Thoughts on taboos and watermelon on the back porch...


Mobile, Alabama, USA
November 22
Design Workshop, LLC
Place and community are what is ultimately important to me, and if the place that I am in presently has no sense of community, then I have two choices: Leave or change it for the better. Luckily for me, I've got more opportunity than most to do both.


OCTOBER 15, 2011 7:42AM

Occupy Barton

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Video Dr. Vom vs. African Diaspora

While I watch MSNBC give Michael Moore the honored position of being the one to thank the network and Lawrence O'Donnell for coming down to the protests to film (a miracle in and of itself, for some of us who have watched "Here Comes Trouble" shake up the established media over the years and revelled in the fact that he was so hard to ignore!) I was also having some very interesting correspondences with some other people online, via Facebook mostly, but also many, many other places that have popped up today and every day since the "revolution" began - but  I have a different perspective on when it began than most.

In my world, the one I see from 62 year old eyes (as of November 22 - Oh, Happy Day!) the revolution began the day in 1961 when the release of Gone With the Wind caused my mother and I to both watch it together. I had never seen her cry in public before, and I couldn't understand what she was crying about. In 1961 I had no idea what all would soon befall my family. I was 11, and it was not so much that I was a pre-teen, although that was hard enough for any one around my household to endure I am sure, but that my father, struggling with all his might to build a proper home for my family, was already having the ground start to slip away from him each time he tried to build it up into the fortress against the world for his two daughters and his wife.

He was the son of a prominent well-to-do family daughter, who had her own share of troubles and her Tara had been destroyed (it was actually a log cabin, but surrounded as it was by the other 400 acres give or take it was still the 30's version of Tara) by fire, by the war, by the depression and by the death of her husband, all before my father was 15. By the time he was 17, he was promising himself that he would bring the light back into his mother's eyes.

My grandmother had plans to build a house (it would qualify as one of today's Tiny Houses) during the war and was applying for the money from the bank (a despicable enough thing to have to do for her, the daughter of the city attorney in Mobile and the widow of the son of the "cabbage king of America").

After all, there were wealthy people everywhere:

among them my godfather's mother who had married the man who founded Bill's Dollar Stores and my grandfather on my mother's side who had invested the money he'd made repairing shoes during the depression into Ampex stock at fifty cents a share, thereby qualifying him as one of the wealthiest men in Opelika, Alabama which meant he could send his daughter to that new school down the road in Auburn where she met that soldierboy from the war with no daddy

that had remembered her from the days when her birthdays were written up in the hometown paper in Mobile, once in the shape of an S for Susie, and even when she was married to Edwin, my father's father, the last possible choice of suitors left standing after the war (and the only one of her many "beaus" who asked her, a minor detail she never included in her frequent telling of the tale).

As a further indication of how important she felt she was, she gasped when he proposed that she couldn't possibly marry him right away, as she didn't have a "trousseau" and would have to wait till he returned from Spain on the merchant ship on which he was working at that time. So off he sailed on the Mabel Gale, a four masted schooner which became part of the family lore, and she must have felt a bit trapped by the sight of that returning ship in Mobile harbor from her desk at the Shipyards the year they finally married. 



I can't recall exactly what year that was right now, but marry him she did, and remained staunchly proud of who she was, although with a few caveats here and there that I'm only now beginning to understand the source of. Having been named after her, I was a source of pride as well, so much so that she chose to have me join her on a trip to England in my 16th year, and that two week trip is why I cannot see the world through anyone else's eyes any longer.


I try to see it from hers and  from my father's, both deceased, my mother's (dead at age 39) and other members of my family (my mother's sister, age 80, and my grandfather's aunt, in her 90's) though, and having put most of my life's energy into figuring out how such a delightful and energetic woman can also have been so bitter about life as to etch permanently into my father's psyche the fear of becoming the one thing he had to become - destined by talent and ability but forced by standardized testing and herds of returning servicemen into a funnel of an educational system that was touted to be the beginning of the American Dream but was in reality the beginning of the industrialization of American Education- a creative writer, a poet, a man of words and letters and images and meaning - in other words, if only in her words and his fears, a Ne'er do Well.


You might have heard that phrase, as I have, recently being spoken by Chris Matthews and others observing the Occupy Wall Street Protests. If you know me, you might have perked up your ears, as I have for so long been threatening to title my book with that phrase. I named my thesis Delusions of Grandeur , another reference to people who do what my father made a game out of doing - he'd point out women on the side of the street and say to me "There's one that thinks she is" and always there would be the second part of that - "There's one that IS." 

It might be that this little game taught me something but I'm not sure what. I know I repeated the anecdote for years, till it finally dawned on me that it wasn't particularly funny. After all, what was he doing but objectifying women. And I had no idea what that was all about until I went back to college and took a class called The Social Effects of Mass Media Communications. 

But he learned that from his mother, who delighted in pointing out the difference between the newly rich and the old money of her home town. The fact that she had NO MONEY didn't even occur to me. She was a very proud woman who worked for the city of Columbia, Mississippi running their Recreation Hall for teens several days a week, and ran the local office of the American Red Cross, mostly as a volunteer, on a widow's pension and social security. I didn't know all that, of course, until she died. How anyone could have lived on only a few hundred dollars a month was not in my realm of understanding. I couldn't live on a few hundred a week.

Fortunately, I didn't have to. I recall my new husband telling me that our combined income, mine from Delta Air Lines and his, from International Harvester, were in the top seven percent in the US. So when we bought our first house on my income and his as a supplemental support, for $42,000, I was quite proud. The house we bought was the scene of many fun celebrations in the 70's when I was a flight attendant and my family was proud of me. 

I cannot say when precisely my grandmother's pride turned to sadness. I really didn't want to know. The days following the joyful years when my grandmother and I invited her estranged brother to Montgomery and held the only family reunion there would ever be of the Douglass clan, a full three years after she and I had flown to London together, were the early unwinding of the first wave of the war against the middle class. 

My father, by then, had lost everything but his self-esteem. He would lose that a few years later when he learned that he had a cancer that was a result of the atomic tests and that there were no more people moving to his wonderful town of Fairhope because Brookley field had been closed and there was not any interest in moving to the farmlands which are now covered completely with housing and polo stables, broken only by long stretches of farmland with nary a human being in sight.

He begged forgiveness from his family and went to the sea. He wrote about it in poems that I still possess. Wet with salt spray, he penned his thoughts where only his beloved sea could hear his words. He shared them with me and trusted that I would help him preserve them. That much I have done. His mother cherished them, I'm told, though I never actually heard her say she was proud of him. I saw that she wrote those words to me, but that is not the same thing as telling him she was proud of him. 

She could not have said those words, I now realize.

If I've learned one thing in my life, above all else, it's that we see our world through moments. Indelible moments in which we stop and actually see what is happening around us.

She saw her world through the white columns and black cast iron gates of Barton Academy, the first public school in Alabama. In my recent forays into the history of this building I have found the roots and seeds of its most important legacy, the troubled educational system we still have in Alabama. 

Occupy Barton then. Let us bring the building into the real world,  today's world, for the generations of the future. Yes, black hands built it. Yes, slave labor (both black and white) of the economic variety were tasked with the job of erecting, hauling materials, surveying and doing as they were told for the boss man who collected the money and dispersed it to those who he deemed worthy after the day was done of the pay that they had earned. In the heady days of the 183o's when Barton was erected, when the flyers were crying for laborers of all sorts to come down river to the place where cotton was shipped north and money was everywhere in those boom years, where saloons were full at night and where the water was most certainly not fit to drink, where the distinctions of who you were had to do with the labor you did as much as who your daddy (or slave master) was. 

I never did quite understand what my father meant when he said to me "Susan, there's no hope for a widow's son" after my mother's death and his own demise was certain. He'd become what his mother most feared - a drunk, unemployed, bankrupt, widowed and then divorced, and most horribly of all, a man who then married a stranger, a dark skinned one at that, and horror of horrors, adopted her two illigetimate sons and gave them her name. 

I didn't understand much of that either, at the time I learned about Cynthia, Harold and Aramis. I knew that she loved him without question (which I did with many questions, of course) and that she was even younger by three years that I was, a more shocking fact still. But the part of my father's story that I never could understand until now was why he never came home even to her funeral. He never could face her disappointment and endure her unpleasant and unavoidable "huffs" that were her only way to deal with what she could not understand. 

Her "huffs" out of the room - she was always described as getting in a "huff" about something and removing herself from the conversation, were what made me as a child not ever want to engage in any sort of conflict. Confrontation then was conflict. Why? Because of the fact that she would leave the room. End of discussion. End of story. So what I am now seeing helps me to understand why my father so earnestly involved himself in anything that had a democratic process to it. He was always being "elected" to something - chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, for instance. Commodore of the Yacht Club. Workhorse of the Church. Vestryman. Elected, meant approved of. He needed that to distinguish himself from the herd because he could not depend on his name any longer.

The name Warley wasn't such a bad one in these parts, according to collective memory. But for my father, who went bankrupt to the tune of $280,000 in the early 70's while struggling to build an airport in Fairhope Alabama and  sell lots on Ono Island, both designed to be successful and ultimately would be, but not during his tenure here as a US Citizen. He had long since developed the cancer that would kill him before he learned that the projects he'd started so long ago had come to some good result. 

I can only imagine what it must have been like on that last trip to Fairhope during the final year of his life. He had returned with his two adopted Hispanic sons, my step brothers Harold and Aramis, to Fairhope to show them his beloved oasis in the world, the place he looked out from once and happily planted himself in the first suburban neighborhood in the 50's. He was ecstatic, I recall, the day he got the letter saying that the bank had approved his loan for a house in Colonial Acres. 

I didn't quite see it that way. I saw the snakes we raked up off the lot to help save money so that my father could actually afford this home he'd committed himself to. But this was the American Dream, and he was promised when he sat in the tail gunner's position at age 17 in WWII that he would be given this chance to rebuild the world. He was promised that if he studied hard he'd get the job of his dreams, but his Engineering Degree from API (Alabama Polytechnic Institute, or Auburn as it is now known) was not something he was ever suited for. Perhaps if he had been well-funded like some of his friends who had wealth to back them, he might have been able to do other things, but as it was, the ne'er do well label was chasing him with every step.

He'd a new problem by then, as well. His firstborn daughter was a gifted artist, musician and writer. He'd make sure the artist was the gift he would encourage as that was more fitting for a woman. I complied reluctantly, because I was much more fond of writing than drawing. But the drawing did produce results, in the form of accolades, especially when I produced a likeness. Abstract art was not yet an acceptable form of artistic expression, but I could sit and draw someone and get paid for it. 

"Could" is the operative word here. It remained a problem, however, when you considered that "paid" was the dirty word in the family of the aristocrat. You didn't earn money if you were the elite. You HAD money. You didn't labor. You paid laborers. You didn't work. You worked for charity. You didn't get hired. You hired others. 

So Occupy Barton. Let's have these conversations. Let's get past the us/them conversations once and for all that were the ones being pointed out in the most popular film of all time, Gone with the Wind. Let's talk about Mammy, and Scarlett, Rhett Butler and quiet, trusting Ashley. Let's kill for all time the sashaying "I don't know nothing 'bout birthing no babies" line and say forever that the intellect of the black woman and white woman, the intellect of a writer behind the scenes and the director behind the camera, the intellect of the entire race is not the issue. There is no difference between us except that of the cultural barriers that have existed simply to help us distinguish the enemy from the friend, the Red from the Blue, the "Us" from the "Them - the young people I taught in 2008 in my first year of freshman college teaching, the black and white and mixed race kids at the University of South Alabama, all of them the "unelite" with few exceptions, are tired of this world they have been given charge of being a world of us and them. They are over it. We should be too.


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I am in too big of a hurry to fix what's wrong with this right now but feel free to help me out. I'm a work in progress, as well all are. 267 credit hours of college has done nothing to diminish that except give me an aching desire to have conversations with people who understand and if I could get to whatever that park's name is in New York I'd be there. But the campus of Mobile, AL's finest new state University Football program and the game this afternoon will do very nicely for now, thank you all so very much. And I don't mean for anyone to touch the gates of Barton Academy with anything but reverence. If there are fences to be taken down, let's start in DC.
great story! thanks!
Snowden, thank you. I am trying to slow down and write more calmly but the images have been coming fast and furious these days. I think that part of my "deja vu" experience has to do with the deep grief I experienced during the last big outpouring of world changing energy in the 60's - those days of Yosarian and others - I find myself just now understanding the lyrics to songs I know by heart. The kids might just make it this time. I hope so. There's so much at stake. But like you, I've pared my life down to precious little, and just came from a football game during which I ran into two of my former superiors at the University. The VP for Academic Affairs said "Did I see you on a bicycle this week?" and I smiled, and said, "yes, I have no other transportation. It's pretty crazy. " - I'm grateful for the artist's image of bohemian. I get away with so much more that way. Appreciate your comments.