Mary Beth Meehan



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