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A Song of the South

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The road is never straight, the way is seldom clear. I went to Savannah, Georgia, to take part in a Jewish wedding. I ended making a journey to America’s racist past--and present. In 1790’s Georgia, the 13th and last British colony (the name Georgia is after King George), enslaved persons were thirty-five percent of the state’s population. Over the course of forty-eight years, Savannah was an integral part of trading in people. Toiling as urban slaves, those human beings, from both Africa and the Caribbean, enabled Savannah to prosper. Though the United States Civil War (referred to by some die-hard southern nationalists as the War of Aggression) ended most physical slavery, the psychic wounds continue one hundred fifty years later. In 2019, I am reminded of that part of my American psyche bound up with the story of enslaved human beings in the country in which I was reared.

The reminders come from a tour around Savannah, led by a passionate African-American who insists that slavery cannot be forgotten. I see squares where blocks of up to four hundred humans were sold . I look at carriage houses in which humans were locked in after their day’s work. In one of Savannah’s most beautiful parks, I gaze at a statue of an unrepentant Confederate soldier. At the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, I stare at a wood and plaster replica of a 1960’s lunch counter, complete with a seated African-American awaiting a cup of coffee that never comes. Looming over him, arms crossed and pistol at hip, stands a law enforcement officer. An audio of a waitperson informing the seated man he is not welcome plays in the background. She is shouting insults.

Observing present day Savannah as an outsider, I note that Blacks and Whites move in equal but separate spaces. African-Americans have full access to public places, but it feels as though ‘separate but equal’ still prevails. Two parallel non-intersecting tracks,with an occasional nod or conversation between individuals and groups. The predominant sense is of separation, an agreed upon boundary which keeps people from seeing themselves as part of the same neighborhood, let alone the same nation.

A Savannah resident remarks on the city’s bigotry, suggesting one can quadruple the normal racial tension in any other city and have an accurate gauge of what racial life is like in Savannah.

I don’t live in the US now. Its wounds impact me less than when I lived there, and felt, even in incredibly open northern California, the profound racism which is as much a part of the American psyche as motherhood and apple pie. It’s hardwired into the US citizen’s brain. One of America’s premier African-American intellectuals,Toni Morrison, writes “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” In one of her many brilliant books, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, she argues that every white American carries a shadow Black person in their interior. It’s an Other upon whom one can locate inner savageries too difficult to own up to in oneself.

I was a young woman in the Civil Rights era, the days when Martin Luther King made his clarion calls for racial equality, when young people came from all over America to march against segregation, when too many died trying to break apart America’s insistence that Black lives don’t matter. Sure, we had a Black president in Barack Obama. But that was an anamoly. In today’s climate of exclusion and hatred and racists at the highest levels of government, including presidential, it feels like nothing has really changed and that Black lives still don’t really matter.


Rose Levinson, July 2019


Your piece raises so many contemporary issues in such a thoughtful way, Rose. Have you read Thomas Laqueur's piece in the LRB - "Lynched for Drinking from a White Man's Well" - on a visit to Alabama, much as you visited Savannah? I read it last year and it has stayed with me ever since.


Savannah is, for all that, a lovely city. It's good you went there. The glacial pace of improvement is exasperating, but don't let the dark forces win by falling into defeat. Find and validate the good. (The cuisine is a reasonable place to start.)


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