Raised on Cornbread and Recollections

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak, Home of William Faulkner

Earlier this month, I joined other members of the National Trust on a memorable trip from Memphis down to the Mississippi Delta.  Dr. Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the American South, joined us and helped set the context for what we were seeing in places such as Oxford, Sumner, Indianola, and Dockery Farms.  His remarks were a masters class in the connections of place with memory, history, food, drink, literature, race, and gender.

At one point, Bill noted that a relative of his liked to say that “he was raised on cornbread and recollections.”  As someone who has eaten my fair share of cornbread, often quotes my grandmother, and tells stories passed down from my father, I understood completely.

We launched our journey into the Delta from Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.  Both the site and writer are reminders of the importance of recollections and history to life today.  Historic sites at their best are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  I often say that “the period of significance is now” with historic sites to point to those intersections.  You cannot have been in the preservation field very long without hearing the famous William Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun, which goes, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  That’s very true at a place like Rowan Oak, where communities of people who write and love literature, admire architecture, and enjoy good liquor and good company all visit for remembrance and inspiration.  (To that last point, Faulkner has another famous line which suggests that “pouring out liquor is like burning books.”  He enjoyed his Four Roses.)

At its best, memory is a poet and not a historian.  But not all recollections are correct, and some are purposefully misleading, including “Lost Cause” memories told by my beloved grandmother. Perhaps the most meaningful and moving part of the trip was the 90 minutes we spent at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the murderers of young Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in 1955, setting off events that led to the modern Civil Rights movement.  Visitors are invited to “engage in the story of Emmett Till, explore your own story, and create a new emerging story with us.”  It is important to bring this past into the present, where we are still grappling with the racism that led to Till’s murder and the murder through lynching of at least 4,000 African Americans from 1877 – 1950.  In that restored courthouse, we read aloud an apology from citizens of Tallahatchie County to the family of Emmett Till.  One of our National Trust Council members spontaneously used that venue to speak from the heart about his mother’s recollections as a young African American woman in the Delta who was only five years older than Till.  This is a historic site that exists to tell the story of Emmett Till in order to move people forward.

Sumner Courthouse

Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi


Site of Till Murder Trial

Site of the Emmett Till Murder Trial in Sumner, Mississippi

You don’t have to be a historian to play a role in the telling of the full American story.  I happened to be with attorney Bryan Stevenson — the dynamic founder and head of the Equal Justice Institute  — last week, and was reminded of the work we all have to do when he said “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”  If we want to build communities and a nation full of hope, it is important that we set forth a new narrative about the injustices in our lives, past and present.  Historic sites, monuments, and recollections are good places to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Nothing Can be Changed Until it is Faced

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Last week, President Obama named the A.G. Gaston Motel (a National Trust National Treasure), the 16th Street Baptist Church (site of a bomb attack in 1963 that killed four young girls), and other places near them as part of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.  Made on the eve of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the president’s designation was a good reminder of the importance of why we protect places that tell difficult stories from our past.

A few weeks ago I finished reading a powerful book that harkened back to the work and writings of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a work that demands a response from the reader and is not easily dismissed.

In the book’s foreword, Cornel West alludes to the link between Alexander’s work and Dr. King’s core beliefs.  King called for us to be “lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”  It is the work of King for the poor and vulnerable in places like Alabama that led President Obama to designate this new National Monument.

Michelle Alexander’s last chapter is inspired by the writing of James Baldwin.  Coincidentally, the Washington Post recently included Baldwin’s writing in an article about a new Memorial to Peace and Justice.  Better known by its common name of the national lynching memorial, this place has been envisioned by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by Bryan Stevenson, who also is its executive director and spoke at our PastForward 2015 conference.  That piece in the Post includes this powerful line from an unfinished book by James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

When we talk about sharing the broad story of the American experience, not all of it will be positive, yet all of it informs our present.  That line from Baldwin is a powerful reminder to us. We can help shape a better future, but we cannot change anything – in our personal lives as well as in our national experience – unless it is first faced.

As we give thanksgiving for the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are well served to keep Baldwin’s admonition in mind.

A.G. Gaston Motel

A. G. Gaston Motel (photo credit: City of Birmingham Archives)

Have a good week.

More to come…


A Wider, More Generous, More Imaginative Perspective: Preservation in 2017

DJB in Cedar Mesa

The Bears Ears National Monument (thank you President Obama) in Southeast Utah

(Note:  This post originally appeared – in a slightly edited form – on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Forum blog.)

2016 was a time of reflection and anticipation for many Americans, including preservationists. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, but we also used this year to anticipate the future. Moving past those milestones, we have the opportunity—some would say the obligation—to rethink preservation and seek our place of relevance in the changed political and social climate of 2017.

Many people contributed to our convenings on the future of preservation. Out of those conversations, we envisioned a preservation movement that grounds its work in human needs and aspirations:

“A people-centered preservation movement empowers people to tell their stories and to engage in saving the places that matter to them; plays an increasingly important role in creating sustainable, resilient, equitable, and livable communities; and works collaboratively with a wide range of other fields to fulfill fundamental human needs and achieve essential social goals.”

Change is one of the constants of our work, and it happens at every level. In his new work, RETHINK: The Surprising History of New Ideas, Steven Poole speaks to the art of rethinking and rediscovery. While it is easy to picture ideas as static packages of thought that can be definitively judged, Poole explains that is not very accurate:

“If we are not constantly rethinking ideas, we are not really thinking. As the French say, “reculer pour mieux sauter”—if you step back first, you can jump further. The best way forward can be to go in reverse. And the best new ideas are often old ideas.”

What might this mean for rethinking preservation? The creation story for contemporary preservation turned from a focus on high-style architectural landmarks to a grassroots and activist movement in the mid-20th century. Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village, Barbara Capitman in Miami Beach, and others led tens of thousands of citizens across the country to push to control the nature and pace of change in their neighborhoods. And while that instinct to shape the communities we want—instead of accepting what others conceive for us—remains, many do not connect it with preservation practice today.

Seattle PiP Launch

A People-Centered Preservation Movement

To democratize preservation—to build a people-centered movement—we must move the protection and reuse of older and historic environments away from the purview of select experts and back to work that all of our citizens can embrace. And to empower people to tell their stories and engage in saving the places that matter to them, we must work in different ways and perhaps outside our comfort zone.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his work has included the telling of difficult stories. In the introduction to his 2014 book, Just Mercy, Stevenson explains the need for proximity by quoting his grandmother: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” As our nation tries to understand recent events and reconcile them with our full story as Americans, it is easy to decide to step away. But as people who care about what the past can tell us about the future, we have to get close, and we have to accept the challenge Bryan Stevenson issued in his remarks at PastForward 2015:

“I think that our efforts to concretize, to mark, and to indicate what is important about who we are … are critical not only to our history and our understanding of that history, but to the issues that we are dealing with on a daily basis. I believe very strongly that identity matters. And you can tell the identity of a space, of a nation, by what they preserve, what they honor.

One of the challenges I see in this country is that we’ve actually done a very bad job of creating an American identity reflected by our landmarks, our memorials, our spaces, that tells a very honest story…. It’s like the struggles that created all the issues we are still dealing with don’t matter…. There is power in identity, and I believe we can say something to the rest of this country about what’s important that can help this nation move forward.”

 A number of participants in our future of preservation convenings spoke to the need for connecting our work to wider community objectives and goals that extend beyond design and aesthetics. The challenge is to involve preservationists in something bigger—and, conversely, to show those working to shape the future of our communities the range of what preservation brings to the table.

I have been reflecting on the subject of connections in an age of specialization since finishing Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, which looks at the growth of science in the Romantic Age. Holmes tackles this broad topic with a blend of history, biography, art, science, and philosophy. He has said that he wrote this book because:

“The old, rigid debates and boundaries—science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics—are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.”

I love that idea of a “wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.” As the old African proverb states, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Making those broader connections in our age of specialization—and repurposing old ideas for today’s times—are critical to building a new, people-centered preservation movement.

This is work we each must do. Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And, just as Bryan Stevenson looks back to the wisdom of his grandmother, I never forget the times that my own grandmother told me: “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!”

Rethinking preservation for 2017 and beyond is useful work that we all can do together.

More to come…


The Power of Identity

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve been reading two important books in recent weeks. Both have challenged some of my deeply held assumptions.  Both books and their authors have received extensive coverage in the media. And while I didn’t originally plan for this post to come out on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, perhaps it is only fitting that I spend this time on America’s racial history as we honor one whose life work was spent on correcting injustice.

One book was not written with a white audience in mind, while the other is clearly intended to open the eyes of the those who see the civil rights movement as a three-day event:  “On Day 1, Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on the bus. On Day 2, [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] led a march on Washington. And on the third day, we signed all of these laws.”  Both books – in their own ways – have affirmed for me that the work I can do to help build a more complete American identify can be a small but important step in helping to heal the racial divide that tears at our country.

The topic of racism and our response in this country is one I’ve been wrestling with in this blog almost since it began. Last year was especially difficult in this regard, given the shootings of nine innocent parishioners at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, and the response.  I came to these two books from a rather progressive (especially for the South) family background, where I had always tried to follow the rules of respect and trust.  I’m not sure that’s enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is rightfully being hailed as a worthy successor to the intellectual legacy of James Baldwin.  Written as a letter to his adolescent son, Between the World and Me grapples – in straightforward, stark, and beautifully written prose – with what it means to be black in a country that built its history and power in part on the difference between being white and black.

While Coates has been quoted as saying this is not a book written for white audiences, I think it speaks in a special way to those of us who did not grow up as people of color.  Journalist and lawyer Sally Kohn has suggested the following reason it is important for white audiences:

That Between the World and Me was explicitly not written for white people (like me) is exactly why we should read it. Because part of the ideology of white supremacy and racial hierarchy is the idea that everything white is better, and that people of color should learn from how white people dress and work and raise their kids and write. Want to subvert that subtle, implicit bias? Tweeting #BlackLivesMatter is good, but expanding your intellectual as well as actual interpersonal relationships is even better. And especially if you live in a very white part of America, a book is a great place to start.

I don’t live in a “very white” part of America (our block has multiple families of color who share life together in our urban neighborhood), but this spoke to me.  Much of Coates story is difficult to absorb in one reading, which is why I’ll probably return to it.  But this is an important voice, and I’m glad my children pushed me to read this book.

Just Mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson’s work is easier to understand, if not easier to accept.  I was privileged to hear a recent talk by  Stevenson at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2015 PastForward conference which helped me put both these works in a context, as he framed this struggle as the “power of identity.”

Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.  EJI…

…litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

Just Mercy is Stevenson’s 2014 book that tells of this work, framed around the wrongful conviction of death-row inmate Walter McMillan, and the years-long effort to get the criminal justice system to right an obvious wrong.  It is a harrowing story, and not all of the people represented by EJI make it off of death row alive.  Stevenson’s struggle has been compared to Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti.  Tracy Kidder, who wrote the magnificent Mountains Upon Mountains about Farmer’s efforts to cure infectious diseases in the most poverty-stricken reaches of the planet, has this to say about Stevenson:

Our American criminal justice system has become an instrument of evil.  Bryan Stevenson has labored long and hard, and with great skill and temperate passion, to set things right.  Words such as important and compelling may have lost their force through overuse, but reading this book will restore their meaning, along with one’s hopes for humanity.

When Stevenson spoke last fall at the PastForward conference, he tied EJI’s work to that we do as preservationists.  He framed his talk as the power of identity, and called on us to speak to a more complete American identity.  Speaking truthfully about who we are as a people, “requires engagement that we have not yet made”  because there is a narrative of racial difference that we have not confronted.

Besides the power of identity, he spoke of power in memorialization, noting that “we preserve the things that matter.”  If we are to have a more complete American identity, we need a new way of thinking about what we preserve and what we tell.  Stevenson and EJI just released a report entitled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in which the Institute documents 3959 racial terror lynchings of African-Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950.  The reports summary (linked above) should be read by all who care about truth and reconciliation in an area where we need to talk about race and racial justice.

This work is necessary, asserts Stevenson, not to punish, but to get to a “better freedom.”

Stevenson ended his talk at the PastForward conference with a call to change the landscape of American iconography, as it tells a false story.  He also ended with three points (two of which he makes in every one of his speeches).  Stevenson said that he believes,

  • We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
  • That the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.
  • And that we cannot judge how we are doing with landmark preservation if we just look at the sites of the wealthy, privileged and powerful.  You judge the character of a society by the places that it saves – especially the places that tell the story of the poor, the formerly enslaved, and the condemned.

Stevenson’s speech is the first 25 minutes of this hour-long video, and I cannot recommend it to you enough.  If you cannot make it through an entire hour, that’s fine, but if you do you’ll also hear of some of the great work of Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute, who I’ve also been privileged to hear and speak with on several occasions.

These are important steps being taken at a time that this country is working through (not always successfully) its history of racial discrimination.  Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend is as good a time as any to take their work seriously.

More to come…