On a tour bus in Macon, Georgia. Old estates and manors stood proudly on the hillsides.
A woman asked, "What is the old money in this town? How did all these beautiful homes come to be? What was the industry here?"
Now, I decided to keep my mouth shut and see what would transpire. One of the locals hesitated and said, "Well, most of the money was made in... ahh, cotton... and tobacco..."
There was a pregnant pause. At first I enjoyed the awkward silence, as I love when comfortable people become uncomfortable. But as I surveyed these southern mansions a deep sadness came over me. Mixed, strangely, with a certain pride.
"Who do you think built these houses?" I found myself asking aloud, a kind of nostalgia and a whisper of a memory in my ear. As if the words belonged not to me, but to someone else. An echo. "Whose hands built this town?"
I felt a chasm opening between myself and these pristine estate buildings, different from anything I've felt as a child of cities and suburbs. Something older. Deeper. Who, indeed, had built these houses? And what kind of lives had they lived? And on whose bones is that smartly-dressed man standing, as he watches us from his porch? Does he know? Will anyone ever know?
A black gardener passed by, smeared in the sweat of the 95 degree day, tools slung over his shoulder. He caught my glance. We shared a nod. He moved on to do his work.
And I thought, as he knelt towards the black soil, or it may have been a trick of the light, that I saw something reaching up to meet his hands. His strong, black hands. A communion was happening, and my bus was pulling away. And the moment was passing.
And for an instant, I was empty with longing, for something I never knew, and barely understood. Your hands, brother, built this town. And the man on the porch, he thinks he owns this land, but the soil knows, dear brother.
The earth knows whose bones have turned into the black soil that you are tilling. And their strength is in you, as their songs are in me, and we are both like ghosts, dear brother. We are like ghosts treading the ground of a great cemetery, where the tombstones have no names, and the echo of a tune can just barely be heard in the wind.
You tend the grounds, brother, and I will stretch my ears to listen to the echo of that lost refrain.
And if I ever learn the words, I will come back, and sing it to you.