recommended reading

Recommended reading, no. 10.

I’ve posted several excerpts from Cecil L. Spellman‘s Elm City: A Negro Community in Action, but you don’t need to wait for me if you want to know more. (And, if you have any link to Toisnot township, you should.) Forgotten Books has published the book in its Classic Reprint Series, and it’s available via Amazon.

Recommended reading, no. 9.

I know I have a romantic view of old East Wilson (old, as in before it was ravaged by disinvestment and the crack trade), attributable to my very safe and happy childhood there. Still, I am sometimes reminded how shallow my rosy recollection can be and how it may serve to erase or obscure less happy stories.

One of my cousins, 20 years older than I, published a memoir a few years ago. The early pages of Sherrod Village are set on streets I’ve walked and peopled by folks I knew in East Wilson. Barbara Williams Lewis’ grandmother Josephine Artis Sherrod was my great-great-grandmother’s sister; they were two of the “innumerable” children of Adam T. Artis. (Barbara’s mother, in fact, is who described them to me that way.) I thought I would recognize so much in Barbara’s book. And I did. But I didn’t.

Children are shielded from so much ugliness — if they’re lucky, as I was — and understand so little of what they see. The ragged past of sweet old people is not always apparent in their mild present. Nonetheless, though my own family’s story involved poverty and insecurity and pain, I have believed that my recollected truth was true. I have, perhaps, counted on it.

I’ve spoken often about viewing East Wilson as a palimpsest. However, for too long I processed little beneath the surface of my own Polaroid-tinted memories of crepe myrtles, corner stores, and swimming lessons at Reid Street Community Center. I knew the history of the place, but not the often bitter stories of its people. Fifteen pages into Sherrod Village, I wrote to Barbara that I was “staggered.” I finished the book in the same state of astonishment.

I thank Barbara for her honesty and bravery. I thank her also for pushing me toward deeper and more empathic consideration as I continue to build space for our community’s stories.

Lane Street Project: recommended reading.

I’m not an archaeologist or an anthropologist or a preservationist, and I’ve studied history, but only recently begun to engage in public history. Thus, I need to get my game up as Lane Street Project moves from dreamy rumination to real work.

I’m reading Lynn Rainville’s Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia to start. Though the landscape, material culture, and history of the Charlottesville area are quite different than those of Wilson County, Rainville’s work illustrates best practices for assessing, cataloguing, and preserving historic Black cemeteries, and I’m both taking notes and brainstorming as I read.

“Gravestones can teach us lessons in American civics as told through portraits of individuals and their communities, depicted in the details found on their headstones. The storylines in these mortuary museums illustrate national values: the worth of the individual, the primacy of the family, the depth of religious beliefs, the importance of patriotism. … They can also demonstrate some of the darker aspects of our shared past, the legacies of slavery and segregation. Cemeteries are instructional spaces that, if read correctly, have much to teach us about our social and moral values and about our shared history.”

The why of Black Wide-Awake. (And a recommended reading.)

“Every place writes its own elegy before it is founded. Each beginning is an end to what has preceded it; something has always come before. So excavate your own cellar, then the ruins on top of which it was laid, and the bones beneath the ruins. Then dig some more. I may be a sentimental fool, but I can’t deny this particular truth, that it is not so simple as I would like it: paradise is ending on our watch. Then again, it is possible that this is finally true; we shall see, soon. Anyway, I am not fool enough that I would cede my right to complain loudly about what has been stolen from me and no one but me. I take my role as custodian of my nostalgia with a mortal seriousness. Life has supplied me with only these eyes, only this bizarre sensibility composed solely of this accretion of embarrassingly personal, minor events that has solidified into the unshapely mass called ‘me.’ None of us lives in the same world. Seven billion planets, not one, currently revolve around the sun in the third place of the solar system. They told you wrong in school. …”

“… These things that happened years ago and don’t matter to anyone are long-gone wind and rain. Ephemeral, meaningless. But they amount to forces that shaped the rocky earth and waterways (the buildings and institutions and beliefs and histories) that made me.  Guard against its theft, the past of the place that made you. At least notice it, if you cannot save it.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson, The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home (2006).


I happened upon my old Tumblr account this morning, which I basically abandoned about five years ago. I posted the passage above in maybe 2011, years before I created Black Wide-Awake, and it just kind of waited for me to step into my purpose.