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Monday, August 10, 2009

It's time to face the music

I have always been a lover and student of history, and lately have experienced an even greater sense of its importance. I believe that we may have an opportunity now to make our own impact on our local history. Navasota is a veritable history garden, inhabited with legendary characters, and forever marked with their victories and defeats. I have taken pride in learning and knowing that history. All of it. The stuff of legends and the skeletons of scandal. But years ago when serving as director for the local museum, I learned of a noticeable vacuum where Black History should reside. Not only had the history failed to be recorded, but a whole town, White and Black, lived in either denial or ignorance of it.

As I scratched at the surface of dusty memories, I found it impenetrable, like an iron box welded shut. Various informants would hint at the contents. The mystery drove me crazy. And so much of the history was tragic and heavy for the heart. The murder of the French explorer La Salle, the decimation by yellow fever epidemics, mass graves, disastrous downtown fires, and racial oppression, the likes of which have rarely been adequately acknowledged. When we hosted a symposium on Black history several years back, to shed light on this untold story, only a couple of Blacks from Navasota would come. Their explanation was simple: They were reserved if not afraid. Not enough time had passed. Black history was a minefield of memories and consequences. I just began to understand.

Years have gone by since then and I have visited with scores of Navasota natives who have graciously filled in many of the blanks. The iron box was beginning to open, and then recently the Navasota Bluesfest has put our town on the map and gained us the official title of “Blues Capitol of Texas.” This identity inadvertently blew a fresh wind over the old iron box. As the dust was swept away, a tag pasted on the top could be faintly read: OPEN IN CASE OF EQUALITY. Now the story can and should be told.

You will be amazed. Already there is a Blues museum, and a fledgling preservation society. Many of us believe this is what the City needs. Yes, it will help to entertain and educate tourists. But it will also educate our children. It is the final chapter in Reconstruction. Blues is recognized as an International phenomenon, and its roots are known to many all around the world, and the story went on and wrote itself while we lived in ambivalence. Survivors of those times left Navasota and found the courage to begin the telling of it. Alvin Ailey ended up in New York and founded a nationally famous dance company. His first steps there were to interpret the Blues with motion. Seamstress Annie Mae Hunt wrote her memoirs. They have since been made into a play and a movie. And Mance Lipscomb sang his songs, oh so diplomatically, forever capturing the spirit and times that were locked up in the iron box. As a wanna-be historian, it was disconcerting that I had never heard of, or knew very little about these people. I learned for instance there were in fact a score of Blues recording artists from the Brazos and Navasota valleys.

How could so many distinguished Black people have come from here... yet we had such little record of them? The dancer created a legacy in New York, the seamstress stitched her life back together and inspired theater, a sharecropper became a living juke box with over three hundred songs. Most of us know about Mance by now, but few have seen the documentary about him, or read the book. For too long we have turned a deaf ear. Lo and behold! We had no idea what glories were in the iron box. A different blues singer called Texas Alexander recorded his songs in New York when blues were in their infancy. He lived and was buried in nearby Richards. T. Winston Cole went on to become the president of Wiley College, and served on two U. S. Presidential Cabinets. Mance was just the songster left behind. The story was much bigger than him. I began to beat on the iron box until I got answers. I took guided tours through the county with the acknowledged myth-keepers of our region. I dug in rare books and listened to strange music. As I did, I finally understood why Blacks would always look upon me with cynicism. I claimed to love history, but if I knew what they knew, I would hate it. At the very least I would look at it differently, and perhaps even prefer it locked up as some have, and glossed over if possible. I would not find comfort learning that one of the bloodiest race battles in American history was fought in the Brazos bottom near Millican. I would be amazed by the irony of a slave named Primus Kelly, who fought and protected his young master in battle during the Civil War, and brought him hundreds of miles home to Grimes County when wounded. These are just a few examples. But let there be no doubt, a significant amount, perhaps a majority of accomplished and world famous citizens from Navasota have been our Black neighbors. As layer upon layer of dust settled on the iron box, the memories survived and grew on. The truth does that.

Thank goodness for some intrepid gatherers like musician/writer Glen Alyn, music producer Chris Strachwitz, Mack McCormick, photographers Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, and biographer Ruthe Winegarten who refused to look the other way. They have doggedly preserved and told the story so now anybody can know, if they want to. And recovering racists like me, who thought they loved history, and “everybody,” have had to embrace a new reality. As Blues have become our legacy, and they really are, we must finally face the music. We chose to be ignorant of these things because we really did not care. In some cases we chose ignorance over justice, retribution, and possible healing. We were really hard-hearted. That’s what inspired the Blues. Now we have come to a fork in the road of history. And one way might lead towards a wonderful chance to take a stand, go on record, and leave something really positive for posterity.

We must decide if we will face the music, tell our story, warts and all, or turn away and hope it will disappear. We will either be the Southern town that faced its own demons and made a positive out of it, or the one that read about itself in books, saw itself in movies and in dances and plays in New York; claiming to be the capitol of the Blues while listening to Muzak, while its most famous son’s songs are played and revered almost as anthems in Austin and many parts of the world. The Blues museum can be where we come together as a community, go through that forgotten iron box, tell the story, deal with our past and begin to heal over a century of hurt. Bert Miller, in an amazing and historic act of generosity, has loaned one of his downtown buildings as the home for such an endeavor. It is not going to make everything better overnight, but it is a start. And it is a spark that could have far reaching implications. Now the legends of Alvin, Annie Mae, Mance, and others will no longer be haunts, but heroes in the land they lived.

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