Travels With a Geechee Girl

Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

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My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

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South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

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Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

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Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

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“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

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Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Atlanta Reconstructed

In mass murder as well as in war, the great darkness of death can often inspire a sentimentality that distorts our perception of the intricate human struggles that preceded and will prevail beyond the body count. Such is the case of Atlanta, a city in which the grand ideals of democracy and the mid­night oil necessaa Joury to achieve them have come together in ways which relate to the Civil Rights Movement in much the same way that Reconstruction relates to the Civ­il War. Yet the miscegenated identity of its political history, its culture, its alliances and antipathies are shrouded by the pain and terror felt locally and nationally each time the body of an adolescent black man is pulled freshly dead or in some stage of decomposition from a river or other hiding place.

But the texture of terror is not im­mediately experienced in Atlanta. What one first notices after traveling the interminable distance through the ugly Hartsfield Airport — the world’s largest­ — is the spring air and the brightness of the sun. Then there are pine trees that seem primitive and gargantuan bottle brushes, slopes that give the city a roller coaster effect, many churches made of wood or stone, and more than a few fronted by Grecian columns, and finally the new of­fice buildings and hotels and entertain­ments for conventioneers and locals that spread out from the center of town to impinge upon what classical American structures were left unharmed by the as­sault of Sherman’s troops and the march of modern age. There is a terror there, how­ever, and it brutally counterpoints the city’s typically Southern relaxation, elo­quence, humor, and fatalistic sullenness. It is expressed in the somber understatement of a fine preacher quietly describing Satan, or it stutters the rhythm of speech like a loose fan belt. It is sometimes wrapped in a mystified outrage or dressed up like a grim Christmas tree with statistics of ar­rests, leads, time lags between disap­pearance and discoveries. Nothing, how­ever, has led to a significant arrest or a solution to any of the killings.

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Atlanta is a city far more complex and far more segregated and given to bloody battles above and below the surface than most accounts allow us to see. The city proper consists of two counties, Fulton and DeKalb, and except for pine-filled woods and slopes, it is predominantly flat, with the nearest mountain range 400 miles away and the ocean 300 miles away. Over the last 10 years, 102,000 white people have moved out of the city proper, while 27,000 black people have moved in, making the population of 450,000 65 per cent black and leaving white Atlantans two thirds removed from political control.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

The fossils of classic segregation exist in streets that change names beyond certain points because, in the old days, whites didn’t want to live on streets with the same names as those where Negroes lived. Many neighborhood schools were built for black children following the desegregation ruling of 1954. Present segregation works, as it does in the North, by neighborhood. Most of the black population now lives in the south, southeast, and southwest ends of Atlanta, while most of the whites live in the north end, with midtown the most integrated. At the turn of the century, the well-to-do Negroes had lived on the south­east side of town, at the outskirts. Slowly they moved west, unavoidably leaving the poor behind. Presently, the more am­bitious black business people are taking their trade to Campbellton Road, the main street of the Southwest area, where the upwardly mobile Negroes have been buying houses as a result of white flight to the north and the suburbs (an interesting historical twist in that whites on the run from black political control now turn, as runaway slaves once did, to the north, albeit a local one).

The Atlanta University Center, because it has long provided the black braintrust of the city and the South as well, is largely responsible for making Atlanta so dif­ferent from every other city in the South. Examples of those associated with that braintrust are: James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Benjamin Mays, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Atlanta Univer­sity, which was founded literally in a box­car in 1867 — 18 years before Georgia Tech — was the first of the city’s five black colleges, the others being Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, and Clark (there are also the Interdenominational Theolog­ical Center and the Atlanta University Summer School, both cooperatives). The black colleges, in conjunction with the black churches, businesses, and social clubs, not only produced a developing intellectual and economic elite that inspired many Negroes to move to Atlanta, but also built a network of social organizations de­signed to address the problems of reloca­tion and community development. As At­lanta University’s Dr. Edyth L. Ross wrote in the December 1976 issue of the college’s review of race and culture, Phylon: “These organizations, varying in social structure from relatively amorphous social movements to highly formal voluntary associa­tions, constitute a legacy which looms large in the structure of social welfare today.”

Ross goes on to point out that the or­ganizations expanded upon the settlement houses created as adjustment centers for European immigrants; these were full community efforts designed to provide ev­erything from care for the aged to recrea­tion for teenagers and homes for colored girls, from medical care and housing improvement to remedial reading and legal assistance. As early as 1873, 100 years before Maynard Jackson took office, a black church ran three health centers so successful that the death rate among those it served was one-third less than that of the white population. It was this tradition of educational advance and social change that enabled the city’s Negro community to continue the work of Reconstruction up through the election of Maynard Jackson. The colleges, churches, and businesses provided the city with theorists, re­searchers, organizers, sponsors, and, even­tually, politicians who would parlay their growing strength in votes to a power posi­tion in the middle of city negotiations, not on the outskirts.

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The long march from the first phase of Reconstruction to its present man­ifestation has not come without enmities, for though Maynard Jackson’s adminis­tration is predominantly black, Atlanta’s economic power is almost completely white, with each side convinced that the opposition will only gain greater ground or maintain its strength at the other’s ex­pense. As an architect from an old Atlanta Jewish family says, “The financial strength is in the white community and it is being clutched more tightly than ever before because of the black political power. I think there needs to be a sharing of the financial power. But the mayor’s in­terpretation of joint ventures has soured much of the white community because it sees the mayor’s city government as serv­ing a black constituency above all else. And the mayor’s list of power positions in city government is quite considerable. The ma­jority of the city council, the commissioner of public safety, the police chief, the presi­dent of the Atlanta Chamber of Com­merce, and the chairman of the Fulton County Commission are all black. I don’t care what the color of somebody is, but I do care about what they consider their consti­tuency to be.”

Yet except for its understandable suspi­cion of white people, that black consti­tuency is far from monolithic and is given to considerable infighting, most of it based on color, class, and what part of the coun­try one is from. It has also thrown its share of punches at Maynard Jackson and his staff, at his appointments and his firings. As with most light-skinned Negroes in positions of power, when Jackson does something the black community likes, the entire group takes credit for it; when mis­takes or unpopular decisions come down, he is seen as a “high yellow” selling out blacks or working for whites. Writer Toni Cade will tell you that success in the city can depend on whether or not you’re light-­skinned and are part of the middle-class Morehouse-Spelman crowd to which Jackson and many of his appointees belong. Since Negroes from rural Georgia and just about every other place in the country now migrate to Atlanta seeking better lives, just as they did right after the Civil War, a television executive will tell you that though he is successful, it took him almost four years to get local Negroes to see him as something other than part of a wave of black carpetbaggers come to take jobs away from the city’s black, brown, beige, and bone sons and daughters. One of the mayor’s appointees charged that jealousy is behind it all, that most of the native black Atlantans don’t have enough drive and ambition to achieve success or prominence. Jackson’s job then, is to balance his credibility in both racial groups while continuing the traditional involvement of Atlanta’s black middle class with the greater black community. The two strata have al­ways been close, because racism made it difficult, if not impossible, for a Negro to achieve a significant position outside the black community if he or she happened not to be an entertainer. Consequently, the city’s black leaders in business, medicine, education, and religion achieved their prominence through the trade, the pa­tients, the students, and the congregations provided by the bulk of the city’s Negroes.

Because of Maynard Jackson’s de­termination to better Atlanta, his adminis­tration has had to live up to its progressive heritage at the same time that it has been forced to scuffle with the riddles of black political power and the aforementioned white money, the complications of race and class and the ills of poverty and crime that exist as appendages which bruise and wound a growing city that is still, for all the media talk of cosmopolitanism, an urban country town quite schizophrenic in its mix of eloquent sophistication and mumbl­ing naivete. As Janet Douglass, executive director of the Community Relations Commission and the Committee on the Status of Women says, “Sharing power never comes without pain.” That pain, as well as a complex kind of pride, is felt on both sides, black and white. For certain whites, the pain results from Jackson’s playing a kind of political hardball Ne­groes have never played in Atlanta; for lower-income Negroes the pain is con­nected to expectations that impose upon Jackson’s leadership a messianic mantle that fits like a yoke; and for still others, both black and white, there is a pride in the fact that Atlanta has long been an oasis of relative political enlightenment sur­rounded by the redneck mandates of the rest of the state.

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The versions of that political history are quite different if one is talking with an older white Atlantan as opposed to almost any black person who worked to break down segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Those older whites will point with pride to William B. Hartsfield, the city’s mayor from 1937 to 1960. As de­scribed by local white historian Franklin Garrett, Hartsfield was a man “who could be a hairshirt at times because of his quick temper but he could also be quite man­nerable and genial. He discovered the charm of reading as a child and, though the son of a tinsmith and a man who came up the hard way, he got his law degree by reading law on his own. He wanted the city to become part of the aviation industry, which is why our airport is named after him. His desire was to see the city develop the standing it had as a transportation center which dates back to its significance as the most important railroad center in the Southeast with four major railroads by 1860, when Atlanta became the manufac­turing hub of the Confederacy and turned out railroad ties and steel plates for the navy. He created the term, ‘Atlanta, the city too busy to hate,’ and realized that, with the Primus King Decision of 1946, which ruled that blacks couldn’t be barred from local and general primaries, he could build a coalition since the city was 50-50 black and white, and had an educated claas of blacks with which you could deal without a lot of loud rabble-rousing.”

Hartsfield’s coalition of upper-class whites and middle-and lower-class Ne­groes was formed to stave off the politics of redneck whites. This was a considerable achievement: on September 8, 1948, dur­ing the period when Hartsfield was integrating Atlanta’s police force, Herman Talmadge gave his acceptance speech as governor of Georgia with Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Sam Green on the podium. Soon afterwards, Talmadge attacked the Atlanta Negro Voters League, of which Maynard Jackson’s grandfather was a leader, and boasted that he’d keep prima­ries as white as possible. When asked if the black police would be allowed to arrest white people, Hartsfield is quoted as saying, “When somebody’s breaking in your house and you yell, ‘Police,’ you don’t care what color he is, all you want is for him to get that man out of your house.” But these same policemen had put on their uniforms at the black Butler Street YMCA because they weren’t permitted to change in the station house.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

Many black people saw Hartsfield as a benevolent dictator whose paternalistic politics used the black vote only to determine contests between white can­didates. The same is said of his successor, Ivan Allen, a wealthy merchant prince who was mayor from 1961 to 1969. Lonnie King, one of the organizers of the de­segregation protests during the Civil Rights era, says of Allen: “He was a pater­nalistic man whom some white people would say had noblesse oblige. Black folks know better, however. The best example is the Peyton Road wall which Allen had put up in the southwest when black people were getting ready to take advantage of other housing opportunities. It was a sym­bol that meant, ‘Black people stop here. These homes aren’t for you.’ But Allen later took down the wall and went through a strange metamorphosis which led him to testify in Washington in support of the Civil Rights Bills of 1964 and 1965. He did it, by the way, against the advice of his affluent black supporters who had weaseled into a corner of the power structure. You know how some slaves look out for the master. But I think Allen saw beyond what they were telling him and realized the image of racism would, finally, do damage to the business interests of the city and discourage investors from coming to a town that might be constantly shaken by racial confrontation, which could mess up conventions, property, and profit.”

Economics are pivotal, as usual. White businessman George Goodwin says, “In the late ’40s, I wrote for the Atlanta Jour­nal that the property tax digest was just up to what it was in 1860, when slaves were considered property. What is now Atlan­ta’s First National Bank was started in 1865 and it was 10 years before it had $1 million on deposit and 1917 before it had $10 million. In 1929, mergers led to $100 million for a few days before the Great Crash. It was the late ’30s before it got back to $100 million. After World War II, the pent-up buying power began and didn’t really take off until the 1960s, which produced the array of office buildings you see in the city now. Though we were hit by the ’70s depression, Atlanta is now a trans­portation center, wholesale center, retail center, financial and insurance center. In recent years, it’s become a convention center, probably the third-largest in the coun­try. This provides jobs in hotels and serv­ices for visitors. The rest of the South may not be aware of it, but Atlanta knows we lost that Civil War. Sherman burned At­lanta because if he hadn’t, it would have gone back to functioning in the same way for that time which it does now.”

Following Allen was Sam Massell, a real estate man who was Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor. Jews had been coming to Atlanta since before the Civil War and had often done well, but the city was hardly free of anti-Semitism, which was most brutally exhibited in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a young Christian woman on circumstantial evidence supplied by a black janitor. Atlanta Jews often sup­ported progressive causes, but many blacks recall that Jewish merchants were no quicker to desegregate than anybody else in Atlanta’s white power structure. Rich’s, the city’s largest department store, opened its lunchroom to blacks only when faced with the embarrassment of having to put Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail in his own too-busy-to-hate home town. To this day, there are clubs in Atlanta that Jews can’t join and more than a few are bitter about it, just as some ruefully recall the bombing of a synagogue during the Civil Rights era.

Massell’s appeals to the black com­munity had been instrumental in his vic­tory over an apparently more conservative opponent, Rodney King, who also lacked the New South image preferred by many affluent white voters. The flaps involved his brother, Howard, who had been ac­cused by nightclub owners of traveling around in a police car to gather campaign funds with the promise that the city would become wide open if Massell were elected. Sam Massell claimed his brother’s ap­proaches were misinterpreted, only to watch him leave town for Miami after an­other scandal involving people with sup­posed connections to organized crime. Un­der Massell, the new police chief was John Inman. By 1973, Atlanta police led the nation in per capita police killings, with 29 civilians slain — 27 black, 12 under the age of 14.

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= 3 =

Maynard Jackson entered politics in 1968 by running against Herman Talmadge for U.S. senator. Jackson lost, but carried Atlanta by 6000 votes, and in 1969 was elected the city’s first Negro vice­-mayor. Although expected to run again for vice-mayor in 1973, he instead took on Massell and defeated him handily. Soon after he took office on January 7, 1974, Reconstruction returned to Atlanta. Prior to Jackson, the City Council was both administrative and legislative. In effect, the department heads ran the city, which gave it what George Goodwin calls a “weak mayor form.” Jackson made all the committee heads responsible to him, which resulted in a “strong mayor form.” This didn’t sit well with entrenched whites, who no longer had the power to distribute jobs and money on the basis of friendship and familial connections. It also gave the mayor a more complicated job and made him less accessible to individual visits from businesses and others who had been accustomed to visiting the Mayor’s office. Even so, there are those who feel that Jackson is far less effective one-on-one than when addressing masses of people, that the very distance itself is more comfortable to him.

Jackson’s confrontation came with Chief Inman. Under Inman’s predecessor, Herbert Jenkins, there had been a chosen few black officers, most of whom were disgruntled because they rarely got promotions almost entirely by briefly assigning his favorite whites to acting of temporary positions and then, when time came to promote, pushing those whites into the slots, claiming that they had more experience than black officers who had been on the force longer.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

Jackson initially moved to replace Inman with a white man named Clint Chasen. Inman confronted Chasen, eventually calling the SWAT squad into Chasen’s office with guns drawn. Chasen decided that there were better jobs available in the world and Inman took his case to the Supreme Court, claiming that he had an eight-year appointment through the former mayor and could not be fired, demoted, or replaced. The resentful legal staff which Jackson was saddled is thought to have sold him out by botching the case. But Inman was unpopular with the District Attorney’s Office, and a case in which Inman was obliquely involved set the stage for another approach. Inman had been living on the estate of pesticide tycoon Billy Orkin, who attempted to get a police officer to kill the husband of a woman he was dating. The officer went to the district attorney’s office and an out-of-state policeman was brought in for an undercover investigation which led to the jailing of Orkin. Inman wasn’t specifically implicated in the conspiracy, but a lot of questions were raised about how and why Orkin came to believe he could get an Atlanta police officer to commit the murder.

Jackson’s new city design included a commissioner of public safety, charged with administering the police and fire departments as well as civil defense. Reginald Eaves, a Bostonian who had gone to Morehouse with Jackson and participated in his campaign, was appointed to that slot even though he had no experience in police work. The white press in Atlanta, which immediately proved itself hostile to Jackson’s designs, statements, and policies, dubbed the position “Super Chief.” Inman was assigned to an office in a roach-infested basement and later left.

Eaves gained attention on his first work day by demoting 37 white policemen, and he busted 14 more by the end of the week. Soon he became a villain in the white press and a hero in the black community. Even after it was revealed that Eaves’s secretary had a heroin conviction in New York and that one of his relatives had gotten a CETA job, his popularity in the black com­munity was undiminished, primarily be­cause he announced that he would person­ally charge with murder any police officer who killed without reasonable cause. Po­lice homicides ceased. Over a two-year pe­riod, Eaves got press by going on police raids, rigged to allow him to kick in doors and collar criminals for the cameras, much as J. Edgar Hoover had done in his day.

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“Reggie,” says another Jackson appointee, “took off in that job. Where he had kind of stood in Maynard’s shadow before, he developed into an incredible speaker and was suddenly everywhere — at churches, picnics, socials, and everything in the community you could imagine. He was single, so the bitches liked him, and he took a hard line on crime, like Maynard did. He defined criminals as parasites within the community and let it be known he would give no quarter to a lawbreaker, regardless of color. He transferred cops with bad brutality records into jobs like guarding airplane runways and fire sta­tions and made strong efforts to get the community to see the police as public ser­vants, not trigger-happy parts of an occu­pying force. Quiet as it’s kept, he was using the office to run for mayor and Maynard didn’t know it. Then the shit hit the fan.”

In the fall of 1977, Eaves was accused by officers within the department of sup­plying the answers to the civil service ex­amination for the police force to black men he wanted to hire. Jackson was forced to call for an investigation that was handled by two private lawyers, one black, one white. The 300-page report proved that certain cops had memorized the tests beforehand since they gave the same se­quence of answers when retested even though the questions were reordered. Eaves took a lie detector test that proved inconclusive. When the results were made public, 300 black people were gathered on the steps of city hall. For the cameras they asserted their belief in Eaves’s innocence, but privately they said things like, “So what if he cheated? White folks have al­ways been cheating.” Some white liberals argued that there was no other way to balance the force.

Jackson had long taken the position that affirmative action was only a response to racist hiring practice, that it was neither a means of forcing the unqualified into jobs nor a form of reverse racism. But at the same time he was burdened with what those close to him consider his greatest weakness: an almost aristocratic sense of loyalty. Some kind of showdown was in­evitable. Eaves was speaking in churches and at rallies, opening his statements with phrases like, “Though my skin is dark and my lips are thick,” implying, some that if he was removed it would have more to do with in-group color prejudice than a mis­handling of authority. Cannon fodder from the University Center was hot to trot in support of Eaves and the press was making much of Jackson’s deliberations. Eaves finally agreed behind closed doors to ten­der his resignation, promising it on a certain day, then another, then yet another. Jackson started getting angry at demands from the street that Eaves not be fired. “Maynard started saying,” quotes one aide, “‘I hired him and he carried out my policies, not his. Now these people want to act like I didn’t have anything to do with bettering the police force.'” Finally, in the middle of the night, the resignation was delivered to Jackson’s chief of staff, Gerri Elder. On the same night, much later, Eaves called Elder and said he’d changed his mind and would send his bodyguards to get it back. Elder, in a panic, called Jack­son, who blew up and ordered her not to return anything, then sent his own body­guard for the resignation.

The next day, in a cold, formal tone and in front of witnesses, Jackson called Eaves and told him his comment to the press was to be no comment and that he was to maintain a low profile. Eaves agreed, but in a matter of hours he was speaking to the press on television. “Maynard went through the roof,” reports an appointee, “and called a press conference immediate­ly at which he announced that Commissioner Eaves had been suspended. From that moment on, it was over because, you know Maynard’s sister married a Nigerian, and he said, ‘Even if my sister pickets me in Yoruba, Reggie Eaves is gone!'”

Jackson responded to continuing ten­sion in the black community by appointing Lee Brown to replace Eaves and George Napper to take the slot vacated by Inman. Both were black and had doctorates in criminology. The resentment cooled.

Then there were the murders.

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= 4 =

I arrived in Atlanta the Friday before Reagan was shot and Timothy Hill’s body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River. I checked in at the Hotel Georgian Terrace, a grand old midtown place with stone columns out front, plenty of marble in the lobby, and each of its first-floor wings given over to the hybrids only modernization, can produce. To the left of the entrance is a 24-hour German deli and to the right, the bar, which has high ceilings and many potted plants, a few pinball and electronic space games, and a sound system that blurts out disco tunes at what seems the highest possible volume. After touring the city with newswoman Alexis Scott Reeves, I returned at early evening to find the lobby filled with black homosexual couples. Throughout the week, I was to find that the hotel was an evening meeting place not only for homosexuals but for certain integrated couples of whatever persuasion and that the midtown area had become the hub of the city’s homosexual world. I also found out that Atlanta is the homosexual capital of the Deep South. Organized crime control the city’s homosexual bathhouses, discos, and gay bars, and as a result, the Atlanta Police Depart­ment’s tough Organized Crime Division bumps heads with homosexuals as it moves to keep the mob from getting a toehold. The black female community, which some say outnumbers black men as much as nine to one, is hostile to both homosexuals and integrated heterosexual couple.

The next day I went on the search party for the then-missing children, which met at Ralph Abernathy’s West Hunter Street Baptist Church, now a stone-columned structure on Gordon Street next door to the Wren’s Nest, the home of Joel Chandler Harris, which was long controlled by a group of old white ladies who made it a segregated historical site until the 1960s. The search parties, of course, accept all comers, some of whom I was surprised to see that Saturday morning.

A light spring wind had set in, flipping Caucasian hair and that loose enough among the Negroes to move to so easy a touch. Green ribbons were in motion, tied to arms and the broom handles used for searching through bushes, or pinned to the fronts of coats, shirts, and blouses. The fancy patterns in which some of the rib­bons were tied marked how long the searches had been going on, although per­sonal style is never very far behind the establishment of insignias and symbols. Yet it seemed at first like a picnic gather­ing or preparation for an Easter egg hunt. This impression lasted only as long as it took to notice the search dogs and the ambience of sorrowful expectations cast­ing an ambivalent mood in its wake, a mood that made the laughter and the jokes of those searchers who had become famil­iar with each other through the 25 weekends seem as much reactions to strain as expressions of humor or camaraderie.

1981 Village Voice article by Stanley Crouch about Atlanta

The ironic flip-flops of history were also evident, for here were white men dressed in army surplus, sometimes driving panel trucks and sometimes possessing classic red necks, who had brought their dogs to work in combination with black men, women, and children to find the bodies of dead black children, not capture runaway slaves. Also ironic was the fact that more of the white girls wore what used to be con­sidered exclusively black, even militant, hairdos as well as the gerri curl look favored by many of today’s black men and women. Acknowledging the scavengers who gather around tragedies, a representa­tive of the church’s United Youth Adult Conference announced to the volunteers as they gathered in the cold gymnasium be­hind West Hunter Baptist, “We are here only to find the lost children and hope to God we find them alive. If you have any other reason than that, please don’t go. We don’t want anybody trying to convert any­body to be a Democrat, a Republican, a Black Nationalist, a Ku Klux Klan, or anything else.”

The word for the day was going house­-to-house within the lower and lower­-middle-class black community to find out if anyone had been the most recent of the missing children, Timothy Hill and Joseph Bell, who had disappeared a few blocks from each other. Canvassers armed with photographs of the two boys boarded  buses to work in areas of roughly 10 blocks. ­No one in the strip we covered, on and off a main thoroughfare called Simpson Street, had seen any of the children, but all communicated the dismay, the sorrow, the rage, and the wounded hope of those who had felt so much optimism since Jackson’s election. The reports that Jackson, who had battled down a huge waistline, was gaining it back on ice cream binges in the wake of the crisis, were then understandable. The murders constituted a growing weight that promised to sink the administration’s achievements.

In fact, the computer technology and the the task force directed by the relatively new commissioner of public safety, Lee Brown, seemed to increase the burden rather than ease the populace. Whenever anyone was asked if he or she thought the ­police were working as hard as they could, the response was disillusionment. “I hate to say so, but I really don’t think so. No, not with all this time has passed. Seem like they would have come up with something by now. They got all the best equipment and plenty of money. No, sir, they can’t be doing much as they can do.”

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That sentiment was expressed often that week, usually by people at the lower end of the economic ladder and those for whom literacy wasn’t important or didn’t have much to do with their daily lives. They were the black people who gathered most of their information and opinions from television and conversation. The up-shot was that the television cop shows had created in them unrealistic expectations of the police. Unlike the television-show vil­lain who announces himself at the start of the hour and is captured within 10 minutes of the next hour, the criminal or group working outside the established crime world is very difficult to capture, especially if he has even average intelligence, which is something most criminals don’t possess. When a criminal or criminals work outside the underworld network, the effectiveness of bribes and rewards is limited. With $100,000 being offered, Atlantans can be sure the crimi­nals of the city are on the lookout for the killers, as is everyone else who could use that kind of money. The lower-echelon criminal world is particularly concerned, according to Julian Bond, because the heavy presence of police during this period has greatly reduced the rapes, robberies, and car thefts that make Atlanta a typical urban center.

Atlanta is experiencing the paradoxes of success in the modern age and no one seems ready, the police any more than  anybody else. Jackson’s push for conventions, international investment, and the image of a cultured town — complete with dance troupes, jazz musicians, community theatre, and free city-wide festivals — has attracted representatives of every one of the Fortune’s 500 to the city. It has also at­tracted Northern-style crime. Vern Smith of Newsweek, though observing that black-on-white crime can make headlines while black-on-black crime is rarely reported in the white press, adds that street crime in general is far less pervasive than what he saw when assigned to Detroit. “The crime Atlanta may have to worry about is drug traffic,” observes Julian Bond, “because changes in vacationing patterns and the frequency of internation­al visitors to the Southeast make for big profits in tourism and a lot of popping in and out of the airport. With any conven­tion centers come vice, and there is now so much pressure on Miami dope smuggling that gangsters take advantage of the many little airports in Georgia that exist for private planes and quick jaunts by businessmen.” Both black and white point out that the popularity of cocaine as an upper-middle-class drug results in grand profits for gangsters. Those who believe that the murders may involve the killing off of rival couriers in a dope war explain that in that world a $100,000 reward means very little.

During the first press tour of the task force office the question of homosexual killers was raised again and again. Com­missioner Brown would only answer that there was no evidence of homosexual connections though the investigation wasn’t ruling out any possibilities. Local tele­vision, however, reported that, according to task force sources, two or three of the victims were thought or known to be guilty of petty theft or burglary, 10 of drug violations, and 10 of homosexual prostitution. A teacher interviewed on the show cor­roborated that at least three of the chil­dren were known to travel with adult homosexuals, and that the boy found the day Reagan was shot, Timothy Hill, had often been seen in their company. (This was also attested to by one of the cleaning women in the Hotel Georgian Terrace, who knew the boy and lived in the same neigh­borhood). An FBI source I interviewed agreed that homosexual prostitution could be connected to some of the cases. He went on to say that the local police weren’t experienced or sophisticated enough to handle this kind of big-city crime and were no further along than they were four or five months ago, adding that he knew federal agents who believed the obvious serial murders could be solved within two or three weeks. He observed that the initial belief that the killings were racially motivated may have cost many leads if, say there is a black judas goat involved, which seems more probable by the day, and that the black community’s ingrained distrust of police black or white had hampered the investigation. In all fairness, however, neither big city police forces nor the F.B.J. always apprehend highly publicized killers or fugitives immediately, if at all. In San Francisco, the Zodiac Killer was never cap­tured; the Boston Strangler remained at large for years, and the Weather Under­ground surrendered on its own schedule.

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Since 1979, county prosecutor Hinson McAuliffe, in conjunction with Lieutenant F. L. Townley’s organized crime unit, has closed down or run out of town 80 porno­graphic bookstores, 12 X-rated theatres, and all bathhouses, and are now moving on homosexual street prostitution. This has been a difficult and dangerous process. When Townley’s unit began pressuring vice operations run by Tony Romano from Cleveland, he was subjected to death threats, a dead horse’s head was put in his daughter’s car, Xs were painted on his home’s doors and windows, and a detec­tive’s car was blown up. Townley, a white man who has been on the force for 20 years, disparages charges of inefficiency that old Eaves supporters and other impatient citizens have leveled at Brown. “I think he’s going to be the salvation of this city. He’s a man’s man; he’s not afraid of any­thing, you can’t buy him, and I feel more comfortable and have more confidence in him than anybody I’ve worked under in this department. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have left here when those threats started. My wife and daughter were telling me to quit, officers in my unit were fright­ened for me, and Lee Brown stepped in, personally made sure my family was pro­tected and backed me until we got Tony Romano, his wife, Virginia, and his son, Greg, several years in prison. They got it for prostitution escort services, bath­houses, bookmaking, pandering by com­pulsion, and communicating gambling in­formation.”

Townley couldn’t corroborate the rumors that bitter white officers who had left the department after problems with black administrators were attempting to botch the investigation by leaking per­tinent information they received from friends still on the force. He did say the leaking of plans for investigating organized crime was a problem within the depart­ment and there were other examples of corruption. He cited the recent arrests of a Fulton County officer for running a whore house, and an Atlanta officer found driving three stolen expensive cars when a $500,000 car-theft ring was-bro . n,e sponse to the homosexual murder theories, Townley reported that a house of homo­sexual child prostitution had been smashed a few weeks earlier but the 40 boys were all white. Townley added that boy prostitution wasn’t the problem it is in the North but that informants were close to the network in the black community, though no substantial leads had yet turned up. He concluded simply: “We know that whatever happens in the North eventually comes to Atlanta. The kind of money and resources these killings have brought in are almost what we need on a regular basis. If I had six more people in my unit, I could rotate them and be twice as effective, and we’re not doing a bad job as it is. It’s just we’re overworked as hell.”

However frustrated the police may be, the strain is obviously felt more deeply in the black community, with responses that range from habitual paranoia to irrational condemnation. The reduction in normal amiability is signaled by the questioning stares that arise when adult strangers enter black neighborhoods. The young restlessly resent the lack of mobility necessitated by the crisis; one parent, reporting a growing callousness in the children, repealed this comment by his 12-year-old son: “They found another one today. Bet they won’t get me.” The murders have taken on an obsessive quality for the mothers of the victims and for those who join search parties every weekend. But there’s still no excuse for the black sentimentalists who complain that city officials take a business-as-usual attitude once they’ve publicly decried the horror of it all, as if the officials would have had any other choice were the dead children white-or as if the critics themselves have stopped the business of their own lives in the face of the present murders.

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= 5 =

Those who criticize Jackson’s concern that the killings mar the image of Atlanta his administration has worked so hard to create do not appreciate the nature of social and economic change in this society. They will dismiss local media claims about great improvements in public education with reports that the schools are terrible and frequently graduate illiterates, not realizing that improvement is impossible unless the tax base is increased, which means coaxing runaway whites back to the city. Blacks complain with considerable justice that a poverty level twice that of the na­tion, 23 per cent, belies the image of a growing international metropolis. But the plight of Atlanta’s poor doesn’t move those affluent whites who believe their home town is now perceived as a black city, and who lend their voices, to periodic rumbl­ings about incorporating greater Atlanta’s other 13 counties to bring about a resurgence of white political control.

“The entire population of all the counties is over two million and majority white,” says Dr. Richard Long of Atlanta University. “But what black folk don’t un­derstand is that Jackson, even in face of certain bad and embarrassing appointments, didn’t have to do what he did; he could have made some gestures like the improvement of police relations and gone on to placate the whites with money. His greatest achievement was the airport, which he demanded be a joint venture with both black and white contractors involved. Whites had never noticed when their competitors were white but they definitely did when they were black for the first time. Jackson also got 40 per cent of the concessions — the shops, the duty-free busi­nesses, and so on-for black en­trepreneurs. This made the whites even madder. But black business here is, like every place else in the world, a joke. The myth of a successful black city does haz­ardous things to those Negroes who think they’ve been left out of the pot of gold. If there is a pot of gold, it’s tin painted over. Almost every black in this city is on somebody else’s payroll. But you know how susceptible blacks are to the myth of alchemy and always have been. At the same lime, there is this image of an inter­national city which Jackson has pushed very hard for by getting direct flights to and from London into the airport’s schedule, foreign consulates to open offices here, and so on. This isn’t liked much by the whites in or out of the press. They say he’s the only mayor who has a foreign policy. Obviously, they’ve never heard of Ed Koch.”

Though embattled and accused of ar­rogant sanctimoniousness by his de­tractors, criticized by his own staff for standing by bad appointees on sinking ships until the water reaches his nose, and convinced that his greatest victory was over the police department, Maynard Jackson’s place in history will have most to do with what his supporters call “the poli­tics of inclusion rather than exclusion.” In the great tradition of Atlanta University Center and the many historic figures it has produced, he has not only striven for a contemporary vision of the full community efforts that date back to 1873 but has brought Negroes into positions of authority, involvement, and decision making that have not existed in the South since the first phase of Reconstruction and were nowhere near as comprehensive even then.

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Eugene Duffy, Jackson’s youngest ap­pointee, says, “Maynard got them to bring that airport in under budget and early. The federal government can’t do that with a Trident missile or a shuttle. He’s marched with the striking garbage workers and has made sure that the black community gets exactly the same public services as the white people. He also plays hardball these white boys aren’t used to from a black man. For instance, when Arrow Shirts wanted to move its factory outside Atlanta and sell the land to the Transit Authority for the subway route, Maynard knew it would cost the city 800 jobs and dwindle the tax base further. He called them and let them know if they tried to leave, he would inform the Transit Au­thority they would be denied a demolition permit. Arrow agreed to relocate inside Atlanta. Black folks don’t appreciate that kind of stuff, unfortunately, because most don’t know what high power politics is. Maynard does, though.”

The city’s cultural texture is, finally, much more subtle and complicated than the obvious struggles for political power and money initially reveal. It is as interwoven as the genetic histories of its people, histories affirmed by the broad range of features, hair textures, and miscegenated skin tones that also illustrate the failure of African-American representational painting. As one middle-aged white woman said, “I got Cherokee mixed in me and probably some other things. People brag about the Indian in them, but they’s a whole lot of things they know and everybody else knows about the family blood that don’t get talked too much about.” That is just as true of the Negro community — ’60s nationalism has in­fluenced many younger, light-skinned Ne­groes, who frequently speak of racial matters so snottily that they seem to be suggesting they themselves are pure black, just as certain even lighter ones used to try and pass for pure white. Yet blacks and whites retain almost identical taste in foods, and their sense of humor is much the same. The good old boy, the gen­tleman, the belle, the orator, the scholar, the tale-spinner, and the fool-cutter also have idiomatic Southern variations on both sides. For all the huffing and puffing about who’s got what, the geniality in more than a few integrated circumstances equals when it does not surpass that of almost all similar situations in the North.

The afternoon I left Atlanta was the 13th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination and there were funerals for the two black youths found dead that week, one of whom was in his early twenties and retarded. I thought of the in­evitable sentimentality and the observation by State Representative Tyrone Brooks that the fund appeals had become “a pimp circus; all kinds of people pretend­ing to be raising money for the mothers and putting it in their own pockets.” By then, green ribbons symbolized moral pomposity and avarice as much as they did empathy.

As the cab traveled to the airport past the beautiful colors and trees and red clay in the gorgeous spring sun, I thought of Sherman’s observation as his troops pulled out of the ravaged city: “We turned our horses’ heads to the east. Atlanta was soon lost behind a screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem the memory of a dream.” ❖


The Best Film of the Year Isn’t Coming to Theaters — It’s On Netflix

There are few things more terrifying than being asked, “How have you lived your life?” while in the midst of living one’s life. In the new Georgian film My Happy Family, that question is asked, implicitly and explicitly, of a number of characters. The story focuses largely on one woman’s attempt to free herself of the shackles of a stultifying marriage, but a subdued sense of panic courses throughout, infecting everyone else: This is a movie about obligations, and about what-might-have-beens and what-could-still-bes. Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross — who work together as Nana & Simon, and who directed the lovely coming-of-age film In Bloom a couple of years ago — My Happy Family is coming out on Netflix, but don’t let its lack of a theatrical release fool you. This picture has been ringing in my mind ever since I saw it at Sundance; it may well be the best film I’ve seen this year.

It opens on 52-year-old literature teacher Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) checking out a rental apartment in a working-class corner of Tbilisi. We soon learn that she has decided to leave her husband, her two grown kids, and her mom and dad — all of whom live crammed under the same roof — to go find a quiet place for herself, a space where she can sit by a window, relax, read a book, and eat some cake, free of the responsibilities and sacrifices of being a wife and mother and daughter. Manana refuses to explain herself to anybody, even as her decision causes shockwaves across her family and friends. She doesn’t have a lover, or an ulterior motive, or dreams of starting some crazy new endeavor. There was no big falling out with her husband. After living for everyone else, now, in her fifties, she wants just to be by herself.

But My Happy Family isn’t a simple tale of one woman’s liberation. Nana and Simon astutely follow the ripples and counter-ripples of Manana’s decision in the lives of those who know her, and one of the great delights of this film is the way it charts the shifting waves of allegiances that can occur in a family that loves and argues with equal ferocity. Her kids and husband may be shocked, but they suddenly take her side when their extended family tries to intervene. And Manana, as decisive as she is in pursuing this new life, still keeps being pulled back into the tumult of her family’s many disputes and heartbreaks. She’s still a mom and a daughter. She’s still, on some level, a wife.

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The film unfolds as a series of long takes, as we follow characters in and out of rooms, staying close enough to register individual experiences while always making sure to keep the rest of the world in focus. But the camerawork isn’t that rough, handheld, vérité style we’ve become so used to; it’s fluid without being showy, immediate without being unbalanced. The urgency and tension of each scene emerges organically. I was also mesmerized by the intimate detail with which this world was rendered — everything from the particular way a cheese seller holds out her hands while giving an old friend a hug, to the subtle ways that men and women reorganize themselves when in large groups. There isn’t a single second that doesn’t ring as achingly true.

My Happy Family grows more complex as it unfolds, as Manana learns more and more about her world and her family by her decision to separate from them. Nothing is, ultimately, as it seems. In that opening scene, the woman renting the apartment out to Manana tells her about the good luck the flat brings; a gas company employee visiting later in the film reveals that the previous tenant tried to kill themselves. Meanwhile, Manana’s distant, rarely happy husband, Soso (Merab Ninidze), turns out to have had secrets of his own. Usually in movies, these sorts of revelations help clarify matters, further establishing key themes and helping lead to narrative resolutions. But here, the more we learn, the less we know. One person’s betrayal turns out to be another’s sacrifice. Protective impulses become threats. Heartbreak becomes possibility. It all goes on and on until you realize that what you’re watching isn’t a movie anymore. It is life itself, in all its messiness and horror and glory.

My Happy Family
Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross
Premieres December 1 on Netflix



The Moth began as friends exchanging stories on a Georgia porch, where moths, attracted to the light, entered through a hole in the screen. Though their “StorySLAMs” now span the country and are growing internationally, that intimacy has barely shifted. Professional storytellers — or regular people with spellbinding stories to tell — take the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg for tonight’s GrandSLAM Championship. Whether these stories are told by veterans or socialites, centered around a first kiss, an awkward meal, or what a flight attendant has to do when a passenger dies, they are iridescent and full of soul. Unlike their usual themed shows, the GrandSLAM features 10 victorious raconteurs of previous StorySLAMs. The theme is the best of the best, essentially

Sun., Nov. 30, 6:30 p.m., 2014


Zac Brown Band

Zac Brown helms his band — which has grown since its inception in 2002 to an eight-piece — with his rich, reflective baritone and un-egotistical approach to performance. The dream of the jam band is still alive in ZBB, despite three platinum records and eleven #1 singles, as well as the release of Brown’s cookbook of Southern cuisine. But the group’s signature is their penchant for emotive country rock songs, rooted deeply in nostalgic harmony and imagery of the Georgia landscape where Brown grew up.

Sat., Aug. 30, 7 p.m., 2014


Farmland Is a Mildly Propagandistic Doc on Young Farmers

A fourth-generation poultry farmer in Georgia (one of six twentysomething agriculturalists flattered by this mildly propagandistic doc, “made with the generous support of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance”) gives a workplace tour to schoolchildren, who are delighted by cute baby chicks and seemingly oblivious to their inevitable slaughter.

If you, too, have no idea where your lunch came from — not a restaurant or your mom, but the callous-handed toilers growing and raising the ingredients — then you deserve the holier-than-thou tone taken by filmmaker James Moll and his subjects.

These farmers and ranchers’ chief concern and generalization is that everyone perceives them as American Gothic grumps with hay in their teeth (one exhorts, “We’re not hiding anything, but what do you want to know?”), yet there’s no drama illustrating the thanklessness of their jobs, and potential wisdom about fiscal instability, animal welfare, or GMOs waft by without much argument.

Perhaps if Moll offered less of the static sit-down interviews and more fly-on-the-grain vérité, viewers might feel some new, intimate connection between the farmers and the nourishment that unites us.

Without that, the film’s only other thrust is a plucky heartland score that unfortunately just signals that the stars of City Slickers are about to herd a cattle drive.


Blackberry Smoke

Blackberry Smoke is an Atlanta band who has given new life to the phrase “southern rock.” After over a decade of slagging it out on the road, the group finally got some shine when Zac Brown signed them to his Southern Ground label and released 2012’s The Whippoorwill. There’s something here for everyone: soulful ballads, arena rock, and full-bodied country jams. With plenty of Georgia charm and lavishly thick accents, they’re sure to win over even the most stalwart cosmopolitan crowds.

Sat., Feb. 15, 7 p.m., 2014



Everything you need to know about Florida Georgia Line can be found in the split-screen video for second single “Round Here.” On the left, you’ve got Brian, the Florida party-boy side, walking the boardwalk before taking a girl underneath, while on the right you’ve got Tyler, the Georgia working-boy side, pulling parallel moves at the hardware store and amid haphazardly arranged bails of hay. A decade and a half ago, these lifestyles would have seemed incompatible, but with drum machine beats, hip-hop slang, and a dramatic wipe about two-thirds of the way through that video, FGL have not only brought them together but brought them to the top of the charts as well. To paraphrase the purposely misspelled title of one of the duo’s club-friendlier tracks, it’z just what they do.

Wed., Nov. 13, 8 p.m.; Thu., Nov. 14, 8 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 15, 8 p.m., 2013


Yo La Tengo

Persistence and longevity are among Yo La Tengo’s most admirable virtues. Though the intensity and explosiveness of the Hoboken, New Jersey trio’s output has ebbed and flowed since a late 1990s heyday they’ve never quite recreated, every post I Can Feel The Heart Beating As One album boasts a delirium gopher hole or feedback nebula worth returning to. Fans bumming over the last couple will find much to like in the forthcoming Fade, where Ira, Georgia, and James somehow juggle the eternal and the succinct.

Sat., Feb. 16, 8 p.m., 2013


Mike Bloomberg, Gun Hypocrite: City Sells 28,000 Pounds Of Shell Casings To Georgia Ammo Store For Re-filling

A report was released earlier this week by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives showing that of the 8,793 guns seized in New York in 2011, only 1,595 were actually purchased here.

Numbers like that fuel Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s incessant call for other states to implement tougher regulations on firearms. Given the mayor’s constant call for other states to lock up their guns, you’d think he’d probably be opposed to the city of New York selling 28,000 pounds of used shell casings to an ammunition business in Georgia, which will refill the casings and resell them as bullets — bullets that could potentially find their way back to New York and end up in a cop, child, or other innocent citizen.

You’d be wrong, though; in Bloomberg’s latest bout with blatant hypocrisy, the city actually sold 28,000 pounds of used shell casings to Georgia Arms, an Atlanta-based weapons distributor, which will resell the live rounds in bags of 50 for the bargain price of $15 a bag — and the mayor’s office stands by the city’s decision to sell the casings.

The New York Times got the dirt on the city’s deal with Georgia Arms — according to the paper, the city usually sells used casings taken from NYPD shooting ranges to scrap metal companies. However, in June — just prior to Bloomberg using the mass-shooting in Colorado as an excuse to sound off about how the nation needs stricter gun laws — the city sold its 28,000 pounds to Georgia Arms.

From the Times:

John Feinblatt, the mayor’s chief policy adviser and the lead architect of
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said Mr. Bloomberg stood behind the sale
and would allow similar sales in the future.

“He believes, as do all members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, that
our purpose is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, not keep guns
or ammunition away from law-abiding citizens,” Mr. Feinblatt said.
“There’s a big distinction between legal dealers and illegal dealers and
criminals and law-abiding citizens.

“We’re about crime control. We’re not about gun control.”

This is the second time in less than a week that Bloomberg’s gun hypocrisy has reared its ugly head — last week, it was revealed that the mayor will host a fundraiser for National Rifle Association-backed Massachusetts Senate candidate Scott Brown, who earned an “A” rating from the group. The fundraiser is scheduled for August 15.

We sent Bloomberg’s PR flack Stu Loeser an email asking if he would please explain “how the city selling ammunition to an ammunition store isn’t completely hypocritical given the mayor’s stance on gun control?”

Loeser, who has refused to add us to the mayor’s public relations email list, hasn’t gotten back to us.

So, we can take the following from Bloomberg’s selective gun bullying: guns are bad — unless you’re Scott Brown or Georgia.