Thursday, September 21, 2006

Over troubled water

A reader writes to note an interesting story from earlier this week in the small community of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Ferry service across the Alabama River, closed since 1962, reopened on September 18. What used to be an hour-long trip to the grocery store suddenly became a good bit shorter. If you suspect from the year (1962), and the place (Wilcox County, Alabama, just sound of Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat) that it had something to do with civil rights, you'd be correct.

The ferry service shut down in 1962 after "Benders," as residents are known, were emboldened by a visit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to cross the river to register to vote.

Gee's Bend has a long, rich history. A writer for the Christian Century observed in 1937,

Gee's Bend represents not merely a geographic configuration drawn by the yellow pencil of the river. Gee's Bend represents another civilization. Gee's Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee's Bend.

Many residents even today are named Pettway, for the plantation owner who kept 10,000 persons enslaved.

For the Farm Security Administration, in the 1930s Arthur Rothstein photographed Gee's Bend.

gee's bend
Cabins and outbuildings on the former Pettway plantation

At a site maintained by the University of Virginia, Pat Brady has an interesting interpretation of this picture.

The dilapidated shacks are surrounded by leafless trees, dead and dying grass, and a cold, unremitting sky. At the center of the picture stands a tiny figure, its impotence mocked by the giant landscape that surrounds it. This far away shot of Rothstein's removes the power and endurance from the figure, because unlike the resonant pictures of pioneers, one is unable to spot any resilience in the figure's face--or even the figure's face at all. This shows the powerlessness of the central figure, a fitting illustration of the black's near impossible struggle to escape the long shadow cast by slavery.

True enough, this is not one of those Walker Evans photos of indomitable humanity (though he has those too). In Rothstein's eye, few things are indomitable.

Pettway home
Former home of the Pettways, 1937.

I thought I'd never heard of Gee's Bend until I realized that wasn't strictly true: a few weeks ago I bought these stamps:

gee's bend

The Gee's Bend Quilt Collective carries on a long and beautiful tradition that in recent years has been recognized for its artistic merit. Maybe the new ferry will give them more time to do what they love.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times published a series on Gee's Bend that won a Pulitzer for feature writing in 2000. The whole series in online and worth reading.

Gee's Bend is where the Civil War came and went, but the slaves stayed, and their children stayed, and their grandchildren stayed, and their great-grandchildren, and so on, until today, Mary Lee and 700 of her kin cling to this bulb of bottom land their ancestors were chained to. They bear the surnames of the last slaveholders to live here. They grow corn near the slaveholders' headstones. They come and go amid the ghosts and dust devils that dance on the site of the old Big House.
The South was once dotted with such places, where slaves lingered long after Lincoln freed them, most famously the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina. But Gee's Bend is the only place anyone can think of where the slaves did more than linger. They conquered. They outlasted the masters, bought back the plantation and lived upon it in blissful isolation, not a collection of historical anomalies, but a vast family, sharing the same few names and the same handful of fables, like some hybrid of Alex Haley and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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