I hear ghosts when I drive through rural South Georgia. (Which is to say: all of South Georgia, because there is not much in the state beyond Atlanta that is not rural.) Georgia stretches for hundreds of miles down Interstate 75, dotted with sleepy towns in between swaths of farmland. I imagine that, from above, it resembles a great patchwork quilt of greens and whites and grays. White dots of flowering cotton. Gray for the pall of ghosts.
The border of Tallahassee (North Florida) and Thomasville (South Georgia) is a mere formality. This is the same plantation country with quaint hand-drawn signs and white fences inviting you to visit. The Spanish moss draped across mighty oak arms swing on the same breeze in both states. The land is so wide that you cannot see the stately homes on the property. I could admit plantations are beautiful places if I did not imagine swinging strange fruit on those old oaks.
In Atlanta, it is easy to forget that we have built our lives atop dead things. The visual cacophony of downtown’s shops and reflective glass buildings tend to drown out the quiet monuments of antebellum life. A statue of a Confederate general in the middle of a Midtown roundabout goes largely ignored. Tourist signs commemorating notable long-ago residents remind me that modernity is but a thin coat spread over history. Resurgens. The city’s memory is longer than we care to acknowledge in our quotidian lives.
Escaping the big city yields space. Space to move, space to breathe, space to think about each object my eyes sweep over. And my mind turns to the macabre. I see neat rows of trees in a fenced orchard and I wonder—do those leafy giants still thrive from the minerals in the spilled blood of African slaves? We are as rooted in America as she is in us.
I can wear cotton clothing with little thought to the fabric’s origin but the sight of a cotton field pricks me somewhere soft. I see lines of nothing but green plants in square fields until white dots appear. In late July, we are in the thick of cotton growing season. Fluffy bolls will soon burst under the relentless heat of the South Georgia sun. The only hands picking cotton these days are mechanical, but my mind envisions Black bodies in those fields. Feet planted in the red clay. Back bowed toward the sky. Fingers callused and split raw from sharp cotton bristles. King Cotton wasn’t always the fabric of our lives, but the stuff of our daymares.
You can’t bleed on cotton or else you’ll ruin it. But how many slaves spilled their blood for a cash crop that put clothes on America’s back? How many lives did cotton ruin for America to look spiffy? She will never get the stains out.
I feel ghosts humming beneath my feet. I am caught between times, as death casts shadows on life’s light. I see verdant crops, but in the far, far corner of a tract of land, there sits a dilapidated barn. The roof is a color that was once red but has slowly rusted orange. The paint has peeled in patches on the dull tin. And the carcass of the building is eaten through in places, with dark holes interrupting slabs of rotted wood. Rickety. A skeleton that once sheltered sustenance under its frame is now a harbinger that all things eventually crumble into dust.
Besides stalks of corn, shady orchards and the short cotton plants, there is nothing in South Georgia between towns. Occasionally, a tiny church—always white—will stand holy and separate in a clearing. Georgia is the fiber of the Bible belt, after all. But when I see the magenta juke joint, a long finger of a structure on the lonely highway, I laugh. The decoration along the side of the building is a black, tilted high heel; the drawn-on levity is a grace note in a town so morose. Even in the middle of nowhere, there is space to throw your head back and reveal the column of your neck, a length of leg.
And it occurs to me that the ghosts might be dancing among the trees, fingertips brushing against magnolia blossoms. Perhaps I have heard them humming the pleasure they seldom got to indulge in this land they nursed so well.
South Georgia in twilight is a world of nostalgia simply because there is nothing visible to snap you back to the present. It’s really quite beautiful. Blood has spilled and will forever remain deep in the clay. Red don’t wash out easily. But stains do fade to leave faint impressions of the past surrounded by today’s glory…much like ghosts.
Sunday Soliloquy is a reflective series that explores the tiny spaces–physical and mental– we often gloss over in our daily travels.