Living with it

The Front Porch

Hey, you out there

the black and brown 

You, who have come for me

You know my name,

What is it we are to do?

A heavy silence.

I’m to know, but I don’t know—I wait

From Cumming to Capetown—we just won’t hear them, anymore 

and the clouds roll over me

From Cumming to Capetown—we just won’t hear them, anymore 

and the clouds roll over me

 

“From Cumming to Capetown” © 1988 —J Buckner

 

 

The tall, lanky 89 year-old bespeckled preacher asked me to stand up and introduce myself. I had been up all night working in a factory on a trouble-shooting job for McDonalds for my marketing company, in Darlington, SC. I had put on a nice dress shirt and slacks and found myself sitting on the front row of a church pew in an all black country church. As if in a dream, I stood up and looked around at a hundred pairs of eyes staring at me. I saw in them, love, suspicion and possibly something bordering dislike—even in God’s House of Worship. I was the only white person in that church on that Sunday. I was there because a young African-American named Joe befriended me earlier in the week and asked if we had met before. 

“Not unless you’ve been in Atlanta,” I said. 

No, he hadn’t. He was a machinist, with a wife and a couple of kids and asked if I would attend his church that Sunday. If he thought enough of our new friendship to invite me to his church, why should I not oblige him? I had been on my own, on the road a long time and was used to meeting strangers and embracing possible uncomfortable encounters.

So here I was, all these folks looking back at me, curious as to why I was in their church. 

I told them who I was, that I was a friend of Joe and that he had invited me to come to his church—a church he was proud of—and that I would feel welcomed. I told them it was a privilege to share God’s love with them on that fine day and though I would be leaving soon, I would always remember my visit to Darlington and the day I visited their church. I sat down and you could have heard a pin drop. Then the congregation broke out in a gospel song and I watched the preacher’s little three year-old great-grandson dance around in front of the stage and play a tambourine with perfect rhythm. 

 

There are times when I feel my story started long before I was born. I have had unexplainable instances  of African-Americans that I did not know, calling my name to get my attention or just appearing for some reason that defies explanation, as though from another world, another time. When pressed how they knew me (because I didn’t know them), they said they didn’t know—but they were sure we had some kind of meeting because they “knew” me. 

What brought this all home for me was seeing Cecilia Nadal’s play about German abolitionists at the Showboat Theatre. I told her at the intermission that she could slay men’s hearts. The play really got to me, not only because of strange meetings with African-Americans I didn’t know, but possibly because of my family’s story. My mother had German parents, but her father’s family came to Germany by way of Scotland, with the surname Burroughs. My grandmother was a Wulf. They wound up in St. Louis, by way of Kansas. But it is my father’s family that we always identified with because of our Southern heritage of farming and the stories of our losses in the Civil War. 

This excerpt was taken from Rev. John Cowan’s book, “Men of the Auxvasse Church Who Lived and Died Between 1861 and 1911.”

 

“In 1841, Col. Robert R. Buckner sent his family to Callaway County, his oldest son, John T. Buckner, being then 14 years old, Col. Buckner remaining in Kentucky to settle up his business and mend his fortune. At length after two years, he started by boat to rejoin his family in Missouri, bringing with him his family servants and all he had. Misfortune overtook him. Near Cape Girardeau, another steamboat ran into the one he was on and sank it. The Col. was on the upper deck at the time and as the boat did not go clear under, he was saved, but out of the 14 servants he had with him, three were drowned. The Col. also lost six fine horses, his wagon and baggage and $600 in money which was being carried by one of the servants for safe-keeping. The family of servants were very valuable. The one who was carrying the money was a skilled mechanic and his wife was an accomplished tailoress who made all the clothing for the family, white and colored. 

Settled on his Missouri farm, Col. Buckner became again a tobacco grower, with his sons and his servants, he made good headway, sufficient to send his sons and his daughters to college. During the war (Civil War) and after, tobacco commanded a fine price and the Colonel pushed his work. Later on, he gave up his farm to his sons, his servants having been freed. He did business in the tobacco line for two years in Williamsburg, and still later, in St. Louis where he was in the Tobacco Commission business. The later years of his life were passed in the families of his sons.”

 

I don’t fault my father’s family for owning slaves, nor do I harbor any shame towards the South—I love the South. Because men and women of all races are imperfect, benefactors of slavery involved all races and was prevalent all over the world. It took a process of evolution to weed it out, and since our country, being fairly new to the institution at the time with lots of resources, it was one of the last to abolish the practice. We continue to learn from it and we move on. 

One of the reasons I like Clint Eastwood’s cinema characters is that he was always terse-direct. In “High Plains Drifter,” there was a scandal involving the death of a sheriff in which the townspeople witnessed the attack and did nothing. The outlaws that committed the attack were eventually imprisoned after being turned in by the townspeople. When the outlaws got out of jail, they came back to kill the townspeople, but there was a stranger that came back to town, as a sort of savior (Eastwood), but he’s really there to teach them a harsh lesson about moral obligation. After the stranger dispatches the outlaws, one of the surviving townspeople asks him, “What do we do now?” 

Eastwood spits and says, “You live with it.” 

There is a movie opening the first of November called “Harriet,” about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The movie trailer is powerful and it puts me on edge. Like I said, I have a sneaking suspicion my story started before I was born. Maybe someday I’ll find out. Until then, as far as race relations in this country are concerned, we have to find a way to “live with it.” Peacefully.

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