Thursday, July 16, 2015

This Is Probably Going To Cause Some Arguments . . .

. . . but I'm going to say it anyway.

Have you been in an antiques store in the past twenty years? There is an interesting phenomenon. Items like mammy cookie jars, racial caricatures, pickaninny designs on printed materials, and lawn jockeys are almost non-existent. If you see one piece, the price will be exorbitantly high. Do you know why?

Because African-Americans have purchased those items and placed them in curio cabinets and display shelves all over the country. They have "taken back" the power of those symbols by reclaiming them as their own.

This was accomplished in much the way the gay community reclaimed the word "queer" and took its hateful power away in doing so.

My hometown had an extremely successful and beloved Jewish businessman many years ago who went to extreme lengths to collect Nazi memorabilia, including uniforms, guns and numerous swastikas for the same reason: symbols cannot hold power over those who do not concede it.

And while I strongly disagree, I understand that, to some, the rebel flag is perceived as prejudice and hate.

If you've been anywhere within one mile of me or my Facebook page, you know the Confederate battle flag represents nothing more to me than The South and my ancestors' defense of it. It does not stand for hate, for racism, for slavery, for anything negative in my eyes. Nor does it represent those things to the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Sons of Confederate Veterans, both of whom have made that fact well-known. They do not tolerate racism and bigotry. If you are affiliated with a hate group, you are ineligible to join. Period.

If African-Americans truly accord that flag such power and symbolism, I submit they should consider adopting the flag and displaying it. Claim it the way other symbols have been taken up and rendered hurtful no longer.

Because the other thing that flag stands for—is indeed used for in variations around the world—is rebellion.

Sounds perfect to me.

Love from Delta.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Steel: An Excerpt from Delaney's People


(Tom’s Great-Great Grandfather’s Sword)

I will tell you of my experiences; the ones remembered, the ones not spent in dark closets and attics and once, in a barn filled with hay. The things I whispered into the dreams of those who examined me, gingerly turning me over and over, as if I were fragile. I am anything but fragile.

     I was forged in Prussia, white hot and then, cold blue. Thrust into the hands of a boy, a boy who wept at night; fat tears splashing. He did not want to go to war. I never heard his name.
     Sheathed at the side of his horse; he used his gun, never me. When the horse collapsed, bleeding, the older boy grabbed me and ran. He sat in the tent hours later, running his finger back and forth along my blade, a gesture of love. “Look what I got,” he bragged to his friends. I was his prize; the finest object he'd owned in his short life. He would not let them touch me.

     This boy, the older one, was experienced. The first day, he ran me through the lung of a twenty-year-old private from Akron, Ohio. Pulled hard, tugging, to free me from the cold earth. Sliced another, older man nearly in two. Back in the tent, he told the others, “I killed five Yankees.” They were never men or boys. They were Yankees. And, it was two. He killed two in that battle.
     There were more and more in later days, though. The boy was good; he had a feel for balancing my weight, the correct stance, the right hold. He was fast, too. His name was Josiah.

     We moved mostly at night, hooves flashing in the moonlight. The boy was hungry. The boy was tired. He kept me close at hand; I was his truest friend.

     At Bentonville, he was shot in the arm, a searing pain that brought him to his knees. He dropped me suddenly, but picked me back up with his left hand, running as fast as he could. Always running.

     We went home to Hillabee, Alabama. By the time the boy's infection cleared, the war was over. The boy was bitter. He was secretly convinced he could have helped the South win if he had not been hurt. Mostly, the boy was hungry, and he was so very tired. He packed me away in a trunk, his ragged uniform on top. I was moved to a barn, forgotten amid tools in the loft.

     In 1916, Josiah was a very old man. He wore me at his side, in a new hand-tooled leather sheath, to the Confederate Veterans' Reunion in Birmingham. He told old-man stories, patting me with pride in his trembling voice. He wept old-man tears. They pinned a souvenir medal on his chest; took a photograph. Afterward, I went back into the trunk, carefully placed by the hands of his wife. I was left alone in an attic this time.

     Many years later, I was removed with murderous intent, handled for twenty minutes, turned over and over by an angry man. I was moved to a small, dusty closet. The uniform, my constant companion, was gone. I was forgotten again.

     I was discovered a decade later by a sobbing woman. She stopped crying and wiped the dust from the leather, curious. She did not remove me from the sheath; she seemed afraid. I was carried into the living room and placed on a table for her husband to see. He pulled away the leather. He was excited. He told her, “I think this was my great-grandfather's sword. My great-grandfather rode with Forrest.” He was right on the first count. On the second, he was incorrect. He would never be able to find out for sure. It became the truth.

     His name was Thomas. He took me to another house where I was stored away yet again, though wrapped in soft cotton. I was an object of pride, a treasure, a jewel in his hands. He showed me once, carefully cradled, to his young son. He told him of the Cause, “The war was not about slavery and its cruelty. My people were poor farmers who never owned human beings; they fought because they believed in their freedom. The war was about taxes and the right of each state to govern itself. The South was invaded by northerners who wanted to dominate our economy. And they sure did after the so-called Civil War.” He said, in closing, “My great-great-grandfather fought with this sword at his side and served with the famous general, Nathan Bedford Forrest.”
     The little boy, wide-eyed, asked, “Was it ever used to kill people?”
     Thomas said, “I don’t know for sure, but I would expect so. This sword will belong to you someday.” The boy nodded solemnly, touching my blade shyly, cautiously, before I was replaced in the cotton-lined box.

     Thomas examined me on the kitchen table every Confederate Memorial Day, making sure there was no rust, no damage. He wondered what the war had been like. He tried to hear the cannons. He tried to imagine the killing, the pain. He tried to imagine how Josiah felt, so very young.

     The boy, Tom, appeared next as a man of thirty-eight. I was cleaned and polished, hung over his mantel, gleaming in the firelight. That night, he called his son, Tommy, into the room. “What do you think what it was like, when your great-great-great-grandfather fought in the war? Could you imagine carrying this heavy thing from place to place, tired and cold and wet in the rain? Your ancestor, Josiah Edward Robinson, was injured and had to come back early because he was unable to fight anymore. Josiah's place had a big white farmhouse and several pecan trees around it. My daddy, your grandfather, visited it when he was very young.”
     A crumbled chimney stands sentinel.

     I was taken down occasionally; carefully, respectfully, slowly lowered into someone's waiting hands. They ran their fingers along, tentatively, lightly. Sometimes they wondered how sharp my blade really was, how many I killed, if they would have been man enough to fight in that terrible war.

     All the while, I was whispering.

Excerpted from Delaney's People: A Novel in Small Stories
©Beth Duke
All rights reserved
May not be reproduced without author's permission

Love from Delta.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Let's Not Erase History. Here's a Start...

Yesterday, an accomplished author with Alabama roots attempted to convince me that all monuments, all statues, all memorials to the Confederacy should be removed from public view. When I vehemently disagreed, he (rhetorically) took his ball and went home by unfriending me on Facebook.

That's too bad, because I'd like him to see the history lesson I'm offering in return for his. It's one he didn't see in textbooks, nor did any of us.

Most are familiar with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his infamous march through Georgia. Less known is the fact that Sherman saved his most savage assault for South Carolina, the first to secede and his ultimate target. His aide-de-camp, Major George Nichols, published a book about this campaign and Sherman's contempt for the people of South Carolina. He referred to them as "the scum, the lower dregs of civilization. They are not Americans; they are merely South Carolinians."

Nichols said, "Searches for hidden valuables by Union soldiers were 'one of the pleasant excitements of our march.'"

Federal officer James Connolly wrote to his wife that halfway through the march he was "perfectly sickened by the frightful devastation our army was spreading on every hand." He reported how most houses (private residences) were first plundered and then burned, and women, children and old men were turned out into the mud and rain.

Arson and plundering were far from the only outrages committed against the civilian population. Historian Jacqueline Campbell wrote that African-Americans, especially female ones, were often the victims of mistreatment by Union soldiers, and their officers were aware of these offenses. Black women, Campbell noted, were viewed by white soldiers as "the legitimate prey of lust."

Author William Simms described the rape of black women by the soldiers, then their mistreatment of white women and even the dead:
"The poor Negroes were terribly victimized by their assailants, many of them...being left in a condition little short of death. Regiments, in successive relays, subjected scores of these poor women to the torture of their embraces. In several cases, newly made graves were opened, the coffins taken out, broken open in search of buried treasure, and the corpses left exposed."

A Mr. McCarter of Columbia recorded similar atrocities, how "frightened Negro women sought protection and places of refuge against the lustful soldiery." He added "the bodies of several females were found stripped naked with only such marks of violence upon them as would indicate the most detestable of crimes."

A Columbia physician, Daniel Trezevant, recorded several horrible instances of rape, one at a house where Federal soldiers seized Mrs. Thomas B. Clarkson and "forced her to the floor for the purpose of sensual enjoyment. She resisted and held up her infant as a plea for their sparing her. The soldiers relented, but took her maid instead and in Mrs. Clarkson's presence raped her."

There were countless instances of pillaging, burning and rape in Sherman's wake. Reverend William Lord was the rector of the Episcopal church in Winnsboro, S. C., and the townspeople sent him as an emissary to General Sherman. He met with some of his officers, who conveyed his plea for mercy: Winnsboro contained no cotton held in storage and sheltered only helpless women and children. He asked that the army on its march not be permitted to burn and pillage it.

Sherman's reply was, "Burn and pillage be damned! My soldiers may do as they please!"

In response to the idea that Confederate statues be removed lest they offend the eye, I submit that we obliterate any shrine to Sherman, starting with this one in New York. It certainly offends me.

"If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture or death. ... And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth."

- George Orwell, 1984

Love from Delta.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Let The People Choose

I heard from a friend today, a beautiful woman named Roz whom I respect and admire. She is an African-American teacher in Florida; I came to know her when my daughter was one of her students years ago. I adore Roz, and my daughter does, too.

She said a lot of thoughtful things about the Confederate flag controversy, and ended with this: "I'm yearning for a symbol of unity."

So am I.

Because I've been outspoken about the flag, I believe some have looked askance at my motives. The flag, to me, represents The South in general and honors my ancestors who sought to defend their homes and families. Nothing more, nothing less. I think that makes me misunderstood. 

To clarify:

Being born and raised in Alabama—an Alabama freshly scarred and healing from the Civil Rights Movement—meant I was exposed to racism early on. I believe this can either engender racism or, as is the case with me, make a person adamantly determined to head as far in the opposite direction as possible. It disgusted me. My children can tell you they were brought up to be respectful of all people and never, ever to utter a racial slur. Never.

As an adult I've been all over the country, and I sincerely believe the best relationships between black and white are found in Alabama. I have African-American friends who feel the same way. Maybe it's because we've endured so much side by side; we have been part of each other for so many years. The most virulent, burn-your-ears and burn-your-heart racist I've ever known hails from a New England state.

My point is: don't assign characteristics to anyone based on geography, folks.

Meanwhile, back in Alabama:

My favorite teacher of all time was black. (I believe that's the term she'd prefer.) I learned so much from Mrs. Storey, and never realized what she must've endured outside our sixth grade classroom. I only knew she was pretty and smart and kind. The character Lily in my books was greatly inspired by my love of that woman. Long after Lily was written but prior to Delaney's People's publication, I met a wonderful lady named Melinda who is also black (again, her term) and one of the most delightful people I've had the opportunity to discuss the world with. We get our hair done at the same salon. Melinda caused me to run home and edit most of Lily's dialogue and give it new authenticity. Much of what Lily says and does—for better or for worse—comes directly from Melinda. She's proud of that and loves when I tell people.

So, Roz, I don't know what symbol can unite us, unless it's this one:

It's a good place to start, in memory of nine innocents senselessly slaughtered.

As far as the Confederate flag is concerned, I believe each state should allow its citizens to vote whether it should be displayed on capitol property. In Montgomery, ours flew not over the Capitol but at a memorial on state ground. Governor Bentley ordered the flags removed, and I believe the people should get to make the choice whether they go back up.

I can't speak for South Carolina, still reeling from the massacre in Emanuel AME Church. 

I know this: I believe absolutely in states' rights, as my forefathers did. Let the people decide and they will own their choices. There will be unrest as long as they feel disenfranchised by politicians holding a finger to the wind. 

We need to find our way together, side by side.

Love from Delta.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Flags For Thought

This morning, Governor Robert Bentley quietly ordered the removal of Confederate flags from capitol grounds in Montgomery, Alabama. I am sure some people are cheering.

I am not.

My ancestors were neither slave owners nor champions of slavery. They fought to defend The South from utter destruction and to establish a new nation: The Confederate States of America. Their ideology was similar to the vaunted patriots of the American Revolution. They sought to escape excessive tariffs on exports of their goods, imposed by the federal government to fill its coffers and better position northern ports for profitable trade. They fought against overreaching and invasive authority from Washington.

They fought for freedom. They emerged wounded and defeated to endure one of the worst eras of punishment and exploitation ever visited upon a conquered enemy.

The Confederate flags are a symbol to Southerners of valor and honor, not hate. For the vast majority of us they bear no association with racism or segregation. Nor do the countless memorials to Confederate war dead that some are calling offensive and in need of removal.

If we are to find offense in the flag of every nation associated with slavery, we must abolish the display of all those on this page and more.

Dylann Storm Roof, a deranged and evil person, killed nine innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina with the purpose of igniting a race war. Are we to honor his actions by dividing over the Confederate flag?

I pray not.

Love from Delta.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

For Pepper

She was a fluffy gray ball about the size of my fist, with enough hiss and spit to run off all the other kittens in the shelter.

"She loves people, but won't tolerate other cats," they explained.

After watching her sixteen-ounces-of-fire-breathing-dragon display, I was amazed to have her climb up my sleeve and lick my face. She purred gently, steadily, convincingly: the message was clearly Take me home, you are mine. And I will kill any cats that annoy you, too.

A 2001 Christmas surprise for Jason and Savannah, she spent a couple of days at the shelter's veterinarian's office before coming home. While there she contracted an upper respiratory bug that made her spend most of her early days with us huddled in her litter box, where she seemed to feel safe. Our vet checked her out and said she'd be fine, but possibly had a dry-eye condition that would require a million dollars or so in ophthalmic ointment over the course of her life. I decided to wait and see if maybe she'd outgrow it.

Her coat looked like it had been sprinkled with pepper; the naming was easy. Pepper became our beloved pet, with gloriously normal, no-cost eyes and an enormous affection for her family and chasing the little lizards Florida presents to amuse its cat population.

We found lots of disconnected lizard tails, frantically switching back and forth.

Pepper was devoted to us, the four humans in the Duke family, but ran under the nearest bed when anyone else approached the house. She seemed to want to limit her social sphere to us and the kingdom of tiny reptiles she ruled. Many visitors questioned whether we actually owned a cat; she was a gray phantom without menace. Our dear neighbor Beth Monette occasionally fed and watched over her when we left town, and Pepper chose her for Favorite Alternate Human. They bonded, but no one else was allowed into her feline heart of hearts.

She tolerated Beau the Maltepoo when he joined the family in 2004, and offered him occasional affection. 

After years of indoor life, Pepper moved to the Alabama countryside and found herself among giant chickens and a Labrador Retriever. It brought about an amazing transformation. While she still loved to be carried around the yard like a baby, surveying it all from a lofty perch, she also became the huntress she was born to be. She'd disappear into the neighbor's pasture and return with a mouse or vole clenched in her jaws. The chickens gave her a wary wide berth, and so did the Lab. Exploring outdoors made her confident and she was less prone to hiding from people.

She blossomed here.

After Jason graduated college and moved to Georgia, Pepper went to live with him. I loved seeing her when I visited there, and he brought her home often. She was hell on the cardboard box transport he had in the early days, chewing right through to express her displeasure.

I think she liked coming here and loving on us, despite the hated car trips. I did my best to spoil her.

Several months ago Pepper began to show signs of declining health. Jason was told it could be an infection, or it might be bone cancer. We gave her antibiotics and hoped for the best.

She began to waste away before our eyes. Nothing helped.

Over Thanksgiving I found myself stroking her fur and telling her the story of how she adopted us, tears splashing onto the bed where she lay purring and listening intently.

She loved that story.

Yesterday, with the help and support of his wonderful sister Savannah, Jason took Pepper to the vet for a final goodbye.

I'm still crying.

You were a sweet, fun, loyal, affectionate cat, Pepper. Thank you for choosing us. Thank you for loving us.

Love from Delta.

Friday, October 3, 2014


One lousy Liberian liar has delivered the deadly and dreaded Ebola virus to the United States.
That's all it took.

The CDC says it's been preparing for this scenario since March, which is awesome...except they appear to have been caught with their hazmat pants down.

Crews dispatched to decontaminate the least popular apartment complex in America couldn't do their job, as they had no authorization to transport material removed from the scene.

Gee, you'd think someone would've seen that coming, maybe even back in March.

The CDC waited until recently to distribute instructions on handling Ebola victims to U. S. funeral homes. They insist it's simply routine, kinda like instructing funeral homes how to deal with zombies or space aliens.

Anonymous Texas Nurse and hospital staff should be hiding out and hanging their heads in shame about now, after sending a patient from Ebola's West African hotbed home with antibiotics for what was dismissed as a relatively minor viral infection. That's right—antibiotics for a viral infection. Colossal oversight and wrong medication, too. 
Perhaps the CDC should've prepared for gross incompetence in the very healthcare system they keep reassuring us will contain any threat of widespread contagion.

I admit to a fascination with these events as well as a medium-ish level of Ebolaphobia. Richard Preston's The Hot Zone introduced me to hemorrhagic horror back in 1994—something I hoped to keep a vague concept quarantined in a corner of my mind. (It's a great book. I do not recommend reading it right now unless you have industrial-strength anxiety medication.)

I cannot understand why airlines are still traveling to and from Liberia and its neighbors, risking transport of a deadly virus. The CDC has no satisfactory answer. Questioning passengers is ineffective, as Mr. Duncan demonstrated. People lie. Screening for Ebola symptoms is ludicrous, as the disease has an incubation period of up to three weeks. How many more human bio-bombs are planes going to deliver?

The longer the virus spreads through the human population, the better chance it has of mutating into something far more easily contracted.
We have to lock this thing down.
Nigeria did just that, very effectively, and I sure hope the U. S. is capable of following suit. Our leadership is not inspiring much confidence.

Love from Delta.