I knew he was special when I got in his car and he was eating an ice cream cone with James Taylor singing “How sweet it is to be loved by you” on the radio. (That was my mom’s favorite song.) He said it never fails. When he is at McDonalds he always gets notified that he has an uber rider to go pick up. This time it was me. I teased him that he should have brought me an ice cream cone too and we shared a few laughs while discussing food. He told me his grandmother made the best apple cobbler and homemade vanilla ice cream. From there we discussed the culinary differences between what is considered “good barbecue” in different regions of our country. He, originally from Michigan, is a rib man. Me, I prefer the North Carolina vinegar based pulled pork served with a side of hush puppies. From there he told me about how his family originated from Alabama. They moved to Michigan during the “Second Great Migration”. *George. I almost forgot to tell you his name. When you are eager to tell a story, sometimes details like that can get left out.
George told me about his grandfather. How he had many wives. And ultimately 36 children, at least that they’ve been able to identify so far. Perhaps wanting to explain he told me his grandfather was a “breeder”. I thought he said “reader”. But as he went on with his story I understood what he was saying. His grandfather was a slave on a plantation in Alabama called “Magnolia”. And the plantation owners sold him around to other plantations for breeding purposes. I told him I had never heard of that. “Like some sort of stud horse?” I asked in shocked disbelief. “Yes”, he said, “thats a good way to put it.” That breaks my heart. He continued to tell me that his grandfather could read and write, and so he would teach other slaves how to read and write. In secret of course, we agreed. And his grandfather was also a preacher. Eventually, the white man put a bounty on his grandfather’s head. So the slaves held a fake funeral, complete with a casket. They “buried” him while he managed to escape. Wow. Just wow. I took his story in and imagined what it must be like to have lived this life and to have a family history like this. I found myself teary eyed. I think George could sense this. Maybe I had heard about this breeder thing a long time ago and just forgot. But it’s one thing to hear about it and it’s another to hear someone directly impacted by it talk about it.
When George was young, he visited Magnolia plantation, and the church his grandfather built was still there. George got to play the piano in that church. Imagine that. He does not know if it’s still there. I told him that this was an amazing story and that people need to hear it. He said his family knows it. But I think he understood what I meant. I asked him who taught his grandfather to read and write and he said, “You know, that’s a good question! There must have been a white man or woman who taught him, probably in secret.” I nodded. George says there were some good white people on plantations too. And he added cautiously, “You know, if it was a white woman, that could’ve been very dangerous. He could’ve been hung from a tree.” And I said I know. And the tempo of our conversation had slowed a bit. We were bonding over the sorrow of the past. And I said there were monsters and good people both back then. Just like there are today.
As we were arriving to our destination, we discussed how I had come to Chicago for the U2 concert. Since we had already lightly discussed politics, I shared that I heard the Obama’s were there for the show too. He said he knew Bono to be an activist. I said I had a lot of respect for Bono because of his actions, not just words. He said he understands Bono is good friends with the Obamas. And I said I know and he is also friends with George Bush. And that’s part of why I like him. He works with both sides, and is passionate about helping the widows and the poor. When it was time for me to go, George said I must be pretty special. That was a great compliment because I think he is too. I told him thank you for the ride and for sharing his story with me.
It was an honor to ride with George today. He asked for my card and said he will call me when he comes to Birmingham. I believe him and I hope he does. I texted my friend from the gate while I was waiting for my flight and she said I should paint his story. I’m still choked up about the thought of it. I’m not sure what that might look and feel like.
These are the conversations we need to share. We need to listen and love well. To “find a common ground by seeking higher ground” just like Bono said last night. Here is the poem I quoted at the beginning in full. One of many that scrolled on the screen at Soldier Field before the concert:
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive. Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.