Poetry as research
The journey backwards
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.
I'm a poet in love with oral history and stories of the ancestors. Here, I will record what I discover and contemplate on my journey into historical African American churches and cemeteries in the South.