Place: What is it?

After reflecting on Imagine, a tale Toni Morrison’s life and work, out of all the inspiring things about such an empowering women, the thing that struck me was hearing her talk about her parents connection to the American South. What struck me was that something that occurred over fifty years ago in a place hundreds of miles from me, in someone I may never meet life, directly reminded me of the nature of Portland’s displaced community that comes back to inner Portland in remembrance of what was.  Seeing that Morrison was born in 1931, and her parents obviously prior in a time that was rough for the majority of blacks in the South. So to hear her tell the story of her father and his hatred of the “white man” being personal due to his past experiences living in that place but just moments later she began to talk about how even though he hated the South, he returned every year to visit it.

Seeing that Morrison was born in 1931, and her parents prior in a time that was rough for the majority of blacks in the South, she has the firsthand knowledge in these times. So to hear her tell the story of her father and his hatred of the “white man” being personal due to his past experiences living in that place but just moments later she began to talk about how even though he hated the South, he returned every year to visit it.

That narrative jarred up the question of “what causes humans to have emotional connections and relationships with places?” Morrison was explicit in explaining the detrimental society of the South towards blacks but at the same time, the black people that lived there and left or relocated from the place they grew up, still go back and visit.

When thinking of the history of where blacks have lived, the history largely consists of: plantations to farms, that they owned themselves, to ghettos in large cities, that were built especially for them, oh how nice the government is, to housing projects, just the same as ghettos just a little nicer and not as harsh a name, to homes, blacks owned themselves. For black people whilst slavery, many moved around to ten to thirty plantations in one lifetime, so the memories of places were very constrained to vague recollections.

Upon the ending of the Civil War and Reconstruction, blacks moved north and west in search of jobs. Morrison painted the image of “black men having pride of knowing their wives would never work in a white man’s kitchen or be subjected to the rape of a white man,” but instead they had a place to call home.

Morrison’s family lived in Ohio the majority of their life, where they again like many other black families were forced to move around because income fluctuated due to season or the availability of jobs. This condition of moving from place to place to place, was one perpetrated haphazardly or purposefully by the government that took millions of people who had no understanding of how to manage money, where they could move and basic things any human looking for a home should know. As a result many black families, decades after slavery were beginning to learn how to read, manage the scarce money they made, basically it was as if you took millions of people you had held in a bunker for centuries and then told them to go live as an atypical “American”, while at the same time not treating them the same (asking ridiculous questions like who are all of the senators to ever govern the State of Georgia, just to vote or miswriting their names or tricking them into taking control of their property).

Despite this dark history, with its occasional peaks of sunshine, it baffled me to know Morrison’s father still visited the wretched place where he grew up. In many ways, one could interpret his visits as paying homage to the awful circumstances he fought his way out of, or to remember loved one’s he lost or to pay respects to the horror that was the American South.

Our love for a place can be both of negative and positive motivations. Every time we sit by the big, willow in the front of Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, do you see it as a tree or lesson to be careful? Our connection with a place can bring back memories of triumph, failure, sadness, happiness, etc. and Morrison’s dad saw his hometown as a place of remembrance of what he had come from, in hopes of never seeing his world that way again.

It's time to take a trip to that willow in everyone’s grandparent’s backyard and see what makes a place…