin’ and I smelt their burnin’ flesh and I felt sick. I wished I coulda run, but I ain’t got that option. And here is where I’ve been leadin’ up to this whole time. 
     The winter came, not cold, never cold, but cool. Mostly the summer nights were when the ghost men came out, hollerin’ their wrathful words. Maybe the heat made them angrier, heated them up. And maybe that’s why what happened next happened at all. ‘Cause this day was different. It was unnatural warm. Dark folk was workin’ in the fields, preparin’ the earth for the Spring plantin’. The day was near done and they’s all sweatin’ and commentin’ on the unusual weather. I’s surprised when one dark feller pass me by, makin’ his way to the big house, before he’s told he can leave the fields. He goes to the back door and calls for his boss to please come out; he’s got somethin’ to say. The big light one comes out on the back porch askin’ what he’s doin’ there before the day’s work is done. I sees the dark one tip his hat and ‘pologize. He asks for some money owed him and for the day off next day to see his girl, the one he’s to marry. He smiles and tells the boss that he’s plannin’ a weddin’. The light one, arms folded cross his chest, tells him to get back out to the fields and not to bother him no more. He’ll get his money when everyone else does and not a minute before and he’d better be out in them fields next day like usual. Them words are spoke harsh, and the dark man goes away. I see his pain as he passes me by. I tell him to pay no mind, but of course, he cain’t hear me. Next day, he’s pullin’ stones out the ground for the missus’ garden and the boss comes out a-tellin’ him never step upon his porch again. The dark one stops his diggin’ and I see he’s got a big rock in his grasp. He tries to apologize once more, but the light one, he points a pistol at the dark feller, movin’ toward him, threatenin’ and yellin’. I begin to tremble and I hear my own dry leaves rustle. The dark man is taken by surprise and I see him fling the rock toward his attacker, like he’s tryin’ to protect hisself. I see the light one fall to the ground, his red blood pourin’ out his head. I don’t wants to look no more. I’ve seen too much and this ain’t too different from what I seen before. But what happens next is what I need to tell y’all, what I want out of myself and gone. But I know it never will be, not ‘til I’m earth itself and my glorious blossoms are merely a legend.
     That dark feller, he look’d at what he done and he groan loud and look as terrified as any folk could look. And he run. Far and fast, he run, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before he couldn’t go no further. What I didn’t know and still shudders to recall, is how evil folk can be to one another. 

     That night my sleep is restless, cause I feel somethin’s comin’. There be whispers in the night from my own kind and it don’t feel right. Whispers about a dark man killin’ his boss in cold blood, rapin’ his wife as he lay dyin’ and I know this ain’t the truth. But y’all already knows, I cain’t testify. Light folk are combin’ the countryside for him. And I know they’s gonna find him. I can feel it, like I can feel a storm comin’. What I don’t expect is what they’s gonna do to him once they have him. Next day, when the sun is high and the coolness of the winter night has gone and the day is heated up this unusual heat, I sees the man being dragged by some light folk. He’s not puttin’ up a struggle as they got him in chains. He falls once and they kick him and tells him to get up. There be scores of light folk followin’. Women and children, but mostly men with angry faces.
     I’ve waited this long to tell this grisly tale, and I ain’t even sure I can come out with it now, but seein’ as I’ve gone this far, guess I better finish. They unchain the man and he drops to the ground. They’s right near me now. I sees some little boys throw pebbles at him. They laugh and their mamas laugh with them. Big light men drag him to standin’ and then they bring him to me. I starts to tremble and shake and I wish I could run. I tells ‘em to get away, but they come closer and they throw a rope over one of my branches and they pulls it taut around me. It’s real tight, but that ain’t what’s troublin’ me. No, alls I feel is fear. And not for myself neither, but for the dark feller. I’ve heard the whisperings from my kind, unspeakable things I didn’t wants to believe but I now knows is true. They put the dark man on a wooden box and then they put the rope round his neck, but they don’t make it tight nor kick the box away just yet. They’s got their heinous work to do first. One big, light feller smiles at the crowd that has gathered around me, folk standin’ on toes, pushin’ and shovin’, children on parent’s shoulders to get a better look. His smile is evil. I can see it when he turns round. He pulls out a big, shiny knife and it glints in the sunlight as he holds it up. Someone throws him a tomato and showy like, splits it with the knife real smooth. Everyone cheers. I knows I’s quiverin’ now and I don’t wants to look, but I cain’t help myself. The dark man is shiverin’ and cryin’ softly now. Maybe I’s the only one can hear him or maybe it’s that I can feel his fear, him bein’ connected to me and all. That light man, he comes up to the dark one and puts the knife to his throat and then with a swift movement, peels off one ear, then the other. The dark man screams out, but I cain’t hardly hear him through the cheers of the crowd. Folk be putting out their hands, beggin’ for the ears. The big light one gives one to a little boy and he takes it like it’s candy. The other goes to a woman with angry glee on her face. She holds it up and hollers somethin’ I cain’t understand. By now I am sick, but I, like the dark feller is a prisoner. I cain’t escape my own self. And I’s mad, because I ain’t never wanted to escape myself before, but I do now, ‘cause of them.
     As I said before, things get worse. Other folk want their turn with the knife and more parts are cut off and handed out like Christmas toys. By now the dark man is cryin’ out for Jesus, but he cain’t be heard through the crowd, that grows louder with each part of him that falls. He screams loudest when they take his manhood and it seems to be the most coveted prize of all, light hands a-reachin’ and a-grabbin’. Blood everywhere. Then they pour liquid over him and that’s when they tighten his rope and kick the box from under him. And quick as a wink he starts to burn. I wish he died then, but he don’t. He swings and burns and screams and as the flames are lickin’ him, they’s lickin’ me too. I guess I’s lucky ‘cause them light folk tied him to my weakest branch, so what I do next saves my own sorry life. I’s angry now, somethin’ I ain’t never felt before, and it courses through me like the hot fire that’s consumin’ him. I sways hard and hard again and he swings crazily and my branch breaks off from my trunk. I screams out as he falls to the ground, my broken branch fallin’ on top of him. There he lay at my roots, writhin’ and burnin’ as folk back up some to watch him blaze. And I cain’t look away, though believe you me, I wants to. Fact is, I wants to die along with him.
     When alls that’s left is soot and sorrow, men and women folk, even little ones, scoop up the coolin’ ashes to carry home in their pockets. Souvenirs. And I’s left all alone. It’s quiet then and I hear my own kind asking me in whispers, but I cain’t answer no one no more. I cain’t speak. I got nothin’ left to say.
     Years pass me by and no one seems to want to know me no more. Ain’t no folk comin’ nor admirin’. No one a-restin’ against me. Even the birds ain’t landin’ on my branches. I feels tainted and dismal and I mostly just sleep, tryin’ to remember days when I was the prettiest tree in the field. Rememberin’ when I heard the birds singin’ and the wind whisperin’ its lullabies. But mostly, I tries to forget. But of course, I cain’t forget, and the memory clings to me like chokin’ vine.
     I wakes up now and again and one time I knows I’s dreamin’ for I think I sees dark ones and light ones holdin’ signs together, headin’ in the same direction, walkin’ like they’s equals. But that cain’t be and I don’t ask no questions then, I still got nothin’ to say.
Until now. Now, when these thoughts cain’t stay inside me another minute. Now, when my days are nearly done. Now, when I’s become a monument to the tragedy of that day. Well, that’s one good thing. They put a plaque on me. I don’t know what it says, but I think it says ‘sorry.’ I surely hope so.

     I’s old now. My blossoms, the ones that do come, are more cloying than sweet. Sometimes as I look out toward the fields and watch the sun settin’ in its way, I sees the beauty and I tries to be grateful. The memories have faded some, but truth be told, forgettin’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is the forgivin’ part. And I knows I better do it ‘fore I die. Truth is, I don’t knows that I want to. I’ve been holdin’ on to this hurtin’ for a long time. Feels familiar. But y’all know that’s why I’m a-tellin’ this tale. To let go my pain. Like my fallen branch that I wrenched from by body to save myself, I knows I got to free this hurt and sorrow, or I’m-a get too bitter to behold.
     You know, the heart of a tree is deep and wild and still. We live quietly, standin’ and watchin’, slowly livin’ out our lives, givin’ to others of our fruit or fragrance or shade. Sometimes others take what they oughtn’t, leavin’ hurt behind. That’s what happened to me. My heart’s likely deeper than some and maybe that’s why I feel as I do. But I’s ready now. I’ve had my say. I done told my story. I give it to y’all.
      So now, as I get ready to return to the earth that holds me up, I look ‘round me real wide and long and hard. I ain’t wanted to look at nothin’ since that day. I look at what is, not what was and I’s surprised by what I see. I sees light ones and dark ones laughin’, workin’, even schoolin’ together, hurt gone…mostly. And I wonder, maybe if’n they can forgive, I can too. And as I do, I feels lighter than I felt in a long time. When I return from where I come from, I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to poison the ground with my anger. No sir, I want the earth sweet, like my blossoms in their glory. Them ghosts need to be free.
      So I will mix with the bitter ashes and sweeten them with forgiveness so that whatever comes after me, rising up out of his ashes and mine, will give sweet fruit or fragrance or shade.
 




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