Don’t Look Back

You could say that this piece is about the present, and about the city as experienced by the photographer today. You could argue that one need not always resort to historical realities, or trace the threads of memory when the focus is in the here and now. But, the past is not dead. It’s not even past.  If I can quote a son of the South.

This is how you white-wash (so to say!) America’s cruel, brutal, racist history – write an entire piece about a Southern town, one that still celebrates its ‘civil war’ history, one that was once the center of Georgia’s cotton trade a.k.a. slave plantations and at the heart of America’s cotton trade – so powerfully, and painfully described in Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, and never once mention any of this definitive and critical history. 

Monroe in fact is a fantastic example of how slave owning, slave trading, plantation economy regions of America re-cast themselves as ‘historical’ destinations and ‘antique’ markets, in the process cleaning the blood and tears of a history that is very recent, and the scars still clear. I do not know the photographer’s intentions, I can certainly read and understand the way The New York Times presented this work, and the narratives it so sweetly hid behind euphemisms.

I do find it bizarre that the New York Times can run an entire pieces about a town in the South, at a moment in our history when White Supremacy is in political power, finding its voice back in the public and media sphere, acting out its bigoted impulses through violence and policies, and targeting the Black / Brown and other lives in the country, and never once mention that towns cruel and violent past. A past mind you that isn’t gone, and whose legacies and consequences can most likely still be seen and experienced had this photographer bothered to look. For example, nearly 50% of the Black population of this town lives in poverty. Why is that?

So what is the ‘common ground’ that we are told about in the title of this piece? What does that refer to? What do I say to a town that takes pride in civil war re-enactments? When they celebrate their ‘Heritage Day’ at the William Harris Homestead (Plantation), do they remember that he was a slave owner? And what is this ‘heritage’ that they celebrate? Do they see that as a war of liberation? Do they celebrate the bravery of their ancestors? Do they remember the ‘good old’ days because they remind them of their achievements and heritage, a heritage that for half the population of the city is one of degradation, humiliation, slaughter and abuse?

These issue matter. History matters. If we are in any way to understand our present predicaments, our current struggles, and those who speak back to the system demanding justice and equality, dignity and respect, then history matters. A writers and editors at the premier newspaper in the country should at the very least be conscious of this responsibility, and should know well that in a moment in time of rising racist and bigoted divisions, you just cannot elide truths and legacies that define and determine the very social, cultural, architectural, and political legacies of Southern towns and cities and states. You cannot.

This project is described in ways that suggest that the writer is entirely blind to the hard realities of the place. Here are the writer’s words:

“Her black-and-white project, “Hometown: A Documentary of Monroe, Georgia,” makes it clear that this is no dispassionate portrait, but a loving, clear-eyed view from inside, sort of. Monroe is the photographer’s adopted hometown. She moved there some 20 years ago after marrying a native son whose family runs one of the oldest and largest Hereford cattle ranches in Walton County. Her son and daughter were born there. They attend their father’s high school and church, and claim roots in town that go back several generations.”

Would those be slave owning, and profiteering cotton farming generations? Or when the writer says:

“She fell for the racially diverse town that refused to die along with the cotton industry. “

Really? Is this the ‘clear sightedness’ we now celebrate? This is what slavery and Jim Crow are now described as – racially diverse? And what about the hard, concrete poverty based dividing lines that define the town? Are they entirely invisible? Have we forgotten that it was only in the 1970s that civil rights were legally won in this country? That was just yesterday. Have we forgotten that at this very moment ‘racial diversity’ is precisely what is under assault, and what we had hoped we had outgrown i.e. institutional racism and White Supremacist celebrations and sense of national entitlement, is once again being worn and spoken about with pride?

We have longer descriptions of the iPhone which this work was produced with, than anything that speaks to the blood soaked history of this town. The former gets paragraphs, the latter not a single word! Remarkable. The bizarre obsession with technical toys, and programmatic and willed silence of uncomfortable American truths (slavery, occupations, wars, torture, renditions, etc.), is simply inexplicable. Or perhaps not. America is a myth. The New York Times is a core generator of those myths.

This is an egregious lack of history, or any sense of responsibility or even connectedness to our present reality. It is pieces like these, perhaps even projects like these (though I have no idea what the full breath and scope of her work is), that really shock me in their feigned ignorance of the challenges and dangers so many of us are facing today, and have faced for decades. It is this staggering disconnect, this arrogant repose of White comfort, that can still surprise me. It is this easy confidence that you can write an essay like this, produce a work like this, and never be questioned for your ignorance or willed erasure of histories that define and determine our lives today.

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