Off to Memphis

I’m headed to Memphis, which seems a nice way to spend a day. I’m trying to arrange for some kind of adventure while also avoiding being stuck too much in the rain.

If you’re at the Mid South Book Festival, please be sure to say hello. I’ll be leaving shortly after lunch in order to get home before dark, as is my way, but I’ll be around all morning.


I drove out to Charlotte to see all their old buildings and I must say, I was kind of disappointed, though I wasn’t sure why. They have old buildings, but, if there was one from the early 1800s, I couldn’t find it, even though I’d been told there was one there.

Which is not to say that it’s not there, but just that I couldn’t find it.

A Little Bit of Everything

–Yesterday morning, that Dawes song came on the radio and I just sobbed the whole time it played.

–I saw a screenshot of the New York Times this morning that has the verdict in the Colorado theater mass shooting, a story about the ongoing investigation of the Charleston shooting, and then, of course, breaking news about the Chattanooga shooting. And somewhere, I guess, a guy sits in his room planning the next shooting. Round we go.

–We have these shootings so often that I feel kind of emotionally fried. But it broke my heart in a new way to watch on Twitter the people who knew these guys–the victims and the shooter–struggling with trying to understand how yesterday morning, these were just some guys they knew and liked and today they are gone and transmuted into symbols that prove something to someone somewhere who never knew them in the first place.

–I’m still having an ongoing, difficult conversation with my cousin and still feeling like I am utterly failing at it. I guess I get that we were told we had one kind of family and we, in fact, have another kind. But, I also guess that I feel like we aren’t going to ever actually be the kind of family we were told we had, so it makes me sad, to some extent, that we can’t be the kind of family we wanted so desperately to pretend like we were. But I’m also kind of relieved that most of us aren’t pretending anymore. And I don’t know if we can build a new kind of family or if people even want to.

It took me a long time to be okay with that, to decide that what would be the best way to love this mess of a family, is to have no expectations and to just take whatever good thing whoever can manage to do when they can.

I mean, maybe I’m not completely okay with that. But it’s what brings me peace and lets me stop being constantly hurt and confused.

But, what works for one doesn’t, I suppose, work for another.

Tennessee Marble

Southern Rambles is a great blog to find out about cool Tennessee things. Today, they’re taking about a history of Tennessee marble, which I didn’t even know was a thing. But this is cool how a rock quarried in East Tennessee by a small community of families influenced fireplaces and the state capitol across the state. I also didn’t realize there were houses made of marble. That’s awesome.

The Grave of the Tullahoma Witch

I went down to Tullahoma today to look for the grave of a supposed witch. Even knowing right where I was going and even having my phone yell at me when to make turns, it was still nearly impossible to find. And there were a ton of crows and it was really creepy. I parked, walked in, and even though it was totally empty and my view of the empty cemetery was completely unobstructed, I felt like someone was right behind me a couple of times. I took pictures of what I hope will turn out to be complete emptiness when I felt the most like someone had to be right there.

I found the “witch”‘s grave easily enough and I saw right away that this was a grave where people are still working magic. Someone had left flowers; people had left coins; there’s the kind of minor vandalism you expect from people when there’s something “magic” that they might take with them.

I was thrilled. I have been wanting to see a working grave in Tennessee since I got here. Everything that indicates that we could still have them is here–a long tradition of African American root workers/folk magicians, a long tradition of white granny medicine, the African-American hoodoo obsession with graveyards and graveyard dirt, the white folk tradition of using skulls and bones for medicine, and a tradition of fearsome witches (and fearsome witches never rest easy in the grave). So, it sure seemed like somewhere, someone must be going to the cemetery, calling on some dead person to help work the kind of magic that needs a magic worker on both sides of the veil, and leaving an offering either during or afterwards. Someone’s got to be doing the old school folk magic.

I looked and I looked, but I never did, before today, see it in Tennessee (I saw it in New Orleans at Marie Laveau’s grave, of course).

Just as an aside, it occurs to me that one reason they may be so hard to find is that we don’t have a lot of old time witches and our most famous one–the Bell Witch–well, there’s a huge taboo on revealing where her grave is. How huge a taboo? No one in Adams will tell you where it is–in my experience anyway. And even though the location is now on the internet, no pictures of the grave have surfaced as far as I can tell.

Anyway, here’s what I saw (or didn’t, as the case may be)


I love going over to Two Boots for lunch and just observing people. I’m not sure why it’s the kind of place that makes people relax and be worth observing, but it’s really excellent.

I could really use time off, even if I can’t (yet) afford to go on a real vacation and I’m kind of thinking of taking a week and forcing myself to do a historical home and lunch people-observing every day. I think that would be good for the book. And, I think, if I committed to it and didn’t just say “Ugh, I’m going to sit at home on the couch because I’m lazy” I would enjoy it.

A Brief Thing About History

My feeling this week is that a lot of people in this country had thought they’d managed to stand in front of history as its caretakers, pointing people only to the things the caretakers wanted them to notice, and they called that “honoring the past.” And what they did not know is that a lot of people have been remembering a lot of things the caretakers thought they’d managed to erase.


What you didn’t know is that knee’s been jerking for a hundred and fifty years. Often, at the end of a noose.

And we never forgot. Never, ever.

PC is putting a man who massacred Tennesseans in our state capitol because you don’t want to offend people who like him.


Don’t talk to me about knee-jerk PC reactions.

The Battle of Franklin

I wrote about it, in case you needed something to read today. I am still worried sick that I have the officers on the wrong sides. In general, I just don’t get war history. Generals, colonels, all that crap. I don’t even know what you call the people who fight in wars. I only recently learned they’re not all soldiers.

But I want to learn to understand this shit, too, because it matters.


I have no idea what days it is, really. I’m depressed about this state and what it means to be a woman in it. But I don’t see any easy fixes. The Democrats don’t really exist. There’s no legitimate opposition. No reason for them to temper their actions.

Two things made me feel incredibly old this week. One is Kim Kardashian, in that I see everyone having opinions on her in her various states of nakedness and I thought she looked cute and like she was having fun. You know when you feel like a grandma? It’s when you see a shiny, naked lady being all sexy and your first thought is, “Oh, she looks so cute.”

And the other is that I listened to the new Azalea Banks album and I liked it. I found it a little strange sounding and I couldn’t quite understand half of what she was saying, but my feet tapped. I don’t know exactly how to explain it. But it was the first piece of music I heard that was obviously marketed to adults which I found just felt weird about listening to because she sounds so young.

I still listened to it a bunch. But it was weird. I mean, I’m glad there’s youth culture and I’m also really glad I don’t have to keep up with it. I can just be interested in what I’m interested in and ignore the rest.

One Thing I Hadn’t Anticipated

The research for the Nashville book is, in parts, soul-crushingly sad. I stumbled across a mention of Isaac Franklin, Adelicia Acklen’s first husband, in a book and I mean, I’m not even to him yet. I’m still back in 1792. But I’m trying to make sure that my portrayal of black life in Nashville is as fully informed as I can make it.

And Franklin. Jesus Christ. No wonder every black person who heard of him hated him.

I don’t know. You start to get a feeling that the whole story of the gentility of the antebellum South was not only a PR move, but an attempt to tell Southern white people a story about their fathers you could live with and still sit at Sunday dinners with them. The Civil War functions as a way to have a devastating break without having to have it with the people who deserve it. Otherwise, you’d have to look at your grandfather and ask, “How could you do this?” and your father and ask “How could you have wanted to do this?” and then you’d have to vomit on them, burn the family house down, and leave, never to return.

Isaac Franklin was a well-respected man. Not in spite of the fact that he invited his friends out to his auctions so that they could all joke around about raping the women they were about to buy, about raping the women they knew were the daughters of their colleagues, as if that were part of the thrill of it, but because he did those things. Because he had so much power that he could openly state that he was going to let these men rape the daughters you sold into slavery and you, because of your complicity in the system–because of the sale in the first place–laughed along. That’s an evil with tendrils.

Bethbirei Cemetery

I will give you a dollar if you can explain what’s going on in this cemetery.

Found Her!

Some days, you park under a tree, walk clear to where you know all the Allens in the Gallatin cemetery are, fail to find Eliza Allen yet again, come back toward the car, and find the grave not twenty feet from where you’ve parked.

Elza Allen

Not Forgotten

I don’t really know how to feel about Zion. I have a jumbled up bunch of feelings about it. It’s a beautiful church and a beautiful campus. And yet I couldn’t ever just enjoy it for as beautiful as it is. I couldn’t not know that it was not just a monument to God, but a giant, potent symbol of what slaves did.

One thing that is obvious, too, is that one way white people made slavery psychologically okay for ourselves was by removing the human scaffolding from the edifices of slavery. Slaves built the Zion church, but the graves of white people surround it. I’m sure that, for a large portion of the history of the church (though I want to be clear that all evidence is that recent generations at that church are trying to understand their history in a different way), when they spoke about who built the church, they spoke about the white families who gave money and provided the labor force, not the black people who made the bricks and cut the wood and framed up the building and put the roof on. Not letting slaves have legal last names is another way they’re easily written off, a way they’re just faded into the background.

There’s no language for saying “Oh, the men of the x family are great iron workers” because there’s no last name to associate them all together.

And the thing is that we live in a community heavily shaped by slavery. Roads go where they go here in town because slaves literally put them there. The rock walls all over town were put there by slaves. The beautiful open spaces we have were often cleared by slaves. The old buildings we have were often built by them. But the undifferentiated “them” is nebulous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still horrible. It’s something to stand along a stone wall and pick up one of those stones and feel how heavy it is and know that someone spent whole hard days putting those stones there and he had literally no other choice.

But standing in a churchyard, knowing a name–Jack. Knowing that Jack could have built this building. At the least that Jack knew Terry, Lizette, and the others in that graveyard, that those were his friends and neighbors, the people he went to church with. I don’t know. It just makes all we don’t know about him and them less a glossing over and more a deliberately destructive omission.

I was telling E. this weekend that one of the things I find so fascinating/horrifying about the late 1700s/early 1800s is that, as bad as things were, slavery-wise, we know they were about to get much worse. And there’s something I find really compelling about this moment, out here on the frontier, when white people’s lives and black people’s lives were open to other possibilities–possibilities which were sometimes realized in small, imperfect ways. We could have, then, chosen to put an end to slavery. But instead we chose to double down and make it worse, to codify the biggest horrors of the institution into its everyday reality.

That missed opportunity and the generations of suffering that come next… well, what do you even say in the face of that?

The Execution is a Little Rough

I’m just going to say that I like the idea of this, though the execution makes me cringe. But if they’d put her in her car seat and then in a wagon trailing behind, I would have thought it was cute. Or even if she were more firmly upright and attached to the dress. It mostly makes me uncomfortable because the baby doesn’t look very comfortable or secure. But I think the mom is taking grief at a level way above what the actual situation calls for.

A Few More Thoughts on Sleepy John Estes

–Neither the birth date on his tombstone nor the birth date on Wikipedia match what he put down on his WWI draft card.

–Findagrave is missing the cemetery we spent the most time in near the Baptist churches. In that cemetery, you’d come to the opinion that every sixth person in Durhamville was named Estes and that they were all Masons. Looking at Findagrave, there appears to be seven dead Esteses in the whole county.

Taken together we learn that you can learn a lot from the internet but that going to see for yourself will always tell you important things.

Obamacare and Cattle Cars

I think it’s time to be done treating this guy like he’s purposefully saying outrageous things that he doesn’t believe for the sake of publicity. And it’s past time for demanding apologies out of him unless we’re fine with them being disingenuous.

Dude believes what he’s saying. Dude wants what he’s saying to be upsetting to other people. Dude likes using other people’s discomfort and unhappiness as a way to feel powerful. And dude likes feeling powerful. He straight-up believes that he is a moral man adrift in an immoral hell, surrounded by lesser immoral beings whose suffering is deserved, because of their immorality. It is, from his perspective, his job to increase the suffering of lesser immoral beings until they shape up and become disciplined and moral like him.

I will give it up to the Tennessee Republicans in that they have done as good a job as they can with a colleague of marginalizing him. (What Hardaway’s excuse is, I haven’t a clue.) But he needs to be put in his place hard, and publicly, by someone who can make him hurt and who he can’t best. And whoever does that needs to be aware that he will then be scheming against him or her for the rest of the time he’s in office, which is, apparently, going to be forever.

We treat him like a joke, but I advise you to go back and reread my second paragraph here. The scariest thing to me about him is that the best alternative for the people he knows in real life (or encounters in real life) is for him to have a large public platform where he can get his jollies hurting and upsetting people out where everyone can see it and he can get national attention for it.

I really wonder what happens when a man like him still has those impulses and doesn’t have the spotlight to both feed the impulses and keep them in check. And I’m afraid/certain we’re going to find out.

Strangers Tell Me Stories

Yesterday, I was trespassing in a private cemetery looking for Durards and the owner of the cemetery came up on his fourwheeler, shirtless and swilling beer, his dogs trailing behind him, circling up to me, but not coming within reach.

“Do you have Durards in this cemetery?” I asked. “I heard there were some up here in a cemetery way back from the road and this seemed like the only fitting cemetery.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What years?” I told him probably late 1800s.

And then we walked around the cemetery and, eventually, we found them–Wiley and his wife. They were overgrown with moss and he seemed to feel terrible about this. He offered to go get a brush and clean it up. I didn’t have the heart to tell him these weren’t my people.

He went off and I took some pictures. I wandered around the rest of the cemetery and found a lot, I mean a lot, of Bennetts, which makes me suspect that’s why there was a lone Durard couple in the cemetery.

Anyway, he came back, fresh beer in one hand, wire brush in the other, and he cleaned off the Durard headstones.

And then he proceeded to tell me the story of the cemetery. Or the stories, I guess. The Ayres, to our left, he had known them–his wife had worked with the one most recently dead. And then, to our left, but up, those were all his people, going way back, and there, to the right, was where the tree had fallen recently, but they’d gotten in out. Back behind us to the right was the clear spot where he was going to be buried.

The fence around the graveyard was put up by his grandfather, who had come home one Friday to find his daughter not feeling well.

“Something’s not right, Daddy,” she said, or so the guy in the cemetery told me.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” the guy in the cemetery’s grandfather told his daughter. And then she died of polio, gone by Tuesday. And his grandfather brought his aunt back to this cemetery and placed her in it. Then he spent months finding just the right posts and digging the post holes by hand, and stretching the wire between posts, to set aside the cemetery in the way the law requires you to set it aside if you don’t want it to be lost.

And when the guy in the cemetery told me this story, of his grandfather who made a promise to his daughter that he couldn’t keep, he cried.

And then he told me how he’d bee hospitalized for many months when he was 29 and it was touch and go, they didn’t know if he would live. But there were also a bunch of children on his floor and, one after another, they would die and he would try repeatedly to strike deals with God, that God could take him and give the rest of his life to one of those sick kids.

God didn’t take him up on his offer.

And here he is. But he’s not angry. He wanted to make sure I knew that. And he didn’t think his grandfather was ever angry about losing his daughter, just sad.

And then he apologized that the lawn hadn’t been mowed yet. And said I should take as much time as I like to look around.

On my drive home, the Professor called and I said that this stuff often happens to me–I look like the kind of woman that strange men can tell things to–which I don’t mind, on the one hand, because I was trespassing, so I probably did owe some debt that listening repays, and also because I find the stories people tell about their loved ones to tell you a lot about how they view the world, and I find that interesting.

But I never know how to respond. Not to strangers who want to tell me things.

And what kind of generational grief must a man carry that it’s what spills out in the quiet of a country cemetery at the end of a lane way off the road?

My Process

Over at Pith, I wrote about how I suspect Melverina Elverina Peppercorn is not a real person, at least not under that name. It pretty much walks you through how I go about finding out anything about any historical figure–I first just broadly Google them to see what other people believe about them (sometimes, nothing, because I’m often curious about people who’ve been forgotten), then I look for them in Google Books. Then I turn to to see if I can find them in the Census. If I’m looking for a woman with a distinctive first name–like Melverina–I’ll sometimes just broadly search the census records to see if Melverina X might be a plausible candidate.

If this all fails, I take a step back. And this can fail, especially with women. If they have a distinctive last name (or hell, I’ve done this for the Phillipses) and I know an approximate area where they lived, I search Find-a-Grave for plausible people for my person. Find-a-Grave isn’t going to catch every Peppercorn, for instance, but it sure gives you a big-picture look at the Peppercorns in the U.S. who appear to have been mostly Catholic and, broadly, came through Ohio into Kansas and Oklahoma. There are a couple of male Peppercorns dead outside that swath, but in port cities. This doesn’t really fit with what we know of the lives of most Tennesseans, especially most Tennesseans who felt strongly enough to fight in the Civil War. Those tended to be people who had lived in the South for a generation or two (or three).

If I had found a cemetery or two with Peppercorns in it in the South, that’s where I would have started looking for Melverina. If I had found Peppercorns in Nashville, for instance, that might be when I take a trip to the Nashville room or either Archives to see what they might know about the Peppercorn family.

But, curiously enough, I couldn’t find anything that suggests there were Peppercorns, let alone Melverina. Hence why I suspect that’s a pseudonym–thought, god, what a delicious pseudonym.

I’m also just speculating, but I kind of believe Meriwether was trying to give some clues about the real woman. Somewhere, I believe, is a woman with a similar name–Amelia Bedelia Hopscotch (or something)–with a brother with a great leader’s name–George Washington Hopscotch, Julius Caesar Hopscotch, something–and two sisters with ordinary names. But I’m not looking for her!

Diversity Has to Mean More than Just “and Minorities”

Yesterday, over at Southern Alpha, they put up a post titled “5 Nashvillians Who Changed The Course of History For Entrepreneurs.” On the one hand, it’s heartening to see people like R.H. Boyd on the list. On the other hand, they also put Ray Danner on there. Ray Danner, as you may recall, is infamous for using his company, Shoney’s, to oppress black people. He wasn’t just a racist. He was a racist who went out of his way to ruin black people’s lives.

From the Baltimore Sun.

Shoney’s said Mr. Danner would not comment on the settlement, but according to his own deposition in the suit, he was not shy about sharing his theories about hiring blacks.

“I have on occasion given my opinion that a possible problem area was that the specific store in question had too many black employees working in it as compared to the racial mix of the geographical area served by the store,” Mr. Danner said in the deposition.

According to a deposition by Mike Vinson, a manager of Shoney’s restaurants in the Prattville, Ala., area, managers with what were considered too many black employees were often told with a wink that it was “too cloudy” in the restaurant and were directed to “lighten it up some.” At other times, a white manager, Daniel Gibson, said in his deposition, Mr. Danner was more blunt, saying, “I don’t like niggers, and I don’t want to see them in my stores.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said blacks accounted for 38.6 percent of Shoney’s kitchen workers in 1989, 8.4 percent of servers, 3.7 percent of midlevel managers and trainees, and 1.8 percent of managers.

I’m not sure how Southern Alpha missed this part of Danner’s career history. Books have been written about it. And yes, Danner was an important entrepreneur but, holy Jesus, it’s not like he was racist a million years ago. The Shoney’s settlement was in my adult lifetime. What lessons, exactly, are entrepreneurs supposed to learn from Danner’s example? That, if you hate a group of people, you can use your power to deny them decent jobs and fire anybody who works for you who objects? And what kind of message are black entrepreneurs supposed to take from this? That white guys, no matter how racist, will be celebrated by your peers as long as they’re successful? I mean, maybe that’s true, but you’d think it wouldn’t be so blatant.

A commitment to diversity can’t just mean “and now we include minorities.” It has to mean, “and we make some value judgements about the guys who actively thwarted minorities.” I mean, think of it this way. If you were a young African-American entrepreneur who one day wanted to open your own restaurant chain, so you thought you’d go work at Shoney’s for a few years and move up the ranks and see how Danner did things, you could not. You could work in the kitchen, but look at those statistics. Were you going to ever be a manager? No.

The most obvious path to learning the skills you need–model yourself after a success like Danner–was closed to you because Danner didn’t want to see people like you in his stores.

Fuck this dude.

Was he successful? Obviously. Did he pave the way? For a lot of people in his communities, not only didn’t he pave the way, if he found a paved way, he tore it up so that the black people in his communities couldn’t benefit from him. We don’t have to make Danner an eternal villain, but come on! Why is anyone praising him like he’s a hero? And why would anyone who wanted to show the South as a diverse, inclusive place where anyone can be a successful entrepreneur celebrating a dude who actively worked to make sure that wasn’t true?

The Tennessee Democrats Depress Me

This is so depressing:

But he said the lack of viable alternatives to Herron, a former state senator and congressional candidate who was just elected to the chairmanship in January, makes it difficult to go in another direction.

“I don’t know what our options are,” Cheek said. “I’m not going to vote to just hold an election in January and have a jump ball. If that makes me an ally of Roy’s, I guess I am. It’s really a matter of whether or not something like that makes sense, and to me it really doesn’t.”

The chair has never faced an unopposed election, so the idea that there aren’t any viable alternatives is a slap in the face to all the people who ran and didn’t get elected. Wade Munday wasn’t a non-viable candidate. Dave Garrison wasn’t a non-viable candidate.

You can’t get one or the other of them to take another bite at the apple?

Because, I’ll say this, if we don’t have any up-and-coming folks ready to take on leadership positions, forget being twenty years in the wilderness. We’re looking at a more biblical forty.

Here’s the only thing that can save the Democratic party in this state–black politicians. Black politicians are going to have to just say that the way the party is set up right now, not only can’t they win most white majority districts, they’re not set up to help black Democratic politicians run and govern effectively in their districts and, since they’re the Democrats who are winning, they’re the Democrats who get to reshape the TNDP to meet their needs.

Then we can flush these old farts out and get some new farts.