As an informed writer, I have more to work with, more inspiration, in a sense.
AWhat comes first in writing: research or inspiration? I say inspiration! It fuels the research and hones craft. But, when I began my journey as a poet, I thought whatever I was inspired to write about would come to the page as it was meant. Now, I see the difference it makes to read and research the subjects that I want to write about.
As an informed writer, I have more to work with, more inspiration, in a sense. It's the perfect balance for someone like me who likes to use both sides of my brain -- fall in love but think about it first :-).
So, with the project I'm currently working on, thanks to the Duke Energy Regional Artist Project Grant through the Winston-Salem/Forsyth Co. Arts Council, I'm digging deeper into the research of African American churches and cemeteries.
I thought, in case there is someone else who can't ignore the pull to know more about this part of our history, I would create a list of websites I have found with the most helpful and comprehensive information. Of course, you can do your own Googling, but since I'm doing it, I might as well share. :-)
I will add to this list as it develops. Feel free to email me should you find information you think would be helpful to me or someone else!
Links to Online Resources
Yesterday, I passed a "No Trespassing" sign to get to a cemetery that was locked and abandoned. Well, not literally abandoned -- I believe the buried are still there -- but forgotten.
It got me thinking about a conversation I had with someone a few years ago. Does love die when people die and those who were to remember them forget?
I believe love doesn't die, but if love is in the heart of those alive and they die (which we all will, eventually), where does the love go?
Maybe that's why I'm so interested in cemeteries. Perhaps it's deeper in that I am more interested in love and remembering -- even if I don't know those whose names are on markers, or those whose names are not known (or thought important to place on a marker).
There was a burial taking place at one of the three cemeteries I visited yesterday. I talked to the three men who were placing the casket in the ground, shoveling and then bulldozing dirt on top of it. I asked if they knew who was buried. If it was a man or woman, the age. One of the men turned around a small sign stuck in the grass near the plot for me to see it. It was a lady born in the early 1930s. I said a prayer that she had a fulfilling life and that she will be remembered.
What is life if when we leave we do not leave something worth remembering behind? If someone doesn't remember you, in love? Aren't we, in some ways, living to die?
So, when I get to the "abandoned" cemetery, with locked gates, grass and trees overgrown, I wonder who is there and what happened to those who know them? Did they not tell their children about who is there and the significance of remembering? Is there something we (the general public) need not to know? Why can't we visit? Freely walk the grounds?
A friend called yesterday. When I told him where I was and what I was doing, he asked what is it about visiting cemeteries that interests me. I told him I didn't know for sure but wanted to follow this inner rhythm and see where it leads. I wonder if some of this interest is to make friends with death. Not in a way that I desire death (trust me, I love and am thankful for life), but in a way that I do not want to fear it.
Being single and not having children, I wonder if anyone will visit me when I am buried. I won't know if they do or not :-), and visiting is more for the living than the dead. But visiting, placing flowers, taking pictures, researching the history of the cemetery and those who are buried is part of my journey to honor the sacredness of life and death.
There are stories to be told, even in our forgetfulness. Slowing down, being quiet and walking in sacred spaces (like cemeteries) is one way that I connect in the thin, fragile space where I am fully alive in fleeting moments. It may not make all the sense in the world but who has time for that? There are other threads to follow.
Spirits would greet us at the car when we pulled up in gravel lots like they knew we were coming, and were glad to see new faces... This was something I would come to realize pretty quickly that I needed to write about. Actually, it’s as if I was chosen to give voice to that which many of us no longer hear or see in our busy, overcrowded lives.
I’m reading Soul Survivor: An African American Spirituality as I begin this second leg of my journey into what feels like a deserted but once lively area of the rural black south. I'm having a conversation with the words on the pages. As the writer has penned about the necessity of the black church in the black life, I am saying "Amen," or asking questions, or underlining phrases I need to contemplate further. It's my companion guide as I expand this escapade that started two years ago when one of my Dad’s brothers and I started talking about the black church.
Having both grown up as PKs (preacher’s kids), Uncle LeRoy and I sat outside -- having breakfast at Mary’s, downtown Winston-Salem -- when he said, “Let’s go. Let’s visit the churches your Dad and my Dad [both now deceased] served as pastor that you haven’t been to.” It was a suggestion. A passing thought. A “sounds like a good idea” idea when you have the Labor Day weekend carefreeness on your skin.
But it went beyond us talking.
Beginning in 2015, every first Sunday of the month, which is usually Communion Sunday in the protestant church, Uncle LeRoy and I would choose a church; and decide a place to meet or for me to pick him up from his Salisbury home – where my grandparents used to live.
I always happily drove while he would give me directions: “Turn here, at the corner store.” Or “Once we pass the railroad tracks...” He would share stories of growing up in the community we were visiting for the day. After service we would ride around and he would tell me who lived where, what my Dad was like as a child; show me the houses that burned, the stores that are now closed.
A walk into family's history that spans more than one city, one church, one generation.
I noticed, too, the cemeteries next to the small - could be thought of as abandoned - churches. Spirits would greet us at the car when we pulled up in gravel lots like they knew we were coming, and were glad to see new faces. This was new to me since during my childhood my Dad pastored larger city churches. This was something I would come to realize pretty quickly that I needed to write about. Actually, it’s as if I was chosen to give voice to that which many of us no longer hear or see in our busy, overcrowded lives.
That was the impetus of me applying for the Duke Energy Artist Project Grant through the Arts Council of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. And they caught the vision, or at least had enough faith, to support my continued research for a collection of poetry and photography of southern African American churches and cemeteries.
The circle has widened. This part of the journey I'm visiting churches outside my direct family relations. But the essence has remained -- that which those in the pews (and myself) are searching for -- seems to be the same.
Now through September (which is when the report for the grant is due), I will be visiting the "forgotten by the masses but still present for the few" churches and cemeteries. I will be looking and listening. Wading and wondering. Writing and rewriting. I will be reading what others have written about African American spirituality and poetry. I will be pulling and placing words in ways I have not before.
I do not know what the journey holds. I cannot know. But I am trusting it and the path. I empty myself of that which will cloud my perception. I am peeking into the past where I now stand. I have taken off my shoes to enter this sacred space. I have opened myself to this experience. I will share pieces with you, that we might feast together.
This is my life as a poet, artist, researcher, and spiritual being. This is the gift I have been given and humbly accept.