Sketches of Tennessee.
From the time I was about ten years old, my mother and I put in our time by visiting with Irma for an hour or two every day. We’d bring her the Enquirer and Star and try to cheer her up by pointing out the most salacious stories and the home remedies for arthritis. Sometimes she’d enlist me to rub her back, and I’d perch monkeylike on the back of the couch, kneading her knots as she growled, “I could hug yer neck fer that.”
A short story from our Summer 2017 issue.
I opened my eyes and looked at the patient. Her eyes were open, too, wide and lively against the tautness of her face. They were the same eyes of my aunt Lydia who had once pulled up her shirt to show me the large birthmark on her stomach—darker than her skin, shapeless like a stain. She looked at me, and I looked at her, and as the people around us prayed for her recovery, she smiled at me.
On the morning of August 28, 2005, I evacuated New Orleans with my parents, less than twenty-four hours before Katrina came ashore, driving fourteen-foot storm tides ahead of it. We spent hours on the five-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, watching Lawrence of Arabia in the back seat while waterspouts spun beyond our windows. When I woke up the next morning in Nashville, a newscaster in a dry poncho was standing near the Superdome; she talked only of wind damage.
A Southern Journey from the Summer 2017 issue.
I was feeling alright. The highway was working its gritty, illusory magic. This is all yours, I thought: freedom, control, motion. I was also feeling the salve of a change of scenery: broken-up sidewalks for marsh grass, cramped narrow shotguns for fishing camps. Tangles of electrical and phone wires for the wide-open Gulf-reaching sky. But it didn’t take long, maybe a half hour in, before I was again ambushed by G’s death.
Listen to Rev. Sekou’s powerful album Times Like These, paired with an essay by the activist artist.
Mama taught me to read when I was four years old. It was my job to read the mail for Miss Roberta, who could not read but carried a wisdom that I am yet to adequately conceive of. She dipped snuff, walked with a cane, and was indeed royalty, and she loved me. Zent, Arkansas, was a kingdom of dignity. Folks like Miss Roberta tore off the best pieces of themselves and sowed it into a quilt that shields me to this day. If it was not for that covering, I would have long been consumed by rage.
Of all the pitiless opinions set down about family, it’s hard to beat this snarl by August Strindberg, a sentence which appears early in the first volume of his novelized memoir, The Son of a Servant, one of the bitterest condemnations of family ever written: “Family! thou art the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children.”
An excerpt of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
I grew up in the southwestern frontier near North Augusta, on a ragged, two-hundred-acre family farm where we raised our own beef, grew our own vegetables, and drew our water out of cool, sweet springs. From heaven—or from a high-flying hawk’s viewpoint—I imagine that the plowed fields, pastures, and humble houses looked like a hole punched into the expanse of green. That gap in the wildness was our Home Place.
My mother was an instinctive cook. Words and directions did not hold much for her. She was a keen observer. She learned to cook from watching her aunts; her grandmother, Maw; her own mother. She loved recipes. Clipped them from the newspaper, kept them crammed in cookbooks and stuffed in bowls around the kitchen. She read them like fiction, intrigued by the possibilities they suggested, but hardly foolish enough to take them as literal instructions for real life.