I have a famous uncle. His name is Thornton Dial, and he's world renowned for his abstract art. He's witty, clever, and a genius.
I have to talk a little about him, even if it's sideways. You see, he's so famous that "60 Minutes" went to Alabama and interviewed him. It sparked another documentary of the reclusive multi-millionaire. Nine years ago, a television crew wanted to talk to anyone associated with my uncle. So they went to my grandmother's house in Emelle, Alabama. What happened as a result of that visit changed my life.
While on my grandmother's farm six years ago, I found a few interesting items, but most of the farm was just grass and rusted buildings too dilapidated to be of any good. I found a steer's skull with teeth intact. I found a milk jug. I found a pitcher.
For two days, I roamed around property that had been stripped of its busy past through time. Nevertheless, I was still in love with the farm. When I went inside the house with a skull I found out in the pasture, my grandmother questioned me about it.
"Who brought that old bone up here?" she questioned, but somehow it was a pleasant demand.
"I did. I thought it was cool, grandma." Everyone laughed. "Do you think I'm crazy, grandma?" I asked.
She thought for a moment then shook her head. "No. Those television people that came to my farm kept finding stuff and they was going wild over a bunch a junk. They kept asking me if they could have this and that. I told them to take the old stuff. I didn't want it."
It had a duality of loss. Just as I came to terms with my own indifference over the family farm--our roots--I realized how much I had lost. I hadn't done much to get down there over the years. I had dismissed the south as a place of deep prejudice, and told myself there was nothing I needed from it.
But it jolted me that day to realize that the farm was where I started. My relatives were slowly dying out, and I never knew them. I hurt even more because I had lost thirty years of time with them I'll never get back. I lost mementos of an era that I can only read about now.
My famous uncle is a living piece of that time when he made art and hid it for fear that he would not be able to continue. He can sell his art for staggering sums, be featured on television, and live in a million dollar home. His art is celebrated the world over. Thirty years ago, he thought he would be arrested for "making art". Though he celebrates his color in his art, he is revered for his statements of humanity and of society. Art collectors do not see a black man who makes art. They see the work of a genius.
Quite a coup in thirty years time.
Less than two hundred years ago, slaves could not be taught to read or write, because then they would be considered unmanageable. How much more precious it is to me to be a black writer. One hundred years ago, I would be whipped for writing a simple poem or story.
A pervasive attitude in most black Southerners at first made me feel that it was a behind the times attitude: The white man came and took. After that walk around a desolate farm, I begin to share similar feelings. It was not hostile, rather, a remnant of understanding and distrust that motivated them to protect themselves from the threat.
I don't hate the white man. A lot of my friends are white. White or black, I don't want anyone to take anything that belongs to my family from us. I don't know how much was taken. But I wish, as they found antiques, that they'd thought: Wait a minute. There's a whole family here. There's nieces and nephews and grandchildren and brothers and sisters. Maybe we ought to think about what were doing here. We ought to give some consideration to the history and to what belongs here. Not to us.
But I can only feel that they thought about how valuable each trinket was, how much it would bring, and how it would look good in a museum. Maybe they thought my grandma was some blunt old woman. No. My grandmother cared about two things: what was in her heart and what was in her house: pictures, dozens of hand made quilts, a family Bible, records of family long dead, and the home she knew since the 1920s. A rusting farm she couldn't work anymore didn't matter, and so, the greater priority within her, she released the outside to outside hands.
She wasn't to blame. They were, for having no sensitivity. And we were, for not being there more often. Our crazy, confused lives took precedence over the years, and we lost physical reminders of our heritage.
Not African, but black Americans.
The farm is gone now, sold just weeks before my grandmother's death three years ago. My age of understanding came together in a crossroads on that Alabama farm one steamy afternoon. I wish I could have understood and I wish other people could understand. I didn't understand, they didn't understand me. So many people in the world don't understand black people, black Southerners don't understand white Southerners, and white Southerners don't understand black Southerners.
My frustration at the television crew keyed in a vital point: we need to understand who took from whom, when, and what to do with what we know. Rage at dead masters does me no good, yet many black people still froth at the white man, and twenty year old blacks rage at the civil rights atrocities. Were you there? I want to shout. Why are you so mad?
What I have thought about my race and roots has been challenged. I feel revived as a person, as a woman, as a Christian, and as a black American.
I've been busy all my life trying to be cultured and mannered, to erase the pain of never belonging. That was my way of bringing dignity to my world. There's nothing wrong with training yourself to be someone you can be proud of. However, I've prided myself on not being too black. My rebellion of all black elements was so I would not be extreme as others were. I did not want to be like any black person I knew. I went into a world where inside I was a snob and a judgmental snob. Inwardly I was better than those who hurt me and I dreamt of hurting them.
And now, because of my uncle, because of my writing, because of my growth, the desire to hurt is gone. The drive to educate myself more and more is afoot.
My past relatives were ordinary people, some free, some slaves. They were good to each other. They helped, cooked, nursed, loved, and supported one another. That's still present in the south. Hospitality, for Southerners, is the same as breathing. One can criticize a lot of things about Southerners. But not their propensity for being generous, for making you feel at home, and for languid conversations by the soft breeze of a fan and a glass of something tall and cool to drink.
That's the way people should be to one another, the way I want to live my life-- with genuine generosity, openness, and self-assurance in what I have. It's more prudent to take it all together as a cake. Leave out an ingredient and it's not going to taste quite right. It may look all right, but the old adage that looks can be deceiving is highly appropriate. It's the taste of life's banquet that matters, and I want mine to be delicious.