• Seema

everybody likes gumbo


I interviewed an African American woman in her early 70s who moved from the Northeast to a town of 2,200 people in the rural South almost three years ago to do genealogical research and write about her ancestors who were enslaved there.


At the time of our interview she was recovering from hip surgery. "It was shocking how much help I got," she expressed. "I didn't realize how incredibly helpful people can be." There was one woman who took care of her cats while she was in the hospital, another person helped set up her bedroom when she returned from the hospital, someone else gets the mail and brings food to her daily. "The lady who came who is incredibly helpful and comes to feed my cats and change the cat box, she is a rabid Trump supporter. She posted this long rant on Facebook that made her feelings very clear. And I made a conscious decision that I am not going to deal with that. I am going to deal with the you I see everyday that is the person who generously is helping me while I'm sick. And hopefully, maybe by knowing me, or maybe by being exposed to something new that I have introduced you to, maybe you'll change your mind, maybe you won't, but we have to live here together. So somebody has to back down. It can't be a fight....And she is a really nice person. So it's interesting."


When asked about the prompt imagine a U.S. without racism, she said, "I would really like to be able to imagine an America without racism, but I have a hard time doing so because I feel that it is so ingrained in the DNA of the country that I don't know that it will ever go away. I think that the best that we can hope for is building a society where racism is not the barrier that is used to be. So you have equal access to things whether or not people are racist."


"People here are really separate socially." The White people are involved in Historical Society, the Black people are members in churches. There's not a lot of mixing of people. When she bought her house, she threw a party and invited both Black and White people. The White people were very curious and replied right away that they would attend. The house she bought was well known in the community because it used to belong to a dentist who all the White people went to. But she was having a hard time getting the Black people to agree to attend. "The kicker of the thing that pushed it over the edge was I decided to cook a pot of gumbo. I told everybody I'm cooking gumbo - boom! - everybody came.... Black, White, everybody likes gumbo." At the party she made a point of introducing people to one another. It was intentional.


She gave a presentation on how to do your genealogical research based on the history of the county. "People came and cried -- White people -- because the economy of this county was built on slavery and so here is the whole story." It was a packed room of people Black and White.


She manages the website for the Historical Society and has been able to put things up that had never been up before, including the list of all of the slaveholders and pictures of things that go beyond the White images they always had before: pictures of the Black churches and things that relate to Black life, integrating that story into the closed loop that they used to have. I inquired if she received any pushback for these changes. "Mostly no," she said. "I hope it's not because I'm intimidating them. I don't aggress you, but what I tell you is unassailable so there can't be an argument because the things that I say are absolutely true. So unless you are a diehard racist who really doesn't like me or like Black people, there can't be an argument. And I am not trying to punish you for what has happened. I want to look at history. The path to healing begins by confronting the history.... everybody is complicit...if we're going to have a better place then we have to look at that history and make another picture."


She has been working on getting a Confederate statue moved and, "Surprisingly, they [the Historical Society] were on with it. They were like 'yeah' we're just trying to find the money to do it." There was a little hesitancy at the beginning because they didn't want the statue torn down. So once they all agreed to remove the statue from in front of the courthouse and put it in the Confederate cemetery, everyone agreed. They put a statement in the newspaper that the Historical Society supports the relocation of the statue and are now researching where the funding came from to put up the statue originally so they can have a strategy to cover the $50,000 cost for its relocation.


There are plaques near the courthouse that honor veterans of many different wars, and there are only White people on the plaques. When she realized this she talked with someone else from the Historical Society who was shocked to learn this and is now researching the Black veterans and figuring out how to change these plaques.


She recently accepted membership into the Daughters of the American Revolution. "My enslaved ancestress and the man with whom she had these children.... I have all the documentation to prove that lineage."


"I feel like I belong and that I have claimed a space that I wish other Black people here would capitalize on. The population here is 73% Black but you would never know that because it's only White people that you see. They own the businesses, they are in control of the economy, they own the farms....Black people need to claim this space because the town is crumbling." The town is losing an average of 10% of its population each year.


"I don't have control over a lot of things. I only have control over my immediate environment, my immediate sphere of influence and so I am no longer that young person who goes out and marches and tries to change the whole big society. I can only control this small space. So in my space this is how things work and if you don't like that then you should not be in my space. So don't come to my gumbo party. And that hopefully has a ripple effect... Change is made in small little bits and pieces that end up growing into a critical mass and then it makes an effect on the whole society."


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