Mending and Repairing

On Saturday, September 27th, 2014, the Love Cemetery Burial Association
is coordinating one of our regular cleanups. Family & friends, Boy Scouts,
students and faculty from nearby Wiley College and East Texas Baptist
University, will be coming together to help us maintain Love Cemetery.

Volunteers turn up from unlikely places. In April, the American airlines
ticket agent from whom I bought my ticket to Dallas drove 300 miles
round trip to help us clean up Love Cemetery. She has a nephew at Wiley
College and was wanted to help the minute she heard Wiley College was
involved. Wiley students including Wiley Choir members, Wiley Debaters,
Nate Parker Scholars and others who feel moved to help.

This coming Saturday, though I won’t be there, we’ll be joined by our friend
Archie Rison and his colleague, Obadiah Johnson. The two of them are
driving in from out of town to help. Both Mr. Rison and Mr. Johnson are
originally from Nacogdoches.

Archie came to Love Cemetery with us, April, 2014, when Ysaye Barnwell,
formerly of the legendary group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” joined us for
our cleanup. You can see and listen to her singing and ours on this 3-
minute video excerpt from last spring: https://vimeo.com/95810508

Ysaye’s retired from “Sweet Honey” and is now focused on building
community through singing. We benefited richly from her leadership. It
didn’t hurt to have members of the Wiley College’s choir with us that day
as well as East Texas Baptist University’s football team. They carry tunes,
not only footballs, corny as that may be to say, it’s true. Family and friends
filled out our crew and chorus you can see on the clip.

Archie’s ideas about a restive retirement were quickly transformed by the
work on his own family’s burial ground. Suddenly he was on a passionate
crusade to maintain, preserve, and restore African American cemeteries.
His Ancestors became the root and cause for his excitement. Everyone’s.
Genealogy has swept the country as a primary interest providing
unexpected connections for people. Sometimes families discover their
background is more mixed than they realized.

This summer Archie attended a first reunion for the black and white
members of his large family. His cousin, Sharon Cranford, wrote the book,
Kinship Concealed, the Amish-Mennonite – African American Family
Connections
on their family background.

9-22-14_Higher res_Kinship book_IMG_4537-3

Roots. Ancestors are the root system. In Resurrecting Love, you’ll hear
Nate Parker and Brian Favors speak eloquently about that basic need we all
have to know who and where we come from.

Archie has helped restore four African American cemeteries in
Nacogdoches, so far. One of those four cemeteries he worked on is
Fellowship Cemetery. This is where Obadiah Johnson comes in. The
ground-penetrating scan done at Fellowship Cemetery revealed that there
were 115 unmarked graves in that cemetery.

Obadiah Johnson went home and made 115 cemetery headstones.

Obadiah Johnson_bkyard_headstones_by Archie Rison

Obadiah Johnson making headstones and barbecue in his backyard

Archie helped him. Each stone says “Unmarked” so that visitors know that
someone whose name has been lost to history is buried there.

A story from The Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel
August 17th, 2014 by Jeri Mills

                                       ‘A Labor of Love’

“Samuel Johnson once said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats
someone who can do him absolutely no good.” This saying applies to the
story I share in today’s column.

“Archie Rison and his friend Obadiah Johnson are both natives of
Nacogdoches and now reside in the Dallas area. Rison, Johnson and his
wife stopped by … to deliver some research materials to me at my request.
They explained they would make this visit brief because they had to get
back to Dallas.

“Mrs. Obadiah Johnson, a charming woman whom I met for the first time,
admitted she was tired and had made the trip with Archie and her husband
at the last minute. She stated at the time of the planned trip her husband
did not feel well but he was determined to make this trip with Archie and
asked her to drive.

“Both men had trucks loaded with cement grave markers they would
deliver and place in Nacogdoches’ Fellowship Cemetery for unmarked
graves. Being the inquisitive person I am, I continued to interrogate until I
had the complete story.

 

headstone_UNKNOWN_Obadiah and Archie_IMG_3079
Handmade headstone for “UNKNOWN”
Made by Obadiah Johnson with assistance from Archie Rison

Summer 2014, Fellowship Cemetery, Nacogdoches, Texas
“At that moment I knew I wanted to share this story because I like sharing
stories about people who do good deeds and do not seek recognition for it.
I was able to piece together that Rison and Johnson took it on their own to
make markers to place on unmarked graves in the Fellowship Cemetery.
Rison quickly said that Johnson made the cement markers in his backyard.

“Johnson quickly said, “Archie is so involved and passionate about
cemeteries and it rubbed off on me.”

“This brings me to Samuel Johnson’s statement above.

“People who are in unmarked graves certainly won’t and cannot know
that finally someone will recognize that, “I am here.” The reasons for the
unmarked graves are just as varied as the people who occupy them. The
bottom line is Rison and Johnson had nothing to gain from this project
but the satisfaction in getting it done. When I called Rison to ask for more
information, he hesitated and said quickly, “There were others involved
and if you are going to tell the story then I want them to get credit also.”

“Dr. Chester “Chet” Walker and Dr. George Avery were key figures from
SFA who were instrumental in using a GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to
locate unmarked graves. As I understand, the instrument can detect items
underground identified as human remains.

“According to Rison, “After the scanning was completed, temporary spikes
were later replaced with the permanent cement headstones mostly made
by Obadiah Johnson in his backyard. Both men admitted they got needed
help in delivering and placing 115 markers identified as “unknown.” Ethel
Johnson, Bobby Haynes and the Rev. Ellis Chatman from Dallas, and Billy
Fowler and Roy Washington from Nacogdoches assisted with this project.

“Folks, I am personally impressed and grateful for all the people who
volunteered for this project. Johnson and Rison, I am grateful to you and
others who helped for loading up your trucks several times, getting the
equipment and markers here and placing them on unmarked graves at
Fellowship

“From personal experiences when I do for others, I get a certain amount of
satisfaction in return. Some say it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. The more
I think about why we do for others, the more I feel another column coming
on for next week.

“I would like for us to ask whether we do for others and expect them to
return the favor. That is the wrong reason. Do we do good deeds and make
sure others know about it and seek their praise….?

“When I asked Archie Rison why he did it he said, ‘This project was a labor
of love. The ticket is paid in full. The fact that we could do this for our
ancestors was pay enough.’”

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What’s Love Got to Do With It?

21 September 2014

“We have to be able to work together in profound ways,” Bill McKibben said.

McKibben, one of the chief architects of the global climate change movement, once noted that clean energy by itself isn’t enough to stop the unraveling of the earth’s living systems.

To actually execute the changes needed – changes that scientists the
world over agree upon – we need to also turn back tothat forgotten technology of building community.”

I thought of this as I watched hundreds of thousands of people pour onto
the streets of New York and other cities around the world on the 21st
September to make their demands for change visible.

People turned out to hold U.N. member nations accountable as they again
confront the complexities of making viable international agreements on
emissions. The window of time to effectively address climate change is
closing rapidly. Though clean energy is essential, as McKibben reminded
us, we are social creatures, our nature is communal. We have to use the
older technology of weaving community along with anything new.

Paradoxically, we’re challenged to rekindle a sense of the communal at the
very moment many are just waking up to find ourselves living in one of the
most re-segregated, incarcerated, indebted, addicted, and economically
unequal eras in the short history of our country.

The New York protest shows us the riches of diversity in the human family,
the astonishing numbers of people who felt passionately enough to get
themselves to New York to work for the greater good and the generations
to come. New coalitions have been made, the environmental movement
more inclusive and varied. Justice was the word of the day. Imagination

In contrast, the eruption of racial conflict on the streets of Ferguson, MO,
in August, showed the level of racism that still exists across our country.
Though our founding commitment was to be one nation “with liberty and
justice for all,” that declaration suddenly seemed very fragile. Michael
Brown was on his way to college, an achievement in itself, a door to
opportunities and possibilities not available in times past. Yet the injustice
of Michael Brown’s death and the way his family and the African American
community continue to be treated is obvious, open, and ugly. This is not
justice for all. And Ferguson isn’t over.

Healing after great harm is the heart of the story of Resurrecting Love,
the documentary film we’re completing. Love isn’t only a feeling, it’s a

Sam Adkins, a man formerly enslaved in East Texas, became the tutelary
spirit of my book, Love Cemetery, Unburying the Secret History of Slaves
out of which the story of Resurrecting Love grew. Sam Adkins told his
granddaughter, Mabel Rivers, that we always have a choice about love.
He counseled Mabel and through Mabel, me. I’m grateful that his words
haunt me to this day, hard as they are to live by. I can’t escape the
knowledge of who they came from or the hard-won truth they express.

You have to choose love when there’s reason to hate. You got to
choose it. Choose love, Mabel. Hate dries you up, makes your heart
bitter, turns it to dust. Choose love.

May Sam Adkins inspire those young people with his wise counsel, “to
choose love when there’s reason to hate.” There’s a lifetime of learning in
that phrase. If Love is the true north on your compass, you’re never lost.
You know where you need to go. You’ve got direction.

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“Reconstructing Our Common Past” in East Texas and Poland

I’m launching this blog as a way to include the larger community in the process of completing our documentary film, Resurrecting Love.  When we say “Resurrecting Love,” we’re really talking about resurrecting community.  We’re doing this out of conviction and instinct.   Conscience.  Resurrecting community is also a strategy for transforming conflict.

A New Excerpt from the Documentary-in-Progress

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell (www.VocalCommunity.com), revered singer-composer formerly with Sweet Honey in the Rock came to East Texas to sing with us and celebrate the Ancestors at the April 2014 Love Cemetery cleanup . Here’s a short video from the event. It opens with Shundrika Love, a descendant of Della Love, who donated the land for Love Cemetery in 1904, talking to the multiple generations of descendants present for the event. Four generations of family members and friends from far and near turned out for this amazing event.

Wrestling with the Angel of History

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” in the Atlantic Monthly, June, 2014, marshals a powerful argument for having the discussions I’ve long said are essential and deeply connected to our work around Love Cemetery.   For those who don’t know, Love is a 175-year old African American cemetery in the rural countryside of East Texas, outside of Marshall, near the Louisiana border.  Eleven years ago, descendants asked me to join them in reclaiming it.  They had the deed to the land, their families were buried there.  There were headstones.   But in the 1960s, during Civil Rights movement, someone put a lock on the gate, posted signs saying “Keep Out. Trespassers Beware,” and cut off their access.  For over 40 years, despite Texas law, they had no access to their own cemetery.

In telling this cross-cultural story, I’ve been confronted with some of our country’s deepest racial wounds.   Resurrecting Love documents the contemporary struggle for a human right recognized the world over:  people honoring their dead – telling their stories.


 “It is, then, not simply a question of black power or white power, but of how meaningfully to reenfranchise human power.  This, as I think Martin Luther King understood, is the real point, the real gift to America ….In accepting the humanity of the black race, white people…. will be receiving into itself half of its own experience, vital and indispensable to it, which it has so far denied at great cost.”

Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound


The tag line for Coates’ article states his case: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.  

I agree.  We’ve reached a crossroads in this centuries-long conflict we call our country.   “Our choice is simple,” Milan Kundera tells us, “Memory or oppression.”  Memory requires that we summon history and remember our past.  The truth can indeed set us free.  Coates draws on a history not widely known but well documented.

It’s time we reckon with our history, wrestle it to the ground.  Like Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the Old Testament/Torah, we need to take hold of our contradictory history and refuse to let go even if we are wounded by it.   We have to hold on until we are given a new understanding of ourselves.   That new understanding is the basis for our future as a country.   We have a common past we’ve refused to claim.   Acknowledging the horrors of enslavement and theft, studying it, considering how one can repair such great harm, talking about it, can instruct and unite us as a people able to meet today’s challenges.

I used late historian Manning Marable’s encapsulation as the epigraph to my book, Love Cemetery, Unburying the Secret of Slaves:   “In order to have a common future, we have to reconstruct our common past.”

I also turned to Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, who laid out today’s challenge at a commencement address at Stanford years ago.  Pinsky spoke of the difference between “a great people” and  “a great nation.”    A great people, he said, is “…defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory – a people is held together and identified by what successfully gets passed on from the old ones to be remembered by the young.  A people is its memory, its ancestral treasures.”

I salute Ta-Nehisi Coates and urge you to read his article for yourself.  Read John Conyers H.B. 40 too.   Making reparations of any kind will be a process.   Out of the willingness to face our history will come the knowledge of what must be done to repair such great harm.   First the stories.  Thank you, Ta-Nehisi, for yours

Bill Moyers interviews Ta-Nehisi Coates  Full Show: Facing the Truth: The Case for Reparations | Moyers & Company | BillMoyers.com


Poland’s Road to Reconciliation

crooked mirror cover

The poet, Jane Hirshfield, wrote and insisted that both my husband Corey Fischer and I read Louise Steinman’s new book, The Crooked Mirror, A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation.   In our decades-old friendship, Jane’s never written me point-blank like this.   I immediately got the book and quickly understood why.   Jane knows how profoundly Poland impacted my life.  While researching my book Longing for Darkness, I walked 226 miles from Warsaw to Czestochowa on a pilgrimage with members of Solidarity when the Communists were still in power.   I returned in 1988 to interview Lech Walesa, as he rose to power as the head of Solidarity and the Polish government fell apart.   I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.

I knew something of the long and difficult history of Polish-Jewish relations.  Steinman’s book affirms of the importance of reclaiming lost history and, to my surprise, reveals that Poland and Germany have much to teach the U.S. about how to do that.

I was surprised and heartened to discover that restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland is one of the ways Poles are working  with the Jewish community today towards reconciliation.  As one of the non-Jewish Poles in the book says, “It’s central to reclaiming the history the Nazis tried to obliterate.”   Their work to reclaim buried Jewish history gives me a new way to talk about the necessity of marking and preserving our African American cemeteries.

The Nobel laureate Czesław Milosz was the staunchest supporter and mentor of the young Polish couple who created the Borderlands Foundation in Sejny, Poland.  In 2001, Borderlands published Jan Gross’s hugely important book, Neighbors, which chronicled, for the first time, the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors  in the village of Jedwabne during World War II.    The attempts to erase the Holocaust – to obliterate the historical memory of what happened in Poland – stopped with the publication of Neighbors. 

Borderlands preserves “what is valuable from the past” and that valuing includes what gets written off as problematic. Steinman writes that when she visited Jedwabne, “Borderland artists, together with the town’s youth, were still in the process of renovating the town’s Jewish cemetery, neglected for … fifty years.” [i] Krzysztof Czyzewski, the non-Jewish co-founder of Borderlands, said, “This reclamation was central to the Borderland’s philosophy of ‘taking responsibility,’ which meant…’learning what really happened in this place.’” He also told Steinman that “Yes, it will be very painful….We have to take this relatively peaceful time to look at what is cruel and painful in the past.  It is the only way to build a democracy.  We cannot lose this time.  We must be honest.” [ii]

The parallel is striking.  In the United States, we have to re-build a democracy that never existed if you were black or “of color.”   We have to tell the truth about what really happened in this place.   Resurrecting Love, the documentary we’re completing, may be set in East Texas, but it belongs to a much larger, longer, and deeper effort of which we’re all a part.

[i] Louise Steinman, The Crooked Mirror, A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation,

[ii] ibid p. 54

Posted in American History, Documentary Film, East Texas, History, Poland, Race, Reconciliation, Reparations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment