Sunday, October 11, 2009

On Visiting Georgia

I visited Georgia over the weekend. Augusta - on a business trip for the fist time. For the most part, the city lived up to its reputation and altogether, took my breath way. It was an enchanting place and a highly diverse region - and for me my first look at the historic South. While I've traveled far and wide, I have never been below Washington D.C. and thus, Augusta was virgin country for this invariably northern soul. While I was there primarily to visit a historically black college, my experience of Augusta was amplified by a stay at a historic hotel called the Patridge Inn. You must know that my trip was short and I hardly traveled in the city at all and so, the hotel was a lively adventure in and of itself. From its large verandah overlooking a historic road called Walton Way, I was mesmerized by the simple charm and decor and the warm skies, that recalled grandiose images of history in my mind and heart - I could hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice bellowing through the pastoral expanse of the horizon, declaring freedom for the black race - and Lincoln's abolitionist sentiment carved into the bedrock. While this was strongly evident, it also produced an overwhelming sense of the racial divide - perhaps justified or caused by my own displacement as a New Yorker who was suddenly gone with the wind. No matter - the feeling was palpable - the historic hotel seemed to recall the wealth and prestige of a golden age in America but also showed the splintering racial divide in its historic structure. What was it? The hotel employed both white people and blacks. There was even a Mexican-American working as a manager - neatly dressed and highly professional. But no one talked unless talked to. Thus, the spirit of the city was lacking. There was an eerie quiet in the denizen halls - no laughter, no pats on the back or jovial hellos among the hotel staff - just going about daily business and never crossing that invisible line of the racial divide - lest a delicate social balance be disrupted. Interestingly, the Nationals are played here that bring a commercial hype to the state and indeed, golfers who participate are both black and white. Perhaps too my impression was colored by the fact that I was there visitng a largely black college. While I was greeted warmly, I could sense that all was not well in Augusta or that the old racial dust had settled and that life had neatly folded away as a lawn chair in the back of a cluttered garage full of bygone memories - could it be the half-smile of the hotel clerks or simply the perfection of their craft or the overwhelming hospitality, which seemed perfectly natural and exemplary of Southern hospitality. The experience was both haunting and hopeful. What if Augusta was founded by Buddhist monks, Hindus or Moslem conquerors - would it be the same place that it is today? Would it still boast the Nationals that are largely governed by whites in a historically black region with a tradition of slavery? Then during a night of jazz at the hotel, things for me came more into focus. Here on the same verandah where I could hear history speak, was an all-black Jazz band with a black male lead singer - I assumed this man was a long-time Augustan resident and I wondered whether he might indeed, be descended from slaves. He was a great singer and his all-black entourage formed a great band and for me recalled a golden age of blues and black music in the South. I sipped on a glass of Pinot and laid back on the couch, taking it all in. I was not alone. The audience on the terrace was mostly white. Young white people - some of them business professionals with Christian values and a love of beer and music - all well dressed and well groomed - either vacationing or just stopping by for a relaxed evening had gathered peaceably on the terrace to enjoy the calm atmosphere. Then a great oddity - a young white woman who was with several friends including white males - commenced to dance where the band was playing. This woman was white - and in an all-white party, it seemed very odd that she would approach such a large, black man in a historically segregated state - and take up the stage in such a brazen way - I sensed something was wrong when the singer seemed to hedge at her advance. The outnumbering of whites to blacks was alarming for someone like me who has for long enjoyed the diverse communities of New York. It was somewhat disturbing and showed that racial tensions can still come into play in the state albeit, they are very toned down thanks to all who reside there, especially young people who are co-existing in a peaceful manner - it's quite an accomplishment for the young lady with the derby hat, if you ask me. But how do we truly embrace fellow man in the historic South without fear, uncertainty or confusion. Indeed, much of the South is largely Catholic - and there is common ground, common belief and common values. Are whites condemned to be divided by the color of their skin forever or is this the start of a beautiful rennaissance in the South where whites and blacks can co-exist happily and share economic growth, prosperity, love and fairness. I'm sure alot more remains to be done to achieve such an absolute goal. How can faithful men of other religions assist this process. What is God's view of this matter? I scratch my head when I ponder the question - in a city where blacks are undervalued, underpaid and perhaps altogether, undereducated how can they advance their lives and gain universal respect and hegemony? Education is one answer - while the historic quest continues to improve the situation or at least shun the spirit of segregation or any physical, emotional, or metaphysical trace of that period, it can stil linger but to an indomitable American spirit, present a hope that one day, we will achieve redress, reconciliation, remuneration and reatonement in a post-segregated society. While the words, "free at last" echoes throughout Georgia with an unmistakable historic resonance, how do we set about being truly free? The poem In School Days by Whittier comes to mind, "still sits the school-house by the road, a ragged beggar sleeping; around it still the sumachs grow, and blackberry-vines are creeping".

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