Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading Love Cemetery

This week I'm teaching China Galland's remarkable book, "Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves" (Harper, 2007) in my graduate seminar, "Making Culture: Theory and Practice." The book is manifestly an account of the author's attempts at collaborative community activism over the years to help restore and secure community access to a historic African-American cemetery in East Texas, in spite of extensive efforts by private and corporate (white dominated) interests that have closed it off to public access. The book is also, more subtly, an exploration of the author's own internal psychic landscape as she tries to breach the staggering, enduring racial divides in American society in the early 21st century. (I had the pleasure of working some years ago in working with China Galland on a quite different racial reconciliation project, around memories and photographs of lynching, and have followed her Keepers of Love project from a distance with great interest.)

The book's subtitle, which sounds like a publisher-imposed phrase, doesn't really do the text justice. As China herself notes early on, the term "slaves" itself is problematic as it limits the personhood of those who were enslaved to their legal status. And in any event the book doesn't have all that much to say about the historical experiences of enslaved persons in Harrison County, but is much more concerned with the experiences and legacies of Jim Crow in the region, and with "unburying" the unresolved psychic trauma of those enduring legacies of black and white Americans.

Having worked extensively on a different set of African-American cemetery restoration and reclamation projects (primarily in Georgia) reading the book was an exhilerating and at times deeply disturbing experience, bringing back powerful memories of joy, fulfillment, disappointment and anguish.

I love the framing moment early on: at the close of China’s first visit to the cemetery with two members of the descendant community, a large elm tree comes down with a crash. One of the African American women remarks, “That’s just the Ancestors lettin’ us know they seen us,” she said, “and that they’re happy we’re here." (p. 26)
 The remark puts me in mind of the deep significance attached to trees in African-American communities throughout the American South, as repositories of the spirit. (I discuss this symbolism in some detail in my recent article, "Going by the Trees: Death and Regeneration in Georgia's Haunted Landscapes' [Electronic Antiquity, 2009]) For the Kongo people of West-Central Africa, trees are explicitly the houses of the honored dead. In the rural South, in Georgia as well as in East Texas, there seem to be mere enigmatic associations among these elements. Trees are the signals of gravesites and mark the boundaries of graveyards; they span great gulfs of time between generations, between those who came before us and those who will come after. Their great reaches span the visible extent of branches and the hidden abyss of mysterious roots, allowing them in multiple imaginative registers to bridge visible and invisible, the conscious and the unconscious, the articulated and the unspeakable.

But if the dense space of the tree-covered African-American cemetery opens up possibilities of reconciliation with ancestors and with those across the color line, this mythic space also opens up potentially terrifying chasms of mis-recognition and painful misunderstanding. In the most startling and penetrating sections of her book, China unflichingly recounts her breach with her closest African-American community partner, Doris, who becomes for a time deeply disenchanted with her. China herself attributes their troubles to her own attempt to have Dorris and other community members sign a release to allow for a video documentary to be shot. As China notes, in Harrison County the scenario of a white person seeking signatures from black folks conjures up a painful history of land dispossession. Yet while I'm sure this was part of the story, more seems to have been going on: given the staggering burden of racialized history in the region, it seems inevitable that cross-racial attempts at reconciliation will face complex backlashes across racial lines, even among people of good will deeply committed to tolerance and mutual understanding. Doris at one point tells China, "We didn't need you," and ths seems to go to the heart of complex politics of dependency and independence in the ostensibly post-civil rights South. What does it mean for any white person to try to "help" in these contexts? Does aid always imply a relationship of power, a reduction of the person of color being aided to a structural position of dependence? How do we find a way back to a spirit of true collaboration and mutual liberation? And how do we really understand how things, so often, go wrong? As thoughtful as China's account of their break is, I found myself wishing for an Afterword by Doris herself, to understand her own perspective on this ruptured, if ultimately repaired, friendship.

If China gets herself into trouble through the prototypical 'white' ritual practice of seeking written signatures, it is surely appropriate that she is returned to grace and the beloved community through a very different ritual context, within the sacred confines of Afro-Baptist worship. After a long period of self-conscious critical examination, in which she finds herself repeatedly saying the wrong things (I must admit that I read these sections with a great deal of anxious and embarrassed recognition!) she finally surrenders herself to the flow and power of a call and response service, and in so surrendering, is in effect rescued by Doris. This remarkable scene is poignant testimony to the redemptive power of ritual to transcend the pitfalls of rational thought and to cross-cut conventional categorical oppositions.

This contrast, between text-based knowledge (exemplified by the written releases that nearly destroy the friendship between the two women) and a deeper form of knowledge embedded in the landscape itself, runs through the entire book. At a certain point, the author realizes that istory is not exhausted in the (white) textual legal records she is obsessively research ("Records are the victor's story,"she acknowledges). Rather History, in the form of historical consciousness, emerges through embodied performance, through shared physical labor in the cemetery, through worshipful song in sanctified spaces, through the quiet struggles to unlock a gate or figure out how to pour out a libation together. This form of Historicity is hardly a seemless narrative but is composed of stops and starts, abrupt reversals, misfires and miscues. And yet this kind of knowledge-in-becoming finally, improbably moves people forward in deepening relationships, in part because these relationships, which rest on mutual vulnerability, develop their own histories over time, histories that make possible a mutual recognition of History in its fullest forms.

It is hard not to think, in this context, of Baby Suggs' sermon in the Clearing, in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Against the long history of white-dominated textual history, Baby Suggs insists that true knowledge of past and future are to be grounded in the land and embodied into flesh: "Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up."

In this beautiful book, it seems to me, China Galland is trying to conjure up for us a reconstructed collective body, in the figure of Love Cemetery as a shared object of adoration and struggle. This long-neglected burial ground becomes, through this honest and painful retelling, a historical body of land and love -- one that we can all put a hand to and all hold up.

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