Men fought their way through the eternal darkness

In the 18 years I spent growing up in Cobb County, several pine forests and marshlands were obliterated. Hulking megamarts, parking lots, and fast-food joints with drive-thrus for their drive-thrus thrust out of the ground with the speed of mushrooms after rain. The land wasn’t ugly, but these buildings sure were.

Of course, I too cheered on this demolition and construction spree as a teenager. Fed a steady stream of images on TV depicting New York city high-rises and sexy young people sipping fancy iced coffee beverages, I lined up outside of the first Starbucks in town on opening day. “Finally, some dignity has been graced on this outer edge of civilized society: Kennesaw, Georgia.”, I said to myself as I waited in line. I ordered a frappuccino and soon wound up with a brain freeze so paralyzing that I was sure I would never want to, or have to, think again. Starbucks was here and so, apparently, was the end of history.

Looking back, I think what I was really yearning for was something to sweep into town that was so monstrously powerful, it would make everyone in town drop their racism. What Sherman and the Union Army couldn’t do, Pinkberry and LA Fitness could, I surmised.

But now when I visit, Kennesaw has just become another borough in the sprawling empire of Atlanta. Civilization arrived with ruthless speed and efficiency. Yet I find myself missing how even a cursory amble could yield creeks and deer, red clay, wild onions, and dark humid forest.

Now in California, I still feel the occasional prickly jab of nostalgia for the landscape of the South. William Styron, a novelist from Virginia, also found his homesickness for the South difficult to place and nauseating. While living in Paris, his friends, the Matthiesens, observed that “after a few plates of [fruit and cheese] and some wine, Styron began to feel lachrymose and homesick for his native Tidewater country. ‘I ain’t got no more resistance to change than a snowflake...I’m going back to the James River and farm peanuts.’”

As I know perhaps all too well, self-frustration soon transformed into self-destruction. He shortly thereafter wrote back to the Matthiesens from Rome: “To top off all my woes, the other night I woke up in the gutter; a boy was standing there pelting me with grapes.” For Styron the South was inescapable, a circle of hell that no matter how hard you try to flee draws you back into its swampy gloom.

My image of myself as a Southerner in the South never involved farming peanuts on the banks of a wide, dirt-colored river. It did, however, involve a big house in a leafy enclave of Atlanta, writing and thinking like a native son of Faulkner, plotting political schemes to run the state, and poking a stick in the eye of anyone who thinks they know what a Southerner ought to look and act like. I wanted to be the living, breathing embodiment of every subverted expectation of someone who looked like me, single-handedly redefining what it meant to be a Southerner out of spite.

Nevertheless, I soon found the allure of opportunities elsewhere gave me more of an opportunity to define myself than the stultifying haze of conservative Georgia. I went to college in Atlanta, but was determined to leave the South after I graduated.

Several years after leaving the South, I found myself stuck, with little emotional continuity as to how I ultimately wound up in California or where I had come from. As my time here has fermented, I’ve felt it increasingly necessary to find a sense of home.

For some guidance on how to define a sense of home and history, I have looked to William Kentridge, an artist and filmmaker from Johannesburg. In his series of Norton lectures, Six Drawing Lessons, he describes a painting hung in his family’s home of a European landscape existing in sharp contrast to the landscape in which he live, the plateau bushland.

For Kentridge, this feeling of not being in the right place translated into an uneasy feeling about using the medium of oil painting to depict his home. Oil paintings were fine for the walled English gardens of Johannesburg’s gated communities, but it wouldn’t do for the rest of the city and its surroundings. Instead he makes images using charcoal, which the land itself produces whenever there is a bushfire.

I feel that for Kentridge making art that more directly emerges from the land itself was a way of creating a space for it in his heart. In that way the art-making is a type of ownership. As Georgia O’Keefe once said, admiring a mountain in the American Southwest: “It’s my private mountain, it belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” By trying to make meaning of a place we can claim some ownership of it and its history, and it too can claim some part of our soul.

Art critic and activist, John Berger describes, in his book Ways of Seeing, how we are surrounded by images that are idealizations and displays of ownership by powerful classes of people. But these images, when they show things that aren’t our home or don’t belong to us, makes us feel like our homes are defective and inferior.

When Kentridge uses charcoal, or even drags the burnt brush under his page, he’s transforming a tradition of art born in Europe into something more local and immediate to his South African home. In much the same way Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, from last week’s essay on Juluka, had to bring their own elements of their experience and what home means for them into their music. By doing so these artists make their home more real, both for them and for us.

I’ve begun looking to Kentridge, Styron, O’Keefe, and other artists and writers not for how to find a home, but how to make the home I already live in more real. In their sincerity and search for meaning within place, they show that home is as much places we’ve been or lived as a state of mind.

I especially see this in Styron’s memoir, Darkness Visible, wherein he situates his knowledge and experience of the South to tell a story about his own life and how his depression was itself a home within himself. Styron never did make it back to Virginia to farm peanuts.

I too know in some unconscious way that I could never return to Georgia, no matter how much it changes. But perhaps my own searching for home has taught me the value of spiraling around a question ad infinitum. Somehow this circling around the question of home creates in me a sense of pleasure, beauty, and meaning that I find satisfying and also difficult to rationalize.

Our home is this web of meaning we make for ourselves, a home we can actually own, take with us wherever we go, and freely share with others. It’s an idea of home that’s hard for the powerful in our society to commodify and weaponize because it exists within us and the exercise of our own inner freedom to roam where we wish.

In closing, I recently attended a mock course on property law given for admitted students at Berkeley. The instructor read to us the dissenting opinion in Edwards v. Lee, by the high-Faulknerian Kentucky Judge Logan. His florid language on S133, sounded both distinctly Southern and a lot like me (a fragment is available below). I began grinning like a fool. Somehow this early 20th century judge’s words made me feel deeply, undeniably Southern for the first time in a very long time.