Harrison and I just returned from a lovely if whirlwind visit to Brasstown.
The Good: The John Neil Memorial Contra Dance, Charlotte Crittenden (who hosted us on Saturday Night), Sourdough Pancakes, all of the inspiring and wonderful people that you are guaranteed to come across on a visit to Brasstown, Paul Garrett, Lake Chatuge
The Bad: Our car is in the shop getting the timing belt replaced, and our loaner-car came across some difficulties, so we are reduced to biking and hitchhiking around to all the various places that we need to be (the least of which is not the radio show: http://www.ashevillefm.org/the-invisible-worm that we are going to be heard on tonight). Honestly, it’s a place we’ve been before. It’s just one of those things that makes life hilarious and exciting. At least our bikes are up and running. So, anyway, if in the next few days you get a call from one of us saying, “so…are you planning on heading into Asheville at any point…” don’t be shocked. Consider yourself warned.
The Amazing: This Sunday we attended the service at the Mt. Zion Baptist church in Texana (outside Murphy). Harrison and I went for the first time last week on LaKisha’s recommendation. We met the pastor, the deacon, and what seems like a good portion of the congregation. Everyone was unbelievably welcoming, and seemed genuinely pleased by our presence and interest. Before the service, we talked with the Pastor, J.P. Webb, briefly about our idea to include him and his congregation in our film, and he seemed understandably apprehensive, but not totally opposed.
So last monday we sent him an email explaining a little more about our intentions and methodology, and we attached the film’s outline. This week in service, he asked us to stand up and speak about our project, and I did, and then amid a chorus of “amens” and applause, the pastor pledged his own support and that of the congregation, asserting that ours was a worthy project and that he looks forward to working with us! My heart soared! We were so touched, and excited, and we are just so glad to be able to include Texana’s rich and complex history in the project.
I consider Kisha to be Texana’s historian. Whether she is generally considered as such, I don’t know. But Harrison and I were blown away by her wealth of knowledge, her dedication to local genaeology and history, and her insightful wisdom. She can speak on the subject much more eloquently than I can write about it here, and hopefully she will in the film, but let me share a little bit. The Joe Brown Highway, she told us, which runs out of Murphy and by Texana, was actually the first leg of the Trail of Tears, where the Cherokees were brutally and almost completely driven out of North Carolina. Those Cherokees that stayed had to hide their Indian heritage. If they could pass for white, they could live in Murphy, and if they could pass for black, they settled in Texana, which at the time was one of (if not) the only self-sufficient all black communities in North Carolina. So to this day the heritage of Texana, and Murphy as well, is deeply mixed, and perhaps bears the remnants of a great burden of shame and fear.
A filmic juxtaposition to this, a negative of this photograph, is the later scene in which Felix meets Charlie while they are working together on a traveling medicine show. The miracle elixirs sold in these charlatan acts were often advertised as coming from ancient Indian recipes, so a medicine show would travel around with an “Indian Chief” who would vouch for the medicine’s authenticity. Perhaps these “chiefs” were Cherokee from time to time, but often they were white or black folks wearing inaccurate, gawdy head-dresses. Charlie is a black fellow who makes a living pretending to be an Indian. Race is a weird thing. It’s never as simple and easy as people want it to be, and its construction is so often tied to economic and political ventures.
Ok, so we know that our film is going to be kind of romantic. But we want to be serious and genuine about some complicated and rarely-talked about socio-cultural realities. In 1910 the black population of North Carolina’s Appalachian counties was 11%. Now, that’s not exactly Bed-Stuy or Watts, but, folks, that’s more than 1 in 10. There weren’t really urban centers at that time, so we are talking about black farmers and craftsmen, laborers, people working on the railroads, and one in ten is a sizable figure, especially for a region that people swear up and down is and always has been totally white. “There are no black people in Asheville” – don’t let people tell you that; Asheville is 17% black (for some reference, New York City is about 23%).
There has been some amazing scholarly work done in the last few decades, by Cecelia Conway and others, talking about old-time fiddle styles and the tradition of African-American fiddle music and musicians, not to mention the banjo itself, which has its roots in West Africa, and for a long time was played mostly by enslaved black people on plantations. Old-time and bluegrass music, thought of by some to be a white trash stereotype, by others a pure Anglo-American art form, actually has a exciting genesis rooted in cultural interchange! YES our film will be a romanticized portrait of the region, but it’s bound to, because it is art and it is a movie. But, dag-nabbit, most romanticization of this region has been about cultural and ethnic purity, and I just think that Western North Carolina is more INTERESTING than that.