September 30th, 2016
(A disclaimer: I am not a journalist or a historian; I am an artist. And I only seem to be able to see and be in the world as an artist. This writing, my search for the story this community is telling, and my personal experience in Elaine are all a testament to that fact.)
I enter Elaine 97 years after a mass lynching was enacted on this land, three years before the 100th anniversary of that terror lynching, 33 years and eight months after my birth, generations upon generations after my ancestors came to this country, one day before the Turning Point Park unveiling and commemoration, the day of the Healing the Land ceremony, the day I meet Dr. Mary Olson in person for the first time, moments before I am privileged to sit in on a meeting of members of the Salem Church congregation.
That is to say, I enter Elaine in history; at a point in history that is now past and was, at some time, my future. I come to Elaine, Arkansas deeply aware of a history that reaches long before my history began and that will continue to consume time as the years, relentless, go on. A history that is bigger than just one person. That is bigger than one community. History that defines and divides us. Knowingly or unknowingly, willing or unwilling, eyes open or closed, wanting or rejecting – we are a part of history. We are complicit in this legacy. And while we are but a chapter in the book, we get to decide:
How will we write the pages of our chapter?
Through our project’s relationship with Dr. Mary Olson and the profound work she is doing in Elaine, I had the opportunity to listen in on a meeting at Salem Church, which Mary informs me is the oldest black congregation in the United States. This meeting was about the preservation of sacred land; a cemetery on the church grounds. There is a history in the area of white folks and local farmers digging up black graveyards to use the land, so the congregation is eager to prevent that from happening here. Steps toward preservation were discussed. An assessment of the land is needed to determine the age of the graves and the exact location of bodies, since many of the headstones have been removed, stolen, or the ground has eaten them up.
There is a history in the land.
A history consumed in the earth.
Over the course of the gathering they talked about the massacre, how far back their cemetery dates, they talked about their families who are buried in the cemetery, and the lives those family members lived, they talked about their hopes and what they want people not to forget about their community, what they want to preserve. The story I heard emerging, the story being told in the fours walls of that church on that particular afternoon is the story of unearthing. I heard a desire to excavate a past, to unearth a truth, the desire to dig up a history stolen or silenced and to give voice to the voiceless.
This congregation is in need of support and finances to preserve their church’s land. If you would like to learn more or are able to help out please contact us about how to donate to their cause.
That evening I attended the Healing the Land Ceremony, organized by Dr. Olson.
The Healing the Land event was attended predominately by local community from the neighborhood. It was marked by an effervescence that came from the many kids and young folks who filled the seats. A documentary crew filmed the goings on and interviewed some of the participants. Scoop preformed some original pieces he wrote for Elaine. Dr. Olson led us in prayer, as did the Reverend. When the Reverend invited the kids up to lead the group in a prayer, a small stampede ensued and a chorus of tiny voices said “I wanna pray, I wanna pray, I wanna pray!!” (See pictures)
The formal event lasted probably less than an hour, after which there was music and free dinner cooked on site. The community hung out and played cards and their kids played in the park. This was an event at home. At the heart of home. An event where you felt comfortable to be you, to wear what you want, to come as you are. The event brought to mind, for me, the words of Meister Eckhart (a German theologian and philosopher) because it asked one to come
wanting only what one is
and reminding us that
the desire is what it desires
This event was a place for the true self. The real self, the actual, material, existent, surviving, ongoing self. In acceptance and contradiction. Amidst such severe suffering as this land has seen, how else do we come together to heal and commemorate, to remember, to memorialize, to recognize, to reconcile, to be a part of this history together? There are no right answers here. This was not a space for lofty ideas or self-aggrandizing. This was a place for people, as they are, to break bread, to pray, to be together. And it made me ask myself – how do I, as an artist, go forth.
wanting only what one is
– and make a little light in the night of the auditorium, a little sound in the silence, and find in each other the ongoing of ourselves?
The following day, I had the utter pleasure and honor of spending time with Pastor Jarvis Smith. He took me to breakfast at BFT: Best Food-n-Town Restaurant, which is part of the Adults Community Development Center an extension of the Boys and Girls Club. A place founded by the incomparable Beatrice Shelby who, from what I can tell, is something akin to a saint. She had the vision for this club and built if from nothing. Jarvis told me that “this town,” Marvell, Arkansas “could have had a fate similar to Elaine, if not for Ms. Shelby’s work and commitment to her community.” Ms. Shelby is not at the podium giving speeches, she is not throwing herself any parties, she expects nothing back from the work she does – she has stepped up because someone needed to step up and she does the work because she loves her community. She does the work because it needs to be done, she does the work for the sake of the work itself.
The desire is what it desires.
At BFT Jarvis introduced me to Pastor Jerome Turner, the director of special projects for the Boys, Girls, Adults Development Center in Marvell, a pastor at Poplar Grove, a leader in UMAS (University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) and a founding member of the The Faith Task Force, which was developed in 2005 by a group of pastors and churches in Phillips County to help enhance the health of their members and the community. Here Jarvis also introduced me to the State Representative, Chris Richey.
We then attended the opening of Turning Point Park, where several of the community members I had seen the evening before sang in a chorus led by Pastor Andrew Gibson from Devine Deliverance. The Mayor was there along with a few other government officials. After the cutting of the ribbon (see photo) there was a session for adults only in the park where a scholar from Great Britain talked about America’s history with slavery.
Then Grif Stockley, the author of Blood in Their Eyes spoke about his personal legacy of white supremacy. He asked where the perpetrators were. He asked why they don’t come forward and participate in a reconciliation. Are they ashamed he asked? Embarrassed? Where are they? Next, Sheila Walker shared her testimony. I wish you could hear her words directly. Here are my notes on her speech, which don’t come close to doing justice:
We can flip the script. We can embrace our past. Not just the white community but the black community too. We can be a model for the rest of the U.S. on how to do this reconciliation thing.
We must acknowledge so we can forgive and move forward.
She read talked about when she met Chester Johnson whose Grandfather Lonnie was a member of the KKK and participated in the massacre in Elaine, which took the lives of Shelia’s family members. She forgave him. She read his poetry. The passage she chose ended with the line “the fate I’ve given.”
She began to cry and fought through the hard parts to get to higher ground of what she wanted us to know. She asked us:
In a country founded on freedom and slavery, on human equity and racial oppression – how will we make good on a promise to all?
Forgiveness is the antidote she said.
When the descendants of both sides of our history can come together. And I’m talking to the white people here, she said, the white people need to talk to other white people. The black community has been talking. You need to talk to your people.
Then, during the Q and A session at the end of the event, a community member raised his hand and asked Where is the community? He said, this is great talking about reparations and moving forward and forgiveness but where is the community? They’re not here.
Everywhere I went this weekend I saw a community hungry to forgive. But where are the perpetrators? Where is the accountability? My challenge for myself is to talk to them. Where are they? How do we get them to the table? I didn’t meet any of the white community on this trip and so I can only assume what they are. I didn’t meet anyone who was against reconciliation. But they are out there or else 100 years later I wouldn’t still see a community asking for recognition of what’s been done.
The story hasn’t been told, Jarvis said to me at breakfast. “How do you know what to think if you haven’t even been told the story?”
On my way back to the airport I drove past the cotton fields I had seen on my way into town, where now great billowing clouds of smoke rose. The farmers were burning the land to prepare the soil for next season’s crops. And a cycle continues.