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Excerpts of Georgia Travel Diary
State 49 - GEORGIA 22 MAY 00 - 26 MAY 00

 

First Baby . . .

The tourbook says the Georgia Capitol is open on weekends. Normally I don't trust tourbooks listings and make a habit of verifying such information by telephone first, but for some reason I didn't make the call this Saturday morning. We arrive early and find a parking space pretty easily (not a good sign). After a brief walk around the grounds, we climb the Capitol stairs to the front door and it is locked tight. Walk around and try a side door, again locked up. Meanwhile a few busloads of children arrive and swarm the grounds like a SWAT squad dressed in cheerful colors. A few adults oversee the group of swarming children and rush to corral them for a group photo on the Capitol steps. One adult in particular stands out among the others: she's a young woman holding a six-month old baby in her arms. She walks with a determined gait, as her baby bounces up and down on her constantly mobile hips. Back and forth she walks, consulting with each adult. I guess she's the group leader.I nudge Ken and whisper, "Gee, I feel bad for them. At least you and I didn't hire a bus to come here today. Look at them all sitting on the steps for a group photo. A photo to mark an event that didn't happen." We watch their little faces on the steps, smiling into the camera to preserve a day of disappointment. As for me and Ken, well, we resign ourselves to just being satisfied with outside shots of the Capitol and cushion our disappointment with the compensatory thought that we may return during the week for an interior tour. As Ken snaps photos I sit on a stone bench and watch the crowd of children. While sitting here, probably five minutes, I'm approached by four different cars that stop in front of me while the driver rolls down his window to ask directions. Since it's only my first day here in Atlanta, I confess that I'm as lost as they are. But I feel a weird, undeserved sense of pride that I appear a native, as someone "in the know," as though I know where I am, where I'm going, and am quite capable of telling others how to get to their destination as well. It's an unmerited dose of pride and I squelch it immediately before . . .huh . ..Hey! What's this? There seems to be a buzz going on among the adults attending to the busloads of children. Seems the lady with the baby has found an open-hearted security guard who'll let them into the building. Almost in synchrony, Ken notices the same thing, and we both start running to catch up with the school group as they file into the building. We discover that the lady with the baby is a state representative, Rep. Sally Harrell, who had arranged for this group to get a tour and now the security guards are at last letting her group enter. Ken and I catch up to her and beg to tag along. Permission is granted. Rep. Sally Harrell is wonderful! She provides one of the best Capitol tours we've had and pleasantly, patiently, answers all kinds of annoying questions the group throws at her. She's a wellspring of information. And so sweet and kind too. A former social worker, she entered politics, she says, to represent the voiceless people, the people who are rarely heard in legislative halls: women, children, minorities and the underclass. Her manner is as gentle as a willow, her voice, soft and downy. This is her first year in office and we're startled to learn that a woman so young and sweet -- and probably very much pregnant at the time of the election -- jumped into the political ring on such a benevolent mission, and won! She tells us that her baby was "the first baby" born to a legislative member while in session. Good for her. Good for Georgia, the same state who produced the other great humanitarian, Jimmy Carter.

"Our Dream"

While taking the trash out tonight I pass an RV that has the words "Our Dream" painted on the front door. These two words stop me in my tracks. The words remind me that this trip of ours was our dream. Ken and I dreamed of this for so long. But a dream, once it becomes daily life, loses its magic. The misty, dreamlike quality evaporates. In the midst of trying to find our way around in the aggravating world of grocery store queues, laundromats, dental emergencies, and financial woes, we forgot that we're living a dream. How could we have let that happen? How could we have squashed our dream under the weight of everydayness? I think it's because Reality has a way of seeping and creeping into one's consciousness, sucking out happy expectancy and replacing it with doubt and foreboding. Be gone! Out, out damn Reality. From here on I'm living a dream again. I'll deal with my troubles when I get back at home. Right now I'll stuff my problems in the closet, shut the door, and in the words of Georgian Scarlett O'Hara, "I'll think about that tomorrow."

Speaking of Dreams . . .

Today we're at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site where visitors can view a video of King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech, and can also visit his boyhood home, neighborhood, church and tomb -- all in the same block. It's early morning. The newness of the freshly risen sun shines a clean light on King's white tomb. Once again, I'm sitting alone on a stone bench while Ken is off photographing the site. The shrine looks like a swimming pool with a white coffin floating on it. It kinda reminds me of a movie scene, I can't recall which film it was, but the natives of some strange culture would place the deceased on a boat and let it drift out to sea. This memorial to King reminds me of that scene. It is strange: part reflecting pool, part gravesite. My brief moment of peaceful reflection and hushed meditation is violently interrupted by a cacophonous crowd disembarking from a large tourbus behind me. One by one, each person steps off the bus, laughing and joking with the people in front and in back while their heads bob in chattering unison. I'm mildly annoyed that my quiet visit with Martin Luther King is interrupted by this boisterous crowd of happy-faced tourists. In the shadows of the trees around me I watch as this group descends upon the shrine, all laughing, joking, and snapping photos of each other in front of the pool and tomb. They are a group of African Americans, young and old, the youngest about age 14, the oldest about 87. I am the only white person among this crowd. King is their hero. Their leader. Can he be mine, too, even though I'm not black? I've always loved what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for. I've always treasured his words. But somehow how I feel I can only be a peripheral admirer. For I'll never know what it's like to be a black person in America. The problems they face today, their reconciliation with the past, and past injustices will forever escape me. As I watch this crowd I wonder if black and white people can ever really be friends. How can I relate to someone whose life experiences I haven't shared. Can never share. I do not feel the daily sting of prejudice -- whether expressed openly, or mildly suggested through body language or innuendo. Almost as though reading my thoughts, a middle-aged man from the group beckons to me and asks me to sit by him to have our picture taken together. The group he's with stops talking and stares. Every facial expression says, "Why does he want his picture taken with this strange white woman?" No one says anything as the camera is quietly passed to a willing person who snaps a photo of me and this man, shaking hands in front of Martin Luther King's tomb. A black man and a white woman. As if in answer to the question that is written on everyone's brow, the man says to the group, "That's what King was all about, wasn't it?" He laughs. Smiles broadly, happily, joyfully, and everyone else laughs with him. The awkwardness passes. We shake hands again and he goes his separate way, back to the tourbus, back to Chicago, I presume. I had wanted to take the conversation further and ask him if white and black people can be friends. Sure, we can get along. Sure, we can coexist peacefully. Sure, we can share some things, some experiences. Shake hands for a photo. But can we be friends? Real friends. I never ask the question. Too afraid of the answer.

Moments later Ken returns from his photo shooting and we rush to make the scheduled 10 o'clock tour of King's boyhood home. It's a wonderful tour of the home, enriched by stories of MLK as a boy, his relationship with his mother, brothers and sisters, and especially the influence of his father and grandfather -- both ministers at the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded by King's maternal grandfather. When he died King's father became the preacher, and Martin Junior co-preached with his father before moving on to his own parish in Montgomery. This church is also the site where King's mother was shot and killed in 1974 while playing the organ during a Sunday service.) During the tour of his home, we hear of King's boyhood experiences. The stories of his life prior to the Civil Rights movement are shadowed by prejudice, unfairness and disregard for human dignity. Some of the tales are painful to hear since it wasn't that far back in our national past. The all-white tourgroup feels a collective sense of guilt. A woman from Great Britain is one among our group and I watch to see if she reacts differently from these embarrassing stories. Most of us in the group wince guiltily when we hear the stories of racism, but she just nods with a detached, guiltless interest. She's not to blame, you see, but we are. Not personally of course, for most of us in the group weren't even born yet, but we feel the shame nevertheless. At the end of the tour the British woman asks our tourguide, a black woman in her mid-seventies, "aren't you glad things have changed?" Our tourguide softly replies, "Yes. I'm glad things have improved." The word "improved" echoes in the hall. Conditions have improved, to be sure, but more changes are still needed. We find out, quite inadvertently, by the way, that our tourguide is a cousin of Martin Luther King's. Throughout the tour she never let on how she happened to know so many intimate things about King's boyhood until at the very end of the tour someone asked if she was related to King. "Yes," she admits quietly, "I'm his cousin." So we got a special inside look at King's life from one of his own relatives.

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