a kind of safety word

Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s memoir of his road trip around the U.S. with his big poodle Charley in 1960.

“We could not go fast because of the ice, but we drove relentlessly, hardly glancing at the passing of Texas beside us… We stopped for gasoline and coffee and slabs of pie. Charley had his meals and walks in gas stations… The blue-fingered man who filled my gas tank looked in at Charley and said, ‘Hey, it’s a dog! I thought you had a nigger in there.’ And he laughed delightedly. It was the first of many repetitions. At least twenty times I heard it - ‘Thought you had a nigger in there.’ It was an unusual joke - always fresh - and never Negro or even Nigra, always Nigger or rather Niggah. That word seemed terribly important, a kind of safety word to cling to lest some structure collapse.

And then I was in Louisiana, with Lake Charles away to the side in the dark, but my lights glittered on ice and glinted on diamond frost, and those people who forever trudge the roads at night were mounded over with cloth against the cold… I scudded on toward New Orleans… So, well on the edge of town I drove into a parking lot. The attendant came to my window. ‘Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog. I see that big old black face and I think it’s a big old nigger.’

‘His face is blue-gray when he’s clean,’ I said coldly.

‘Well I see some blue-gray niggers and they wasn’t clean. New York, eh?’

It seemed to me a chill like the morning air came into his voice. ‘Just driving through,’ I said. ‘I want to park for a couple of hours. Think you can get me a taxi?’

‘Where you from?’ the driver asked with a complete lack of interest.

‘Liverpool.’

‘Limey, huh? Well you’ll be all right. It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble.’

I found myself with a British inflection and by no means one of Liverpool. ‘Jews - what? How do they cause trouble?’

‘Why, hell, mister. We know how to take care of this. Everybody’s happy and getting along fine. Why, I like niggers. And them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up. They just stay in New York there wouldn’t be no trouble. Ought to take them out.’

‘You mean lynch them?"‘

‘I don’t mean nothing else, mister.’”

- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962

(Red Country Reading List)

States 1 & 2: Mississippi & Louisiana, February 2017

pink = where we went

I had never been to Mississippi or Louisiana before. I think I wanted Mississippi to be my first state for this project because of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam." My imagination had latched onto Mississippi as the heart of a protest song. Anna and I cashed in our frequent flyer miles, with a special uncle to stay at home with our boy. This started out as a single-state trip but at the last minute turned into two states when I realized how much there was to see in Louisiana just over the state line, and that it would be smart for me to visit two states for the price of one plane ticket when possible. But doing both states in four days was rather harried and I'm going to try not to do that again.  

We flew into Baton Rouge and spent the night in this little Airbnb cabin in the woods in St. Francisville, LA.

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The next day we drove on bridges across vast swamps to Breaux Bridge, LA. We went to the visitors center, and I asked the woman working there where she thought I should go if I wanted to get a sense of this part of the state. She told me about Lake Martin, and wanted to show me pictures on her computer of what it looks like in the spring; she seemed disappointed that I was going to see it in winter, and not at its best. She said, "It's so serene out there. So beautiful." She's lived in Breaux Bridge her whole life. 

We had a picnic lunch and then went on a ride in boat through Lake Martin with a man named Shawn. Shawn and his dad Butch have a business giving swamp tours. 

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I asked Shawn if he grew up around here and he said yes, and that this lake (not technically a swamp, he told us) was his classroom. His dad studied Zoology and Botany and taught him everything he knows. 

He told us about the biology of the lake, about the animals that live there, and about the history and culture of the area: about duck hunters and Cajuns and swimming habits of local youth (not afraid of alligators); about the birders who come faithfully every winter and sit in lawn chairs in hopes of seeing the bird we just saw, but rarely do - a vermillion flycatcher. I didn't even try to take a picture, and instead just watched this quick small flying flash of pure bright red darting through the blue sky.

Alligators aren't active hunters. They just wait for their food to come to them, while lounging and soaking up sun through these crazy bumps on their back. Shawn knows which mama alligator with her kids live in which part of the lake. (Males don't stick around.)

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Duck hunters build structures to hide behind. Shawn tells us that people eat what they kill, and that the ecosystem depends on the hunters to stay balanced. But he is not pleased with what gets left behind. 

Near the end of the tour, we were admiring a bird that Shawn was saying makes many trips back and forth to Mexico. Then he said, "Don't tell Trump! He'll build a wall for the birds!" We laughed, and I wondered if he had different jokes for people from different places. 

I was so gobsmacked by this place that I completely forgot about my project. I did not take notes. I had this man alone on a boat for two hours and did not ask him about any other place I should go, not even where we should go for dinner. I later realized that as silly as this was, it was good. I had been in the place and not thinking about a different place. 

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After the boat ride we drove to Lafayette, had dinner and headed over to our Airbnb. The map lady in my phone led us astray into the wrong neighborhood, and thank heavens she did, otherwise we would have missed this marvel.

This (3D, moving) thing is in the middle of a neighborhood (?), and in better shape than most of the houses around it. As you can see, it is at ground level (!), so apparently meant to be experienced on foot!

So far we have struck gold with our Airbnbs! Why stay in a hotel again? This one had a little goldfish pond in back. 

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In the morning we chatted with our friendly host on the porch. When I told him about my project and asked him to tell me which places we should go, he talked about the land itself; how the Mississippi River has shaped the region by making the soil near it rich and fertile. I thought about the landscape in a new way after that conversation. We said we were thinking of going to St. Martinville, and he said if we did we should go to St. Martin de Tours church, the town's historic Catholic church. 

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Inside was a sculptural shrine that I recognized as a recreation of the grotto in France where St. Bernadette had her vision of Mary. I was especially enjoyed the pretend rocks.

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Next to the church is this trophy/monument to white American stories. 

 "ATTAKPA INDIAN : ROVING SAVAGE TRIBE WHO SETTLED HERE PRIOR TO THE FRENCH. PARTLY CHRISTIANIZED AND CIVILIZED BY MISSIONARIES. DEDICATED NOVEMBER 3, 1961"

"ATTAKPA INDIAN : ROVING SAVAGE TRIBE WHO SETTLED HERE PRIOR TO THE FRENCH. PARTLY CHRISTIANIZED AND CIVILIZED BY MISSIONARIES. DEDICATED NOVEMBER 3, 1961"

We headed up route 61 to Natchez, Mississippi. Nearly there, we got out and looked at Mammy's Cupboard, which I'd read had good biscuits but was closed.

 the right side of Mammy's Cupboard

the right side of Mammy's Cupboard

 Mammy's Cupboard

Mammy's Cupboard

There was a note on the door saying there had been a family emergency. (The next day we were told that it used to be called Black Mammy's, and that it really was a shame that it was closed when we were there.)

 The left side of Mammy's Cupboard

The left side of Mammy's Cupboard

When we got to Natchez we wandered around a little bit. Coming from winter in Seattle, I was enamored of the flowering bushes everywhere. 

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Sunset on the Mississippi! 

Our Airbnb was a pink house built in the 1800's just a few blocks from downtown Natchez, owned by a composer. There was a baby grand in the living room. While we sat on the front porch eating breakfast, people drove by waving and shouting "How y'all doin!" 

In the morning we went to the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. When we walked in the director, Darrell White, greeted us and asked how we wanted to structure our visit. Did we want to walk around looking at stuff and find him if we had any questions? Or did we want him to give us a private tour of the museum? I told him I am a painter doing an art project about place, and would love to hear whatever he has to tell me about Natchez. He said, "Sit." So we sat. He spent well over an hour with us. Shortly after we began our lesson, two ladies in elegantly coordinated dresses, hats and shoes came in and sat down and joined us. They are regulars.

We learned a lot in a short amount of time. I took notes furiously. Natchez was one of the most violent and active territories of KKK activity. Guns were legal as long as they weren't concealed; people had guns on them like they do cell phones now, just hanging out of their pockets. There was a group in Louisiana called the Deacons for Defense and Justice. When their kids were threatened and attacked for going to school, the Deacons told their kids to fight back. They would go to school with the kids to make sure they got in and out safely, and they intimidated the Klan with guns. It worked. This inspired people in Natchez to get guns and defend their kids and community with force, if necessary. (This was mid 1960's.) They had more guns than the KKK. It worked. The KKK leader put a 90 day moratorium on Klan activity until they could figure out what to do with the "niggers in Natchez with the guns." 

He told us about Nellie Jackson, who had the most successful, longest-standing African American business in the city's history - it thrived for over sixty years. She used to bail civil rights fighters out of jail, and to help members of the black community in need. I asked, "What kind of business was it?" Darrell White, deadpan: "A brothel." 

In the 1990's Miss Nellie turned away a white man because he was drunk; she had strict rules that she upheld to protect her girls. That night he set her house on fire. Miss Nellie died a few days later. 

I asked him if the house was still there. He said yes, but it's nothing to see. I said I really wanted to go there and he seemed perplexed. I persevered and he told us what street it's on and the cross street.

We had to hurry off (which I regret even more in retrospect than I did at the time) because that day was our only chance to see a nearby cotton plantation. Before we left, he showed me the sad state of his cotton basket that has been picked clean by museum visitors. He gave me a note to give to the owner of the plantation asking for fresh cotton. 

Frogmore Cotton Plantation was just a half hour west over the state line. Learning about slavery and the Civil War as a child, cotton took on this mythic quality for me; as though all of the human suffering that took place at that time was somehow related to the nature of cotton itself. I had never seen it growing in person and felt like I needed to, to satisfy this narrative that lingers, as nonsensical as it is. 

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When I was reading about the different plantations, I was surprised to discover that few of them devoted much space or time to communicating the realities of slavery. We chose to visit this plantation because it is particularly invested in telling the story of the people that lived and worked there as slaves. We joined a tour of about ten people and walked through the grounds, the slave quarters, overseer's house, and cotton gin. At one point, the woman leading the tour was showing us a typical piece of clothing worn by the slaves. It looked like a sack and was made of lightweight cotton. The woman told us, "Now, the men had one muslim for day and one muslim for night. The women just had one muslim, period." I still don't know if we should have said something. 

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We went and saw the earthen remains of the Natchez Indians. There are mounds covered with nicely trimmed grass. I had a hard time looking at them without imagining the lawnmower that goes over them. 

The mounds were used for different things. One was for the home of the chief; each new chief's home was built on top of the former home and the mound got higher with each generation. Some were for burial, and some for ceremonial use. 

We drove a bit of the beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway which starts in Natchez and runs diagonally across the entire state into Alabama. It is an old path, originally made by animals, then used by Native Americans, then eventually paved over. There is a part of the trail that is preserved called the "Sunken Trace." It was an amazing mammalian experience to walk on an intentional path of earth that has been walked on by so many beings for so long.  

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We didn't eat out much and mostly got food from the grocery store to prepare at the house. That night at Natchez Market, the woman in line behind me said she liked my striped pants. I guess the way I said "thank you" communicated that I wasn't from there, because then she asked me where I was from. The cashier joined in easily, naturally, and they asked me how I liked Mississippi and Louisiana. I said I particularly liked Natchez; that I wasn't just saying that. The cashier said she wishes she could go to Seattle. She said she'd never been anywhere outside Mississippi except Georgia. 

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The next morning we stopped by the river and then a cafe to get Anna a biscuit. After the young guy behind the counter gave her the biscuits, she asked where she should pay for them. He said, "Aw, I ain't gonna charge ya." Wow! They came with a little container of butter mixed with apricot jam.   

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We drove around looking for Miss Nellie's house. It's a white house with red shutters in a quiet neighborhood. Next door there was a family - three generations, I think - sitting on their front steps in the sun. When I got out and went up to the house, they watched me curiously. I got the feeling that people don't ever go there looking for Miss Nellie's house, and that I was intruding. By way of explanation for our presence, I said "Is this Miss Nellie's house?" The woman got up and said, "Yes Ma'am." I looked at the house like it was something to see and took a few hasty pictures while they watched me. When we left, they waved goodbye, and we waved goodbye, and they watched us drive away.

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I had the very clear feeling that I was making some kind of mistake during this interaction, but did not know what it was. I thought the mistake was my mere presence there; that I had intruded on this family enjoying their morning. Now, after having had the help of some friends processing this and other interactions on this trip, I wonder if the mistake was not staying long enough. Maybe I should have gone over and introduced myself and told them what I was doing there; offered to share my story as I was entering theirs. 

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We drove south and east past Woodville. This is what residential trash cans look like in rural Mississippi. They were empty and dotted the roads lit up by the sun. They're maybe 3 feet cubed. 

Driving down country roads we came upon a makeshift cemetery on a stretch of hilly land on the side of the road. A few of the gravestones were handmade. 

We were going to Clark Creek Natural Area, where we had hoped to have time for a short walk. There were several school buses in the parking lot and as we started walking down the trail we met in dreary, exhausted succession many preteens straggling up the hill. Nearly all of them asked us how much longer it was to the parking lot. When we told them, some were visibly relieved and a few glared at us like teenagers should. "Only 3 more minutes! You're almost there!" then "Only 10 more minutes!" then "Just like 20 minutes!" then, to ourselves, "Damn this is a steep hill. Maybe we should turn around." The teachers with the kids were maybe in their twenties and were giving constant, loving encouragement. I found myself relating so much to both the kids and the teachers. I remembered feeling like that on family hikes - at the end being hungry, thirsty, tired and complaining and my mom pushing me up the hill. 

On our way back to the Baton Rouge airport we stopped at Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville. The gardens and grounds are beautiful. Fluffy mounds of pink flowers on green bushes, trees dripping with Spanish moss, little fountains in the middle of geometrically patterned hedges, gazebos, benches in lush alcoves. I found it completely impossible to separate it all from its meaning; not that I think I should try.