KAIROS & CRISIS
What’s to be understood? Are we supposed to continue to act wrong so that God’s family love will come down more? God, don’t let that have to be.
—Epistle to the Romans, American Folk Gospel
Some peasants accompanied Francis a little way, but soon they said to him: ‘We don’t want to go any farther because that wolf is very fierce and we might get hurt.’ When he heard them say this, Francis answered: ‘Just stay here. But I am going on to where the wolf lives.’
—The Little Flowers of St. Francis
[Pilgrimage: Rome, GA, February 2017]
I found myself more emotional than I expected I’d be, standing in the Rome First United Methodist fellowship hall, waiting in line for Patrick Phillips to sign the copy of Blood at the Root I’d just purchased. The gravity hit when I realized Phillips—who’d just delivered a challenging discourse on racism, violence, and white silence in front of a packed sanctuary for Rome’s second annual Hearts United Gathering—was not only signing books, but taking time to speak to each person going through the line. Trying to figure out how to tell him why I was there, I realized I was rocking side to side, shifting weight from one foot to the other, my hands and arms cold and sweating, tears just shy of welling, choking something back. I was thinking about my great-grandfather, Cleaburn Buice, who died at 86 when I was 11, and my children, then ages 7 and 5.
The book I held to my chest, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, recounts a 1912 lynching in Forsyth County, Georgia, following which whites in Forsyth terrorized and drove the entire black population out of the county, keeping Forsyth practically all white well into the 90’s. I was struggling with whether and how to tell Phillips that, according to family lore, my great-grandfather—who grew up in Forsyth and would’ve been nearly 4 in the late summer of 1912—was present at that lynching, a little boy by his father’s side, a white child watching a black teenager hang on the Cumming courthouse square.
As I waited in line, the image I could not shake—a generational translation of sorts, a kind of inborn haunting—was one of my two little children on that square, 105 years ago, beside some shadowy father figure who’d taken them there, standing in place of my great-grandfather.
Simply because of the father/son analog, my thoughts gravitated first to my son: If my great-great grandfather and great-grandfather were in fact at that lynching, it was a kind of father/son moment, albeit a nihilistic, abusive manifestation of that trope. But even for that analog, my daydream shifted to my daughter, too. It is after all my daughter—who had then just turned 5, not even old enough for kindergarten—who was closer in age and development to the ghost of my great-grandfather in this daydream.
Only a couple days before my trip to Rome, my wife and I were talking about how when we brush our daughter’s hair back, we can still see traces of her baby hair, a faint edge of fuzz at her brow, a remnant and reminder of her infancy. That day I stood in line at Rome First United Methodist, my daughter was almost a year older than my great-grandfather would have been that September day in 1912.
I knew my great-grandfather, who we called Papa, inasmuch as it is possible for an elementary-aged child to know an elderly man who didn’t have much use for conversation. I knew him enough to cry when he died. I knew him enough to love him, and I knew he loved me, and there wasn’t much else to it. His baby hair was long gone by the time I came around, of course; by then, it had become grayish-white, almost to the point of yellowing, wiry but thick, the complete opposite of infant fuzz. He smelled of mothballs and Red Man. His innocence, taken early when his father made him witness to a lynching, was long since gone.
I have good memories of visiting Papa’s home in Lilburn, a place I still I still associate with warmth and Christmas. Granted, these associations are due mostly to the presence of my great-grandmother, Opal Buice, who died in 2009 at 93. She was a truly gentle spirit who I might go so far as to say is numbered among the saints, after whom my wife and I named our daughter. She made the best biscuits in the world.
She might have lived to see my son, her great-great grandson, who was born the year she died, but she lost a grandson—my uncle, my dad’s brother—to suicide three months before she would pass on. In September 2008, my uncle—a father, a husband, a beloved teacher-turned-administrator—shot himself in the garage of his mini-mansion in an affluent country club community in Forsyth County. While this is conjecture, I often wonder if the weight of that loss contributed to my great-grandmother’s own need to let go. And I wonder if the weight of the silence in our family concerning violence, an unspoken legacy of abuse and depression, contributed in some way to my uncle’s despair.
Whatever the case, Papa Buice was an enigma to me, in more ways than any elderly person might seem mysterious to a child. I loved him, as I’ve said. I remember, in a joke we inherited from our dad and uncles, that my sisters and I would call Papa “Gramps,” a nickname he pretended to hate. Whenever we did this, Papa would unfold himself from his easy chair, bear down on his cane, and hobble around the house after us, playing along, acting out an angry chase.
“Don’t call me Gramps!” he’d bellow, jokingly. My sisters and I would run from him, laughing and hiding from room to room, always careful to avoid knocking into the gun case in the hall and the shelves of knickknacks all around the house. Eventually, Papa would tire and fade back into his recliner. Sometimes we’d steal his cane. He’d share his circus peanuts with us, and when I was very little, I’d eat sardines with him before I learned I was supposed to think sardines were gross.
But even for all that—and strange as it is to say this about a man I most readily associate with cardigans, a cane, chewing tobacco, sardines, and orange-tinted, marshmallow candy—I was afraid of Papa Buice. My dad, incidentally, has said much the same thing: He loved Papa, but he was scared of him. When my dad was a boy, I suspect that fear was due not only to Papa’s look and demeanor, but also to his temper—it was probably a practical fear of belt spankings.
When I came around, that temper had dissipated as a function of old age, but it manifested in a haggard appearance. Without much imagination at all, you could tell it had been there. Papa’s nails grew yellow, thick, pointed. Even for his loose skin, his features remained sharp—sharp nose, sharp chin, sharp cheek bones. His ears were huge, cartilaginous—I’ve got big ears, and my dad’s and uncles’ are even bigger, and I often think that this trait my family calls “Martin ears” is not so much Martin as Buice.
But it was something about his eyes and his voice that mostly drove my fear. Deep-set gray eyes that swirled like a storm, even behind his glasses, defined the look he carried. He always seemed in pain, scowling. He rarely spoke, but when he did, his voice came through in a low growl, raspy and gravelly.
Even for his relative silence, Papa used racial slurs openly. My parents dealt with this by not dealing with it, at least until it became clear my sisters and I were old enough to notice. Even then, they mostly brushed it aside. As my dad told it, it’s not so much that my great-grandfather was a racist (though he certainly was); it’s more that he was a product of a racist time. Obviously, that kind of distinction needs examples if it’s going to mean anything to a child, and this is how I began to learn part of my family’s history that led me to a book-signing line in Rome a quarter-century later.
The story never came in one piece, and I mostly picked it up listening to peripheral conversations at family gatherings, but I suppose sometime around 10 years old, I learned that my great-grandfather was from Forsyth County, not far at all from where we lived in Gwinnett, and that a long time ago, when my great-grandfather was little, for reasons I didn’t fully understand but now see as rooted in the myth of black criminality, the white people in Forsyth drove all the black people out of the county. Part of the story goes that when a mule-cart caravan of black former county residents, former neighbors—people I now properly understand as black refugees fleeing white terrorism—passed the home where my great-grandfather’s family lived on their way to the county line, Papa Buice, then a little boy, joined his brothers in taunting them, shooting rocks at them and their mules with slingshot flips.
This, I concluded, happened in a time far removed from my own, with no implications for me whatsoever. All I had to do to not carry on that legacy, the moral of the story went, was simple: Just don’t use the n-word. Facing structural racism and where I fit into that structure was not a part of it. It was matter of decorum that did not require me to face a heritage of violence, and that’s more or less how I took it. I didn’t know anything about lynching, for example—not as subject, and certainly not as part of my family tree.
But, two decades later, I would come to understand this story as part of a greater American story, a story of racism woven within the fabric of not only national history but family history, a story very much a part of my own. I would become a writer—laughable as I acknowledge that label is—and from there would become an author. One thing would lead to another and I’d find myself reading from a poetry chapbook in which race was a theme, a reading for which my father would be in the audience.
It was a small audience—maybe fifteen or twenty people—and maybe it was this smallness that emboldened my father to say what he said, I don’t know. All I know is I read a few poems from the book—one of which referenced Trayvon Martin, one of which referenced the Confederate flag, maybe one or two others where race was a theme—and, at the end, during the Q&A, my father decided it would be a good time to let me know—publicly, for the first time—that my great-grandfather was present at a lynching.
My father presented this in such a way as to suggest that he was proud of my color-blindness, that he was glad I’d moved on from generations, like my great-grandfather’s, that didn’t know any better, products of their times as they were. I can’t recall my exact response, but I said something to the effect that, deferentially, I am not color blind, and that I—that we—had not moved on. It would take longer to begin processing the story he passed along.
I did move forward in that fellowship hall line, though, and when I reached Patrick Phillips, handing him my book, I thanked him for writing it, and told him two branches of my family had deep roots in Forsyth. He asked me my name, and when I told him, he replied, “Yeah, you could throw a rock in Forsyth and hit a Martin.”
I told him about the Buices, too, and, after many false starts, that my great-grandfather, though I did not know for sure, was likely present at the lynching that was the subject of his book.
I don’t think he discerned my seriousness before, but he did when I told him that. “The whole town was there,” he said. “Your great-grandfather was probably there, too.”
[Where the Wolf Lives]
I have roots in the blood, though I don’t know the full degree to which my not-too-distant forbears were involved in Forsyth’s racist terror.
While my research is as yet incomplete and I can’t rule anything out, I have no reason to believe any of my kin actively participated in that lynching or joined any of the many night rides to burn black homes, farmsteads, and churches. But, as is clear from recent events, determining my family’s complicity in a racist structure is not so straightforward a matter as asking whether one of my distant relatives tied a noose or torched a barn.
It’s not that such knowledge is beside the point; it’s more that such knowledge is probably beyond my knowing. What I do know, as I’ve written, is that my kin abided the racist terror. What I do know is it’s likely some of my kin were on the town square the day of the lynching for the spectacle of it. What I do know is it’s likely some of my kin watched black refugees flee Forsyth and either said nothing or jeered them on their way.
While I am committed to uncovering as much truth as I can, and while studying family and cultural history is of inimitable worth, my interest here is not in laying blame at the feet of ghosts. I am more concerned with confronting oppressive and racist structures now, in this time, which includes confronting the legacy of such structures within myself. I understand these structures are really ruins and offer no real refuge for anyone.
Part of this confrontation involved my trip to Rome, Georgia, to get the book about an event in a place that much of my family has called home for decades upon decades, so I could begin unraveling and struggling with my connection, by blood, to that moment on the Cumming square in 1912 and all that followed. But it was about much more than getting the book, meeting its author, and hearing him speak, valuable as all that was.
It was a trip more akin to a pilgrimage, or part of one. While in Rome, I also wanted to see the replica of the Capitoline Wolf sculpture standing outside the courthouse. Aside from a general interest in mythology that would lead me to this piece of art, I recently learned my surname, Martin, an inheritance from people who settled Forsyth in the late nineteenth century—people who would’ve been around during the time of what Patrick Philips and others have called a “racial cleansing”—etymologically derives from Mars.
Martin is a form of Maritain and Martian, literally “of Mars”—Mars, of course, being the Roman god of war, violence, and bloodshed. This god’s namesake planet appears blood-red in the night sky. The blood at the root of Forsyth’s history, and thus my family’s history, spills over in my family name.
Mars, according to the myth, was the father of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of ancient Rome who almost died in the wilderness as infants until a lactating wolf happened upon the twins, took them as its own, and suckled them back to health.
I learned what my last name meant, incidentally, following an argument with my father—an argument rooted partially in the 2016 presidential election and all the misogyny and racism it emboldened. Following the argument, which we’ve taken steps to resolve though it still lingers, my sisters and I were joking about how we needed to change our last name. I proposed “Snow” since I’d recently taken an interest in binge-watching Game of Thrones. That gave my sisters and me a much-needed laugh, but it led to an important realization: We had no clue what our name meant and not much knowledge of our family’s history.
When I looked up Martin in an etymology dictionary and realized our name traces back to Mars, mythological manifestation of violence—particularly the virile, masculine, Western variety—things began to make a little sense, and the possibility of a new story opened. I learned about Martinmas, St. Martin of Tours, St. Eddie Owens Martin, the etymology of the purple martin, and so much more. I’m writing about all that and will be for a while.
But as to the she-wolf: Something seemed significant and even synchronous to me—knowing all I’ve described, just beginning to grapple with it—about going to confront my family’s history, and process some of the argument with my father (which I would argue is of a piece of that history), in a town named after a town that was named after Romulus, mythological son of Mars. So I wanted to see the wolf sculpture.
That wolf sculpture in Rome, Georgia—a replica of the original in Rome, Italy—was a gift of Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader through World War II.
I’ve told you what sparked this pilgrimage was an argument about an election and all that informed and caused it.
The sculpture depicts the mythical she-wolf, keeping tense watch as Romulus and Remus drink its milk. In our argument, my father sarcastically told my sister—like me, like Romulus, a Martin, descendent from Mars—to find a safe place and grow up.
I soon became obsessed with this wolf, a creature now very much a part of my story. I began to wonder where it had gone; after it gives of itself to make Romulus and Remus whole, it disappears from the story. Or, perhaps more to the point, the storytellers erase it.
Growing up is critical here. To again turn to Paul, this from his epistle to the Corinthians, also from the American Folk translation, which I love:
Whether knowledge comes about or not, it will be rendered out of date. We know only in bits and we preach only about life’s pieces. But when comes endtime maturity, the piecemealing ends. When I was a baby, I talked as a baby, I behaved as a baby, I understood as a baby. Then I became an adult. I passed through the stage of babyish ways. So it is now.
This is my truth. I love my father and mention him and our argument here only insomuch as this story needs it for context. But the story itself transcends both of us. I do not speak for my father, nor for my sisters, nor for ghosts.
I am interested, more than anything, in the wolf—in its remnant nourishment, in how we’ve lost it, ignored it, except perhaps as a dream, an intergenerational memory. I believe in seeking this part of the story we’ve lost we might find ourselves and free ourselves. We’ve assumed the wolf, the lost story, to be fierce, dangerous. I’ve come to believe, though, that what we might find at the roots of white supremacy, among the ruins, is abiding pain. We might seek it and sit with it and see what it has to teach us. We might understand it as empathy.
I write now as a white man of white pain to white people. We have dressed up this pain in robes, called it supremacy, called it segregation, and have tried to secede from it still today by calling it heritage and history. Those of us who think we know something have called it ignorance and backwardness and have assumed that has given us enough distance from it. We’ve assumed this struggle is not ours, too, though it is in fact ours more than anyone’s.
Even now, in Kennesaw, Georgia, a place I’ve known as home, a place that is my spiritual terrain, where Confederate flags fly downtown, where Confederate culture is embraced though we do not understand how it drains us, a place that was a thoroughfare of the Trail of Tears and refugee slaves, a place where the blood of Union and Confederate soldiers became the very soil at Kennesaw Mountain—even here we do not listen, not to ghosts, not to those now working to lead us home. Even now that the Kennesaw 5 have made national headlines for taking a knee in a courageous act against racial injustice, even now that a Kennesaw elementary school has made national headlines for a racially charged and decontextualized activity on the Civil War that led to a white student calling a black student a slave— even here, even now, we act as though this is not our struggle, too.
I have told you this story as a way of extending a hand. This pain is ours to bear with them. Listen to their words. Empathy is all we risk finding.
Contributing editor Christopher Martin is a writer in the northwest Georgia piedmont. His debut book, This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith (Mercer UP, 2017), received the Will D. Campbell Award in Creative Nonfiction.
Brown, Raphael, trans. The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Image Books, 1958.
“Capitoline Wolf.” Greater Rome Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Laskow, Sarah. “Neither Rome, GA, Nor Rome, NY, Could Handle a Statue with Wolf Teats.”
Atlas Obscura. 16 Oct. 2015. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/neither-rome-ga-nor-rome-ny-could-handle-a-statue-with-wolf-teats
“Martin.” The Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, 2017.
Phillips, Patrick. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. Norton, 2016.