T he south, like my paternal family, hold a history of dark truths perfumed over with guile gentility or strict silence. Histories, like how my grandmother—a rich mahoganny shade with Chocktaw cheekbones and silky tendrils—gave birth to a son with alabaster skin at the age of fifteen shroud the present in a darkness whose presence, however viscerally ignored, are felt quaking like the ghost of Beloved. As Bernice McFadden wrote: “an evil act can ruin generations.”
I had always been fascinated with my father—as fascinated as one can be with a stranger whom one shares an intimate link. Stories of his origins were threaded in mystery, spooling from an ex-wife who hardly knew him. Whenever my mother tried to recall my parents’ trip to my father’s home town, she’d say:
“All I remember is I was hot and pregnant and miserable. I couldn’t wait to get back to my grandmother in Birmingham”
These stories are always administered with a dose laughter—a mechanism my maternal family uses like anesthesia—but they weren’t enough. I’d been cursed with an overly curious mind and infected with a desire to know myself beyond my present existence, I wanted to go further back to the people whose blood, sweat, and sacrifice went into making me.
It began with a text:
“Hey Dad, where are you from?”
Those two words lead to endless research. I discovered that the Jubilee City was also apart of Mobile, Alabama’s Baldwin County—the former capital of Louisiana, and birthplace of Mardi Gras in the U.S.—and just two hours outside of New Orleans. I felt a sense of pride for a place I’d never been to. The south had been the fixture of my obsession that grew with my love of literature. I was from the region Morrison, O’Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and Twain wrote about. So out of duty to the fiction that inspired me, the father who created me, and with the generous maternal grandmother who paid for my trip and traveled with me, I went to Daphne.
You’ve never experienced sweat until you’ve been on the Gulf Coast in August. My flesh felt like too thick a garment under the sun’s intrusive rays. But withstanding the heat, Mobile is breathtaking with its Spanish architecture, swaying palm trees, and live oaks whose labyrinth of branches hold stories rich with such unspoken horror they give my grandmother pause—she never likes to stay down south for too long. It’s not hard to miss how the city was once Louisiana’s capital. But while I was dazzled by Plaza De España and Mobile’s Carnival Museum, and taken with The National African American Archives and Museum, there was one place in particular I’d come to see.
In Mobile there is no water—flat land stretches up until you reach George Wallace tunnel connecting the bay. Once you pass through you emerge on Jubilee Parkway, a strip of highway engulfed in the Gulf’s waters. I stuck my camera out of the passenger window, capturing evidence that I was here. As we passed the signs for Spanish Fort I felt like I was in a dream. How was it that I—the daughter of a father she hardly knew—was on the way to the house he grew up in? I needed a moment, to take it all in, to soak up the magic bouncing off the Gulf’s waves. But there was no time, our exit was next and before I knew it the water turned into land—commercialized, gentrified land. My father had warned me that the Daphne he knew was changing.
The town, once inhabited by poor black families, was being redeveloped into shopping plazas, trendy restaurants, and condominiums. We almost passed the brick and blue house whose neighbor was a complex of condos. It was jarring—a literal color and socio-economic line had been drawn and my great-grandmother’s house stood at the border.
When we pulled up I felt a shortness of breath. I was excited. I was frightened. I had never even seen my maternal grandmother and here I was at her adolescent home. She didn’t live there, she was in Ohio and I knew by now she’d have heard the news that after spending four years at a University down the road from her I bought a plane ticket to visit the aunt—who she was not speaking to and had not spoken to for years—living in the Alabama home. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind. I had come to see the place of my origins and no matter how shaky my legs or spirit, I was going to do that. I stepped out of the car, and withstood the sun’s overbarring presence to soak in the modest two floor home with brick Spanish styled arches on the front porch and a powder blue balcony.
This was it. Three generations of ancestors had filled this home and inside was a woman who I presumed held the key to all of the unspoken histories that lied lumpy under the rug of time. I wanted to know everything, but as I approached the door, I paced myself, called on the southern manners my maternal grandmother instilled in me, and knocked on the door.
I was instantly swathed in hugs from family members who had come to the house to see me. The awkward tension I prepared for never came and I was grateful to sit in front of the AC while my aunt told me all she could remember, which wasn’t much. She was currently helping her husband recover from a stroke and also dealing with the changing dynamics of her town.
“They just come and takes peoples lands, cause the kids don’t want it; they don’t keep up with the taxes”
My aunt says with a sorrowful look in her eye. It doesn’t last long though. She’s a woman of laughter and deep religion that allows her to see “a blessing” in everything. We briefly breeched the topic of my father’s mysterious father:
“I don’t know who he is, but I think she oughta tell him”
But where her memory gaped, her husband and children filled in offering stories of a great-grandfather, a truck driver, who traveled everyday from Daphne to New Orleans and back. I learned of the Jewish man and Choctaw woman who began my great-grandmother’s line. I saw pictures of great-great aunts who were slaves and aunts and uncles I never met. From my iPhone I scrolled through pictures of me and my brother, filling them in on our lives.
“You look just like yo daddy,” they all remarked as they studied me
I was happy there. Happy in a way I’d never experienced—tangible, tactile. All of those cliche’s about finding home made sense in that space, in that moment. The other half of me that had been orphaned for so long felt like Milkman who’d returned to his father’s home, Janie who returned to her ex-husband’s home. This was where I’d been revealed to myself.
When I hugged my aunt I squeezed her and held back my tears as I thanked her for allowing me in—into a place that years of resentment kept me away from.
“Anytime, sugar” she said in that voice sweet like tea.
I thanked the Uncle who could barely speak, but who fought to tell me what he could. I thanked my cousins who told me stories of a father I was still getting to know.
As they walked me to the car we marveled over my aunt’s aloe vera plants. She told me how to make mine grow strong and tall like hers. We hugged again as if we would never see eachother again, although I promised, profusely, that I would return. My aunt smiled and kissed me on my cheek before waving goodbye.
As we drove off I kept waving vigorously, promising to see them soon. When I reached the end of the driveway, it was then that I noticed the “For Sale” sign stuck in the front yard.