Friday, August 26, 2016

A Feather's Not a Bird

I'm going down to Florence, gonna wear a pretty dress
I'll sit on top the magic wall with the voices in my head
Then we'll drive on through to Memphis, past the strongest shores
And on to Arkansas just to touch the crumbled soul

A feather's not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me

- Rosanne Cash, "A Feather's Not a Bird"

Tom Hendrix

Johnny Cash's daughter wrote at least part of that song sitting where I did yesterday, in Tom Hendrix's driveway. We were surrounded by one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen—several million pounds of rock formed into an eternal memorial to Tom's great-great-grandmother.

And it's easy to see why. No one could visit Tom's Wall without being profoundly moved. I cried more than once listening to him tell Te-lah-nay's story. She was a Yuchi Indian, an eighteen-year-old forced from her home to walk the Trail of Tears to what we now know as Oklahoma. And Te-lah-nay did what no other of the thousands who were brutally "relocated" managed.

She walked back to Florence, Alabama. It took her five years to reach the place where the woman in the river sang to her, where she could be at peace, where she belonged.

She was a medicine woman who boiled willow bark for "head trouble." Her journal is probably the most precious thing Tom owns. He grew up listening to his grandmother tell the stories of Te-lah-nay's life and to the song of the river. He knew he had to do something to honor her memory.

He was talking to an elder in the Yuchi Tribe about it when he was told, "All things shall pass. Only the stones will remain."

So Tom did what pretty much no one else could imagine doing: he spent thirty-five years of his life constructing a wall of Tennesee River rocks. Thousands and thousands of them. One for each step his great-great-grandmother took to and from Oklahoma.

People call it a "magic wall" and I guess that's right.

Florence, Alabama is a beautiful city on the mighty Tennessee River. Stately homes dot the bluffs high above the water. The University of North Alabama sits on the edge of a vibrant downtown where college kids chase Pokemon and meet for pizza and beer. Upscale shops and fancy restaurants are all around if you can afford more than Ramen Noodles. I loved staying there.

But miles away from all that, bounded by deceased corn stalks and masses of leafy vegetable crops I couldn't identify, I found what is officially known as the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall. It beckoned from a lot heavily shaded by trees that have seen hundreds of years.

Much better though, I found Tom Hendrix.

Tom's eighty-seven. His voice is gentle but commanding, each syllable carefully enunciated in an educated and clear manner. His eyes and cheekbones testify to his Yuchi heritage. He almost never pauses—the man is a born storyteller—and he's one of those people who clearly love people. It was a huge privilege to have him to myself for an hour.

We almost lost him. He was in a bad car accident recently and is obviously still in pain. That doesn't dim his enthusiasm for his massive project and the ancestor he honors one bit.

It's a woman's place, he told me. The wall and its benches and small amphitheater and prayer circle are all about the spirits of grandmothers, mothers and daughters. There's a special section that evokes grandmothers and I cried when I saw it, remembering my own.

It's a strangely peaceful and calm, tranquil spot. Even on an Alabama August day, the trees provided cool shade and I walked the length of the wall, trailing my fingers here and there on its surface and feeling generations of love and memory.

People all over the world know about Tom and his wall. They send special rocks to be carefully placed in a section he set aside for them. One looks like a glittery "girl whale." One is said to be a source of fertility. He put it in a place it can't be accidentally touched, and he swears a forty-nine year old woman held it and delivered a baby a year later. Fossilized wood, mastodon teeth and a turtle. There's a meteorite he had me pick up, small and unbelievably heavy.

But this place is about light and love and peace. I'm so grateful I got to visit it and the remarkable man who created it all.

This is where it all started...

The Prayer Circle—Tom says a few local ministers come here to prepare sermons.

Glittery girl whale with lipstick, one of many offerings from around the world. More follow...

Design from Te-lah-nay's journal; the artist who recreated it in stone signed it at lower right as "Man Who Falls Off Horses."


From the ocean, and lightning-fused sand

Fossilized wood

The Fertility Rock (no, I didn't)

Fossilized turtle!

  •  Te-lah-nay means "Woman with the Dancing Eyes." Tom's got 'em.
  • About "wichahpi": Charlie Two Moons, a respected spiritual leader, told Tom, "The wall does not belong to you, Brother Tom. It belongs to all people. You are just the keeper. I will tell you that it is wichahpi, which means 'like the stars'. When they come, some will ask, 'Why does it bend, and why is it higher and wider in some places than in others?' Tell them it is like your great-great-grandmother's journey, and their journey through life: it is never straight."
  • "Indian" is the word Tom uses most often rather than "Native American", so I did here.
  • Tom has written a book about Te-lah-nay's journey titled "If The Legends Fade." For more information about the book and its author, please see:
  • Here is a link to Rosanne Cash's beautiful song, which I loved way before I knew its connection to Tom's Wall:

Love from Delta.

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.