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Seeing America, Whole

A strange thing happened as we pulled into our driveway in San Francisco at the end of our epic Library Road Trip, 2021. At exactly the same moment that we finished seeing our country whole, we also completed hearing the whole history of our country through the magnificent podcast “American Elections: Wicked Game”. We did not plan on this, nor did we ration listening to the 59 episodes to make this happen. Near the beginning of our journey, just as we drove into the driveway of our cabin in Vermont, we had finished listening to the first half of this long podcast. Now we had completed the entire program just as we finished our long and exhausting cross-country journey back to California. It was a thrilling way to complete a thrilling trip.

When we left Jackson, MS we headed west to Vicksburg, MS. Combined with the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, the battle of Vicksburg is considered a turning point of the war. One cannot escape the legacy of the Civil War as you drive through the South. We had stopped at many places connected to that bloody conflict and every one of them leaves a deep and sorrowful impact on me. Vicksburg National Military Park is interesting because it is one of the most memorialized battlefields in the world. Every state, Union and Confederate, that had soldiers in this battle later erected all kinds of monuments to preserve the memory of their fallen sons. In my interest in containing memory through libraries and archives, this is another, heartfelt way of preserving the past.   

As we drove over the Mississippi River into northern Louisiana, the landscape and foliage abruptly changed. Mississippi is hilly and forested. This part of Louisiana quickly flattens out and the vegetation turns from forests to farmland. I had photographed in this part of the South during my 2011 Library Road Trip with our son Walker and his friend Nick Neumann. As we were driving through the poor and mostly African American community of East Carroll, LA I spotted the public library that I had photographed in 2011. Of course, we made a quick stop there and I marveled at the continuity of the positive impact libraries make on struggling communities. As in 2011, this library is an oasis in a place that continues to experience hard times.

We had a long drive as we continued north and west into Arkansas. Ellen and I mostly listened to music, podcasts and talked about what were seeing and what it all means. We also had a long time to listen to the sounds of silence and think. The landscape gradually changed as did the sky. As we headed northwest, we slowly, almost in perceptively, began to feel the rise of the Ozark Mountains. The sky progressively grew into darker shades of gray, threatening rain. As we began a steady ascent into the Ozarks, the rain began to fall with a force that we Californians had not experienced in a very long time. A Biblical deluge ensued as my white knuckles gripped the steering wheel and our Prius performed like a champ. Fortunately, the roads were good and most of the other drivers on the road were sane and slow. We pulled into our destination of Bentonville, AR with high fives and a big sigh of relief.

We came to Bentonville because of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It was started by one of the members of the Walton Family which owns Walmart. This is one of the wealthiest families in America and Sam Walton started his first store here. This thriving community stands out from the otherwise depressed northwest corner of Arkansas. This is certainly a happy company town but feels oddly perfect, like something out of the movie The Truman Show. It was nice to see the Walton family investing heavily in this area even as Walmart challenges unions and pays its employees less than adequate wages. All of this was in the back of our minds as we met with a Museum librarian and showed her our public library album. The museum was magnificent with its incredible, world-class collection. We took it all in after our meeting and toured the Museum and the outside grounds.

The next day we drove on to Sallisaw, OK. This was the home of the Sequoyah’s Cabin Museum owned and run by the Cherokee Nation and is also a National Historic Landmark. We came here because a Cherokee named Sequoyah invented the first written language for his people in 1809 and it is still in use today. His achievement was one of the few times in recorded history that a member of a pre-literate people created an original, effective writing system. His creation of the syllabary allowed the Cherokee nation to be one of the first North American indigenous groups to have a written language. It became a model for other Native written languages. For a time, the Cherokees were more literate than the surrounding white settlers. They called their written information “talking leaves” and they understood that a mastery of a written language was also a valuable form of power. The Cherokee are a great and complicated people. Ten percent of them owned Black slaves before and during the Civil War and some of the Cherokee were allied with the Confederacy during the war. None of this takes away from the great accomplishment of Sequoyah but it does point to the complexity of history.

Later that day we drove into the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK. Exactly 100 years ago, white citizens of Tulsa bombed, burned and shot up the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, producing one of the largest and worst episodes of racial violence in the history of our country. One of the places destroyed in the massacre was the Black segregated public library of Greenwood. I located the exact address and photographed the large, luxury apartments that are being built on the spot today. Despite gentrification the neighborhood still contains memories of its past. I discovered embedded in the street several plaques naming the store owners whose businesses were destroyed a century ago. The train tracks are still there that separated the races in segregated Tulsa. Greenwood was called the Black Wall Street at the time because of its thriving economic community. But it was odd to see a giant U-Haul truck advertisement over a neighborhood where people had once been forced to flee for their lives. The best part of our visit was the newly opened Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center which did a wonderful job of providing the context for what we saw.

After driving west from Tulsa, we crossed an invisible boundary somewhere near Oklahoma City. Slowly the land dries out and aridity overcomes humidity. This is where the west became the West. We spent the night in Amarillo, TX located in the High Plaines. It is where vast cattle ranches meet towering wind farms. Just west of Amarillo is a world-famous art piece called Cadillac Ranch. Several artists including Chip Lord created this iconic masterpiece. It visually stands out in this severe and austere Western landscape. It is in glaring contrast to the homogenized corporate road culture in this part of the world. Such a breath of eccentric fresh air in an increasingly conformist world!

The soul crushing, corporate America, road culture was beginning to catch up with us by this time. Endless motel hallways and endless chain stores can drain the life out of anyone after a while. We were in real need of connecting again with friends and unique places.

We arrived in the afternoon in a little bit of paradise south of Santa Fe called Galisteo, NM. Here, our friend Caroline and her partner Angie along with their very large dog Gordon Cole live in a community of artists, writers, teachers and retirees in rural New Mexico. Caroline’s father wrote the book Cherokee Tragedy about the terrible Trail of Tears. We have been following parts of that trail since we left Georgia. From there the original Cherokees and other Native people were forced to walk over 5,000 miles to their new homes in what is now the state of Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. President Andrew Jackson spearheaded this tragedy and I still don’t understand why he is on our $20 bill. Maybe it’s time to replace him with Sequoyah? We also visited with our dear friends Meridel, Jerry and Ben. Such a talented and unique group of folks in this part of the world! Just in the nick of time, this was the elixir we needed to escape the mind-numbing monotony of corporate America.

Beautiful Silver City, NM was on the way to our next appointment in Tucson. It was an early mining town that has kept mining but has diversified with hipster coffee shops and outdoor recreational activities. Although we only stayed one night, I would love to come back and explore the large surrounding area called the Gila National Forest. Our short hike through a park that was a former mining area was spectacular.

We finished the “work” part of our journey by showing our public library album to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. We also talked with the Center about our Water in the West archive which has been housed there for the last twenty years. This was a large collaborative project that we did with several other photographers in the 1990s. The archive is now part of the Center’s permanent collection. Later that evening, we drove to Tempe, AZ to stay with two more dear friends Mark and Emily.  

We once again entered California in a time of drought. I came up with the idea of the Water in the West project during an earlier drought in the West in the 1980s. On this trip, giant electronic signs flashed out the warning “Conserve Water. Extreme Drought” in Arizona and California. Despite the recent “atmospheric river” of record-breaking rain in Northern California, the drought continues. Our last stop on our epic journey was to visit the vast Carrizo Plain National Monument. Located just west of the San Joaquin Valley, it contains a large,  ephemeral Soda Lake and the mighty San Andreas Fault. It also is home to a vast sky and a serene, beautiful and very dry coastal California landscape.

We arrived home after driving 9,882 miles. Starting in mid-September, we drove from San Francisco to Vermont to Washington, DC to the South and then back home through the Southwest. We heard the context of our country throughout the trip by listening to the essential podcast “American Elections: Wicked Games” by Lindsay Graham (no, not that Lindsay Graham). It has been a privilege to see our country whole and we hope to take the images and writing from this trip and apply them to future ideas and books. We feel that to better understand America, it is important see it. It helps to get out of our bubbles and interact with the range of people that make up our country. It is important for us to be able to soak up the history of this place by physically standing in places of consequence. I love photography because it forces us to do that.

We did, in fact, see amber waves of grain. We also saw purple mountains majesty. Heck, we even saw some fruited plains. America is always a work in progress. Are we poised on the edge of an ideological civil war? Or do we, as a people, have more in common with each other than separates us? What if both are true? This trip has spent a lot of time exploring our country’s collective memory through historical sites, archives and libraries. Our hope is that the work from this journey will help us listen to each other. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address he spoke of the “mystic chords of memory” as a way to unite the Union at the moment when it was falling apart. Our national collective memory is still important, and this trip was our small way of bringing us together. We will see…

We are pretty tired right now after zooming around the country for almost two months. As we lay down our wings to rest, I noticed on the streets of San Francisco that a little angel had done the same.

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The Meaning of Memory

When we pulled out of the parking lot of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, MS Ellen and I were confused. We looked at each other and asked, “What was that all about?” There are the many things about southern Mississippi that I don’t understand. The sparkling warm water and dazzling white beaches here on the Gulf Coast are world class. But I didn’t understand why after two humungous hurricanes smashed into this coast in the last few decades it seemed that every destroyed home, hotel and casino along the coast had been rebuilt. As we drove north from Biloxi, we admired the wall of tall Southern pines that grew on both sides of the road. But as I looked through the trees, I could make out vast tracts of land that had been completely clear cut. The dense wall of trees by the side of the highway was simply an illusion to hide the large ecological disaster to the place beyond the pines. As we drove, we listened to the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

The Jefferson Davis Library is located on the large estate called Beauvoir which is where Davis spent his last years writing his memoir of leading the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the South lost the war, he escaped the advancing Union Army from the last Confederate Capitol in Danville, VA. He was eventually captured and incarcerated for many years in Federal Prison. He was also stripped of his US citizenship. These punishments were justified by the scale of his crimes and in his later years an impoverished Davis survived with the help of his many supporters including the woman that gave Beauvoir to Davis after she died. There was no remorse in Davis and his memoir helped create the myth of the Southern Lost Cause that cast the war as as a noble endeavor by the Confederacy to defend states’ rights and not about slavery. Beauvoir became Davis’ Monticello and after he died, the largest funeral in the history of the South occurred in Davis’ honor.

We came to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library with curiosity and an interest in understanding what it represented. We entered through the gift shop and I immediately saw bumper stickers and t-shirts with snarky conservative, pro-Confederacy sayings. I remembered the gift shop that we had visited earlier in the trip at Gettysburg and I was struck at how sensitive and balanced our National Park Service is in all of the areas it runs.

Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

The Davis Library is housed in an impressive large modern building that has been destroyed twice by those pesky hurricanes but, like the South, it will rise again. It is funded by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans who certainly have an agenda of promoting the Lost Cause and the Davis Library is their crown jewel. It was sad to see how little the Museum informed us of the thinking or context of the Confederacy. Apparently, the Library’s archive of Jefferson Davis’ papers is not even cataloged. The beleaguered curator that we spoke with was trying to do a good job and I wished her well in trying to reconcile the curious mission of this place. Our visit here brought up many questions about what is the responsibility of an archive? What kind of memory should a library, archive, museum or historical place preserve? Who decides which memories are deemed important?

We saw many different examples of this since we left Vermont in mid-October. We showed our Public Library album to the Boston Public Library which is one of only a few urban public libraries with a significant photographic archive. We showed our album to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and also to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

I also began to photograph on a new idea for the Global Library project on the relationship between libraries, education and segregation. We started with the library that had been one of the first “read-ins” in a “whites only” public library in Alexandria, VA in 1939. This was the first use of nonviolent direct action to demand equal rights of African Americans and was the precursor for strategies used throughout the civil rights movement.

Inside the Barrett Branch, Alexandria Library, VA – photo discovered by Jeff Gates

We then stayed overnight in Danville, VA where Jefferson Davis established the last Confederate Capitol. The mansion later became a segregated public library for many years until protesters demanded that if Blacks had to pay taxes to support the library, they should also be able to use it. It is now an Art Center and Museum and we gave a talk to a small audience there after I had photographed this beautiful mansion with a troubled history.

One of the most interesting days of our trip was spent with our friend and fellow photographer from California Lew Watts. We first visited a Gullah inspired public library in St. Helena, SC which is located an hour and half drive south of Charleston. The Gullah/Geechee people were freed from slavery during the Civil War by Union troops and developed their own distinctive language and food based on their African traditions. The island of St. Helena was a center of their culture. We then visited the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park in St. Helena which included a place called the Penn Center. During the war, Quaker missionaries came from the North to help the newly freed slaves with the long process of gaining literacy and education and pride in themselves and their heritage. Penn Center was where their first school operated and the National Historic Park there today was inspirational. Back in Charleston, we enjoyed a glass of wine together as Lew shared with us some of his recent work and we showed him our album.

St. Helena Library, SC

After spending the night in vibrant Atlanta, GA, we drove on to Montgomery AL by way of Anniston, AL and Birmingham. In Anniston in 1963, two African Americans asked for library cards at the public library and were viciously beaten by a white mob but managed to escape. The next day they returned and successfully got their cards. Imagine being beaten up for wanting a library card! Anniston was also the place where a Greyhound bus full of Freedom Riders was attacked and firebombed. Fortunately, the Freedom Riders were spared lynching from the white mob by the action of the local police. This violence was in the back of my mind as I photographed the memories contained in this library.

 During the time when protesters were being attacked by water hoses and four little girls lost their lives in the bombing of a Black church, the Birmingham public library quietly desegregated. This action by a government agency contributed greatly to calming the waters during a very violent and difficult time in the history of Birmingham. Public libraries were often the first, and sometimes the only government institutions that did the right thing and desegregated in the South during the Jim Crow era.  

Our most action-packed day was when we photographed three different sites in two different states in one day. We drove to the Gulf Coast city of Mobile, AL and photographed the National African American Archives in a formerly segregated library. The site was closed for renovation, but I was told by a woman there that the new archive would contain, among other things a digital archive of all the local Black newspapers when the building re-opens.

From there we headed off to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, MS. At the end of the day, we arrived at the Eudora Welty Public Library in Jackson, MS.  Here, in 1961, nine African American students from nearby Tougaloo College requested books in the “whites only” library and were arrested. For the next two days on the steps of the courthouse where they were to be sentenced a group of protesters were savagely attacked by police using clubs and dogs. Among the victims were women, children and the elderly, including an 81-year-old man suffering a broken arm when police beat him with a club. Although one of the first, the Tougaloo Nine protesters are not as well-known historically as other early sit-in groups. Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of the Nine. I photographed her in 2013 at the Cesar Chavez Library in Stockton, CA after she had given an emotional lecture about her experiences in this early Civil Rights action.

Since we left Washington, DC nearly a week ago, we have been traveling through the former Confederacy of the South. For many people here, memory of the past is important. For me, coming from California, the Civil War was long ago and far away. But here, memory urgently informs the present producing transformative social movements such as the ongoing fight for civil rights and Black empowerment. But it also fuels the fear, racism and anger that continues to plague Southern politics. For us, the meaning of libraries, archives, places of history and memory were expanded on this part of the trip in important ways. It will take us a while to fully absorb and understand those lessons. As we turn our car and our attention to the American West, we will let you know our new discoveries. Until next time…

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Sweet New England

10/12/21

The title of this blog comes from the lyrics of a Paul Simon song and it somehow seems to fit our one-month stay in Vermont. There are many things to love about this small corner of the country. The woods are now filled with “leaf peepers” that come from all over enjoying the incredible display of the Fall colors. Vermont is mostly a rural state. But it is unusual in the United States because its’ rural population is mostly liberal or progressive. It is one of the whitest states in the country, but I’ve seen more Black Lives Matter signs here than even my liberal home of San Francisco. Even the notorious grumpy weather provided us with mostly cool but crisp Autumn days interrupted with a little rain and a few warm days. What’s not to like?

Apples are big here this time of year. Hearing one land with a loud “thunk” near our cabin is almost as thrilling as the endless cries of the nearby birds. Most of the apple trees are very old and gnarly and speak to the early agricultural Europeans that settled in this region. The history of settlement and conflict here is endlessly fascinating and I spent most of the month reading an amazing book called “Emigration: Why the English Sailed to the New World”. It examines the reasons why there was such a large migration of people from England here in the 17th Century. Basically, things were really bad back in merry old England, especially for the poor. Of course, the consequences for the Native people throughout the New World were devastating.

Every time I come back to New England I am blown away by the mushrooms in the woods. They are everywhere and endlessly fascinating. I almost try to photograph every mushroom that I see and vow to look them up later when we have internet reception (Yep, no cell phone or wifi at our cabin). We have seen films and read recent books on our evolving understanding of life in the forest. Mushrooms seem like an alien life form that will one day take over the world. Come to think of it, that might be a good thing.

We share this cabin called “The Farm” with other members of Ellen’s family. Over the decades it has turned out to be a real refuge in this crazy world for all of us.  For me, it has also become a real education about the beauty of the New England forests, countryside and culture.

One of the great joys of our lives is, of course, our son Walker. It is interesting to see this guy who was raised in a Waldorf education in the liberal, urban environment of San Francisco take so much to the country environment of Vermont. His great pleasure is creating new hiking trails in the forests and zooming around to all different parts of this area in a Gator. After spending the last two years as a journalist for CBS News covering a lot of Covid stories throughout the American West, I think this is a good way for him to blow off steam and do something very different from his normal life.

Ellen grew up in nearby New Hampshire and has a brother and sister that live in New England. Her brother John manages the Farm and knows the land like the back of his hand. I’ve never met anyone so deeply rooted to a place.

Our one trip into the world of libraries during our month in New England was a trip to the Boston Public Library. This is the world’s oldest large tax supported public library and one of the great libraries of the world. It is also one of the few public libraries in the US that has an extensive photography collection. We showed one of their photography curators our Public Library photographic album and several prints from our Global Library portfolio.  They seemed to really like the work. It’s definitely nice to be appreciated.

We spent a large amount of time planning the next phase of the trip. Our return drive across the country will first take us to Washington, DC and then plunge south through the Deep South and eventually west arriving back to San Francisco in early November. We will visit archives to show our work; libraries that represent Black culture and formerly segregated libraries; places of Native American language, education and oppression; long lost friends in exotic places and finally complete our look at America in these frightening and troubled times. As the Emigration book was the perfect one to read during our stay in New England. For our return journey, I am bringing along the wonderful New York Times journalist Ezra Klein’s book Whey We’re Polarized. I can’t think of a better book to guide us through this dark moment in American history. And, of course, we will be listening to the historical context provided by the incomparable podcast “American Elections: Wicked Game”. I’ll keep you posted as the journey continues. Stay tuned…

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The Norm: Driving across America

9/21/21

We drove 3,176 miles across the United States from San Francisco to Vermont. Most of the time we listened to a marvelous podcast called “American Elections: Wicked Game” which covered every American Presidential election from Washington to Biden. Our son Walker suggested this as an ideal travel companion as we drove across the heart of America. He was right. We were riveted the whole time and as we listened, the miles of our journey and of our history just melted away. As we pulled up to our place in Vermont, we finished listening to exactly half of the 58 episodes of the series. Perfect timing for the return trip!

As we drove through the West early on our recent journey, I read a story online from the San Francisco Chronicle about how California, and especially the Bay Area, have been able to lessen the spread of Covid infections and how California currently has the lowest infection rate in the country. As we drove through places like Nevada, Wyoming and Nebraska we were shocked and saddened by an almost total lack of people wearing masks indoors. In the Bay Area, most people even wear masks outdoors, especially on crowded streets. I began to understand how people in the Bay Area have normalized mask wearing while people in other parts of the country have not. I also began to understand how California has been able to beat back the Covid virus and how hard it will be to create the norm for masking in other parts of our vast and diverse country. Perhaps, because the Bay Area was the nation’s ground zero for the earlier pandemic of HIV/AIDS we have learned to work with and trust science and medicine in ways that some other parts of the country have not.

Along the way, we also saw big brawny guys in jeans and leather vests riding huge Harley Davidson motorcycles zoom by us on the freeway. Each had a woman sitting behind them dressed the same way. All of them were white but the sun and wind had turned their skin lobster red. And, of course, none of them wore a motorcycle helmet, let alone a mask. Perhaps, the defiance to wearing motorcycle helmets is the same as the defiance to wearing masks. It is a visible “fuck you” to authority, even if it kills the people flipping off society.

Creating positive norms are a tricky thing in our troubled times. How can we move beyond the hate ginned up by Fox News, hate radio and crazy internet conspiracy theories? Especially when some people can profit from generating fear. The “Wicked Game” podcast describes several times in our past where anger, fear and passion have overridden common sense in parts of the United States. One of the quotes from the podcast is “Fear is contagious, but so is hope”. We don’t know how this tearing of our American social fabric will play out. Our culture has gone down the path of madness before. But the universal basic decency of most Americans that we met on our journey struck me as a reason for hope. When we traveled almost exactly half-way across the country, we stopped at a small museum in Gothenburg, Nebraska. It was an old Pony Express Station, and it was staffed by a local volunteer who was enthusiastic and disarmingly plain spoken in his wonderful mid-Western accent. The only other person in the small cabin was a man who had just driven from Boston to this half-way spot of America. For a moment I felt a strange uplifting unity for our country coming together in this small Nebraska town. We spent a night in Chicago visiting our dear friend photographer Terry Evans, one of the great photographers of this region. She was a part of our earlier Water in the West project. Having dinner with her was one of the highlights of the trip.

After a quick stop at the fascinating Erie Canal, we continued our journey east. We knew we would get into our hotel in Buffalo, NY quite late. We had brought food for most of our journey but by this point we were a little tired of avocado and veggie burger sandwiches and decided to get some take-out. Ellen found a middle eastern restaurant in Erie, NY and as I drove through the darkened streets of this burned-out, rust-belt town I began to feel a little uncomfortable. The restaurant was run by a refugee from Jordan and the food turned out to be some of the best middle eastern food we have ever had. I have always felt that it is often the immigrants coming to our country “yearning to be free” that provide the spark, optimism and hope that a sometimes cynical and weary America needs.

We will spend the next few weeks resting after our long journey to rural Vermont. I can think of no better place to watch apples falling from the trees and see the amazingly green grass grow. We will be taking a few day trips around New England and even do some work down in Boston. Around mid-October, we head to Washington, DC and then, depending on the Covid situation in the South, make the long drive back home driving through Dixie. Until then…

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The Body Politic

9/16/21

I didn’t realize how much I was concerned about California’s recent recall campaign for Gavin Newsom until it was over. We breathed a big sigh of relief when he won. His speech after the election was quite good stating that the voters of California had taken a No vote on the recall and turned it into a Yes for a whole list of progressive policies.

As we left San Francisco, we listened to the news analysis of the election. After Gavin won big, my worries about the voters of California began to shift to pride about living in such a wonderful place. I have always felt that California’s famous progressive politics are a mile wide and an inch deep. I’ve lived and voted here my whole life and I’ve seen our state launch the careers of Nixon, Regan and Proposition 13. It is true that the last Republican to hold state-wide office here was fifteen years ago. And that this recall was a desperate Republican end run around the normal political process. California Republicans are so far out of touch with the voters here that dirty tricks like this are the only way they could hope to gain any power in the state.

As I buried my thoughts in Californianess, I played Beethoven’s wonderful 7th Symphony on our car’s speakers. This is one of my favorites and my mind drifted between this uplifting music and the election. As we drove on through the slim waist of California’s body politic the music began to rise in tone. As the music ascended, so did we through the tawny foothills of the Sierras. As we drove through the town of Auburn, I spotted a scary looking billboard for a survivalist store showing some mean looking dude wearing full body armor and mask carrying a big ‘ol machine gun. Even a few Larry Elder signs popped up out of the weeds. As we drove higher, we noticed how smoky the air became. The Sierra’s famous blue skies were replaced by a somber dull brown gray.

My gloomy thoughts about our troubled state were interrupted by the ongoing brilliance of Beethoven. His music was built on the optimism and struggles of the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. The music of the 7th contained the battles of his time in the shadows of the minor and major chords. One never knows the outcome while listening to this masterpiece, but the general trend is towards something better, climbing towards order, rationality, and light. Like Beethoven, our recent election gives me renewed faith in the future. We can get through these troubled times by believing in the rationality of science, medicine and enlightened practical public policy. Like the measured tones of this marvelous music, a civil civic discourse can start to help tamp down the steady drum beat of rising authoritarianism. Beethoven lived in difficult times, and so do we. But this election, and this music give me hope. As we crested the Sierras, I looked forward to the future.

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The 2021 Library Road Trip takes off!

9/14/21

Our fires in California are still raging. Our governor recall campaign is still raging. Resistance to getting the Covid-19 vaccination is still raging and sadly, so is the virus. What better time to take off on a cross-country Library Road Trip? After several delays, Ellen and I will be packing up the Prius and heading out tomorrow on the open road to Vermont. We will make a beeline east mostly taking Highway 80 on a northernly route to New England. We will spend about four weeks at our cabin in Vermont making a few day trips to Boston to show our Public Library album and to visit friends and family.

The return trip starting in mid-October is more problematic. We have appointments to show the album to curators at the Smithsonian in DC, Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, and Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. As I mentioned earlier, we also hope to photograph places connected to African American history and segregated libraries. In addition, we hope to visit places representing Native American history, libraries, and education. The big question is the state of the Covid pandemic, especially in the South. We have already altered the return trip to avoid Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas which have sadly experienced bad Covid spikes and terrible hurricanes. We will be following the news closely and skip any new spikes and hurricanes.

I’ll keep you posted as the trip unfolds. It will be great to get back on the road. As always, feel free to send any comments, suggestions, or insights as we go off to search for America. I have attached information about our Public Library album. Onward…

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A Change in Plans

We voted today against the recall of our Governor Gavin Newsom. It is sad to see California Republicans using the recall to try to win an election that they would not be able to win otherwise. It is also sad to see Republican governors of other states trying to prevent their citizens from protecting themselves from the Covid pandemic by wearing masks or getting vaccinated. We have both followed the recent news about Covid carefully and have decided to postpone our departure a few weeks to see how this awful situation plays out. We are not so worried about the situation here in the Bay Area or at our destination in Vermont. People in these places seem to follow the rules and follow the science. It is some of the in-between places that we hoped to visit on our upcoming Library Road Trip that we are worried about. Please wear masks and get vaccinated. It’s the only way to crush this pandemic!

We hope to leave in a few weeks but right now it makes sense to stay put. I’ll let you know our travel plans as soon as possible.

Thanks for all the birthday wishes. We celebrated a double birthday last night with our friends Dan Geiger and Julie Blankenship. Thanks for the photo, Julie!

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The Return of the Library Road Trip, Cautiously

The Return of the Library Road Trip, Cautiously

The world has dramatically changed since our last Library Road Trip post in October 2019. Fortunately, Trump is gone. Unfortunately, Covid is not. We feel that there are still many miles to go before we put this project to sleep. We are returning to the road to drive across country to our little cabin in the woods in Vermont for the month of September. While we are on the way and on the return, we will explore two themes that emerged from our last LRT in 2019. We will photograph the complicated interaction of race and segregation on libraries throughout the country. The first place we will photograph will be the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, OK. This formally thriving African American neighborhood was mostly burned to the ground by a white mob in 1921. This destruction included the segregated public library in Greenwood which is still an empty lot. We will photograph other libraries in the South that were significant in the heroic struggle to desegregate these important parts of our national civic commons.

My research has benefitted by reading two books: The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South by Wayne and Shirley Wiegand and also Freedom Libraries The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South by Mike Selby. Freedom Libraries were established during the Civil Rights struggle in the South in the 1960s when the main libraries initially refused to desegregate. We will be visiting several of these during our drive through the South. It is hard to understand today how people were thrown in jail and sometimes savagely beaten for wanting to check out a book from a public library.

Police officers in Albany, Georgia carry a demonstrator down the steps of the Albany Carnegie Library during a civil rights protest.

Our second area of interest that came out of our 2019 LRT was the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes into “Indian Schools”. We saw examples of this in our drive across Canada and have been reading more about this recently with the discovery of unmarked graves of children in some of these former schools. As much as we have championed education for all poor children as a way out of poverty, this form of education was closer to cultural genocide. We will be visiting one of the first, largest and most famous of these schools in the US called the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Ironically, it now houses the US Army War College.

Canadian Indian Residential Schools (grid)
Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Starting August 20th, we will be on the road for approximately two months. We will cautiously made our way through the parts of the country that are experiencing the recent spike with the Covid virus’ Delta variant. We are vaccinated and we will be wearing masks and keeping our heads down everywhere. And being very cautious!

I will be writing occasional posts from the road as a record of our journey. We would love to hear your feedback along the way. As always, feel free to opt out of receiving these posts if you wish.

Onward…

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Traveling West on Old Route 66

Traveling West on Old Route 66

10/13/19

Driving from Birmingham to Little Rock, AR we encountered a warm, green landscape of forests and rolling hills called the Boston Mountains. I had forgotten how beautiful the South was and this area really impressed me. We drove from northern Alabama to northeastern Mississippi through the beautifully named town of Tupelo. This was part of the South that neither of us had seen and it was fascinating. As we drove through Memphis I waved in the direction of Graceland and vowed to come back and spend more time. At Little Rock we finally got on Interstate 40 which was the old Route 66. Besides the song and the TV show, Route 66 was the road West for many of the Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930s. The fictional Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath followed this road all the way to the Promised Land of California and so will we.

10/14/19

The next day we followed this Mother Road through the drier rolling hills of the many Indian Nations of eastern Oklahoma. This area describes itself as Native America for a reason. In the early 19th century our country had a process of forcibly removing the Native Americans from their land in the South and sending them to eastern Oklahoma. This eventually led to the infamous Trail of Tears that is now recognized as a crime against the humanity of the Native People. Many of their descendants still live here, even after the State of Oklahoma was opened up to white settlement in the latter part of the 19th century. The Indigenous people were continuing the process of reclaiming their heritage and identity and we saw many Native American license plates on the cars of different tribes of this area. I remember seeing the struggles of the Indigenous people in Canada and realized that this will be a long process of healing.

We pulled into Oklahoma City in a beautiful late afternoon light and headed straight to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Here was the site of the famous Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by two white nationalist, nut-jobs Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. One hundred and sixty-eight people died here and six hundred and eighty were injured. It remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in the US. On one side of the Memorial was a field of symbolic bronze and stone chairs – one for each person lost. The chairs represent the empty chairs at the dinner tables of the victims’ families. A chain link fence which had surrounded the site of the blast had attracted over 800,000 personal items of commemoration. Part of the fence was still on display. Like the memorials we saw in Alabama, these symbols against hate were effective, gut-wrenching and important.

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Oklahoma City National Memorial, Oklahoma City, OK

10/15/19

Today we drove through western Oklahoma and the Panhandle of Texas arriving nine hours later in Santa Fe, NM. Compared with the eastern part of the state, Western Oklahoma was flatter, drier and whiter. It still contained some of the rolling hills of the East, but we finally felt like we had entered the American West. The austerity and aridity of this land is so different from the Eastern US. After two months on the road we felt, in some ways, that we had come back home.

Podcasts and CDs were our constant companions. The news about our President was so bad that the intervals of music brought us great joy. But each time we went back to the news, things only seem to get worse. It is ironic to be traveling through a part of the country that so solidly supports Trump. When will they finally abandon him?

After another long-haul drive we arrived at the house of our old, dear friends Meridel and Jerry. She is a well-known and wonderful photographer who taught for many years in Singapore. She is currently working on a long-term environmental photographic project in Iraq. Jerry comes from an old New Mexican ranching family and is a brilliant painter. He has worked most of his life as a contractor.

They used to be married but are still good friends and live next to each other. Meridel’s partner Ben has been an Oscar-winning documentary film maker and is about to start teaching for one year at a university in Sweden.

This was the rich mix of accomplished people that we were staying with for one full day. We greatly enjoyed just staying still in the glorious desert. We were like wide-eyed, shell-shocked children as we wandered through a near-by arroyo secco.

We also enjoyed watching the three-hour Democratic over Vietnamese take-out. We all spent the evening trying to figure out who among the twelve people on stage will be our next President.

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10/16/19

Santa Fe to Flagstaff, AZ was another back-aching, bun-busting long drive. Fortunately, the wide-open spaces were awe inspiring. It even seemed appropriate to hear a Terry Gross interview on singing cowboys. Peanut butter and hot sauce was was our essential road food.

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A massive forest fire obliterated the famously blue skies as we approached Flagstaff. We had read about the recent disastrous fires in this region and in Southern California. It is another sickening result of climate change inaction by the Republican climate change deniers in Washington. Smoke clung to the air as we entered the forests of Flagstaff. As the American West was again burning, we saw one more reason why the next election is so crucial.

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10/17/19

Our second-to-last day of this epic journey took us from Flagstaff to Bakersfield, CA. The beautiful Arizona forests turned into a drier, hotter desert as we descended to the Colorado River.

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We crossed into California at the small town of Needles. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s as they entered what they believed to be the Promised Land.

We zip through the great, dry desert and we rise up to a high plateau on the southern edge of the Mojave National Preserve. I know and love this area well having taught workshops in the Park for over ten years at a great little place called Zzyzx. Halfway between Barstow and the desert town of Mojave was a small intersection called Kramer’s Junction. We stopped to get gas and found ourselves in the middle of a giant sandstorm. The force of nature was both frightening and awe-inspiring.

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Crossing over the Tehachapi Mountains we were struck by the ethereal light of the clouds and sky and also the vastness entering the San Joaquin Valley.

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I have spent so much time working on projects in this area that I felt I was entering home. Bakersfield is a tragic, poetic and fascinating place. It has some of the worst air-quality in the country and yet has also produced some great writers and a unique form of country western music called the Bakersfield Sound. I always think of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens when I drive through here. I was amazed to hear on the local public radio station some guy who had organized a pro-Trump rally here complaining about all the people driving by flipping him off. With what has been going on, what was he expecting even here in conservative Bakersfield?

10/18/19

We discovered an oil-derrick themed hipster coffee shop in downtown Bakersfield. It was excellent and gave me hope for the revival of the downtown.

The five-hour drive to San Francisco gave us time to think and talk about the big take-aways from our two-moth journey around the edges of our country. Three new ideas emerged from this journey. The first was the relationship between the Indigenous people of Canada and education. Sadly, we found that some of those efforts were misguided. I had always felt that education could be a great tool to help lift people out of poverty and elevate their lives. We found, in some cases, education could also become a form of cultural genocide for the Native people.

The second big take-away occurred in Québec. We saw many churches in the province that had gradually lost their parishioners and had been abandoned. Ironically, several of these churches had become public libraries. Why the loss of faith? What caused the people of Québec to abandon their once dominant religion? Why were secular public libraries occupying what was once a religious space? What does all this say about the sacred and the secular in contemporary French-Canadian society?

Finally, the last take-away occurred in the South. Here we traced the epic struggle for Civil Rights, especially in Alabama. I was fascinated by the role that libraries played in that struggle. I was encouraged to see that libraries continued their role not only as community centers but, for some communities, as a place to heal a broken civic space. This idea deserves a lot more research and I will be coming back to explore this more in the future.

It was with great joy that we finally came to a stop at our home in San Francisco. We had traveled almost 11,000 miles circumnavigating the country. We will now stay still for a while and absorb the many lessons we have learned. Thanks for coming along for the ride! Between this trip and the Fulbright Fellowship, we have been on the road for eight out of the last fourteen months. Time for a break and I will be back in touch.

Until then…

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Through the Cradle of the Civil War and Civil Rights

Through the Cradle of the Civil War and Civil Rights 

10/10/19

After spending most of September in Vermont, we headed south at the beginning of October. While staying with Ellen’s sister Martha we visited the wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston.

We stayed with our friends Dave and Claudia in Salisbury Mills, NY in the Hudson River Valley.

We spent one day taking the train to New York City to see a retrospective show of Vija Celmins at the Met Breuer Museum and have dinner with our friends Lynn and Stanley in Brooklyn.

The next day we drove to Washington, DC to stay with our friends Jeff and Susie.

Jeff used to work at the Smithsonian and he took us to see the new and astonishing National Museum of African-American Art and Culture. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this Museum set us up for the rest of our trip through the South.

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As we drove south from Washington, I felt like we had entered the South. Being born and raised in California, I have always been fascinated by this part of the country. My father and I used to have big arguments about civil rights when much of the history of that movement was being played out here in the 1960s. As we drove through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia I noted my first impressions: red dirt, kudzu, Southern pines, anti-abortion ads, friendliness, Civil War memories, peaches, William Christenberry’s photographs, Civil War battlefield sites, Lewis Hine photographs, Walker Evans and the 1930’s Farm Security Administration’s photographs and listening to the Blues.

After the end of a long drive and listening to lots of podcasts about the insanity with our President, we arrived at the small but very pleasant town of Eclectic, Alabama. It was founded  in 1907 by a practitioner of eclectic medicine, hence the name. I had spent 18 years photographing libraries throughout the United States but, unfortunately, didn’t photograph any libraries in Alabama or Hawaii. I was here in Alabama to make amends and help complete the project. The Eclectic Library was housed in the old red-brick jail. Behind it was a very large water tower. Inside, the librarians were very enthusiastic about our project and took me on a grand tour of their tiny library. In the half an hour tour I learned much about this place including that Jessie Owens, Hank Williams, Willie Mays and Condoleezza Rice all came from Alabama. We later pulled into the capitol city of Montgomery after dark. I was exhausted after the long drive but happy to have finally photographed a library in Alabama. Impressions of this state included cotton, aerospace billboards, lots of churches, high school football, “Jesus Saves”, and vast tree farms.

Eclectic Public Library, Eclectic, AL

10/11/19

Ellen’s sister Martha had recently told us about a new museum in Montgomery dedicated to the civil rights struggle called the Legacy Museum. A few days ago, we had visited the National Museum of African-American Arts and Culture in Washington, DC. That museum was a great celebration of the accomplishments of African-Americans as well as some of the dark history of slavery and segregation. The Legacy Museum focused on the grim reality of slavery and segregation and the heroic fight of the Civil Rights Movement.

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Of course, Montgomery was one of the largest centers of the nineteenth-century slave trade, was one of the capitols of the Confederacy and was the scene of the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott which was an early battle for civil rights. As a result, there was great resonance in standing in the place of so much human suffering and conflict.

One of the great turning points in the Civil Rights struggle was the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965. We drove the 54-mile National Historic Trail in reverse arriving in the depressed town of Selma around mid-day. As we drove over the historic Edmund Pettus bridge, we came upon the scene of the Bloody Sunday police riot. Here, State Troopers beat the marchers with night clubs, then donned gas masks and released tear gas to further terrorize the marchers. The demonstrators began running back, stumbling over each other and trying to ward off blows. The troopers and posse continued to use nightsticks, whips and rubber tubes to drive the marchers through the streets of Selma. Standing on these same streets I felt it made these awful events more real by physically being in the place of such historic consequence.

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The one place in Selma that offered some release from the surrounding poverty and grim history was the Selma Public Library. The exterior and landscaping seemed like an oasis. The interior contained an extraordinary quilt that was produced by the community churches. It addressed Selma’s painful past and was an attempt to continue the community’s struggle to heal. There was no better place for this than the Selma Public Library which had literally witnessed such horrors on its front steps 54 years ago.

Public Library, Selma, AL

Public Library, Selma, AL

We drove west from Selma and as we turned off on to Alabama State Highway 61 (not to be confused with Mississippi’s Highway 61 that Bob Dylan made famous) we entered the very rural Alabama Black Belt. This name refers to the incredibly rich soils that stretch all the way to Georgia and the Carolinas. It was also the heart of the plantation cotton and slave empires of the antebellum South. Cotton was still grown here but the crops have been diversified. This was beautiful country, especially in the warm, Fall afternoon light.

We arrived in the fascinating restored town of Newbern, AL. It was very small with a population of 186 and a per capital income of $9,476. The Rural Studio of Auburn University was based in Newbern. Its architecture students work under the supervision of faculty designing and building affordable housing and similar projects to support the population of rural areas of Alabama. One of the projects the Rural Studio built was the Newbern Public Library. It was housed in a former bank and the building was donated by a local family to become a social center and the first public internet point in the community. It was designed to be a resource-rich social center, but also to preserve the town’s history, heritage and memories. Newbern and its library gave me some hope for the future.

Newbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., ALNewbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., AL

Newbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., ALNewbern Library, Newbern, Hale Co., AL

Newbern is located in Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans photographed the area in 1936 with writer James Agee. They looked at a group of dirt-poor, white tenant farmers in one of the poorest parts of the rural South. They produced their famous book from this project called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. Photographer William Christenberry also worked here for many years. In 2019, the film “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” by artist RaMeil Ross was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, poetically addressing the region’s shift in demographers and the power of intra-community cooperation.

Central Alabama copy

The second library we photographed in Hale County was in the town of Greensboro, the Catfish Capitol of Alabama. This area was also central to the cotton/slave empires and was part of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King hid from Klu Klux Klan members here in what is now operated as The Safe House Black Historic Museum. The beautiful Hale County Library dates back to 1925. Additions to the Library have maintained the original style. The very smart, literate and gracious librarian was kind enough to let us stay a half an hour after closing time while she filled in Ellen with the local history and I scrambled around the small library with my camera.

Hale County Library, Greensboro, AL

Hale County Library, Greensboro, ALHale County Library, Greensboro, AL

We then drove into the night in a white-knuckle downpour. Listening to podcasts about the crazy stuff coming out of the White House was the only thing that distracted us from the sheets of rain and lighting all around us. We finally landed in Birmingham, AL, exhausted.

10/12/19

In our hotel there was a large room with a big screen TV showing Trump blathering on at one of his rallies. I was encouraged to see that no one was watching the story and everyone had turned their backs to the screen and the President. I was also happy to see a car in the parking lot from Mississippi with a “Republicans Against Trump” sticker on the bumper.

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Walker had urged us to have a meal at SAW’s BBQ in Birmingham. It was absolutely a highlight and my shrimp and grits meal was incredible.

Our first stop was the famous Birmingham Public Library which had been the scene of a sit-in in 1963 to force the desegregation of this Jim Crow era library. We weren’t able to photograph the beautiful Reading Room where that sit-in took place. But I did photograph the exteriors of the both the old and new libraries. This library made me think that I should think about starting a new project on libraries that were important in the Civil Rights struggle including ones today such as the library in Ferguson, MO. More on that later as this idea develops…

The next stop was the site of the death of four little girls on Birmingham Sunday. The lyrics of that famous Richard Fariña song were in my mind as I gazed at the reconstructed 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963 members of the Ku Klux Klan blew up the church in a terrorist attack killing the four girls and injuring 22 others. No prosecutions were conducted until 1977 when one of the killers was convicted. The others were convicted in 2001. The bombing marked a turning point in the Civil Rights movement and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

IMG_354316th St. Baptist Church and Park, Birmingham, AL

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Martin Luther King described Birmingham in 1963 as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”. It was nicknamed “Bombingham” because of the large number of bombings of black properties and churches that occurred during the eight years before 1963. We walked through a park near the church that was a rallying point during the protests. Here, peaceful protestors were knocked to the ground by powerful water cannons. Police dogs attacked women, men and children. Several hundred protestors filled the city’s jails including many children. The park was filled with sad memorials to all of this and more.

16th St. Baptist Church and Park, Birmingham, AL16th St. Baptist Church and Park, Birmingham, AL

I was deeply moved and my heart was crying as I stood in the park remembering the words “On Birmingham Sunday/ the noise shook the ground/ and people all over the world turned around/ no one recalled a more cowardly sound/ and the choir kept singing of freedom.” Amen.

This seems like an appropriate place to end this post. From Birmingham we will drive to Little Rock, AR; Oklahoma City, OK; Santa Fe, NM; Flagstaff, AZ; Bakersfield, CA and finally home. I’ll do one more post at the end. Until then…

 

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