I’m writing this a couple of days late, but better late than never. I recently returned from the Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference at the University of Mississippi (endearingly referred to as “Ole Miss”) in Oxford. Southern writing’s Mecca. As with every conference, there was a lot to take in. It’s like drinking from a fire hose. Panel after panel, one hour and twenty minutes each of constant talking, with only fifteen minutes in between to process everything you’ve just heard. All the arguments that have been made. All the discussions. I may not be the only one to admit that I could walk away from a two-day conference and really only retain one thing from it that sticks with me forever. But that one thing really makes a difference to your academic career. And that’s what matters, right? More on that in a moment!
Seeing as Oxford is only a three-hour drive from Huntsville, I chose to spend my entire graduate travel stipend on one thing: a damn nice hotel. A previous conference I attended, which took place in Gainesville, Florida, required both air travel and hotel accommodations. So I bought the cheapest plane ticket straight out of Huntsville and stayed at a janky motel just outside UF campus. Down the road was an equally janky Winn Dixie, where I purchased some light snacks and some tea. Always nice to keep your hotel room stocked with snacks and tea for when you just want to relax and read or watch some Netflix after a long day at a conference. It was not terribly uncomfortable, but my locale was obviously subpar and the table lamp was adorned with a spattering that looked suspiciously like old blood. Just normal average janky motel things. Anyway, this is not about the UF conference, but about the Ole Miss conference. Since I would be driving, I figured spending all my money on a hotel was well worth it. I chose a hotel called The Graduate, which was located right on the corner of Jefferson and Lamar. It is within walking distance from historic Oxford Square, the old Oxford cemetery, and technically within walking distance from campus. More on that in a moment, too. This hotel was fantastic! It comes alive with the college lifestyle. The rooms are modestly furnished with 1960s style wooden furnishings that reflect an old college dorm room. There are paintings and photographs on the walls that reflect southern culture and the key cards are designed to look like library cards on one side with a student identification card on the other. The student IDs are usually of some famous person that went to Ole Miss. Mine had Eli Manning. Did he even go to Ole Miss? Did he play for them? I don’t even know. This is not my forte. Anyway, the key cards were really very cute. The hotel staff were all very polite and accommodating. It was generally a nice place to be. The location was pretty convenient too.
On the first day, I had a lot of time to kill. It was registration day and no panels were going on. I checked into my hotel and spent the afternoon exploring Oxford until registration time. Before I even explored historic Oxford Square, I made a beeline for the cemetery. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. The grave sites. Faulkner himself is buried there, as well as many members of his immediate family. All in different plots. It was half the reason I wanted to attend this conference so badly. I wanted to explore this historic cemetery and find everybody’s grave. Especially Mammy Callie. As a colored woman with no other family in Oxford to be buried with, her grave would be the hardest one to find. It was blazing hot outside and the humidity was beyond oppressive, but I made for it anyway. Up the hill I went, three blocks and I was there. The corner of Jefferson and 16th Street. The cemetery is pretty enormous. I didn’t even know where to begin. There were no markers at the entrance to point me in Faulkner’s direction so I went straight in. I began by climbing up to small hill-like vantage points to look down at the rolling sea of gravestones in hopes that I would see Faulkner’s from afar. I know what it looks like, after all. It took a lot of searching before I made my way back to the entrance and decided to start with the edges. I walked down 16th Street, climbed a steep hill, and trotted back down again. At the bottom of the hill on 16th Street, I finally saw a marker that proudly informed me that William C. Faulkner, creator of Yoknapatawpha County, was buried just 20 paces from that sign. I didn’t count my paces but I didn’t need to. Faulkner’s grave is bigger than the others and I could see it from where I was standing. Happy as a clam but sweating something fierce from the 100-degree heat index, I made my way to Faulkner’s burial site, which was situated under the welcome shade of a tree. There he was. Buried by the side of Estelle Oldham Faulkner. I sat at the edge of the great marble slabs and surveyed the pennies that littered the entire area. A penny for every visit, to let the deceased know that you were there and you appreciate what they did for the world. I didn’t have any whiskey on my person for the old man and I didn’t know where the nearest liquor store was. In fact, a liquor store just a block south of that location could have made a killer living from the people looking to leave offerings for the patron saint of southern literature. I dug around in my purse and located an old tarnished penny. I placed it at the top of his grave, just above the middle of the “Cuthbert” part of his name. That’s where I imagined his head would be. I told him thanks for all he’s done, sat there for a while enjoying the peace, and eventually got back up again to search for Mammy Callie’s grave. She was important to me because my paper was inspired by Dilsey from The Sound and the Fury, who was inspired by Mammy Callie. Faulkner adored his mammy. She was more of a mother to him than his own mother. He organized her funeral, ordered her plot in the cemetery, and commissioned the etching on her headstone: “Callie Barr Clark: Mammy. ‘Her white children bless her.'” He knew her given name was Caroline, but he ordered the etching read “Callie.” When Faulkner was a young boy if you can imagine that, he was unable to say her name correctly. He always called her “Cah-lin.” Eventually, it stuck and Caroline Barr was always and forever “Mammy Callie.” As a colored woman and a former slave, she would have been buried in the old “colored” section of the cemetery and her tiny modest grave with the smudged headstone would be very difficult to locate among the hundreds of people buried alongside her. I walked up and down what felt like the entire cemetery, focusing on the oldest part. I was sweating so profusely and it was getting close to time for me to figure out how I was going to get onto campus for registration, so I headed back to the hotel to dry off. I could always try again. My clothes were drenched but I didn’t change out of them. I had a feeling my next walk would ruin my clothes again. I only had three sets. May as well only ruin one since I don’t have a washer. I looked up the conference center and it was only a 1.3-mile walk away. How bad can it be?
As it turns out, pretty bad. It was 1.3 miles of uphill and downhill walking and shade was scarce. The sun beat down on me, the heat swallowed me up, the humidity stuck to me like hot leeches, and I walked straight through a construction site that covered my disgusting sweaty body with a nice thin film of red clay dust that was billowing in the wind. That’s how I walked into registration. After registering and picking up my goods (a t-shirt, a pin, and a lanyard with an identification tag) I realized I would have to make the trek all the way back. I had no desire to walk back through the construction site, so I found an alternate route. Equally hot, equally long, equally terrible. Two or three miles of solid walking is normally a piece of cake. But normally, I’m wearing comfortable workout clothes, a hat, I take care to walk in the shade, and I try to avoid walking during the hottest part of a heat wave in the deep south. This was not the same thing as my usual morning walk. If you can imagine, I love the heat. I turn the A/C off in my house during the day because I like it when it feels like summer. This, though…this was too goddamn hot. There was so much sweat, I truly felt like I was melting into a puddle. Oh well. At least I only ruined one outfit. I promptly decided to try a bus route for my trip back to the conference center the next day.
As I expected, the bus routes were terribly confusing. I’ve been on public transportation plenty of times in my life but somehow the Oxford Transit System confused the fuck out of me. There were no maps of the bus network, no list of stops on any of the signs. The website provided me with a bus schedule, but it didn’t help much. It did help me narrow my options down to the blue line bus that passes right through Oxford Square and takes you to campus. But the buses were directional. If you wanted to take the shortest route, you had to make sure it was going in the right direction. Otherwise, you could be on that bus for a long time or find yourself in a place that is totally the opposite of your destination. The buses do not tell you which direction they go. You have to ask the driver. Well, this would be fun! I waited down at the square by the courthouse for a blue bus, in hopes that the driver would be nice enough to help me. A blue bus came by, right on schedule, and I asked the driver if she was heading to campus. She was! I dropped a dollar in the box and happily made my way to the conference center. The first ride was a success!
The conference went on for several hours. They served us lunch. I presented my paper, and the panels were very productive. There’s not much to say about the conference itself, but I will talk about the one thing that stuck with me even after the conference was over. The first panel was a roundtable discussion (roundtables are a type of open discussion between the panelists that take place at rectangular tables) on a podcast called “S-Town.” I didn’t previously know about this seven-part podcast nor that it would be eligible for discussion on southern writing. Boy, was it. The podcast is produced by the same people who work on “Serial” and “This American Life,” which you may be familiar with if you listen to NPR. The podcast is hosted by Brian Reed, who is invited to a podunk town in Alabama between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa called Woodstock by a fellow named John B. McLemore (pronounced just like “Macklemore”) . John B. endearingly refers to Woodstock as “Shit Town, Alabama.” He claims the brutal murder of a young man occurred and since the suspected murderer involved is the son of a respected family, an elaborate police cover-up ensued. The podcast is called “S-Town” because calling it “Shit Town” would have been a little too profane for a title. Don’t be fooled. This podcast includes recordings straight from the townspeople so it’s rife with bad language, some of it very racially insensitive. Don’t read the Wikipedia entry. It’s super spoilery. Just go listen to the podcast from the link I included. It’s fascinating. Brian Reed, an obvious New Yorker who doesn’t really fit into Shit Town, gets to know and love the residents of the town of Woodstock. He does get to the bottom of the mystery (this is not a spoiler) and learns a lot about Shit Town Alabama’s social structure in the process. There is no character in this world quite like John B. McLemore. If you have ever been in or lived near a place you yourself would call “Shit Town,” especially in Alabama, then this is definitely the podcast for you. Go listen to it right now. It’s on Apple’s podcast app as well and it’s free (because that’s important, too).
After the conference, I decided to take a chance on the bus route again. I waited at a stop that evidently serviced blue, yellow, and orange buses. I hoped for a blue one soon because it was very hot and very sunny and I was wearing conference clothes. Several yellows went by, and a blue one zipped past on the corner (not quite at the bus stop) without stopping. I hoped maybe it was just turning around. It didn’t. Finally, a blue bus came by and I hopped on to ask the gray-haired mustachioed bus driver if he was heading for Oxford Square. No, he said, he was not heading for the square. I would need to flag down a different blue bus but I had to make sure and stand on the corner and wave for it to stop because it doesn’t stop. I got off the bus and looked bleakly at the blazing sunny corner away from the shade that I suspected would be my new home. I saw a blue bus that didn’t stop at that corner and I didn’t flag it down because I didn’t know that was my bus. Why do university transit systems have to be so confusing? I stood on the corner, determined to wait for the next blue bus, no matter how long it took. The sun took its toll on me so I took out my trusty Japanese fan. I always carry one with me. I desperately wished I had also brought my parasol. Yes, I have a parasol. It is rose colored and it matches my fan. I thought it would be overkill, but right then it seemed more appropriate than anything else in the world. There I stood for what felt like hours. Buses came and buses went. Eventually a yellow bus came by, loaded up some people, started to leave, stopped again in front of me, and gave me a gentle honk. Snapped out of my heat delirium, I went up the steps to see what the driver wished to ask me. He was a kind, African American fellow with nothing but concern in his face. It was a very welcome sentiment. The conversation went exactly as follows:
“Where are you headed, little one?”
“Downtown square. I’m just waiting on a blue bus to get to there.”
“You be waiting on a blue bus a long time, girl. You know, the red line will take you there.”
“I don’t know my way around here. Where is the nearest red line stop?”
“Hop on this bus, I’ll take you to the red bus. You tell the lady on that bus, you tell her Low-Down said to take you all the way to the square, anywhere you want to go, and you tell her Low-Down said to make sure you was okay.”
Realizing this was almost certainly the most Mississippi thing that has ever happened to me, I thanked the driver profusely and hopped on for a ride to the nearest red station. I tried to drop a dollar in the payment box but he wouldn’t have it. He told me to spend it on the red bus. What a kind sir he was. My dollar bills really were in very limited supply. I had only two left. He took me straight to a red bus and I did as I was told. I told the African American lady bus driver that Low-Down said to take me to the square and that Low-Down specifically requested that she see to my welfare. She cackled with laughter and told me to take a seat. The driver known as Low-Down pulled up beside her and they had a short chat before she drove away. That air conditioned bus and those two generous and kind drivers saved me from certain heatstroke. I don’t know if they even realize how grateful I was but I uttered as many thanks as I could and offered to pay extra. They would not have any of it. It was that moment I swore to return to the cemetery and find Mammy Callie’s grave because if I didn’t know any better, Callie was watching out for me that day. Her white children bless her. I’m not the least bit spiritual, but I know when I need to pay my respects.
I went to the cemetery straight away and began my second hunt for Caroline Barr Clark. No such luck. The heat began to take its toll again and I returned to my hotel to rest after a very eventful afternoon.
The next day, day three of my search, I returned to the cemetery with a plan. I looked up Caroline Barr’s burial record and found only that she was buried in “Section 5” of the cemetery. I had no idea how the cemetery was sectioned so I scoured the internet for a blueprint. I eventually came upon a very rough pencil sketch of the cemetery layout that indicated each section. I saved the picture to my phone. My efforts to find the image again, just so I can provide a link, have proved futile. The image came to me when I needed it most and then disappeared. It’s still saved to my phone. I pulled up the image and rotated it so that it best matched my direction. I then used my handy dandy compass directions to stay in and around what was marked as Section 5. On the third day of searching and after a lot of climbing hills and treading graves, I finally found the headstone of Caroline Barr Clark. The feeling was more rewarding than finding Faulkner’s grave or finding anything really. Her grave had no historical markers. No fancy headstones. No pennies. No flowers. Nothing to indicate she was the most important person in William C. Faulkner’s life, creator of Yoknapatawpha County, and one of the most inspirational people in his writing. Just a small, modest stone inscription that had become so dark and weathered that it was barely legible anymore. I dug another penny out of my purse and knelt down to leave it on the otherwise barren grave. Somehow, this penny mattered more than the penny I left on Faulkner’s grave. Faulkner’s grave had at least $3.00 worth of pennies on it. Pennies littered his grave from head to foot. They littered Estelle’s grave. They littered the headstone and the concrete pavilion around it. Pennies that had been there for who knows how long, through the wind and the rain. My penny was a proverbial drop in the bucket. But Callie’s grave had no pennies. It had nothing. No shade. No concrete pavilion. It was bare. Untouched, except for the elements. Much like Dilsey’s character in The Sound and the Fury, there was no love for Mammy Callie. Nothing to show me that people took the time to find her. To leave her a token of their appreciation. She served with genuine affection in her heart for the children she cared for. She worked like a slave, she was bound to the family she served by force, but she loved those children like a mother. She was their figure of authority. Their support system. Their warm cradle. She treated them like she would treat her own children. Because children are blameless. Faulkner really was a goddamn genius.
Who was born in slavery and who gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love.
— Go Down Moses, Dedication