The following is a piece by writer Jessica Lynne, co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, who was in residence at SPACE from June 20-29, 2016. Jessica’s time here focused on the early stages of a new biomythographical project. Read more about it below, and follow Jess and her work at @lynne_bias.
“Hey, are you Blackman’s son?”
My father and I stop in our tracks and turn towards the voice calling out to us. The shout belongs to an old man seated on a small porch a few yards away from us. It is a warm winter day in Middle Georgia, a few days after Christmas, and my dad and I are driving around the small town where he grew up.
“Hey, hey,” the old man yells again. From his expression, I glean he is eager for a response.
“Yes sir, I’m his son,” my dad responds with a shrug of the shoulder and an ever so slight eye roll that generally signifies annoyance. But, I am anything from annoyed. I am elated by this unexpected recognition.
“Man, I used to play dominos with your dad and he’d run me for all my money,” the old man continues with a laugh. It is the kind of laugh that emerges from a deep place of comfort and serenity. The type of laugh that has all the familiar timbers of southern jubilee that I love so much. This man who never gives his name is clearly pleased with the memory he has shared with us – two not quite strangers.
“I saw you walking and I just knew who you were.I said to myself that has to be Blackman’s kin.”
Finally, my dad gives in. “We are looking for his grave.”
“I see,” the old man begins slowly, “ well, I don’t remember exactly where he is but i know it ain’t too far from here,” he says as he points off in the distance.
“Thank you,” my dad and I say in unison before retreating back to our car.
Blackman, my paternal biological grandfather, died in 1968. He was 26. His nickname was a kind of homage to his dark skin tone. The kind of man you might jokingly refer to as blue-black. In 1968, MLK was assassinated, Washington D.C. burned, and Richard Nixon walked into the whitehouse. It was a year of tumult in a decade that has since proven itself to be the most cataclysmic of the 20th century. And though we never met and though I was hardly on anyone’s mind at the time, I always add Blackman’s death to the list of important events that occurred in that year.
My grandfather is a myth to me. A man folks have described as charming and dashing in one breath while lamenting his drinking problem in the next. My grandmother says that we grandchildren each have a little bit of Blackman’s ways in us.
My family stories have always fascinated me but recently, I’ve been thinking about Blackman a lot. Perhaps, it is because I am now 26 in an era of tumult. Perhaps it is because the more I travel away from the south, the more intensely I feel the need to explore my relationship to it.
‘Do you remember how it felt to be 26?” I ask my dad a few weeks after my own 26th birthday. I usually ask him some variation of this question every year in response to his I-remember-holding -you-in-my-hands-when-you-were-born spiel that characterize these types of conversations between fathers and daughters. The memories he recounts are benign and vague recollections of the late 80’s – Reagan, crack, and my dad the young teacher, the not-yet-a-dad dad.
So, here I am. 26 and trying to rage against the machine. I am thinking about Ferguson and Orlando and Istanbul and Brooklyn and being unemployed and art criticism but mainly, I am thinking about the south, which means I am thinking about my family. I ask myself: to whom do I owe the woman I am becoming?
I have written often of my mother and my mother’s mother and so forth and so forth but now, it feels important to write about my father and his father and so forth and so forth.
My residency at SPACE gave me the opportunity to unpack this all in a manner that could not do living in the noise of New York City. For nine days, time belonged to me in new ways. This does not mean that everyday was a writing day. Sometimes I simply walked to the beach to read by the water. When you are an artist-in-residence this is the question you always hear: So, what are you working on?
I am writing essays. About family. About home. About my dad. About Blackman.
I am thinking about Black Americana and my family’s stake in this ongoing epic. We have moved across state lines. We have taken on too much student loan debt. We have lost our houses. We have buried our sisters, aunts, and mothers. I am learning to write about my family as a way of reckoning with the myths that loom over me.
I am writing about the south because I don’t want to forget the places that I know most intimately. I am writing about the south because so much of what I know to be good in the world, I learned from this place, from the people that have made me.