Coffee with Dante

When Virgil first enters the scene in the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno, he just sort of appears in the dark wood. Almost out of nowhere, he just transpires. The Italian word Dante uses to describe his appearance is offerto: so more literally, Virgil “offered himself.” It’s the first sign that–even in the harsh landscape of Inferno–nothing is going to turn out like you expect.

Heading east out of Augusta on Central Avenue, we are not a block into the trip before I need to stop. I know it could be a while before we see another decent cup of coffee, so the early pit-stop at the Buona Caffé in Augusta seems well-advised.

I leave the car running, because it’s already hot as it’s supposed to be in Georgia in July, and pop inside to place my order with the barista.

Now, I have a background in theology and an amateur interest in southern history, and John is a professional historian who’s written on race and religion in the south. While he’s brewing the previous customer’s beverage, the barista asks what brings me to town. I try—for the first time over the next two weeks—to explain this strange journey we are on. It comes out like a very poorly-rehearsed elevator pitch, all ragged-edged and semi-coherent, but he manages to get the gist.

I’m a seminary student, he tells me, doing a thesis on race and religion. It’s on Howard Thurman, King, and Thomas Merton, he says.

No way, I say. Hang on a sec, I tell him. There’s someone you need to meet. 

I drag John out of the minivan, which already sounds like it’s overheating. Back inside the Buona, John tells the barista he lives around the corner. We really should chat, he says, and they make plans to do that when he is back in town.

I give the barista my card, and scrawl onto it the name of the hastily-made instagram account we made for the trip because that’s who we are now. We say thanks for the coffee, and promise to be in touch.

Not much later, on US 1, John interrupts his dramatic reading of the WPA Guide to Georgia to respond to an alert on his iPhone (also who we are now).

@truthdrifter interrupts a dramatic reading of the WPA Guide to respond to our newest instagram follower

“Hey, he followed us,” John says.

“Who?” I ask.

“Dante,” John says. “The guy from the coffee shop.”

“His name is Dante?” 


“And we are just getting reading to go on a quest deep into the Southern inferno?”

“His name is Dante.”

“That does not seem like an accident.”

Two white dudes in a minivan meeting an African-American man with shared interests in a coffee shop does not seem like an accident either. It is a instance of unlikely gratuity, an in-breaking of common humanity that makes the world not seem so small or random or cruel or inhospitable. We come to call them “Dante moments,” which, over the next two weeks, seem to offer themselves with alarming frequency.

What I Did Not See in Tuskegee

I know there are those who insist that Confederate monuments do not make any political statements, but simply represent an innocent collective recognition of the self-sacrifice of fallen soldiers, and an attempt to preserve their memory. There was a time in my life when I might have been able to believe such a thing, a time when I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.

This is the Confederate monument in the town square in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (and later, Tuskegee Institute, and ultimately Tuskegee University) would eventually become one of the country’s most important institutions for higher learning for African-Americans.

The Tuskegee Normal School was established in 1881. This monument was erected in 1906.

Monuments like his were put up all over the south, not simply so that we would remember the war dead. They were put up in public places like the town square in Tuskegee as reminders to African-Americans of their place in a white supremacist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it.

We did not see this in 1997.

We visited Tuskegee briefly, ate lunch at Thomas Reed’s Chitlin House Chicken Coop, and then visited Booker T. Washington’s grave and the “Lifting the Veil” statue on the campus of the university. But that was about it. We missed the town of Tuskegee entirely.

Thomas Reed’s restaurant in Tuskegee in 1997.

This time was different. We approached from a different direction, from the east. But we also approached the city from a different angle this year, more attuned than we were twenty years ago to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee.

We ate in Thomas Reed’s restaurant in 1997, but I did not think then to ask about who Thomas Reed was.

I later learned that Thomas Reed once vowed to climb up the State House in Montgomery and personally remove the Confederate battle flag flying atop the white dome. Apparently the flag went mysteriously missing the night before the planned coup, and was moved to the Confederate memorial on the north side of the Capitol. Turns out the episode landed Reed both in jail and in The New York Times.

On February 3, 1988, Reed and thirteen others attempted to scale an eight-foot chain-link fence around the Capitol and purloin the flag. They were held briefly and later released on $300 bond. Reed had made the removal of the flag a personal mission. “This is just the beginning,” he said at the time. Five years later, the flag was taken down from the cupola of the Capitol. A write-up in The Chicago Tribune at the time illustrates how the debate around the flag was framed thirty years ago. It concludes with the sentence: “But the flag’s supporters argue that removing the flag is tantamount to erasing history.”

It is not difficult to see now the subtext in such reportage. This was, for many years, the final word on the subject, and where most whites were keen to leave the matter.

But not Thomas Reed. By 1988, when Reed was President of the Alabama NAACP, he had been involved in state politics for over twenty years. In 1970, he and Fred Gray, a pioneering civil rights attorney from Montgomery, became the first African-Americans to serve in the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction. Photographs of Reed in the State Archives show him on the town square in Tuskegee in 1966, campaigning to a small crowd of mostly African-American men in fedoras, hands crossed, on hips, in pockets. He stands on the tailgate of a station wagon emblazoned with signs that say, THOMAS REED, THE MAN WE NEED.

The Room Where It Happened

I had been to Milledgeville a number of times before today, but it was never quite like today.

The first time I visited was in 1994. It was John’s first trip, too. We drove down from Winston-Salem to attend a conference on Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College. We had both taken a seminar on O’Connor recently with Ralph Wood, our professor at Wake Forest who was delivering a keynote at the conference, and the three of us took turns driving The Professor’s boxy blue Chevrolet Impala. It was our first exposure to the world in which O’Connor lived, but it was exposure at a distance: the farmhouse where O’Connor spent the last thirteen years of her life was not open to the public, and her scrupulously private mother, Regina, still lived in town at her house on Greene Street.

The conference was a big do, and really more like a festival. We attended a reception at the old Governor’s Mansion, heard readings by Joyce Carol Oates and Lee Smith, and a performance by Leo Kottke. Throughout the event an art exhibit displayed works inspired by O’Connor’s work and commissioned for the conference, including a striking series of abstract prints on “O’Connor’s Treelines” by an artist whose name we both forgot in the intervening years. But the images of some of those prints stuck with me: the sun shaped like a turnip slowly lowering over a jagged wall of pine, a purple sky deepening over a stylized scene of a farm in ruins.

Continue reading “The Room Where It Happened”

A Deeper South

Twenty-one years ago next month, Johnny Cash played Atlanta for the last time. John Hayes and I were in the audience that night in Chastain Park. The next morning, we left Atlanta in John’s 1977 Ford pickup bound, more or less, for New Orleans. We wanted to see the South that had produced Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters, Flannery O’Connor and Martin Luther King. The South that isn’t on the main tourist drag.

A deeper South.

It was August in a different era. Johnny Cash was still alive. We shot on 35mm Kodachrome transparencies and Ilford black and white film. We printed our own prints in hired-out darkrooms, mailed them off to Kodak or took them to local camera shops for processing. There was no Toyota Prius. We used pay phones. There was no GPS. We used maps.

The truck did not have air-conditioning. There were no cell phones, global positioning systems, We weren’t sure how we would get there, or where we would stay, or what we might see. We did not have much of a plan, but we did have a few rules:

1. No interstates; stick to back roads.
2. Camp in state parks and if necessary, the back of the truck. No hotels, unless absolutely necessary, in which case “hotel” should spelled with an “M”.
3. Take lots of pictures.

We had both grown up in Atlanta and attended the same private high school together, but neither of us had ever really seen the rest of the South. Since shortly after the Civil War, Atlanta made a name for itself by being forward-looking and sometimes deliberately dismissive of the past. We wanted to look backwards, at the landscapes that interstates had passed by, at towns that were being slowly drained of life by chain stores and shopping malls along the interstates, at the figures that we never got close enough to in high school to be shaken by.

We took four more trips in later years, and covered a lot of ground. We shot rolls and rolls of film and made various plans to publish them. We talked about doing another tour one day, but it never happened.

Until this year.

In three days, we are returning to the road. For two weeks we will retrace our steps from previous tours and light out into new territory. After years of becoming habituated to the convenience of digital photos, we will both be shooting film again (read my post from March about film vs. digital photography, “Truths Breathed through Silver”). The same rules apply, but this time there will be air-conditioning because it comes standard on a minivan. And also, duh.

The ethos of this trip is roughly seven parts old-school, analog, 78rpm, acoustic chemistry and one part new-school, digital, fiber-optic-speed electromagnetism. I will be posting regular updates on, and you will be seeing more emails from me over the next few weeks. For more frequent updates and behind-the-scenes rough cuts from the road, follow us on Instagram (@adeepersouth), and be sure to tell your mom and them.

(And if you have a friend, neighbor, fishing buddy, yoga partner, or random stranger that you think would like to be on this list, please share this link with them:

You will be able to see these updates as they happen; wait a little longer and you will–Lord willing–be able to read the full account in print. An essay will appear in the fall, and later, a book will follow. The book is about how the South has changed over the course of our tours, but more about how we have changed with (or against) it. It is about what we did not look for and did not see the first (five) time(s) around, about the ways in which Southern memory is constructed and enacted publicly. And ultimately, it will be about the the subtle ways that selective cultural memory shapes private lives too, including our own.

My three most recent published essays for The Millions, The Christian Century and The Bitter Southerner reflect the direction this book has taken so far.

I hope you will follow along to see where it goes.

What I Did Not See in Selma

When I was in high school, John Lewis came to speak at assembly. It was around the time he was running for a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, the same seat a distant cousin of mine, Milton A. Candler, held from 1875-1879. Milton was a Democrat, but not like Lewis. In the late nineteenth century, the party was decidedly different than it is today; it largely represented the white elite, the engine of resistance against the new enfranchisement of freed slaves during Reconstruction. I know nothing of Milton’s personal political views, but I have a decent idea. Nothing of his story has been passed down to me through family lore. If any of my forebears know anything about Milt, they aren’t telling.

I didn’t know about Milt at all when Lewis came to speak at our high school. I only knew slightly more about Lewis, but not much. Lewis upset Julian Bond in the Democratic runoff in 1986, and then won easily in the general election. I was fifteen then, and like most privileged fifteen-year-olds at the time, completely oblivious to politics. But what I do remember from the time he was running for Congress is that his opponents criticized Lewis for the way he talked. It was not difficult to see, even then, the thinly veiled racism behind those criticisms.

Though I can recall nothing of what he actually said, I was inspired by Lewis’s appearance and his speech at assembly. I don’t know if any of us realized how fortunate we were to have someone of Lewis’s stature come talk to us. Maybe my African-American friends did, but I did not think to ask them what hearing John Lewis meant to them.

So in 1997, when I stood on the bank of the Alabama River in Selma, I thought of John Lewis. I thought of how lucky we were, and maybe how close we had come to a serious engagement with the issues of race in the South. When Lewis spoke to us, we brushed up against them. In the shadow of the bridge in Selma where Lewis led marchers over thirty years before, I wished that I had had more of a moment with John Lewis, had the guts to go down front and shake his hand, ask him to tell me more, to teach me. But then he was off and we were soon backpack-laden again and shuffling off to geometry class or P.E., resuming school-grade gossip and maybe pretending not to have been too shaken by what we had just heard because that would not have been cool.

My friend and collaborator, John Hayes, below the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1997.

The bridge is strangely artful and leaden: its repeating concrete arches under the deck echoed by the huge latticed steel arch spanning the width of the Alabama River. Its now iconic central arch has been declared “functionally obsolete,” and while it still carries traffic in and out of Selma, the heavy load it bears now is largely metaphorical.

Here is what the official version of Selma sounded like when written in 1940 by white writers for the WPA Guide to Alabama:

“Selma is like an old-fashioned gentlewoman, proud and patrician, but never unfriendly…On the broad streets, shiny new automobiles honk impatiently while a cotton-laden cart, drawn by a plodding ox, pulls slowly aside, and the aged Negro driver smilingly tips his battered hat.

“Since Reconstruction days, Selma’s Negro and white citizens have lived in an atmosphere of sympathetic understanding, tinged by a friendly paternalism on the part of the whites. Many of these Negroes are descendants of slaves who, after emancipation, chose to remain and work on the plantations where they had always lived.”

This was basically the standard version of race relations as many white Southerners narrated it to themselves. The story would go like this: blacks were happy on plantations, so they stayed there once they were freed. They smile from their plodding, ox-driven carts, so they must be content with their lot, right?

In another entry in the WPA Guide to Alabama, a local resident’s house at 722 Alabama Avenue is worth a look (just a look, though–it is private and not open to the public). The house belonged to a man who “entered Confederate service as a private and was mustered out as a brigadier-general. He served United States Senator for 12 years and had been reelected when he died in 1907.”

Thirty-three years after his death, a year before the WPA Guide to Alabama was published in 1941, they named a bridge across the Alabama River for him. His name is not on a plaque on the land side like most bridge’s namesakes, but emblazoned in large black capitals on the bridge itself, so that when you cross it, you pass under his name: Edmund Pettus.

The WPA Guide does not tell you that Edmund Wilson Pettus was also Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan from 1877 on. You can do the math yourself: when the bridge in Selma was named for Pettus in 1940—thirty-three years after his death—it was not just for his political accomplishments. It was meant as a message. And it is no accident that when John Lewis led marchers out of Selma over the bridge named for the former head of Klan on March 7th, 1965, they were sending a message too. Their heroic stand on the bridge was a reappropriation, a taking-back of a site named for someone whose name was a monument to Jim Crow.

Crossing the river under Pettus’s name, African-American visitors to Selma in 1940 may not have found the place as gentlewomanly as the WPA Guide promised it would be. If a black family, cruising up US 80 in 1941, the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge invisible behind its whale-back crest in the middle, the rider in the passenger’s seat directing the driver withThe Green Book (a sort of supplement to the WPA Guides for African-American travelers), they would have found no listings for black-friendly hotels in Selma.

Joe Spinner Johnson did not find Selma so friendly in 1935. Johnson was a leader of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union and an outspoken critic of “exploitative and racially discriminatory practices of wealthy white planters and landowners.” On July 11th, Johnson was called out of the field into Selma, where a white landlord-mob seized him and beat him to death in the Dallas County Jail, then dumped his body in a field forty-five miles away near Greensboro.

Johnson wasn’t the only one. The Selma jail had been the site of several notorious lynchings in the 1890s—Willy Webb in 1892, and Daniel Edwards in 1893—when Edmund Pettus was Grand Dragon of the state Klan. He would be elected to the United States Senate in 1896.

Monuments are not records of memory so much as records of what we choose to forget. We remember Edmund Pettus because he has a bridge named for him. But the price of that official, riveted-steel recognition is that we have forgotten Joe Spinner Johnson, Willy Webb, Daniel Edwards, and thousands more.



For more on the history of lynching in America, read the report published by the Equal Justice Initiative:

If you are in or near Montgomery, go visit The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opens today: 

Truths Breathed Through Silver

It is March in western North Carolina. The pellucid, almost neon green of spring is beginning to return, and the ground is damp and spongy from a very wet winter.

So it was a great pleasure to be in Southern California for a week in the beginning of February, where parrots alight in unfamiliar branches, where a seemingly perpetual light strikes the arid rocks of barren mountaintops, and there seems never to be a reason to be sad.

I was in Pasadena to take part in the Culture Care summit hosted by The Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. My friend Mako Fujimura invited me to be a part of discussions each day about the theology of making along with my then-daily breakfast companions at the decidedly retro Conrad’s Restaurant, Curt Thompson and Esther Meek. I had the great fortune of spending a week rooming and often talking together into the night with Mako, hanging with and learning from Curt and Esther every day. I met inspiring people who are committed to “a vision of the power of artistic generosity to inspire, edify, and heal the church and culture.”

There is too much to say and too many good people to say good things about from that week, but I did come away from southern California with a new, unanticipated project. This, I suppose, is what happens when you spend a week in a great artist’s studio.

It wasn’t what I had expected. Nothing in Pasadena last month was what I expected, but when I got back to a very grey and chilly Asheville, I threw myself into something I did not plan for.

As a writer, my materials are not very interesting: a keyboard and a screen. The actual materials are ones and zeros, and it is not easy to form an intimate relationship with bytes and digits. After being with people who make beautiful things with their hands, I began to envy a little bit their concrete connection with their own works of art and the things they make them with. I started to wonder if I shouldn’t write the next book or essay by hand, in pen and ink. But I went back to typing on a laptop and sharing my ones and zeros with you over an electronic cloud that exists precisely nowhere.

On the other hand, I’ve been thinking a lot about film.

In particular, about hundreds of short strips of mostly black-and-white negatives that I shot with my old friend John Hayes on a series of tours we took across the southeast from 1997 to 2004. We drove “Bessie,” his 1977 Ford F-150 with no air-conditioning, across the backroads of the south in August air so thick with humidity you could chew it. I could tell you some stories.

And I will. Trust me.

If we had taken a tour in 1977 when Bessie was new, not much would have been different from when we took our first, when the truck was twenty years old. We still would have shot on film, used paper maps, and, if necessary, called home with coins. But twenty years on from the first tour, everything is different. Almost no one outside of professional photographers shoots on film anymore. You can still buy hard-copy atlases and maps, but almost no one does. Almost all of this work has been outsourced to devices.

Everything in 1997 we did by hand: loaded film into the back of a camera, unfolded and refolded a map in such a way as to make it manageable and less unwieldy, with only the relevant part visible. We found places to stay and eat by happenstance and often took our chances, without the benefit of pre-screening Yelp or TripAdvisor reviewers. To travel in 2018 is to minimize risk as much as possible, to remove the possibility of disappointment. Not that long ago, this way of seeing the world wasn’t imaginable to anyone except maybe a few tech nerds in Silicon Valley. You took risks—small ones, to be sure—but risks that made any journey an exciting possibility the costs of whose discoveries were the occasional misfires and lemons that you were willing to endure for the chance at something you did not expect.

I have roughly a thousand photographs from the first five tours, mostly in Kodak Tri-X or T-Max. They have been, for years, in a dedicated black box, organized into contact sheets and divided by trip. Seeing the photos again for the first time in years, it is striking how different film feels from digital imagery. My photographs are often not precisely focused. They are variably grainy and sometimes over- or under-exposed. During our fourth trip, a light leak emerged in the Minolta SLR I borrowed from my dad for the first tours (although “stole” is probably more accurate). Shots from rolls taken with that camera are streaked with mistaken light. Some rolls that I processed myself are incompletely developed, blotches of white splattering the negatives at the most inopportune points. Some of those images are beyond repair. But some of them, even in their imperfection, have a certain unrepeatable, unintentional beauty to them. They are singular in a way that only accidents can produce: weird, psychedelic almost, and photographically amateurish, but interesting in a way that I didn’t anticipate or even hope for.

Film has a texture that digital images cannot reproduce, even with the most sophisticated forms of technological imitation. Taking a picture on film also requires a different approach: because you know you do not have virtually indefinite storage space, you have to be deliberate about each shot you take. You cannot afford to waste film, which is expensive to buy and to process. You are limited by the speed of your film; if you are shooting on slow 50 ISO film, you will have to adjust significantly if you decide to move indoors where the light is low. If you set up your camera to shoot inside, your images will have a different quality when you move into broad daylight.

Film photography is basically chemistry; digital photography is essentially electronics. Film is material in a way that digital photography is not. To work with film is to work with specific materials, namely silver halide, microscopic particles of which are embedded in gelatin emulsion and coated onto strips of cellulose acetate. Silver halide is responsive to light, so when exposed to it, it becomes dark and opaque. At its most fundamental level, film photography is an atomic metamorphosis.

None of this is to say that film photography is objectively better than digital. I have no position on this debate that I am willing to share publicly. Digital photography has practically made artists of us all, or at least given us the illusion that we are. It’s an extraordinary and inexpensive medium, and easily manipulable. Digital photography, however, does remove the element of risk involved in shooting film. You can afford to waste a lot of shots, and worry about editing them later. When shooting film, you have fewer chances, and must be more open to what you get.

Much of the mechanics of digital and film photography are virtually identical: shutter speed, aperture, focal length and so on. But digital photography is essentially the transfer of algorithmic information, while film photography is a chemical action involving actual materials. It is the transformation of liquids and solids, rocks and minerals, into images.

In Pasadena I had the opportunity to witness Mako paint. Mako is a master of nihonga, an ancient Japanese style of painting that uses mineral pigments hand-ground from azurite, malachite, oyster shells, and so on. The pigments must be ground to a powder and then mixed with a glue made from animal hides before being applied to a canvas. The result is an image that is never quite the same from moment to moment. Because the paint on the canvas is composed of millions of prism-shaped mineral crystals, it refracts light in infinite ways, and never looks exactly the same twice (or even once). In this sense, Mako’s paintings are events, happenings, that have to be experienced, received, enacted in person.

In a way, film photography is not so different from nihonga. It depends on powdered minerals that respond to light in unpredictable, unmanageable ways. In other ways, it couldn’t be more different: film is made in a lab, not in a studio. It is produced by machines and not by hand. The capture of an image on film is instantaneous, not a distended process like painting. But at root something magical happens with film that also happens in Mako’s paintings, but does not with digital images: light strikes rock, and rock becomes more than itself.

Positive images emerge from negatives: in order to produce light on a print you need opacity, a first response to light. Light always comes first. Darkness is derivative and subsidiary, but they belong together. What actually happens in the processing of in image is a paradox: light produces darkness, and that darkness in turn makes way for light.

And light, thank God, is unpredictable.