Thelonious Monk Sign in Rocky Mount, NC. – Photo by Joy Lau
Feb 11, 2017
Our road trip started at the birthplace of Thelonious Monk, in the southern town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. A lonely plaque near the railroad tracks whispered of their most famous native son. “Thelonious Monk 1917-1982. Jazz Pianist, Composer and Architect of Bebop. Wrote ‘Round Midnight’ (1944). Born 1 Mile S.”
Born one mile south. This simple sentence says a whole lot. In many southern cities, the railroad tracks have been and continue til this day to be the dividing line between the white and the black communities. The side of the tracks one was born on would determine the path of one’s whole life. Monk’s family moved to New York City when he was 5 years old, perhaps traveling on these same railroad tracks, and thus broke their umbilical chains to the South.
The South. “Ooh. Be careful. They have guns down there. You’ll need a confederate flag and a bible for protection.” My New York City friend teased half-jokingly when she heard that I was going to take a trip to the Deep South. I have noticed recently among my urban liberal friends that, post-election, the usual condescension towards the bottom half of the country has veered in a sinister and slightly hysterical direction. I, too, am guilty of participating in the perpetuation of these beliefs, having laughed along with my friend’s warnings.
The first evening in North Carolina we attended a multi-course dinner party complete with fresh flowers and candlelight. Southern hospitality. During dinner, it was whispered that a fellow dinner companion, who had briefly left the room, had made an earlier comment that “Black people can be intelligent too.” Giggles and groans ensued. I groaned along with the other polished guests. The offender returned to the table, and conversations about vacation plans resumed.
Why had no one, myself included, pointed out the racism in her comment? And how was her comment different from that of my NYC friend, about the folks in the south?
The next day we visited the Raleigh Museum of History to see an exhibition of photographs taken by Spider Martin in March of 1965, “Selma to Montgomery: A March for the Right to Vote”. I was moved by the heroism of Dr. King and the marchers in the face of the antagonists, their fellow citizens. One photo in particular gave me an emotional jab in the guts. In the photo was a group of white protestors with cocky grins, one holding a sign that said, “Who Needs Niggers”.
The Whole Truth Luncheon, Wilson, NC – Photo by Joy Lau
Before heading further south we had lunch with an artist friend in the next town of Wilson, at a church-operated lunchroom known for good ol’ southern cooking. Dave is, by his own accounts, a true southern boy, y’all and all. In between bites of succulent fried chicken and turnip greens, he railed against a southern mentality that he perceives as complacent and fearful. I think back to those pictures of Dr. King and the marchers, and they were certainly neither complacent nor fearful.
In a sense, complacent and fearful are descriptive words applicable to either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, the symbolic line that divided the North from the South during the American Civil War. Today the divisions are no longer as clearly marked by lines on the ground. There are new lines – social lines, economic lines, race lines, educational lines…enough lines and they’ll all weave together to make one thick colorful tapestry. Like the United States of America.
Perhaps, if we crossed over the lines we would see that the divide is not really that wide. Perhaps, if we talk to one another and listen deeply, we would find the questions and forget we need answers. Most importantly, the honest discussion must begin immediately, maybe over a good meal, a good soul searching meal like the one we had at the Whole Truth Lunchroom in Wilson, North Carolina.