when the dust clears

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God Sees All

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Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.

Under my feet.

Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.

As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”

We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.

“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.

I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.

Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)

Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)

In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.

 

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Postcards from the Great Dismal Swamp

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Ever since I came across the Great Dismal Swamp in the Rand McNally road atlas, I’ve wanted to see the place for myself. I’ll confess that this whole region—in fact, pretty much all of Virginia—was indistinct in my mind. (And I’m someone who loves maps and geography, thanks to my proud shunpiker parents, who pored over the atlas before every car trip in search of the roughest, remotest roads they could find.) It only began to take shape on our third voyage south, when we turned Brian’s lost passport into an impromptu honeymoon down the Eastern Shore, over to Hampton, on to Petersburg, and up through the Shenandoah Valley. That’s when I started to study the map.

It’s also when I started to study American history, my knowledge of which was patchy at best. I’d never been all that interested in pilgrims and pioneers, Rough Riders and robber barons, Confederates and carpetbaggers. But as Brian and I delve deeper into the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the dark decades that followed, the southern landscape has begun to take on new meaning for both of us.

Somewhere in the piles of articles and books and pamphlets we’ve accumulated, I had read that enslaved people sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp on their long journey to precarious freedom in the north. The twisting, infinite waterways and thickets of underbrush provided cover from slave hunters and their snarling bloodhounds, but it was a forbidding shelter, infested with mosquitoes and other beasties, snakes, and bears. Even so, for many it was preferable to bondage, becoming more than just a stop on the Underground Railroad, a permanent hiding place and home.

Colonies of maroons established themselves in the swamp, perhaps as early as the late 17th century, according to J. Brent Morris’s recent New York Times post, raiding neighboring plantations, then retreating to the thorny, bug-ridden bog to elude any pursuers. The whole piece is fascinating, but this bit is worth quoting at length:

The considerable numbers of maroons who used the swamp as a base for these attacks, as well as those who settled in the innermost communities of the deep swamp, were constant thorns in the side of plantation society, both militarily and ideologically. Through trade, appropriation and their own ingenuity, maroons obtained or made weapons and developed remarkable skills as guerrilla fighters. Just as important, however, was their symbolic variance from the ideological foundations of American slavery: the notion that African-Americans could not survive without benevolent white supervision, that they did not truly desire their freedom and that they were pathetically inferior to the ‘master race” in every way. Rather, they challenged white authority and stood for centuries, unsubdued, as a powerful rebuke to the Slave Power.

It was this article, in fact, that spurred us to action on Sunday. (Oddly enough, a few days before, during a marathon session at the University of Chicago’s marvelous Special Collections Research Center, I’d come across a number of references to the Dismal Swamp Land Company—founded by none other than George Washington—in the musty 200-year-old papers of a certain Fielding Lewis, proprietor of Weyanoke plantation on the James River. More on that later.) From Hampton, Brian and I drove down to Suffolk, on the south side of the James, and parked alongside three other cars at the Washington Ditch entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

The perfect fall weather—cool, still, with a bluebird sky—went a long way toward masking the treacherous nature of the swamp, which at one point covered over a million acres in this corner of Virginia and North Carolina. Still, as we strolled along the double track to Lake Drummond, a nine-mile hike in and out, we tried to invoke the ancestors: How would they have read the landscape, the channels and pools, the hummocks and scrims of scum, the large piles of seed-laden dung? On less benevolent days, how did they stay warm and dry? How did they eat? As the sun dropped in the sky and the woods around us became an impenetrable tangle of shadows, we quickened our step, arriving gratefully at the car, where we cranked up the heat as soon as we got in. Yes, it was in the 50s. Goes without saying that the ancestors were a hell of a lot tougher than we.

Erin Hollaway Palmer, October 22, 2013

From the BXP photo archives: Harlem, 2004; Taiwan, 1987

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Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Rose Murdock started Harlem’s Development and Finishing Institute in 2002 to teach African American girls and Latinas (and later boys) etiquette and comportment. Bourgeois? Bien sûr! But Ms. Rose had no time or patience to indulge in debate. Her philosophy: Girls of color need every arrow in their quiver to succeed professionally and financially, from working a salad fork to speaking on the phone with a college recruiter or potential employer. Period. I respected that, though I did find the focus on the salad-fork side of things a bit much. Of course, Emily Post would have cringed watching me tuck into lunch.

The school is still up and running.

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

As I did years later in China—and everywhere else I have visited—I strayed from the main streets to learn and photograph. The boy had been tossing a rubber ball in the air but stopped when I approached. He faced me and posed. I made an exposure. I waved. He waved, and scooted off.

My ability to walk backward and speak passable Mandarin landed me a job as a legal proofreader in Taiwan, fresh our of college, in 1986. I had spent the summer of my junior year giving campus tours. My only takers on one dreary day in Providence, RI, were a family of three. Dad was a senior partner in a Taipei law firm; I was graduating with a degree in East Asian Studies. We chatted. He gave me his business card, told me to get in touch. I began pushing a pencil for him just a few months later.

The job entailed sitting in a cubicle at the back of the sprawling offices of Lee & Li Attorneys at Law, Monday through Friday and half of Saturday. My neighbor there was an elderly and flatulent translator.

I knew little of international law—Lee & Li’s core practice—and during the first couple of months managed to excise perfectly fine legalese from documents written by L&L’s U.S.-educated Taiwanese lawyers.

I had time on my hands, but I was duct taped to my admittedly comfortable chair. My workload had lightened after they hired another American proofreader. Plus, most of L&L’s attorneys spoke English fluently, so I wasn’t able to work on my Mandarin very much. I got quite good at the NY Times crossword puzzle in the International Herald Tribune. I also managed to work my way through an armload of novels. (Web surfing was far in the future.) And I lived for lunchtime at the cafeteria in the basement of the Formosa Plastics Building, L&L ‘s headquarters. Every day the steam table sagged under trays of scrambled eggs and tomatoes, various seaweeds, chicken and pork chunks, crunchy stir-fried veggies.

I had committed to a two-year term, but I had realized I was not lawyer material. I left after six months for the grand tour of Asia I had mapped out between puzzling and reading—China, Mongolia, the Soviet Far East, and beyond—only to get laid low by giardia in Nepal. That’s another story.

From the BXP photo archives: 1996 & 1999

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Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

When I wasn’t piloting my desk during my time in China as US News and World Report‘s Beijing Bureau Chief, I would wander streets and hutongs.

Photographing what I found dragged me out of the editorial and bureaucratic pool I steeped in most days—Beijing and Washington’s genuine conflicts and diplomatic spats; China’s labyrinthine officialdom; and the stress of being under (or believing I was under) the scrutiny of the Public Security (cops) and State Security (secret police) Bureaus.

The photo above, from the Gulou (Drum Tower) section of Beijing, is the result of such wanderings. The second picture is from the tailend of an interview of bus driver Wei Guiying (not pictured), who had been selected as a model worker by her work unit, in Hunan province’s Sansi Village. Wang Chunlei, my friend and office manager/editorial adviser also acted as translator, because we knew I would have difficulty understanding Wei’s Hunanese-flavored Mandarin. And I most certainly did.

I barely remember the interview; lunch, however, I recall vividly. Chunlei told me the family must have blown a month’s wages on the tableful of meat, vegetables—corn, greens, potatoes—and buns that they laid before us. I did my duty, good waiguo ren (foreigner) that I am, and devoured all that was scooped into my bowl.

Wei’s stepmother was housebound; her grandson was most definitely not.

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

This last photo is from a published story I did while working at Fortune magazine. I traveled to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos, to write/photograph a travel piece.

Is there a theme—or themes— that unites and animates these photos? Escape? Encounter? I try to strike a balance between the literal and the lyrical, to see and photograph as an open, humble, compassionate, yet still critical observer and sometime participant.

Yes, more to come.