Love my state, the whole state—especially the Upstate, because it made me who I am: hands and hearts tempered with struggle and beauty. From my daddy’s parents: Mable and Willie Clifton to my own: Johnny and Jeanette, meeting at Fountain Inn Negro High School, locked in a kiss that ended after 47 years of marriage. I am from their sharecropping, separate-but-not-so-equal history, yet their fierce steps kept the tribe of our family moving forward. Daddy bussed tables at the Poinsett Hotel on Main Street. mama dusted at TE Jones Furniture Store out in Greer. These hands bore me out of the dust of their Upstate dreams, but I am also grounded by Lowcountry roots: 50,000 unnamed slaves thrust on the Port of Charleston. Those ghosts speak even today from cobblestone carriage rides and out of the mouth of the Atlantic. Upcountry is Lowcountry’s kissin’ cousin. Can’t speak of one without feeling the breath of the other.
When I open my mouth people say, you not from around here. I was somewhat Upstate raised, but I was born more near the middle: Sumter. As my parents’ fourth child, I came to life on Shaw Air Force Base—smack dab in the middle of my dad’s military trek—my walk, tongue, and ways are molded by this journey. Many call me an Air Force brat, but I am Carolina sweetened. My poetry is imbued with front-porch storytelling from the green flatlands to the foothills. Greenville back roads are in my veins. I could navigate Old Georgia Road with my eyes closed. I am from down yonder—Highway 25 going south on August Road, where the Hub used to be and the old Woodmont High School still stands.
I was the household’s resident book geek and word nerd. I ran after the bookmobile like most kids ran after the ice-cream truck. I also pored over stacks at the Main Library on College Street during every free moment. Woodmont High School gave me teachers that sculpted me. Mr. Jack “Hoss” Candler shaped my scholarly mind in biology. Mrs. Michelle Meekins (now Dr. Meekins) strengthened my backbone just by the way she conducted herself as woman and a teacher. Ms. Roberta Sergeant (now Mrs. Allen) put a poet’s journal and pen in my hand.
The Upstate I come from is make-do—Mama working at Model Coats down at the Ware Place sewing applique on housedresses making $1.50 an hour—her back bent all day over a sewing machine. These tired know-how hands made me. They took me to the Jockey Lot—ten tube socks for a dollar. On trips to Pelzer we sang the commercial’s jingle, There’s more for less at Sky City.
I am Jeanette Redmond’s child grown by her grace, bu I am my father’s daughter—his mouth and temper. A fire he set that caused me not to suffer fools. Straightforward-arrow-of-a-girl that straddles the racial divide with dignity. I always sought a larger picture: track, mime, dance, literature, but mostly I am a soul growing. I am fruit from the Palmetto framily tree: Redmonds, Baileys, and Greggs. We came together at reunions at Mt. Pleasant Recreation Center, a rich, charismatic crop of preachers, artists, athletes, and teachers.
I am from we-don’t-speak-of-this-Cherokee-and-Sioux, but it is as plain as the high cheekbones on all our faces—these are the stories not told, but they flow fierce in my blood. I recognize and honor all my relations and all the poems and stories that have shaped my life: the dignity of church-lady hats parading down the aisle at Bethlehem Baptist Church, the music my daddy played by ear, and the shape notes the all-male choir sang, from Reverend Stewart’s holler in the pulpit to Louvenia Stewart’s Sunday-morning, no-nonsense announcements to our funeral-home paper, fan sway.
I am from talk-back congregations: Hallelujah, Thank, Jesus, and Pass the collection plate. I love the Upstate where my daddy played at practically every black church in a 100-mile radius, bu his after-hours gigs spoke more to my soul: blues and jazz. With this beat I danced my body’s poetry from Woodmont’s gym to The Ghana, to the Memorial Auditorium—my first concert, Parliament and the Funkadelics.
Music feeds me like food, but nothin’ was better than Mama’s comfort food: salmon croquette on top of grits topped by a part of butter and sprinkled with extra-sharp cheese, with homemade, buttered biscuits on the side. I am from good eatin’ and stomachaches: from Pisgah Fish Camp on Friday to Thunderbird Inn or Morrison’s Cafeteria on Sunday, the off to stroll and be seen at Cleveland Park.
I witnessed Saturday-night, Main Street, bumper-to-bumper roads that blacks in my day never felt safe to cruise. We were from Piedmont, a plateau. And a place, if you weren’t careful, would hold you don, if you didn’t keep moving.
I found Suzanne Abrams’s The Artist’s Way as steps that healed me on my journey and which led me to create the first Poetry Slam at the Village Café on Main Street, a space I carved for poets in the ’90s for them to bring their words from the page and into a mic—out into the world. Now, I am back in Greenville working with the Peace Center to promote poetry in the community.
Verse flows like the Reedy River through me.
I am from circles and spirals
that go back to Main Street
the blood that always turns the heart
to the past–the long memory
that won’t let me forget the whole story—
pot liquor simmered—good to you,
but hard to swallow—the downhome taste of collards
on your tongue—a beautiful broken line:
Descended from the sharecroppers
Descended from the slaves
Descended from Nigeria
Descended from Cameroon
Survival’s hands: mahogany, golden, and alabaster hands
scooped me up lifted me to my full Southern height. I do not
walk alone—elder’s songs grace my ears on this journey:
I’m gonna stay on the battlefield
I’m gonna treat everybody right
I am from this kinda strength
I am from this kinda love stirred
with salt and sweet of the land
coming together together in Upstate beat
Originally published July 2012.