Archive for the ‘Confederate Streets’ Category

    Our neighborhood pool always hosted a day of contests and games on the Fourth of July. When I was about 9 or 10, one of the contests involved tossing poker chips into the pool and inviting the dads to swim around and get as many as they could. Each poker chip could be cashed in for a can or case of Coca-Cola, depending on the color. I love Coca-Colas. Always have. The prospect of free cokes (in cans!) for the rest of the summer was just about the most glorious thing I could imagine, so I convinced Dad to enter.
      The poker chips were tossed into the diving well, a whistle was blown, and a scrum of dozens of 30 to 50-year-old men jumped in and started grabbing all the chips they could. The pool water literally frothed. There were hundreds of poker chips on the bottom of the Seven Hills Pool, but the whole spectacle was over in less than sixty seconds. All the dads went into the clubhouse clutching their winnings, some of them coming back out with hand trucks to haul all the cases of Coke they had won.
     I couldn’t wait to see how many Cokes MY dad had gotten. I spent some long moments envisioning the massive store of name-brand fizzy goodness that would soon be the Tocknells’, and then Dad emerged, looking disheveled and perturbed, carrying four cans of Coke by the two empty rings of the six pack. “We can each have one,” he said, holding them out to me. Implicit in his proclamation: “Let us never speak of this again.”
     We really enjoy telling this story in my family, mostly to pick on Dad, and he always responds with extreme indignation that a simple Fourth of July neighborhood game turned into Underwater Gladiator. “I had NO IDEA it would be like that. I was completely unprepared!”
     The Great Coke Debacle of ’88 encapsulates something I love about my father: The idea of fighting over anything solely because it’s there and someone else will get it if you don’t makes zero sense to him. You fight for a principle, yeah, but greed? Greed is useless. Here’s a cold Coke on a beautiful day and that’s enough. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. 🙂

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Where are you?



Here at my place of employ, the faculty is putting out a daily Advent devotional via email. Today was my assigned day.  This is what I wrote: 

Gen. 3:8-15
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock
   and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
   and you will eat dust
   all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
   between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
   and you will strike his heel.”

Anyone who spends as much time reading literary works from across the centuries as English teachers do will notice, not only the pervasive nature of snake imagery, but also how none of it is crafted to leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sure, there are some individuals out there (including me) who think snakes are cool, but our collective reaction as a species is primal. We don’t like snakes. We bruise their heads, and they bruise our heels.

Reading these verses, I thought especially of a line from Macbeth, “We have scorched the snake, not killed it” (3.2.15). By that point in the play, Macbeth is already King of Scotland, having dispatched the previous King after having him over for supper. However, Macbeth doesn’t feel safe in this ill-gotten kingship, and he gives Lady Macbeth the line about the serpent right after he’s sent a team of hitmen to kill his best friend and that friend’s young son.

In the context of Genesis, I consider all the animal metaphors Shakespeare didn’t use. His Scottish tyrant doesn’t say, “We have shot the bear, not killed it,” or “Stabbed the dragon, not slain it.” Shakespeare chose to personify Macbeth’s fear as a small, wounded thing that slithers over the ground. Macbeth acts for the sake of his own protection, not from an actual threat, but from his perception that something terrible waits for him in the dust.

In these darkest days of the year, we are reminded that we often do the same. But the promise of  Advent is that God will not leave us with our real or imagined serpents. In Genesis, the Lord also speaks one of my favorite lines in the Bible: Where are you?  I imagine God asking this question while looking directly at Adam and Eve’s feet sticking out from a honeysuckle bush. God knows where they are, physically. What he wants to know is what they’re hiding from. Where are you?

We never know when God will show up amidst our fear and brokenness and ask us where we are, but Advent reminds us that we can visit those dark places without the fear of being left there.

Where are you? God asks.

And we answer.

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My first thought upon hearing that Atticus Finch was a segregationist was to wonder if the recent trend of naming boys “Atticus” would screech to a halt. As NPR moved on to a new topic and I made coffee in my kitchen, I pictured some frantic yuppie couple in Brooklyn or Nashville Googling “boys’ names” while their hospital overnight bag sat packed and ready in the corner. I’m not going to lie – I smirked at the image. Silly trendy yuppies.

But as my mother used to say, pointing one finger at someone else aims three back at yourself. If you, like me, are white, American, and named for an ancestor, the overwhelming odds are that you also tote a complicated cultural load.

Before I discuss the nonfiction truth of what it means to confront a legacy, let’s look at the fictional one. In Harper Lee’s universe of Maycomb, Alabama, Atticus Finch defends a black man in court in 1935 and rails against Brown v. Board of Education in 1955. I’m going to be blunt here: If this surprises you, there are some serious knowledge gaps you need to address regarding the South, the white moderate, and the sea change Brown ushered in. The Civil Rights history book, Carry Me Home, would be a good place to start. It’s long and multi-faceted. To Kill a Mockingbird is neither of those things; the novel so many Americans love was created for an entirely different purpose.

Mockingbird is a 20th century morality play. The racist townspeople whom Scout, Jem, and Dill encounter consist of a bitter old woman, a lynch mob, and Bob Ewell – a shiftless drunk who throws the n-word around with abandon, beats and rapes his daughter, and meets his demise because he sneak-attacks the Finch children. On the other side, we have Atticus Finch – America’s dream dad. Atticus dispenses wise advice about courage, empathy, and the fairness of the courts, all in a way his cherished children can understand. However, we readers learn very little about Tom Robinson, the man Atticus defends. All we really know is that Atticus and other white Maycombers consider Tom to be the “right” kind of black person. It’s clear throughout the book that Atticus has taken the case because he believes in upholding the fairness of the law. The law in 1930s Alabama was dominated by Jim Crow.

And so, in Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise “Scout” Finch comes home from New York City and the man who once called Tom Robinson “a quiet, humble Negro” is now telling her, “The Negros down here are still in their childhood as people.” Paternalism reigns in each Atticus, but Jean Louise is upset and disillusioned, and, from what I can tell, so are some journalists who have read the book already and at least one who hasn’t.

Y’all, of course Atticus is racist. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker some years ago, Atticus demonstrates his own prejudices throughout the novel. His words regarding the “trashy” Ewells and his chummy relationship with the Sheriff indicate that Atticus moved in the rarified air of the privileged white moderate. Also, while Atticus says a number of compassionate, moral things in Mockingbird, he never talks about overthrowing the system he’s working under – he mainly wants to make sure it works equally well for all parties.

We have to move past our Mockingbird understanding of racism. Racists are not only the Bob Ewells of the world, stumbling around full of malice and corn likker. Good people are racist, and I don’t mean that in an apologist sort of way. Matters of race are hard to discuss and even harder to understand, so we white people create this headspace where racists are thoroughly, demonstrably evil, and we are not. The truth is, if all racists were the KKKs and Bob Ewells, we would have figured out how to get rid of it all a generation ago – very few of us tolerate that degree of evil. The truth is, everyone is racist – or at least makes snap judgments based on race, which is my definition. Racism is as multi-faceted as we are. Like a number of white men of his class and standing, Atticus believed that most people were fundamentally good. He would never be so base as to attack a black man or use the n-word,  but he still believed that blacks and whites were intrinsically different and should lead separate lives. Atticus was wrong. He was not “a victim of his time.” He looked at the facts and drew the wrong conclusions. From the reviews I’ve seen of Watchman, Jean Louise recognizes as much.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I carry the name of an Atticus of my own. My middle name, Euline, was my grandmother’s. Grandma was born in Alabama in the early 1920s. She died when I was twelve, but I learned much from her in that first decade of my life. I took my first steps in her yard in Birmingham. She taught me about art and storytelling. I have a clear memory of the day she told me what a lie was and explained why I must never tell them. It was years after Grandma passed away when I learned she’d had nothing good to say about Martin Luther King or the end of Jim Crow. Considering that she grew up white and poor in the South, I might have surmised as much, but it’s still difficult to learn. And the thing is, if you’re a white Southerner and you’re paying attention, your memory is filled with Atticus Finches – neighbors, grandparents, and teachers who shaped your moral landscape, yet were themselves opposed to desegregation, often vocally so.

I want to defend my grandmother and the other role models of my childhood. I can’t say they were bad, nor can I say they were good. The long-gone folks whose space I now occupy, whose mantle I have taken up, were like me, I suppose, good in many ways and bad in many others. I don’t intend to vilify, lionize, or make excuses. The only thing I can do is what I hope my descendants and students will one day do for me – recognize that real people are complex, recognize their own fallibility in mine, learn, and press on to a more enlightened state.

Rather than despair at the racism of Atticus Finch or our grandparents, it should make us respect the Martin Luther Kings and Fannie Lou Hamers all the more. They were visionaries, and being a visionary takes far more than being simply good.

For the record, I would pass the name “Euline” along to a daughter, if I had one. The name evokes my family’s past as tenant farmers, my grandmother as a real-life Rosie the Riveter, and my mother’s lessons and good humor (Euline being her middle name as well). I would tell that daughter the truth about the past, just as my mother did for me, and I would hope that she would face those truths squarely and work in her present to improve upon the future.

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I had a great time reading from Confederate Streets and discussing the finer points of writing literary nonfiction at the Chattanooga Downtown Library last night. Thanks very much to those of you who came out, even with Riverbend going on! By the way, I have another blog of essays about Chattanooga at a not so secret location, if you’re interested.

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As of today, Confederate Streets has been out in the world for four years! 2015 has been a good year for it so far. I have a piece about Sam Dodson and the Nashville Clergy Movement in the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. I read from “Our Most Segregated Hour” and some new pieces at Lee University in January, and tomorrow I’ll be reading and leading a workshop at the Meacham Writers’ Workshop at UTC. Thanks to you all for your support!

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Hello everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve been on here, but that’s not because Confederate Streets has dropped off the radar. Whereas 2011 was the Year of the Book – an exhilarating adventure of promotion and travel, 2012 has begun with a comfortable momentum. I have a reading coming up and the book is also gathering some credibility on the book club scene.

Last night, I returned to the WinderBinder Bookstore and Gallery, site of my Chattanooga book launch last April, for a discussion of Confederate Streets at the monthly meeting of Chattanooga’s Southern Literature Book Club. I do love sitting down with people who have read my essays, especially folks who didn’t know me beforehand. Inevitably, these discussions turn into author interviews and good readers (as these folks are) ask good questions. Last night, someone asked me how I teach students who have told me that they, too, want to be writers. Well, I’ve only had one who’s declared his interest in writing books and he actually introduced me when I read at WinderBinder last April, which was one of the most special things about that evening. Other than trying to connect interested students with opportunities to be published, enter contests, and that type of thing, I realized that I don’t approach teaching any differently with a math kid or a poet or whatever. Good writing is good writing. Perhaps I’m just a crazy idealist, but I want every kid who comes in contact with me to understand writing both as something that is functional and necessary and something that allows us all to understand the world as we muddle our way through living in it.

March is almost here and I have two more appearances connected with Confederate Streets

Wednesday, March 14, 12:00 – Book club meeting at McCallie School. I believe this is a pretty established club, but it’s run by the headmaster’s wife, so if you know her and want to come, drop her an email, I guess. I’m looking forward to passing a lunch hour in the Headmaster’s House on the day before Spring Break.

Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m. – Reading at Tusculum College, Greeneville, TN –  I am really looking forward to heading up to Tusculum during Spring Break. My friend and fellow WVU MFA Alum, Wayne Thomas, has been teaching there for a number of years now and has steadily garnered attention for the school’s creative writing program. This will be a fine evening indeed.

I’ve really appreciated you all, my faithful readers, and your willingness to share your thoughts on my book, write reviews for it, and tell your friends about it. My goal last year was to get my book “out there” and it does seem that has happened. I’m in a good place as a writer and teacher at this point. The published book is rolling, the work I want to write is making progress (slower than I would like, but I can make it a priority this year, which is wonderful), and my time in the Writing Center at the school where I work is giving me the chance to support young people who want to write.

I’ll say this though – I’d love to have more than three book-related appearances in 2012. If you can’t make it to the upcoming book clubs or reading, consider hosting your own! I am based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I have a reliable car, an iPod full of music, and a high school teacher’s schedule. In other words, I am game for road trips. In fact, I love them. If you’d like to arrange a reading or book club meeting through your church, school, friends, etc. and you want me to come, I’d be more than willing. The best way to get in touch with me would be to leave a comment here, email me (info is under the contact tab) or “friend” Confederate Streets on facebook.

Thanks everyone. Have a great day and read a good book.

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For the entire time I was growing up in Nashville, my favorite place to go when I had some money in my pocket was a bookstore called Davis-Kidd. Heck, it was my favorite place to go even when I didn’t have money in my pocket. Many of Nashville’s bibliophiles, seeking to prove their long memory, will brag about remembering the first location Davis-Kidd had in the Green Hills mall, back in the 80s. Well, I remember even before that, when Davis-Kidd was in a little box of a building that is now an Oriental Rug Depot or somesuch thing. I remember the clerk recommending children’s books to me. As I grew, so did the store, moving to bigger and bigger locations.

By the time I was about 13, Davis-Kidd was in a glorious two-story building and my English teachers were predicting that I would be a writer when I grew up. Their assertions were almost always followed by a reference to Davis-Kidd, i.e. “I just know I’m going to see your book in the window at Davis-Kidd someday.” My dream of being an author was completely intertwined with the idea of someday reading and selling my book there. When I got my driver’s license, I would go to the store and sit on the benches between the shelves like I was in worship, which I suppose I kind of was.

At about this time last year, the news broke that Davis-Kidd was closing. My book had been accepted for publication but not yet released, and I had just received the form that authors have to fill out in order for this icon of a store to carry their book. My immediate reaction was that I had come very close to realizing a dream, only to have it snatched away. I was crushed. Eventually, this emotional reaction healed over, but I was still left with a pragmatic struggle: Here I was with a book about Nashville and there was no place in Nashville to sell it.

Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about what’s involved in selling books. I’ve learned about publishers and distributors, and I’ve learned just how hard it is to get a box store to carry a book that didn’t come out of a major publishing house. The Barnes+Noble located not far from the events depicted in Confederate Streets won’t carry my book unless the national office approves it, which isn’t going to happen for my little collection of essays.  It’s ridiculous. The whole process of trying to get any retailer in Nashville to notice my book has been frustrating and disheartening. It seems that every phone call gets routed through New York City.

This summer, some rumors about a new bookstore began circling. And, I’d be darned if they didn’t end up to be true. Ann Patchett, a Nashvillian and nationally renowned author, partnered up with Karen Hayes, a sales rep from Random House. They decided to open their own bookstore, which they named Parnassus, after the mountain where the ancient Greeks believed learning and literature lived. After a whole lot of work on their part and a lot of enthusiasm from the community, Parnassus Books opens TODAY in Green Hills. I will be there. Confederate Streets will be there.

There’s been an awful lot of talk in recent years about the death of the book (a session with just such a name was standing-room only at The Southern Festival of Books last month in Nashville), and I imagine that at least a few of you are reading this blog or my book on some sort of e-device. That’s fine, but after the year I’ve had, I can assure you that bookstores are still a vital part of any intellectual community. My friends have stepped up admirably – they’ve hosted me for readings and shared Confederate Streets with their book clubs – so the book has definitely received some momentum. However, even with that assistance and the dominance of Amazon, if a book doesn’t have a home, it doesn’t exist. I don’t even know if I would buy a book about Nashville that cannot actually be purchased in Nashville. Anyone can throw some self-published blather up on an e-book. Bookstores provide ethos.

Bookstores also provide community. As a reader, sometimes I just want to be in a place where I can browse. Sometimes, I’m in a mood and I just want to read something with a certain tone or that covers a certain topic. Knowledgable booksellers are so much more helpful than an algorithim, and it’s always more fun to be in an actual physical space than it is to browse the Internet in solitude.

As an author, bookstores are equally as necessary. Davis-Kidd closed and my scramble began. I was emailing churches, libraries, colleges, anyone. I have this book and people say it’s pretty good and would you like me to come speak about it? Well, you can’t buy it in town, but I can bring my own copies. It’s been the same with getting the media to review the book. It’s about Nashville…No, but you can buy it on Amazon. I was usually shut down. I’ve even met a couple prominent authors who were willing to give readings with me (I saw it as being the opening act to their arena-level rock band), but it’s hard to give a reading when the place that usually hosts such things has gone.

Parnassus is focusing on the local, and that will be key to its survival. Take it from me – the small neighborhood bookshop is as relevant in 2011 as it has ever been. In fact, with the all-out information blitz that assaults our senses during our waking hours, a place like Parnassus – Nashville’s new home for literature, for readings, and for browsing on a Saturday afternoon – is more necessary than ever.

The GRAND OPENING of Parnassus Books will be all day today in Nashville. I will be joining other local authors for a reception from 5-8 p.m. Parnassus is in the shopping center where Abbot Martin T’s into Hillsboro Road. (As if a bookstore opening isn’t wonderful enough, it’s opening in the same row of shops as Fox’s Donut Den!)  If you live in Nashville, stop on by. If you don’t, give your friendly neighborhood bookstore some lovin’ real soon.

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