In Search of Better Skies / Jennifer Neal
When people talk to me about migration, the conversation usually revolves around a superficial narrative that reduces the topography to blue dotted lines and large red circles that read, “You are here now.” But I always think about the wind, how it moves with urgency against the skin. I think about how hatred often operates with the force of a hurricane at your back, pushing people to terrible and marginally safer places just to survive the night. I think about how uprooting life from one place to another means forcing my bones to shift into different and excruciating arrangements to accommodate new surroundings, tongues, and customs, making my joints both weaker and stronger at the same time. I think about the future, and how it’s capable of adopting any number of possibilities all because one person decided to sidestep the appointed order of their maker at the right moment.
I think about how I’ll never be able to thank my grandfather for having the courage to do just that, at a time when it was exponentially less fashionable for a black man to do so… how I’m able to live in a place once overrun by Nazis, because he, at one time not too long ago, left the hazardous trespasses of Georgia to fight them.
In Woodland, the clouds sometimes roll in above the town's five communal buildings like a violent, silver tide, drawing the tips of trees toward its epicentre as if caught by a phantom thread. My grandfather described it as someone “pulling on the sky,” where the celestial body that normally held its residents like a firm, round womb, oscillated dangerously out of control and drowned the town in chaotic lightning storms, floods, all manner of natural disasters.
Georgia is often thought of as a calm, relaxed place, where both people and sun-brewed tea are dark and sweet like maple sap. But for my grandfather, it was a place brimming with hostility that threatened to spill over at any moment, unleashing the worst in an environment historically regulated by the strict tenants of vicious racial hierarchies and the sinister hum of routine. But the sky wasn't the only thing that violently stretched out of place every now and then, throwing the entire strip of land into disorder. The people were equally as capable of terrifying and lawless things. But my grandfather was convinced that it was the terrain that possessed them with the malevolence to do so. Not the other way around.
My grandfather grew up believing that land could be haunted by ghosts that were carried around like afflictions, suffocating all life until a concentrated determination simply brought it to an ugly and inevitable end. And so home was a pig farm made of splintered wood panels and chipped white paint with a cool, dirt floor and a kerosene furnace that glowed white hot with red ash. Home was nestled between green trees, and overrun by white, hooded robes, a town overflowing with plump, sweet fruit and colourful grand wizards. Yes, Georgia was home, but Georgia had plenty of ghosts to go around, and many of them swung from trees.
“Sometimes, I wanted to chop all those trees down because I knew that bodies swung from them,” he told me once. “No tree should be left standing after it’s ended a man’s life.”
Woodland consisted of 361 people one year ago, and 386 people five years before that. A generation from now, it’s likely that it will have disappeared altogether, the only thing remaining a memory that most people who left don’t care to possess. It is a town with one general food store, one volunteer fire department, and one city hall demarcated by one Confederate Flag that hangs limply outside. Sometimes, the town’s single stoplight stops functioning, but it was only a formality in the first place, because no one ever dared to cross the railroad tracks to the other side of town anyway. People simply stayed in their respective margins.
The person with the most indomitable presence in my life came from a town where nearly seventy-eight per cent of the population is African-American, but where Willie Jean Carreker was murdered at the hands of white police officers anyway, remembered only by the few people literate enough to put his name in writing.
In winter, frost covered the peach trees until they stiffened and snapped like twigs, and colour receded from the sky, replaced with a murky grey that blanketed everything in darkness. But the humidity of summer, with its ability to suffocate all life, was what breathed fire into the madness that eventually pushed him to leave it all behind. He enlisted in the army in 1944 and left for France to fight in World War II.
My grandfather never spoke about the war. And though on most days he was found playing checkers with a handful of animated veterans—a cluster of dark leathery faces worn soft by large, toothless smiles—my father was quick to dismiss any thoughts of grandeur, convinced that my grandfather was relegated to cleaning latrines for white soldiers. I was too young to fully comprehend the gravity of a world that had been forged in the heart of a Europe that now seems alien. For me, the world was shaped by Sunday morning cartoons. But when—on a school assignment one day—I called him on the phone and asked him to tell me what those days were like, he responded by saying that “no one should ever have to talk about war once they’ve been in one.” Then he told me that he loved me, and that he would send some money for me in the mail.
But in the letter that accompanied ten crisp one-dollar bills, he told me that Woodland had been a desperate place, overrun by Klan and violence, where both people and possibilities withered up and died like fruit on a vine. France had given him a glimpse into a completely different world. He had learned that, besides being brooding and sadistic, skies could also be open and warm, genial and flirtatious, both seductive and threatening. He returned to Georgia fevered with hope, no longer willing to blindly accept what he was given after being exposed to life beyond segregation. And because he couldn’t re-enlist in a war that was over, which he would have done if possible, he decided to leave instead—in search of better skies.
“And I swore I would never go back,” he concluded.
While most black people travelled North to flee the watchful eye of Jim Crow, my grandfather travelled deep into the far-flung South—settling in Polk County, Florida. Haines City has more than 23,000 people now. He settled there on a block where two liquor stores sat opposite each other, the shopkeepers locked in a bitter and personal battle to pry the business away from his competitor. Today, every house window is covered in iron bars, but then, it was nothing but farmland, rich and dark like blackstrap molasses. He built a small house next to a large citrus grove where he immediately started working as a fruit picker, climbing trees to pull lemons, oranges and grapefruits from their prickled leaves until the oil from the rinds coloured his fingernails a permanent shade of yellow, and curled the flesh on his fingers into little brown ribbons. During the day, under the eye of a white foreman, his German shepherd, and the brutal Florida sun, my grandfather laboured long hours. His clothes stuck to his skin, and his limbs went numb from exhaustion. At night, he sat in a rusty aluminum tub in his backyard and watched the clouds transpose from shades of magenta, to violet, orange, and eventually black.
Unlike Georgia, Florida wasn’t crowded with thick woods and underbrush. It’s hard to see the sky in Woodland; no one is ever encouraged to look up or outwards. Keep your head down, your eyes cast towards the creatures that reside in shadows. But in Haines City, the sky is unobstructed and stretches so far that you can still see the green interstate signs pointing you to places you haven’t even thought to visit yet. As long as my grandfather could see that sky, he felt free.
It was a freedom, however, that came accompanied by brutal heat waves, venomous snakes, and fever that spread to every worker in the field like a shadow at dusk. Beneath the claustrophobic milieu of Woodland, black men shrank in the shadows to prevent themselves from appearing a threat to anyone around them, every gesture and word a calculated appraisal to measure risk the way a barometer measures pressure before a storm.
I went and visited Woodland once. I saw the house where my grandfather was born and raised. The pigpen had grown worn and decrepit. When I stepped into the backyard, the earth came loose beneath my feet and cool, wet mud swelled up to my knees with each step. Cicadas filled the air with their orchestral harmonies, smells of rotten peaches and animal filth lingered on every twig. The woods had grown over the rust-coloured roof as if reclaiming it. But what I remember most is looking up at all the leaves standing over me, blocking the sun like they were afraid of its warmth. Nothing can grow in a place as dark as that.
In Woodland, survival meant literally curling himself into hardened, crippled shapes, the only defence available. But in Florida, he told me, “I already felt like more of a man than I ever did in Georgia. I always knew I was tall, but I finally felt like I was.”
In Haines City, my grandfather stretched like an oak, feeling his limbs for the first time. They cracked and lengthened beneath the endless sky.