Ah, the sweet seduction of the south!
When I visit Lexington, Kentucky, in the heart of the part of the state that would have sided with the Confederacy if President Lincoln hadn’t prevented it, I remember Stephen Foster’s “Old Sweet Song.” Is there anywhere else in the world that has such lush enormous maples, magnificent Tulip Poplars, hedges of spun sugar white flowers I can’t identify? Or such blocks of handsome turn of the century houses, as in Fayette Park, each with its distinctive Richardsonian bay window or Victorian white trim, each set at a comfortable distance from its neighbors in a broad pad of Bluegrass lawn and flower borders?
The late sun this May afternoon gilds the facades and the flowers, makes no comment on the fact that there is no visible sign of human life, not even a car in a driveway (they must be hidden in back), no one out watering a lawn or playing catch with a child. This is the sugar picture that Disneyland perfected, and it is perfect, it is lovely, it is, of course, ultimately death-dealing.
To be honest, though, that thought didn’t occur to me as I strolled along, snapping a few photos. Only when I turned onto a side street did the reality of the place intrude.
The blocks behind these big houses are allotted to black people. These are not slave houses, but they are very small, very plain, and sometimes in a state of great neglect, sometimes kept carefully. Here, there are people outside, sitting, watching, playing radios, entertaining a child. Here, one tall black man sits calmly on the sidewalk, his hands laid side by side on a pillow in his lap, as though for display, his large feet revealed in high-heeled gold sandals. There is no use of pretending here; this is poverty, this is plainness, this is the life that always lies behind the big houses; these are the people who keep the big houses going.
I take no satisfaction in the life of the side streets. When people can’t afford air conditioning in this suffocating climate, they go outside. They are not sitting on their porches for my edification but to escape small, sweltering rooms.
A young woman passes me, pushing a stroller; perhaps I imagine the dejected droop of her shoulders, her set expression of resignation, patience, hopelessness. But I have reason to believe that a woman who lives on these back streets and already has a child has no future. One moment, one hour of pleasure, if that, and the rest of her life is mapped out. There is no reprieve.
She turns in at a small house with an enormous mass of disabled machinery in the front yard; a television is ranting inside.
As I walk on, to join other literary white people in a fundraiser for their library, I have no right to feel anything except a tiny prick of shame. Will anyone who lives in these small houses ever read a book of mine, ever visit the big modern library in the white part of town?
It seems unlikely.
If I had just pushed a stroller into that house where the television is ranting, I would not be leaving to go to what is called, here, “A Literary Feast.”
My feasts, if I ever had them, would not be literary, and they would be quickly over.