Lola Rainey joins two septuagenarian relatives for a Texas road trip through a vanishing America.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three part series.
Author’s note: A road trip with my two old guys, my 77-year old father and 74-year old uncle, opened my eyes to a disappearing piece of Americana. Rural black America with its communities of farmers, businessmen, tradesmen, laborers and families flourished on the peripheries of small towns across this nation. These rural black communities were vibrant, active cultural hubs peopled by men and women marginalized in one world but held in high regard in their own. As we drove through dusty, desert towns and congested cities on our journey east to Texas (where my father and uncle spent their childhood), I listened to poignant stories about life in an America that has all but disappeared. Sadly, this rich, colorful world is unknown to most white Americans and is fading away unnoticed by many Black Americans.
When Uncle Bennie received a inquiry from a timber speculator about land my deceased grandfather owned in East Texas, it came as a surprise to him. He’s the family historian, the possibility that something as big as “a secret land inheritance” had only now come to light was both annoying and intriguing. A couple of long, telephone conversations with the glib East Texas landman convinced Uncle Bennie it was worth taking a trip back to the old family homestead to determine whether my grandfather owned land there.
The plan was to take a “Texas road trip”; it was the most economical way for a senior on a fixed-income to travel. Unfortunately, Uncle Bennie suffers from a debilitating form of arthritis. He needed help with the driving so he persuaded my very skeptical father to join him. I was recruited as a road dog for one reason: I’m a lawyer and they thought it’d be nice to have me tag along—just in case.
My father often talked about his childhood. His parents were sharecroppers so he experienced all the deprivations poor black children living under the yoke of Jim Crow in the south would be expected to. Some of the stories he told are seared into my memory. I used them as inspiration for my first novel, “Havasu Means Blue Water”, which deals with the issues of racial identity and injustice. One of his most memorable stories was retold in a book trailer I made:
My father escaped poverty and marginalization by joining the military. He left home and never came back. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if he hadn’t left. I shudder at the thought. Everything I knew about East Texas at the start of our road trip convinced me it was a place seething with racial hatred and intolerance, a place where people cling to their guns and religion in a bad way.
On a cool, sunny day in December 2012, my father and uncle picked me up in a rental car and off we went. As we turned onto Interstate 10 headed toward New Mexico, it occurred to me this would likely be the last road trip my father and uncle made. The thought frightened me. These two old men are my rock. I couldn’t imagine life without either one of them. Uncle Bennie slid an old school R&B disk into the car’s CD player. I sat in the backseat listening to the two of them talk; it was an easy, relaxed back and forth. My father and uncle aren’t just brothers, they’re best friends, too. It didn’t bother me that I was the unofficial third wheel in their “bromance.” I stretched out and got comfortable; it wasn’t long before I drifted off to sleep.
Read part two of The Invisible World of Rural Black America here.
Image credit: TexasExplorer98/Flickr