The night was roaring with Southern summertime frog and cicada noises, yet the aural hurricane still couldn’t penetrate the dark, still, heavy blanket of nighttime fear sitting over my head as I lay on a bed in the former sharecropper’s shack that is now Tallahatchie Flats, a unique place to stay near Greenwood, Mississippi.
Even though I was a white, middle-aged female tourist in absolutely no danger of being bombed or beat up or set afire, I knew too much about how such things had happened at night to black folks in the South who were terrorized for decades, but especially fifty years ago this summer during a Civil Rights movement flashpoint – Freedom Summer.
Knowing the history of a place certainly changes one’s experience during a visit; your eyes see other worlds in “boring old buildings or battlefields” and your ears appreciate atmospheric sounds from the past like clopping horses, music from a historic house’s living room harpsichord, or squishy mud noises from a Colonial-era brickyard. Even your nose gets in the act – that musty smell from old books, old walls, old furniture is the smell of stories from another time.
It’s a gift to see a place through knowledgeable eyes, but it can be a curse as well, as it was for me that night in Mississippi when all I could think of was the fear of what dark nights might bring to people who were upending “the way things should be.” It felt silly and a bit pretentious to even think that I could truly understand any of the fear they felt, yet it would not go away and I had a hard time falling asleep.
Nowadays when I visit the US Deep South, I take so much joy in signs of progress.
Yes, I acknowledged the past in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, when I sat outside the 16th Street Baptist Church and thought about how the 1963 bombing there killed little girls getting ready for Sunday school, but then I enjoyed a delicious dinner that night at Cafe Dupont nearby, among people of many races who now freely mix and socialize.
I thought of the past while watching spectacular native dancers at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City; so many of the tribes represented in the art show and dance competition had been forced to come to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
I’d see a Potawatomi dancer and think, “Your ancestors were probably from what is now the Chicago area. They didn’t move to Oklahoma because they thought it was such a great idea – they were forced to live here.” It was hard to turn off that mental clanging and simply enjoy the dancing.
When I lived briefly in Europe, knowing the history of two world wars and especially the horror of the Holocaust colored every one of my trips into Germany. Not a day went by when I didn’t think, “Yes, that’s a nice cathedral or a nice cake or pretty scenery, but this is the same country that systematically murdered millions of Jews and other so-called undesirables.”
I could not help it. My eyes saw the place differently, and it was so vivid to me as a student of history.
The best antidote to it was working closely with many other German military personnel in the NATO headquarters where I was stationed at the time. One in particular also wrestled with the weight of his nation’s history – when we had an opportunity to take a short day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau during a training exercise in Poland, my German Navy colleague Ulrich said he couldn’t do it.
“I am not ready to see it. I know that history.” I knew exactly how he felt.
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