Monday, September 7, 2015

The Peculiar Blindness, Part 3: "You Don't See What I Don't See"

Four o'clocks, Rustavi, Georgia.

"You don't see what I don't see."

The quote is from Ernest J. Gaines' book, A Gathering of Old Men, based in 1970s Louisiana.

From the chapter narrated by one of the "old men," Joseph Seaberry (aka "Rufe"):

[Sheriff] Mapes looked at Clatoo the way white folks know how to look at a nigger when they think he's being smart.

"Isn't it a little late for you to be getting militant around here?" Mapes asked Clatoo.

"I always been militant," Clatoo said. "My intrance gone sour, keeping my militance down." ....

"I kilt him," Ding said, thumping his chest. "Me, me - not them, not my brother. Me. What they did to my sister's little girl - Michelle Gigi.

"I see," Mapes said, looking at Ding and Bing at the same time. "I see."

Johnny Paul grunted out loud. "No, you don't see."

He wasn't looking at Mapes, he was looking toward the tractor and the trailers of cane out there in the road. But I could tell he wasn't seeing any of that. I couldn't tell what he was thinking until I saw his eyes shifting up the quarters where his mama and papa used to stay. But the old house wasn't there now. It had gone like all the others had gone. Now weeds covered the place where the house used to be. "Y'all look," he said. "Look now. Y'all see anything? What y'all see?"

"I see nothing but weeds, Johnny Paul," Mapes said ....

"Yes, sir," Johnny Paul said. ... "Yes sir, I figured that's all you would see. But what do the rest don't see? What y'all don't see, Rufe?" he asked me. ... "What y'all don't see, Clatoo? What y'all don't see, Glo? What y'all don't see, Corrine, Rooster, Beulah? What y'all don't see, all the rest of y'all?" 

"I don't have time for people telling me what they can't or don't see, Johnny Paul," Mapes said. ....

Johnny Paul turned on him. He was tall as Mapes, but thin, thin. He was the color of Brown Mule chewing tobacco. His eyes gray, gray like Mapes' eyes, but not hard like Mapes' eyes. He looked dead at Mapes.

"You ain't got nothing but time, Sheriff. .... you still don't see. Yes, sir, what you see is the weeds, but you don't see what we don't see." 

"Do you see it, Johnny Paul?" Mapes asked him.

"No, I don't see it," Johnny Paul said. "That's why I kilt him." 

"I see," Mapes said.

"No, you don't," Johnny Paul said. "No, you don't. You had to be here to don't see it now. You just can't come down here every now and then. You had to live here seventy-seven years to don't see it now. No, Sheriff, you don't see. You don't even know what I don't see."  

... "... Do you hear that church bell ringing?" [Johnny Paul asked]

"Are you all right?" Mapes asked him. ... "Church bells, Johnny Paul?"

"Y'all remember how it used to be?" Johnny Paul said. ... "Remember?" he said. "When they wasn't no weeds - remember? Remember how they used to sit out there on the garry - Mama, Papa, Aunt Clara, Aunt Sarah, Unc Moon, Aunt Spoodle, Aunt Thread. Remember? Everybody had flowers in the yard. But nobody had four-o'clocks like Jack Toussaint. ... "

... "That's why I kilt him, that's why," Johnny Paul said. "To protect them little flowers. But they ain't here no more. And how come? 'Cause Jack ain't here no more. He's back under them trees with all the rest. With Mama and Papa, Aunt Thread, Aunt Spoodle, Aunt Clara, Unc Moon, Unc Jerry - all the rest of them. ... Remember the palm-of-Christians in Thread's yard, Glo? ... Remember Jack and Red Rider hitting that field every morning with them two mules, Diamond and Job?" ...

... "Thirty, forty of us going out in the field with cane knives, hoes, plows - name it. Sunup to sundown, hard, miserable work, but we managed to get it done. We stuck together, shared what little we had, and loved and respected each other. 

"But just look at things today. Where the people? Where the roses? Where the four-o'clocks? The palm-of-Christians? Where the people used to sing and pray in the church? I'll tell you. Under them trees back there, that's where. And where they used to stay, the weeds got it now, just waiting for the tractor to come plow it up." 

... I [killed him] for them back there under them trees. I did it 'cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn't do it, one day that tractor was go'n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was. Like now they trying to get rid of all proof that black people ever farmed this land with plows and mules - like if they had nothing from the starten but motor machines. Sure, one day they will get rid of the proof that we ever was, but they ain't go'n do it while I'm still here. Mama and Papa worked too hard in these fields ..."

[Mapes] was getting tired; he was getting tired fast. Tired listening, tired standing, tired of niggers. But he didn't know what to do about it ... He had already used his only knowledge he knowed how to deal with black folks - knocking them around. When that didn't change a thing, when people started getting in line to be knocked around, he didn't know what else to do. 


I have read the above passage many times. Each reading brings a fresh, sharp exhale of emotion.

At our cores, don't we all want to feel that we mattered? That we were seen, our history acknowledged? 

When I entered Mr. Gaines' excerpt into this post, I remembered quotes from a woman and a fictional little girl:

June Carter Cash: "I'm just trying to matter."

Six-year-old Hushpuppy, in Beasts of the Southern Wild: "In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub [in Louisiana]."


In many of the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke, protagonist Dave describes levees and fields and the banks of bayous that, just under the soil's surface, hold the bones and teeth and scraps of decomposing clothing of forgotten men, women, and children who worked the land as slaves or sharecroppers, and who died on that soil.

When I first stumbled on the Opelousas Massacre, and read of the dozens? hundred? hundreds? of fathers, brothers, and sons killed in the space of a couple of weeks, I wondered, where are they buried? How does a community bury so many people in such a short time? Almost a hundred fifty years later, are some of the dead still out there, laying in the woods, with families knowing they were likely dead, but not knowing the location of the remains?

What's not here that we don't see?

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