Trey's Days No. 9
“He did not look back.” Sarty escaped. He ran and didn't look back. One barn too many had burned and he wasn't watching another. He'd had enough. He wrenched himself free from the gripping hands that held him. Faulkner has this one escape the horror of a life he couldn't stand, people he wouldn't be held by. That one running, that one not looking back is me too. When I left the grip of Faulkner's Mississippi I did not look back but now “Barn Burning” holds up a mirror on the horizon. Moving forward not looking back I find myself running into a mirror and there before my horrified and wondering eyes is the Mississippi I ran from, in a strange light with the “liquid silver voices of birds” calling me home, and I didn't look back but forward--forward into a mirror.
The sound of night wind through tall pines was not first called whispering nor the call of quail in a backyard covey “bob-white” in Pine Hills outside Hattiesburg, but that's where I first knew them. In midnight black we rolled quietly into that needle carpeted drive where thick air was scented with pine resin and angel biscuit and murmuring voices heavy with history waited, a light on in the kitchen. As one who knew nothing of Oxford's Faulkner nor of the tension beneath the staid veneer, my sixties Mississippi was an enchanted land. Two sets of grandparents and their stories of parents as children sprang to life before my eyes at the first hint of those magic scents and sounds. I was engulfed in the love of another time that never lasted long enough, evaporating as too soon we drove north toward Memphis and home. It seemed you couldn't carry such fragile stuff far from its sacred sea of humidity and slowness.
Hearing early Oktibbeha, Kosciusko and Pass Christian in the strange way they are said there prepared me for Yoknapatawpha. Yet I was afraid when I started on the stories of Faulkner, afraid I wouldn't understand-- afraid I'd be ashamed of his Mississippi, my Mississippi. I've been told Oxford got hot under the collar looking in the mirror held in their faces by their most famous son. But hope told me that as my shame from narrow beginnings was confirmed, it would be purged by Faulkner. Hope was right. His Mississippi feels liberating and nourishing. That nourishment calls itself truth, truth that shines from a dark mirror its light to share.
I recently heard the story of a black woman from Haynes Arkansas, one of ten children, she is forty-six now and has four grown children and three grandchildren of her own. She told of a town in the Delta of about 350 people and two churches, one for white and one for black, and one honky-tonk that brought them together. Her folks ran that honky-tonk and it raised her. Drinking as a child is a big part of her story, one of pain and struggle punctuated by encounters with older brothers who brought her drinks, taught her how to be a woman in the way they would have her, typical of the Mississippi Delta. At first I was afraid I wouldn't relate, but I did. One daughter's Haynes is a son's Yoknapatawpha and another's Hattiesburg. Deep inside where it counts, beneath the skin where names fall away and blood is blood and pain is pain, we're the same.
I was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1960. Some baggage is Louis Vuitton and some garbage bags and so it is with the mix of gifts that comes with such a history. Being born in Mississippi, parents from Mississippi, growing up in Memphis, I remember knowing there was something powerful to be proud of in our culture and something to be ashamed of too. We were a people with backs stiffened against the northern winds of change. Southern conservatives then and now are a stern quiet people who don't mind having angels among them but hate to hear them flap their wings. Both of my parents were born in south Alabama and moved as children to Hattiesburg ninety miles from the Gulf coast. Just about every middle class white family had a maid who made about forty dollars a week. Garbage men made so little money they qualified for welfare. I can remember the shooting of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed. Hearing that tale of a Haynes honky-tonk, this Mississippi boy could feel his childhood creeping up on him like a spook holding a mirror in the dark, barely visible, my own face in it.
These threads of Haynes, Hattiesburg and Yoknapatawpha weave together into a chord as southern as grits, as queer as Capote and as human as Adam and Eve. One pain is the pain of a black woman from Hanyes who can't stop drinking, the confusion of a Dixie queer boy who ran and the power of Faulkner's running Sarty, telling her story and mine at the same time in his Yoknapatawpha tale. He ties us together into a sinew of humanity breathing words that flow with the power of that muddy grandfather of all waters that gave all three of us life. A honky-tonk daughter, a Nobel Prize winner and I are one humanity, the same in the deep dark truth of that shining mirror.
Stories like “The Tall Men” and “Shingles for the Lord” and “Barn Burning” show me my culture, my people, my self. In the history Oxford tells of itself they admit the town was not fond of Mr. Faulkner until after 1962 when he died. As they realized the rest of the world called him genius they decided he was their favorite son. So it is with this double legacy, half blessed by genius, half willfully ignorant. I am no different. Listening to that shining black daughter of the Haynes honky-tonk, I get a little hot under the collar looking into that mirror of powerlessness, pain cleansed by truth. Just as God spoke to Mississippi in Billy Fa[u]lkner so She speaks to me out of the mouth of a Haynes honky-tonk daughter. Truth is like that, coming from dark places its light to share. Our powerlessness, our running, our wrenching away from a past that would hold us, is the same. We are all Sarty not looking back only to see we are running toward a dark mirror on the horizon shining.
As I read the “n” word used over and over by Oxford's Billy Falkner and the world's William Faulkner, I hear my mother's voice; “Julia spent twelve hours a day, six days a week working in Mother's house while she raised two children of her own and two that were not her own, and Mother thought she was doing Julia a favor..” Julia was my connection to the honky-tonk daughter, intertwined in the blood. Julia Banks ran my grandmother's kitchen, told the truth, stood tough and gentle in the face of the unimaginable. I see her face too in the “garbage men” and “yard boys”, in how they had to go on strike to get a little raise, standing tough, signs reading “I AM A MAN.” The April evening in 1968 when King was shot my Daddy explained “He's a trouble maker and he has a lot of followers, so there's going to be a lot of trouble.” I didn't know who he was until he was dead. I was eight years old.
It was in her face I saw it, that shining black face of the honky-tonk daughter, in Julia's voice I heard it as she asked me one Easter morning “Kind'a hot ta tote ya' coat, ain't it?” My mother had to translate. And she was right it was, on a steamy Easter morning in South Mississippi, from which I would run as soon as I had legs big enough, run like Sarty and not look back, to San Francisco, as far away as I could get, only to pick up Billy's tale of a boy who ran and didn't look back and see myself in a mirror there. Under the skin where blood is blood we are all the same, that Haynes daughter, Julia, Sarty, running toward the mirror showing us each ourselves, our deep selves, taking that magic sea of humidity and slowness with us all the way to Ocean Beach, and we get there and there we are.
Angel biscuit, pine scented air and the soft call of “bob-white” run deep in me. The daughter of Haynes drinking to run, Julia standing not running, “I AM A MAN” marching, all deep in me, woven together by Billy Fa[u]lkner in his Sarty, his Yoknapatawpha, his running and not looking back, showing me a mirror of my deepest self. Can you see it? Look! There it is on the horizon, shining darkly.