restricted access Dark Waters
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83 Dark Waters Our civilization poisoned river waters, and their contamination acquires a powerful emotional meaning. As the course of a river is a symbol of time, we are inclined to think of a poisoned time. And yet the sources continue to gush and we believe time will be purified one day. —­ Czeslaw Milosz, from “Rivers” in Road-­side Dog I grew up in the Green Empire. Magic City. The place was there, brimming in its mossy quietude, before the axes began to swing—­ cutting down the virgin pine forest on July 4, 1914, when the town was incorporated. The name comes from the Native American–­ named creek, “Boge Lusa,” where smoke-­ dark waters flow through the city. The Great Southern Lumber Company was established by someone from Buffalo, New York, connected to Goodyear in 1906. By then, the presence of the Native American had been virtually erased; now there was a killing to be made from the great, towering pines. During the 1950s Bogalusa seethed, a hotbed for racism. Segregation , enforced by a minority, imposed inequality upon the majority of this city’s population. There were no black doctors, lawyers, postal workers, police officers, firefighters, bank tellers, salespeople, machine operators, et cetera. Those who did go off to college returned as public school teachers to segregated schools. Everyone else faced making a living, and no matter the skills, the work involved perpetual hard labor. From The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, ed. Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret E. Savoy (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2011). 84 As a matter of fact, a metaphor for the daily realities of life in Bogalusa was manifested in the graveyards of the black and white inhabitants. Whites lavished monuments of granite and marble on their dead over acres of plush, green cemeteries. The graveyard for African Americans, half-­ hidden near the city dump, was visited by vultures and scavengers that used to linger between the smoldering hills of garbage and the graves, whose keepers fought off the constant encroachment of saw vines and scrub oak. This hellish symbol was analogous to the town’s psyche. It reflected an attitude that had been cultivated over many decades. It was the law—­ social and legal—­ a way of thinking that ran so deep that it went unquestioned each generation. Bogalusa was frozen in time. The same attitude that allowed settlers to produce smallpox-­ infected blankets for Native Americans seemed alive in the psyche of our city. One could almost hear Sweet Medicine of the Cheyenne lamenting: “Some day you will meet a people who are white. They will try always to give you things, but do not take them. At last I think you will take these things that they offer you, and this will bring sickness to you.”1 The first known settlers in the area were Scottish and Irish pioneers from the British colonies of Georgia and Virginia, as well as North and South Carolina. The Treaty of Paris, which briefly created British West Florida in 1763, also attracted Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. By 1906, when the Great Southern Lumber Company was established—­ and before it was to grow into what was boasted to be the world’s largest sawmill, the Native Americans had been suppressed to near extinction. Their ghosts remained evident in some faces, as my poem “Looking for Choctaw” suggests: we dared him to fight, But he only left his breath On windshields, as if nothing Could hold him in this world.2 I grew up with the feeling that the Choctaw lived in our presence , in a half glimpse, somewhere among the trees as elusive, nocturnal souls. 85 Many Bogalusan blacks believed that “a good education” would lift them out of poverty and make their lies more equal to those of whites. They saluted the flag and trusted the Bill of Rights. Some had returned from World War I, World War II, and the Korean conflict, but they were still waiting for things to change. Some were counting the decades and years, making promises on their deathbeds, getting restless. A few were dreaming aloud. In January 1964 the KKK burned crosses throughout Louisiana . Also, fifteen black people registered to vote in Tenses Parish, the last parish to enforce total disenfranchisement of blacks. In November the Deacons for Defense and Justice was founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The group advocated armed self-­ defense against the Klan. In December KKK members from around Natchez, Mississippi, burned a shoe-­ repair...


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