Mary Beth Meehan

Tina

Tina

One evening in early spring I was driving around the eastern edge of Newnan, where the road dips and turns away from the big-box stores and housing developments, and seems to roll into the rural past. As I came around a corner I saw an old mill house surrounded by flowers, with a Harley parked in the driveway and an above-ground pool in the back yard. A woman wearing a tank top and shorts was standing outside.

I parked the car and introduced myself to the woman; her name is Tina. She said she’d been fixing a leak in her pool, and invited me into her yard. While we walked around I saw a lovers’ bench fashioned out of an old stump, a garden border made of empty bottles, potted greenery arranged on her front steps. As Tina showed me her orange double lilies and purple velvet iris, I noticed that she’d somehow nurtured beauty into bloom in every corner. I asked her if I could make her portrait, and she said yes, inviting me to come back to do it another day.

The following week, I met Tina back at her house. With her daughter grown and out on her own, Tina introduced me to her four-legged family: a Chihuahua named Penny and a brand-new litter of Mastiff puppies. The day was warm and we walked along the road by her house, with Penny following, and then we stopped near a pond to make photographs. Surrounded by the lush Georgia light, I felt that I could see right into Tina’s own beauty – all the way back to what she must have looked like as a young woman – and I told her so.

“I never had a reason to feel pretty” she said. “When you grow up in a childhood — you’re only like five or six years old – and you’re told from that time until you’re close to 50 years old that you’re nobody, you’re nothing, you never will be, you’re not pretty, nobody wants you, ‘If it wasn’t for me nobody would have you . . .’”

We sat down on a sewer cover on the side of the road and Tina continued. “My mama’s my heart,” she said, her eyes pooling up, speaking of her mother’s death more than 25 years before. “She’s the only one I could count on.”

The men in her life had been a different story.

As the afternoon rolled on, Tina spoke of years of beatings, of abandonings, of rape. She described a stranger dragging her into the back of a van, one man shoving her out of a moving car, another pressing a gun down her throat. She said she had come to Newnan when her brother, who was living here, rescued her from her last really terrible relationship with a man – someone who she was sure was going to kill her. Since then, she’d been living in her house, working at a plastics plant, and tending her flowers.

Tina said that she wanted to leave Newnan, but it had taken her many years to earn her way up to $17 an hour. “If everybody quits messing with my goals,” she said, “my plan is to work at this company for a couple more years, get my 401k built up enough that I can be okay, and get my butt out of here.”

Since my last conversation with Tina, she has been let go from her job, and is not sure what to do next. Her dream is to somehow make it out of Georgia to the coast of Mississippi. She longs for just a tiny shack – or even a motel room – where she could hear the ocean and be left alone.

Coleman

Coleman

I met Coleman at a dinner at his parents’ home, on my first “exploratory visit” to Newnan. Though we’d had many conversations by phone and email, it was the first time I’d met the people who had invited me there.

My husband had been making jokes about why a town in the South would want a Northern “carpetbagger” like me to do this work. I was curious, too: Why me? “Because you won’t bring to it the same preconceptions that we do,” said one person at the dinner. “Will you make us all look racist?” asked another. “It’s very similar to what we do in AA,” said Coleman.

“You have a group inventory – inventory is a big thing in AA,” he continued. “You have someone from outside the group come in, they listen to the meeting, what’s being shared, and they talk about what’s working and what’s not working. . . . Then that person says I think you need to focus more on this within your group, or this is working or this is not working.”

When dinner was finished, Coleman stood up and sang an a cappella version of the Lord’s Prayer. A seventh- or eighth-generation Newnanite (his ancestors were among the town’s founders) he has studied voice, painting, psychology. He has learned Italian, traveled through Europe, gotten a master’s degree in architecture.

Over the next two years Coleman and I spent many hours together – having lunch, dinner, talking about identity politics, history, the South. As we sat one afternoon in a barbecue restaurant called the Oink Joint, I asked him to tell me something, formally, about himself.

“One of the most interesting things about me,” he said, “is that I have all these qualifiers. Like, I’m gay, I’m white, I’m Southern, I’m male. You know, just any sort of qualifier you can name. But even within these different identity groups, I’m sort of very strange for that group.

“I’m alcoholic and bipolar – I’m not really typical alcoholic, I’m not really typical bipolar. Ten years ago I was considered socially progressive, now I’m considered socially conservative,” he said. “I’ve voted a straight Republican ticket since I started voting. But I don’t consider myself a Republican.

“I minored in piano performance in college. That’s another one of my identities: musician, alcoholic, bipolar, gay, male, white, conservative Southerner.”

When I last spoke with Coleman he’d come back to Georgia from a year-long exchange program in Shanghai, where he met the man he would soon marry. “We met on a gay social-networking app,” he said. His fiancé’s mother, a traditional Chinese woman, was not accepting of her son’s homosexuality, so the two men plotted how they would spend the rest of their lives together.

Coleman says he knows that plenty of people in Georgia’s Bible Belt will think that he’s “going to hell” for his lifestyle, but his family and friends have always been supportive. After a tiresome year of visas and red tape, Coleman’s fiancé will finally arrive in Georgia at the end of next week.

The day after his fiancé’s arrival, the couple will be married by Coleman’s uncle – one of Newnan’s most prominent judges – in the courtroom where Coleman’s grandfather once practiced law. Then, since all the waiting has drained the romance from the last year and a half, Coleman has planned for his partner a romantic surprise.

 

D.J.

D.J.

I first see D.J. along the route of the Veterans’ Day parade, in Newnan, Georgia. He’s sitting in a plastic folding chair patterned with the American flag, next to a woman seated in an identical chair. I’m rushing to get to a ceremony nearby, but I can’t help noticing his appearance: long graying beard, a black vest covered with pins: one for the Marine Corps, one for the U.S. flag, one for the Confederate flag.

When I look at him, I think I know what I see. I think: Here’s the guy who will give me the white, redneck view of the South.

Quickly, I introduce myself. I tell him about my work, photographing people, and ask if I can visit him sometime. He tells me his name and number, and that he works at a local flea market. He gives me directions and says he’ll be there later that afternoon.

After lunch I drive out to the market, only a short distance from the center of Newnan, but the landscape becomes rural very quickly here. When I arrive I see D.J. in front of a little stall on the corner, fabricated out of corrugated metal and painted blue. I approach him and ask if he has time to talk. It’s been slow today, he says, and agrees to sit down with me. We drag two chairs over to the side of the stall.

I ask D.J. about the parade, and about his military service. He tells me he’s been in the Marine Corps, served during the end of the Vietnam War.

Wanting to get to the heart of the matter, I ask him who he supported for president.

“Hillary,” he says.

Surprised, I pause.

“I was raised by Democrats,” he says. “When I grew up, the Southern part of the country was Democrat – it switched to Republican probably in the ‘70s. So, when I was growing up, my parents and people, if they voted, they usually voted Democrat. But votin’ wasn’t a big deal back then. Everybody was too busy to vote. Most of my people were farmers, they were raising their own food. It’d be a long trip to town, too, to vote – in a beat-up wagon and mule, or my parents’ old pickup truck.”

I ask him about the Southern switch, from Democratic to Republican, which, as I understand it, had to do with the Democrats’ having embraced civil rights. “It was mainly because of what I would call the Bible Belt beliefs,” D.J. says. “Anti-abortion, anti-gay – all the stuff, stuff like that. I don’t believe in abortion, but I believe women – what I say is, you can regulate laws, but you can’t regulate morals. You can’t make a law because you don’t like the way I believe. This is the way I think of it.”

I ask D.J. now what he thinks of Donald Trump. “To me, he acts to me like a high-school bully,” he says. “He’s rich, and he thinks he’s better than everybody else… .

“It’s pretty obvious that he is anti-anybody but white,” D.J. says. “White-collar rich people making over two hundred thousand dollars a year – that’s all he has anything to do with. He doesn’t have anything to do with people like me and you, or blacks or Muslims or Spanish people, Mexican people. He just don’t like nobody. He likes his self, a model for a wife, and his kids. That’s the only people he cares anything about. And I’m not so sure he cares about his kids.

“I think that his hot head gonna get us into the biggest war we’ve been in since World War Two.”

I can’t bring myself to confess my initial impression of D.J., but I tell him that if any old Northerner were to meet him, they might assume he was a white racist, who’d supported Trump.

“No, I’m not nowhere near racist,” he says. “I was in the service with a bunch of guys, and I judge – I try not to judge people, period. But if I judge you, it’s because I know you. It doesn’t have anything to do with your color, your race, or your creed, or your sex, or anything. I don’t even have a problem with Muslims. Southern guys, they don’t like the Muslims. And some old school Southern people have a problem with blacks, and people who don’t believe like they do. But I don’t have a problem with anybody.

“My experience is, times I’ve been up North and Midwest, they’re more racist than the South. They’re more segregated than we are – in the big cities, the blacks all in one section, the whites in another. We blend together more than in other parts of the country.

“It just seems like they have more problem with the blacks than we do.”

 

Originally published March 21, 2017

Zahraw and Aatika

Zahraw and Aatika

Zahraw and Aatika were born in Georgia and have spent their whole lives there. Their father, an engineer from Pakistan, emigrated to the United States in the 1980s, going first to Texas, then to Georgia. The family lives in Newnan in a house on a hill overlooking a pond.

Growing up, Zahraw and Aatika attended Newnan public schools. In high school they both belonged to the National Honor Society (Zahraw was the president), the Beta Club (Aatika was president), the Spanish Honors Society, and the Key Club. Outside of school, Zahraw was a member of the Newnan Youth Council. In a photograph from a Council bus trip, she is easy to spot in her hot-pink hijab.

In school, the sisters knew only one or two other Muslims, and no other girl who wore a hijab – or head covering – that might identify her as a Muslim. So they felt alone. They say that the teachers and other students were open to them, and kind, yet they expressed an awkwardness that the girls had to navigate. “At our high school,” Aatika says, “I had someone tell me that I’m the first actual interaction they’ve had with a Muslim. They didn’t understand that Islam is what the religion is named, and Muslim is what you call the people who follow Islam.” About her hijab, she says “I got really weird questions, like ‘Do you shower with that on? Do you wear it around the house? Do you sleep with it?’” “They are not aware at all,” says Zahraw. “They’ve never been exposed.”

The sisters have now entered college in Atlanta, where they find themselves among people from many different cultures. Zahraw, at Georgia Tech, and Aatika, at Georgia State, are considering ideas for their futures: medicine, computer science, social service. They both say that the practice of Islam informs their perspectives on the world and their thoughts about life choices. In a recent college seminar on social justice, for example, Zahraw offered a lesson from the Koran: those who are silent while others are oppressed are guilty of oppression themselves. Aatika is motivated to fight against the widespread view of Islam as oppressive to women.

I had met with the sisters in their family’s home in the fall of 2018, after which they sat for a portrait in their living room. They agreed to have their photograph be part of a large-scale installation in downtown Newnan. In the spring of 2019, when the banner of their portrait was installed, the immediate reaction from some community members was fierce.

“Many of us that live here in Newnan do not like the Muslim picture hanging in Our town!” wrote one man, on Facebook. “Nor do We care to have that shit shoved in our faces.” “Your project in no way is a tribute to the history of Newnan,” said another person on Facebook, “nor is it representative of the People of Newnan. Hopefully you will be forced to remove some of these and replace them with real people of Newnan and the REAL history of Newnan.” One woman wrote that she’d had plans to come to town with her family during Lent, but no more: “Not taking my kids anywhere near downtown Newnan with this garbage on display!”

Over the next two days residents took to Facebook, demanding the removal of the banner. I was accused of having a “leftist liberal agenda,” told that I should go back to New England, and informed that Donald Trump would be re-elected in 2020. One resident, who stood apart in his vitriol, wrote of Muslims: “I catch you burning my flag I’m gonna just go ahead and do my country a favor and shoot and hang your ignorant ass. . . . If it were up to me I’d have bombed the entire Middle East.” I saw that many people, represented online wearing camouflage or displaying the American flag, were conflating the violence of 9/11 with the behavior of all Muslims. The public-facing rage once reserved for African-Americans in the South had found a new target.

I called Aatika when I learned what was happening, and was surprised that she was calm, collected. “We expected this,” she said. Her family had discussed at length whether to participate in the project, she told me, and they’d decided that the potential good outweighed the bad. She said they’d received many phone calls and messages – from friends and neighbors, but also from teachers and acquaintances they hadn’t heard from in ages, all of whom wanted to express their support.

Such support started to appear on Facebook, as well, with Newnan residents who didn’t know the sisters confronting the protesters directly: “Too much hate in y’alls hearts is a damn shame,” wrote one woman. “As someone who grew up in Newnan,” wrote another, “people like you are the reason people leave. God forbid there be a picture of someone other than a rich white man to possibly represent Newnan, Ga.” “Maybe I’ll commission a statue of these local women to be erected next to Confederate soldier Thomas Overby outside the Old Courthouse,” wrote someone else.

Eventually these voices overwhelmed the detractors, with the Facebook comments numbering over 1,000 before they died down. The discussion veered from the topics of racism to freedom of religion to the history of the South to the history of Islam. My favorite comment was this: “Jesus was almost certainly brown. These women are your neighbors. You’ve perpetuated the stereotypes that led to this installment in the first place. Loving others and accepting our fellow human beings who may believe different things is not leftist. It’s not political at all. It’s human. It’s progressive. It’s the future. And we’re excited to leave those who disagree behind.”

Jane

Jane

The roots of Jane’s family were set down in Georgia just after the Revolutionary War, when a multiple-great-grandfather, who’d fought for the Colonies, was given a parcel of land. The young government granted the land to war veterans in reward for their service, and as enticement to expand the white settlement into new terrain. “They got their land in the beginning when they drove the Indians out,” said Jane with an embarrassed look, referring to the violent period that launched the Cherokee Trail of Tears. “That’s what they did – they got rid of ’em.”

It was 2016 and we were sitting in the living room of Jane’s house with her husband, a retired surgeon, and her daughter. I had first seen Jane at a fundraiser for a group that supports poor children in the county, to help them stay in school. She was trying on a cornflower-blue cashmere wrap that perfectly matched her eyes, and I asked if I might make a portrait of her. She agreed and invited me to visit her. At her house, after we’d taken the photographs, she began to tell me about her family’s history, of which she is proud. “You’re kind to listen to all this,” she said.

Jane’s ancestors were among the first settlers to plant cotton in central Georgia, arduous labor that would contribute to the South’s great wealth. I asked if those ancestors had had slaves. “I think they always had slaves; it’s like I have help,” she said, alluding to her maid. “‘Cause you had to have help. That’s why they brought the slaves over – was the help.

“We were always farmers,” Jane continued, and she described the economic insecurity of working the land, which continued through her father’s generation. “You know my daddy told me one time that he had to go out in the cotton fields and paint arsenic on the boll weevil that was in the cotton,” Jane said, referring to the insect that devastated the South’s cotton crops in the 1920s.

Jane has an ancestor who got rich by owning a cotton mill, but she makes sure to distinguish her family line from his. “We were not the brother who made it in the mills,” she said. “We didn’t see that we should have done something else, other than just farm.” Her family’s income followed the path of the boll weevil to the 1929 stock-market crash, and then the Great Depression. “One of my kin, I don’t know who, but the mother died and they did not have enough money to get a casket for her.”

Jane’s husband, too, came from humble roots. The son of a mill worker, he nevertheless became a doctor, making his way up a professional ladder available to ambitious white people in 20th-century Georgia. He worked his way through medical school, while young Jane worked as a teacher to support the family.

The couple bought their house in the 1960s, a stately dwelling built by a cotton-mill owner in 1939. Jane raised their four children there, and became a skilled bridge player, though she never really abandoned her earthy beginnings. (She’d often spend an afternoon crisscrossing the grounds on a riding mower.) “All of this is hard earned,” Jane said. “That’s why when people call him ‘Mister’ we make ’em correct it to ‘Doctor,’ ’cause it was hard come, wasn’t it?”

When they were younger, Jane and her husband loved to throw glittering parties, with guests of all ages mingling amid cut flowers and candlelight, enjoying grilled tenderloin and smoked-oyster dip. Jane’s husband would hire a team of black men to stand at the top of the circle drive and park the guests’ cars as they arrived. Jane would hire one or two more maids to assist their full-time maid of 20 years, who continues to work for them today.

“She runs this place,” said Jane’s husband. “She buys all our groceries for us and everything.” “But I’m happy for her to do it,” said Jane. “My goodness, I’m just glad to have the help. She knows what she thinks is right, and does what she thinks is right.” “Back in the times you were talking about,” said her husband, “she would have been a slave. You’d have bought her to work for you.”

In thinking of this connection they’d drawn — between a slave of yesterday and a maid of today — I asked Jane if it was still common practice for Newnan families to employ a black woman to take care of them. Her daughter said that nowadays you might hire a cleaning service – with black, white, and Mexican women working on an hourly basis – but that the days of a person serving a family full time had practically come to an end.

Since this conversation took place, in 2016, Jane’s husband has passed away. Shortly thereafter, Jane sold her house and moved into another that’s smaller, with all the rooms on one level. I’ve recently learned through her family that she’s been struggling with her health, but that she’s still playing bridge every once in a while.

L.C.

L.C.

It’s a bright fall morning in Courthouse Square, and I’m looking for a place to sit down. Farmers from around Newnan, Georgia, have set up tables – displaying tomatoes and beans, pickles and jellies – and I find an empty spot next to a man on a bench.

Juggling my camera and notebook I sit, and the man and I greet one another. I ask him if he’s from around here.

“I was born in Newnan – this is my hometown,” he says, and he tells me his name is L.C. I ask if he lives nearby and he names an area that I don’t recognize. I ask him to repeat the name and, still unclear, I ask him how it is spelled. He pauses. “I ain’t been to school,” he says; “I went through the seventh grade, that’s all. I learned more stuff out of school. I was raised up on a farm.”

We talk some more, and I explain my work – photographing people, and writing about them – and then I ask if I may photograph him. “You want to take my picture?” L.C. says, then chuckles, demurs. He’s got work to do, he says. He’s not dressed right. He needs a haircut. In fact, he’s been waiting for a chair to open up at the barbershop, and is just about to go over and check. I ask if I can go with him, and he says okay.

Even though almost everyone in the square is white, inside the barbershop – just a block away – everyone is black. The barber chairs are full, so L.C. decides to wait outside, and I ask if I can wait with him. While we stand we continue to talk, and L.C. fills in a sketch of his young life.

“We were raised the hardest way,” he says, “picking cotton, pulling corn, raising sorghum cane.” He says his mother left him when he was a baby, and he was raised by an aunt and uncle, amid his cousins – fourteen kids total. As he talks I notice that L.C. doesn’t look me in the eye. When I say something he’d like me to repeat, he says, “Ma’am?,” even though he is older than I.

I ask where the family lived, and L.C. tells me they traveled from farm to farm. “I done stayed in a heap of farmers’ houses,” he says. “We didn’t have no house – that’s the way we went. Sometimes we’d wake up in a barn. We done stayed that away until we found another place to stay, you know. Back in them days, folks looked out for you if you had a bunch of children.”

“Other black folks, you mean?” I ask. “No, the whi – black folks didn’t have nothing!” says L.C. “They’d be trying to find something themselves.

“They come from slavery time,” he continues, and chuckles again. “My folks come from slavery,” he says. “Everybody you see around here: if they’re living in some broken-down house and can’t hardly make it, I guarantee their people come from slavery.” My head starts to swim, and I think of the slaves who were sold in Courthouse Square, just steps from where L.C. and I first met.

L.C. continues and describes the jobs he’s worked in his lifetime – putting cotton into the hopper at a textile mill, inspecting the lumber at a flooring factory, laying sewer pipe in the road – and I think: Here he is. Here is the man. Here are the hands, the shoulders, the arms, the legs upon which all of this was built.

Now that the barber is finally free, L.C. enters the shop, and I follow him. The television is on, and there are pictures of Barack Obama affixed to the walls. I wait in a back corner while the barber clips L.C.’s hair, trims his beard, and powders his neck. When the barber’s done, L.C. pays him, and I follow L.C. back out into the street. “I thank the Lord for the hair cut,” he says.

I think L.C. is surprised that I’ve stuck around this long, and he finally agrees to let me photograph him. But he says he wants to change his clothes first, and we decide that I’ll get in my car and follow him home. He tells me he lives with his sister, and as I follow him out of town, down a long country road, I try to imagine what the house will be like – wondering if it’ll be a “broken-down house,” like the ones he mentioned. But we turn into what looks like a new subdivision, carved out of farmland: tidy houses along streets with names like Corn Row Court and Corn Crib Drive.

We pull up in front of a gray duplex with an old red truck parked outside. Inside, the house is cozy, with the dining-room table covered by a lace cloth. L.C. introduces me to his niece, who tells him that she’s left a plate of breakfast for him in the microwave. He asks me to wait while he goes to change, and while he does I look around. There on a wall, crowned with a garland of ivy, is a framed photograph of an elderly couple: a man in overalls, a heavy-set woman whose face reflects the girl I’ve just met. The frame is bordered by the letters F-A-M-I-L-Y. There they are, I think. There are the people who moved from farm to farm, with fourteen children to feed and clothe. There are the people who raised him.

After a few minutes L.C. comes out, wearing a neat black T-shirt and matching cap, and a black-leather vest trimmed in fringe. He says the vest was part of a bundle of second-hand clothes given to him by a woman for whom he does odd jobs. “I think this might be a lady’s vest,” he says. “But I like it.”

“You look real nice, Uncle L.C.,” says his niece.

The three of us go outside as the sun is starting to set. We make photographs by L.C.’s red truck, and then he asks to have some made by an old Mercury that he loves. While we work, L.C. looks straight into the camera – and finally I can really see him. My heart is getting pulled and I want to stay all evening, but I finish up and thank him and his niece. I tell L.C. that I will bring him a print, and as I drive away I can see them in the rear-view mirror, sitting on their front steps. I cross over Corn Row Court and Corn Crib Drive, and head back toward town.

Mac

Mac

MacDonald learned many things at cotillion, a Southern tradition of six months of etiquette classes, begun in Newnan during fifth grade. Along with the other 11-year-olds, he learned that when you sit at a table, you wait for the hostess to pick up her napkin before you begin to eat; that you hold your fork as though it were a pencil, and scoop – never spear – your food. He learned that when you pin a corsage on a lady, you place it right above where her pinkie would be if she were pledging allegiance to the flag.

Mac’s older brother, Drew, used to lie on the floor and refuse to get dressed when it was time to go to cotillion. But Mac says he liked it. His father, Ryan, had gone to the same classes, with the same teacher, some 25 years before. Their teacher, Ms. Rosalyn, has spent almost three decades stressing the proper way to behave, emphasizing above all: to think beyond oneself, to search for the good in others, to always be the best you that you can be.

Mac’s mother, Alexis, was born in Maryland and considers herself a Yankee, but she appreciates the way these young men have been raised: “I think it goes back to being a Southern gentleman,” she says. Recently, she noticed that Mac pulled the chair out for her when they went to a restaurant for dinner.

At the final event of the season – the cotillion ball – Mac wore a black suit and bow tie, with a blue pocket square, which matched his eyes. (He had a cummerbund too, but lost it at some point during the evening.) He and his partner won the Snowball Dance, during which each couple has to keep a Styrofoam ball pressed between their foreheads while they dance. If they inch apart and the ball drops, they are out.

After the dance I met Mac and his family back at their house, which sits on a rise on the grounds of the Newnan Country Club; his father also grew up there. Along the walls of the living room are framed photographs of generations of relatives, including Mac’s great-grandfather MacDonald, after whom he was named – a farmer, athlete, and high-school principal from the next county. Above the mantel hangs a painted portrait, given to his parents as a wedding present, of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Mac described what had stayed with him most after his time with Ms. Rosalyn: “Be polite to other people. Open a door for a lady. Don’t shove food in your mouth like a pig.” I asked him what would happen if a girl didn’t want to be called a lady, or if she wanted to pull a chair out for him. That would be really confusing, he said.

Wiley

Wiley

On the day that I met Wiley I was with three women from a well-to-do Baptist church in the center of Newnan. They belong to a group that delivers meals to the area’s poor. On this day, their route led them out into the country, to a mill village that had been built by the Arnco cotton mills, in the 1920s. As our car rolled into the neighborhood and stitched through the narrow streets, it was easy to imagine an earlier time, with men carrying lunchboxes to a humming mill, children playing ball in a nearby field, families on Sunday walking to church. Now, since the mills in the area had closed, in the 1950s, the streets were rutted, empty. The village had become known as a place of poverty, addiction, and crime.

We stopped at a mustard-colored house with a sinking front porch, and an elderly man appeared at the door. One of the women handed him a meal in a container with a Bible verse on top – and he said, “Thank you.” I asked the man if I could visit him on another day.

A few days later, I went back to visit the man. He told me that his name was Wiley, and that he had lived in the village for many years, although he couldn’t remember exactly how many. He had worked in the Arnco Mill in the packing department, folding the manufactured blankets, and then wrapping them for shipment. He’d retired years before, though he couldn’t remember exactly when. He told me he had a son, on the West Coast, and a daughter, who lived nearby.

I made a portrait of Wiley on his porch, and then he showed me around his house, a tiny four-room bungalow typical of an old mill village. Moving through a home that had been long neglected – the walls blackened with fireplace smoke and the corners covered in cobwebs – he showed me his pellet gun and his gospel records, and some faded photographs. On the mantel stood a photo-studio portrait of a couple, and I recognized a young Wiley; the woman was his wife, he said, now deceased.

I visited Wiley again, to give him a copy of his portrait, and I called his daughter to learn more about him. She told me that when she was small they had rented a shotgun house in a mill village farther north, but that he’d bought his house in Arnco when the mill offered its employees the village houses for purchase. She told me that he’d lived with a lot of pain, after a career of packing and hauling heavy loads. In his old age he loved to eat at the Waffle House, and to sift through yard sales, where he’d buy pocket knives and old lawn mowers, to tinker with.

The following year, I went out to Arnco to see Wiley again. This time the doors of his house were wide open, the rooms were nearly empty, and two people were burning brush in the back yard. A young man approached, and told me that he had bought the house. I noticed he spoke with an accent, and asked where he was from. He said he was from Peru. He told me that the previous owner had passed away.

 

 

Barbara

Barbara

While working in Georgia, I am trying to consider the long threads of history: how they come together to weave the present moment, tethering the present to the past. If I’m to make work that helps people see past their bubbles into the lives of another, mustn’t I look backward, to see how these bubbles were created?

In Newnan, black and white people have lived side by side – and in almost equal numbers – since its founding, in the early 1800s. At that time, Scotch-Irish and English settlers moved inland from the coast, bringing their families, their animals, and their slaves. Many built cotton plantations and immense fortunes – soon turned to dust by the Civil War. In the following decades, poor white farmers and freed black slaves, both now tied to the land as sharecroppers, would replant the cotton and bring it to harvest. The landowners, with their newly built textile mills, would turn that crop into a dazzling wealth. By 1910, a local newspaper reported that Newnan was the fourth-wealthiest town per capita in the United States.

I’ve noticed that with many white people in Newnan, talk of the power structure that underpinned the town’s beginnings is met with hushed tones, or outright resistance. What does that have to do with today?, I’m sometimes asked. What is the cutoff date, beyond which we don’t have to talk about this anymore? But with members of the black community, talk of those times rises quickly to the surface. Speaking of his ancestors’ contribution to the town’s white ruling class, one black man told me, “I earned that money for them, and I didn’t get anything.”

So in thinking about Newnan’s founders, I wondered where I might meet their descendants today. I was told they attend a Baptist church just off Courthouse Square.

On the Sunday that I visited the church, Barbara caught my eye. She was petite and trim, with a bright blond bob and a rosy-pink jacket. She looked the way I’d imagined a Southern woman would look, and I asked to be introduced to her. I told her about my project, and asked if she’d be willing to let me make her portrait. She laughed, and agreed to let me call her later that week. I asked if she would wear the same pink jacket.

Barbara told me that she’d moved a log cabin onto her parents’ property, but when I arrived at the address I found myself in front of a white house. I called Barbara on her cell phone, and she told me that I was at her parents’ house, but that she’d come to get me. While I waited I looked around – at the vast woods, the flower garden, the American-eagle ornaments everywhere. I couldn’t help noticing a small statue, situated on one of the house’s front steps. It portrayed a black child seated with his ankles crossed, holding an American flag. It shocked me.

Barbara arrived, and we sat down on those steps. She told me about herself – that she’d been a flight attendant for Delta, that she competed in triathlons, that she had two grown children. She had just moved back home, to be near her family, after living in Atlanta for two decades. She told me that her parents’ house had been built before the Civil War, and that the land had been in her father’s family since the early 1800s. She said that her mother’s family had been in the cotton-gin business.

When I asked if I could make Barbara’s portrait there, as she sat on those steps, she chafed a little. She put her hand on the statue and said, “Doesn’t this offend you, sort of, a little? I mean it’s kind of cute, but can you imagine some black person walking up and seeing that? If I had a friend of mine who’s black come here,” she went on, “I just don’t think they’d appreciate their race sitting on the steps. They’re portrayed as being a slave, like ‘the good old days.’ I just don’t know about Little Black Sambo out here. It’s not nice.”

For the next hour Barbara and I talked about this portrayal. She told me about Elvo, her family’s African-American maid, whom she had loved growing up, and her grandmother’s beloved chauffeur, who once drove a birthday cake all the way up to Barbara in Atlanta. “They were not viewed as anything different,” said Barbara. I wondered if she meant that they weren’t viewed as unequal.

“But they were, kind of like, in their place, though,” I said.

“That’s what their place was, yeah. That’s how we viewed ‘em, as just kind of helping.”

“The help,” I said.

“Yeah, there you go,” she said. “The Help. Driving Miss Daisy.”

I could tell Barbara didn’t want to criticize her parents, yet she talked of their views as both generational and persistent. I asked her to name a stereotype of black people that she’d often heard. “Lazy,” she said quickly, and added, “When I lived in Atlanta, you know, you just see a black guy walking with his pants half down and you’re scared to death. I am. I don’t know why.”

Then she told me a story about a running group she had belonged to, which worked out with homeless men, most of whom were black. Three times a week she rose at dawn, picked up the men in her car, and took them on long runs. They charted one another’s progress, and competed in races. “It’s amazing how you get to know someone like that,” she said. “I mean, you encourage them to come work out, and they become your best friends. And oh my God, it was just a rude awakening. It will be a lifetime experience I’ll have forever. It was wonderful.”

When we were finished making photographs, Barbara and I agreed that we’d meet again before I left town. I admired her honesty, and in the following days I imagined her as somehow wedged between a generation compelled to portray a black person in humiliating caricature – a childlike object on a step – and a generation to which people of color might appear as equals.

I showed Barbara’s portrait to a few people – including a friend of mine, who is black, who said, “She let you set her up like that?,” and Barbara’s mother, who said, breezily, “Oh I love that you’ve got the little black man in there!” When I showed it to Barbara, she gasped at her appearance, making a joke about needing plastic surgery. But then she said, “I love it.

“I love the picture because I think it speaks about the way our country is so divided right now. It speaks about the controversy between the blacks and the whites… . You have the Southern house – the Antebellum house – and the Little Black Sambo holding the American flag. And then you’ve got the eagle, which is the symbol of our country. And you’ve got the white supremacy.”

“Barbara,” I said, “this picture puts you in the position of the white supremacy.”

“That’s what I’m saying,” she said. “It puts me in the position of the white supremacy. I don’t like that. But that’s how it is.”

Originally published June 7, 2017

Cliff and Monique

Cliff and Monique

Just east of Newnan’s Courthouse Square lies a parcel of land, wide open except for slim oak trees scattered on a hillside. The land is bordered by a former cotton-mill village, a city park, and elegant 19th-century houses. A narrow path skirts the land close to the road. Cliff and Monique have made this place their life’s work.

Back in 1999, a man who’d grown up in the neighborhood was driving by the unmarked land when he noticed heavy machinery about to enter it. The City of Newnan had sent a crew to create paths through the trees. The man pulled over and told the workmen they couldn’t start digging. He said that as a boy he’d been instructed never to play there. It was sacred land, he said: a burial ground for slaves.

Like much of Newnan’s African-American history, the nature of this land, acquired by the city in 1962, was unknown to many, including the mayor. It appears on a 1923 map as a “Negro Grave Yard”; deeds show that it had belonged to a slaveowner who in 1888 sold it to the Newnan Cotton Mills. When, in 1999, the mayor was alerted to the land’s history, he ordered the work there to be ceased, and later commissioned an archeological survey of the area.

Using ground-penetrating radar, researchers identified 249 graves – all without tombs, just leaf-covered depressions, slightly sunken in the earth. They realized that it was the largest slave cemetery in the South.

Almost 20 years later, Cliff and Monique, two young activists with a group called South Atlanta Progress, were driving by the site.  Cliff, who had grown up in Newnan and heard about the land’s history, told Monique who was buried there. “Stop the car, stop the car!” she shouted. The couple  then drove up to a shotgun-style house on the property, where a sign read, “The African-American Heritage Museum.” The house was locked, but the sign listed a phone number. They called the number, and one thing led to another. Soon Cliff and Monique were on the museum’s board, and they became the president and vice president of The African-American Alliance, which oversees the museum.

On Halloween weekend of 2018, I met with Cliff and Monique, first to talk, and then to make their portrait. As we walked across the land, being careful not to step into the shallow depressions, the energy coming up through our feet was difficult to take in. It was the most overwhelming experience I’d had in Newnan.Across town, at Newnan’s officially historic cemetery, a Halloween event was taking place. Actors portraying Newnan’s white founders — including 269 Confederate soldiers who did not survive the Civil War — led hundreds of visitors around the stately tombstones. Music played and children danced. Refreshments were served. But over on at the African-American burial ground, all was quiet.

Cliff and Monique, both college students, have built grand visions of what is possible there: First, preservation; then placement on the National Historic Register; and then tourism, research, and the drawing in of scholars from all over the world. They passionately want to bring back to life the enslaved people who are buried there – people who early each morning left where they lived, dug their owners’ fields, laid the bricks for the owners’ elegant houses, and so constructed the foundation of the city. It’s as though the ancestors are calling to these two young people, asking them to finally tell their stories.