I love hot dogs spun to plump, juicy perfection on the roller grill. Add a layer of melted nacho cheese straight out of the dispenser. Make it a meal with a 99-cent bag of Fritos, a fountain soda—half Hi-C orange/half Sprite in a Styrofoam cup—and a King-Size Kit Kat for dessert. That’s comfort food to me. That’s home. I grew up in a gas station.
My father owned at least one rural central Missouri convenience store—Leroy’s Market on Highway 52 and then Leroy’s (Highway) 63 Minimart—from the time I was four. My earliest memories were formed under a huge Phillips 66 shield, and many involved running barefoot up and down aisles. My first job was emptying the trash cans by the pumps (as nasty as you think). Eventually I worked my way inside, stocking shelves before graduating to cashier. It was a cushy gig compared to my friends’ jobs sweating in the hay fields or busing tables at restaurants in Jefferson City, but I had the tougher boss. My father was always hovering—in case someone wanted to buy a 12-pack of Natural Light (which I was too young to ring up), or in case anything strange appeared on the black-and-white surveillance monitor that was trained on the register.
These shifts were some of the closest hours I’ve ever spent with my father. “Don’t wish minutes of your life away,” he’d say when he caught me watching the clock. “Stupid people get old too,” he said after an old guy went off on a Red Scare conspiracy rant. I also learned how to take criticism. Every time sweet old Mrs. Snodgrass (actual name) came in for her pint of bourbon, as she dug into her coin purse, she’d mutter, “You know, C&C’s gas is a penny cheaper.” My dad never said a thing.
It was a common complaint. Nobody cared about the cost of milk or the cash they threw away on dollar scratch-offs. But how dare we mess with the big black numbers on the light-box sign outside? They put my father in an angry knot: If prices were too high, he was greedy; too low and he must be getting rich by pulling in so many cars. My father would smile and nod and say “Thank you” and “Come back soon.” “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he’d say after they left. He appreciated his customers and didn’t lecture them on the fact that he didn’t actually make his living selling gas.
A fight is about to go down at the DoubleTree Hilton in Irvine, California, and everyone milling about the hotel conference center seems to know it.
Technically, fighting is what all these people have come here to do. This is West Coast Warzone 6, the first American Capcom Pro Tour Street Fighter V ranking event of 2017. When the tournament starts, these combatants will report to their assigned PlayStations, select a deadly avatar and start jerking joysticks and slapping buttons until one of them is beaten to a bloody pixelated pulp. Two losses warp a player straight home.
As with any game, sometimes things get personal. The world of professional gaming is small. These e-athletes see each other once or twice a month at events all over the U.S. and East Asia. The netherworld of online gaming, where these same players compete almost daily, is even more ripe for conflict. Picture a live chat where participants can actually act out their violent impulses while simultaneously trolling from the safety of a remote location. Stream chats often read like a comments section on steroids. And once someone sticks their keyboard in their mouth, their words follow them at these live tournaments. Sometimes online jabs lead to real-life knuckle-cracking.
The internet never forgets. It was almost a year ago, leading up to the 2016 Irvine tournament, that a player named Ghodere took to web and posted: “going to west coast warzone this weekend, in a pool with gllty and ricki/please god don’t let me lose to the two of them i will never recover.” Gllty and Ricki are the handles of two women players, Leah Hayes and Ricki Ortiz, respectively. Obviously nastier things have been said on the internet. Still, the implication was clear: “Please don’t let me lose to a girl.”
Hayes smelled blood. The 28-year-old gamer had already built a reputation for bravado as loud and rowdy as any arcade. When she sat down beside Ghodere for their match at WarZone 5, with the gaming world anxiously looking on, she had no intention of just letting her play do all the talking. “I hear you’ve been running your mouth on the internet,” Hayes said to her foe. “You’re about to get f—ed.”
After beating him, Hayes privately reached out to her chagrined opponent and the two made up. Still, when this year’s Warzone brackets came out with a potential Gllty-Ghodere faceoff in the second round, self-promoter Hayes certainly didn’t downplay The Rematch.
That’s why this morning, the air carries a buzz that has little to do with caffeine, taurine or vaped nicotine. That’s why passersby catch bits of the rumors as they spread across the venue, as if on an after-school playground where a bully is about to get his comeuppance. That’s why at this moment, a couple dozen gamers have left their seats in front of the huge projection screens that feature games of high-ranked players for the scrum around a tiny console in the back of the room, where a diminutive woman clad in black sits beside a broad-shouldered man with a dark beard, both with control boxes, or fight sticks, in their laps.
Knocking an opponent out in two of three rounds wins a game, taking two of three games wins the match. Ghodere chooses avatar Zangief, a brutish, muscle-packed Russian bear-wrestler; Hayes plays Dhalsim, a mystic Indian yogi whose punches and kicks stretch across the entire screen. That flexibility does little to avail Hayes against the aggressive Ghodere, who quickly scores two knockouts to win the first game.
Hayes is uncharacteristically quiet. She grabs a drink of water, draws her blazing red bangs behind her ear. Dhalsim now keeps his distance, sniping from the corner with long punches and fireballs, picking away at the burly Cossack to tie the match at 1.
Still all of the jawing is coming from the swarming crowd, which seems to be buying into the rivalry more than the players themselves.
This matchup is sick! says one man.
This is some good s—, says another.
Game 3: Hayes goes on the assault, spitting a stream of fireballs that stun the Russian, setting him up for the quick KO. Ghodere gets one back in the second round, catching Hayes off guard with a windmill of punches. The final game is nip and tuck as both fighters pick away at each other. But just as time is running out and both avatars’ life bars are nearing the red, Dhalsim leaps into the air and Hayes scores a downward punch to Zangief’s chest, sending him crashing to the ground.
S— was real close.
The crowd disperses. Hayes and Ghodere say little to each other, no smack talk, no pop-off, just a quick handshake as the two unplug their control boxes and move on. “He was posting on a place talking about me where people go basically to vent,” Hayes will later say. “He opened himself up to have fun poked at him. But he didn’t deserve for me to not treat him like a person.”
It was around noon on a bright Monday in early July 1917, and Lena Cook was on her way home to St. Louis. Cook had just spent the morning fishing with her husband, son, and daughter at a lake near Alton, Illinois. Now the family was aboard a streetcar in downtown East St. Louis, their first time in the surging industrial city, heading west toward the Eads Bridge.
The city was crumbling around them. Throughout that morning, angry white citizens had been gathering on Main Street outside City Hall, rousing themselves into an enraged swarm. The Illinois National Guard had been called in, and troops were arriving at the train depot by the hour. The first shots had sounded little more than an hour prior. The first black man had been left dead in the street. Before the violence abated, at least 48 people would be killed in one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. More than 300 African-Americans’ homes and business would burn, the smoke visible from Missouri. Perhaps sensing what was to come, dozens of black East St. Louisans had begun their exodus by car, train, or foot, carrying what they could across the Eads Bridge to the west side of the river. Cook and her family were less than a mile from that crossing, at the corner of Collinsville and Illinois avenues, when they heard men shouting: “Stop the car!”
A mob had gathered around the streetcar and pulled its wheel trolley from the overhead wire. Cook felt a hand grabbing at her, tearing the shoulder of her dress.
“Come on out, you black bitch!” shouted a man. He and another man boarded the car. “All you white people get out!” he shouted, vowing to kill any blacks on the trolley.
The white people fled the car. Cook began to plead that she and her family did not live in East St. Louis and certainly hadn’t harmed anyone there. The mob’s leader grabbed her husband, Edward Cook, by the collar, pulled him to the car’s rear platform, and threw him from the vehicle. Then he shot Edward in the back of the head. Another white man grabbed Cook’s 14-year-old son, Lurizza, beat him with a revolver, and started to drag the young man away.
Cook grabbed the child. “You’ve killed my husband,” she cried. “Don’t kill my boy.”
The man jerked Lurizza away, but the lanky teen managed to break free. There was a gunshot. Cook lost track of Lurizza and her 13-year-old daughter, Bernice, when she was dragged into the street by the man who had killed her husband. The mob converged on her, beat her with clubs, kicked her, and pulled fistfuls of hair from her bleeding head. A white onlooker stepped in and begged the brutes to spare the women. The mob turned on him, allowing Cook to crawl away to a nearby storefront, where she was taken in but lost consciousness.
Cook came to inside an ambulance. Blinded by blood that coated her eyes, she groped about in the dark, feeling at least three other bodies around her, and finally found a man’s handkerchief. Wiping the blood away, she looked down to find that she had been thrown on top of the corpses of her husband and son, whose eyes were still open, staring through her. She still had no idea where her daughter was.
I’m sitting alone in a booth at an empty Pizza Hut just south of the Paoli town square. It’s 1:30 p.m. The “Nazis” are 30 minutes late.
The ones I’m waiting on, the members of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a nascent political organization trying to take root in the seat of Orange County, are indeed nationalists—white nationalists, in fact. They are also proud socialists. And yet I’ll come to learn that these National Socialists feel it is unfair and inaccurate to lump them in with history’s greatest villains. “We’re not trying to rehash the Germany of the 1930s,” TWP leader Matthew Heimbach later explains. “We are National Socialists in our own time, with our own symbols, with our own ideology, and our own solutions to the current problem.”
Words clearly matter with these guys, but if Heimbach’s terminology—solutions—sends a shiver down your spine, you’re not alone. While his group has only 500 dues-paying members worldwide—16 of them in and around Orange County—the 25-year-old’s rhetoric has cast a considerable shadow and earned him bans from social media and the United Kingdom. In 2015, Al Jazeera America profiled Heimbach under the title “The Little Führer.” The Washington Post has pointed out comparisons to former KKK leader David Duke. PBS NewsHour, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post have all described the mysterious base camp where party members live and commune as a “white ethnostate,” supposedly a model for what Heimbach and company envision as an autonomous white nation—right here, in the heart of Southern Indiana—already largely bereft of the multiculturalism that they claim is polluting white America.
I’ll be getting a tour of the compound today, despite the group’s desire to keep secret the location of the white-ethnostate-within-a-white-ethnostate. Heimbach says the party has been receiving an unusually high number of anonymous 3 a.m. calls and online threats of violence to him, his wife, and even his child in the wake of the increased media exposure. Before the tour, we are to have a meeting over pan-crust pizza and Pepsi.
They arrive around 1:35 p.m., three young men clad in black from military cap to boot. Heimbach apologizes again, blaming winter weather for their delay, as the men slide into the semicircular booth. No sooner do they pick up their menus than Heimbach spots Fox News on the flat-screen across the room. The report is from Chicago, where four young African Americans have allegedly kidnapped a mentally disabled white man and livestreamed video of themselves beating the bound-and-gagged victim and assaulting him with a knife, all while yelling, “Fuck Donald Trump!” and “Fuck white people!”
“If four white guys did that to a black youth, cities would be on fire. There would literally be riots right now,” says Heimbach, a burly man in a black overcoat, black beard masking a youthful face. “And you know what? To a certain extent, justifiably so.”
From across the table, Matt Parrott chimes in that one couldn’t find four white men stupid enough to participate in something like this. (Please pause to consider that sentence.) But African Americans? “Trash is gonna be trash,” says Parrott, 34, in a black hoodie and black T-shirt bearing a pitchfork encircled by an industrial gear—the logo of the TWP, which he cofounded with Heimbach, who is also his son-in-law. “We can argue about which community might have more people of this caliber—we could have that conversation.” But instead, Parrott would rather talk about coverage of the incident and media conspiracy theories.
The same conversation could be going on in front of this same Fox News broadcast in any small-town restaurant, bar, or home in Red America, especially in a time of conservative backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread distrust of mainstream media. The waitress brings out a couple of pizzas and some wings and tops off our sodas as the conversation drifts into issues like immigration (against it), Donald Trump (for him), Mel Gibson (brilliant director), and how Paoli’s Pizza Hut is somehow superior to other locations. About an hour into the discussion, perhaps sensing that I’m either getting bored or not getting the salacious material I might have expected, Parrott addresses the phantom swastika in the room and makes a prediction about this story.
“This will end up in the final copy: Mein Kampf is a good book that makes some good points,” he says. Then, what I think is intended as a joke: “I was so disappointed. I read the whole book and there was no plan to kill 6 million Jews in it. I was like, ‘Did they take that part out?’”
A young man walks onto an empty stage. The spotlight glares off of his white moccasins and crisp long-sleeved button-down, which billows, untucked, over dark slacks. He cuts a slight figure against the venue’s deep, black backdrop, and his clean-shaven face, framed by two long black braids, makes him look younger than his 27 years. He speaks softly into the microphone, first in his native Lakota, then in English: “Hello, relatives. My Lakota name is Walks With Young People. I also go by Frank Waln. And I welcome you with an open heart and an open handshake.”
Beyond the stage lights, in the darkened auditorium of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sit about a hundred Native American men and women from all over the country: Pueblo, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Apache. The Gathering of Nations, an annual meeting of more than 500 tribes, is taking place across town, and many have broken away from the pow-wow to attend this concert, the culmination of the Rezilience (“rez” referring to reservation) Indigenous Arts Experience. Throughout the festival, visitors have attended events centered on Native art, poetry recitals, and traditional music, most of which celebrate the Native cultures and mourn their hastening disappearance.
Waln, the headliner, is something different. After his introduction, he is joined by the Sampson Bros., Sam and Micco, performance artists whose faces are painted colorfully beneath full and uttering Native dance regalia. Waln bends to his laptop, triggering a barrage of hip-hop beats that blasts across the venue. As the Sampsons dance to the music, the diminutive Waln springs into action, grabbing the mic from its stand and spitting lyrics at the crowd. Pain and anger are palpable in his voice as he bobs and weaves and hacks at the air with his free hand, fighting some unseen onstage foe
The enemy is ignorance, which reveals itself plainly in Waln’s new song “What Makes the Red Man Red,” his send-up of the racist tune “What Made the Red Man Red” from Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan. Waln’s song samples the tune’s chorus and the film’s offhand references to Native Americans as “aborigines” and “Indians.” That is, before Waln drowns them out with a sharp verse.
Your history books (lies)
Your holidays (lies)
Thanksgiving lies and Columbus Day
Tell me why I know more than the teacher
Tell me why I know more than the preacher
Tell me why you think the red man is red
Stained with the blood from the land you bled
Tell me why you think the red man is dead
The crowd is on its feet now, some singing along, others bobbing in agreement with the beat. Waln’s frequent tours of reservations and his blunt, firebrand style have made him well-known among his people (he’s a two-time Native American Music Award winner). Recently, Waln has made a splash in the mainstream media too: He’s been featured on NPR and MTV’s Rebel Music: Native America and in Vibe and USA Today; he has performed at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, and at concerts in France and Germany. The day before his Albuquerque concert, he spoke at a Harvard University symposium on Native politics.
Waln is an ascendant member of a Native American hip-hop vanguard that is taking its message of social justice off of the reservation. What separates Waln and other socially engaged artists, like War Party, Without Rezervation, and Supaman, from older generations of Native artists, says Alan Lechusza Aquallo, a professor of American Indian studies at Palomar College, is their authenticity. Waln doesn’t play to Native stereotypes, like a preaching elder or a fierce sports mascot — his performing persona is young, charismatic, believably real. “There are a number of Native hip-hop artists who play off the kitsch of what it is to be Indian because that’s what’s going to give them notoriety,” Aquallo says. “[Waln] has his long braids, but he’s wearing street clothes. He’s not playing Indian.”
Waln’s activism is similarly more than mere posture. As Aquallo points out, Waln “walks the walk,” not only rapping passionately about depression and poverty on the reservation, but also demonstrating against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington and speaking to students in high schools and elementary schools on reservations across the country. “He’s not an ‘Indian artist’; he’s not a rapper who happens to be Native,” Aquallo says. “To him there’s no separation between his activism and his creative work.”
Waln’s overall message is plain: Americans — Native and non-Native alike — need to educate themselves about the real history and current politics of America’s indigenous people. And through his words and music, on the reservation and off, Waln plans on delivering the wake-up call.
The lawyers convene behind closed conference-room doors at the back of the University of Mississippi’s Grisham Law Library. A long table has been removed, leaving only wooden chairs, a dozen of which are arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the open floor. At one end, Charles Luskin leans forward in his seat, bony right elbow propped on bony right knee, bearded chin resting in his palm. He listens intently, periodically reaching down to sip from a Coca-Cola can on the floor between his feet, almost as a nervous tick. Pen tucked behind his left ear, Luskin looks uneasy, like a guilty man about to take the witness stand — an unusual countenance for a public defender.
When it’s Luskin’s turn, he doesn’t bother introducing himself. He lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, and these people have come from Alabama, Georgia, Michigan; many of them he has only known a year and is seeing for just the third time. Others he has met just this weekend. And yet Luskin considers these men and women his kin, bonded by their experience in Gideon’s Promise, a community dedicated to “the church of public defense,” as one member calls it. The people in this room know Luskin well enough to call him by his childhood nickname, Cass. That familiarity does little to smooth the quiver in his deep voice as he launches into a confession.
“I’ve got about 160 incarcerated clients,” he says. “I was sworn into the bar in October. So I’m sitting there, looking at this stack of cases on my desk thinking: ‘Oh shit! I don’t know what to do with this one. No idea what to do with this one.’ And I get a call from my stepsister and she was like, ‘This guy I was supposed to go on a date with never called me….’ That’s not a real problem! Look at all these fucking problems. There’s a building over there with a thousand people sitting in cages. And there are buildings like that in every single parish, in every single county. But now I’m being a dickhead to my stepsister, and that’s not right. But it’s like I don’t know what to do.”
It’s 10 minutes until the first pitch, and Mike Shannon, bespectacled, hunched over a copy of the Miami Marlins’ spring roster in the broadcast booth, is working on the name of today’s opposing pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen.
“How do you pronounce this guy’s name?” Shannon says in his gravelly timbre.
“Way-in. Chen,” says fellow broadcaster Mike Claiborne, seated to Shannon’s left. “Like way in on the infield.”
“Just want to make sure we’re on the same page,” says Shannon.
When Shannon first started broadcasting, 44 years ago, a mispronunciation, a malaprop, or a colorful quip was acceptable, even endearing, to a like-minded regional audience. Shannonisms such as It’s raining like a Chinese fire drill! and I just want to wish everybody a Happy Easter or Happy Hanukkah are popular, if not necessarily PC, cocktail shorthand in St. Louis. But today, when the play-by-play can be streamed digitally to Chen’s native Taiwan and every sentence can be replayed, dissected, and decried on social media, global listeners expect the spot-on elocution of a Joe Buck or Dan McLaughlin. A slip of the tongue or cultural insensitivity here or there could get a young broadcaster in trouble. “Now whatever you say has to jump over six different hurdles and go through five different filters,” says Buck. “It’s taken some of that personality away.”
At 76, Shannon’s personality is more outsized than ever—hurdles and filters be damned. This morning, he showed up at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, before 9 a.m. for an afternoon spring game, the seat of his black corduroys covered in dust that couldn’t quite be swept away with his hand. He carried a paper cup of coffee and a red plastic shopping bag containing his black-rimmed reading glasses; copies of the The New York Post, The Palm Beach Post, and the Daily Racing Form; and four warm bottles of water. (Despite frequently slurring into the late innings about “cold frosty ones,” Shannon never drinks while broadcasting.) He huffed up four flights of stairs to the press box—both a moment of quiet from an elevator full of Cardinal fans whom he loves but who all think they know him and a quick workout for an ex-jock who underwent heart surgery three years ago: “Two birds,” he says, “with that stone. Heh-heh-heh.”
Once in the booth, he cracks wise to Claiborne about the “decimal” level of the PA rock music rattling the windows. (“This guy works at a disco, somewhere.”) He laments the absence of the Pilates ball he’s sat on for almost a decade to keep him in motion and allow him to exercise between innings. And when he learns thatSt. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold tweeted at 9:03 a.m. that today’s starting first baseman, Matt Holliday, has been scratched from the lineup because of tightness in his lower back, Shannon waits about an hour for confirmation by way of more traditional means—a call from a team gofer from the clubhouse to Shannon’s flip phone—before adjusting his lineup card. (“The whole f—ing thing has changed. Oh man, what a mess.”) Then he dutifully walks down the hall to inform his Spanish-language broadcast counterparts. “Que paso?” he says, in a hard Midwestern accent. “I only want two cervezas,” he says, joking. “Heh-heh-heh.”
By the time first pitch rolls around, even though it’s only an early spring training exhibition, Shannon is at the edge of his uncomfortable chair, almost sticking his head out the press-box window, feeding off the energy of the fans in red packing the stands below. “History could be made every time I go to that ballpark,” he had said previously. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Now on the air, Claiborne introduces Chen and the first three Cardinal batters: “Brought to you by Sapaugh Motors…where everyone leaves happy.”
“Happy, happy, happy,” says Shannon. “You know who sang that song?”
“You’re right on,” says Shannon, “and right on it today, too, is this weather. It is really…magnificent down here, today. We have some cloud cover. It’s gonna be up near 80, and the wind is blowing in from right field as Chen fires the first pitch of the day, and it’s a steeerike called.”
Beth Johnson believes that every life has a story. Among the nails, pins, knives, and other tools scattered about her workbench lies the colorful, limp-necked carcass of a parrot. Johnson doesn’t know the bird’s name, but she knows that it was a beloved pet for 22 years, that it died of natural causes, and according to the hand-written and blood-smudged ticket, the bereaved owner wants Johnson to give the animal in death what it rarely took in life—flight. That’s Johnson’s job, as she sees it. To, in a way, honor the creature’s existence. She knows that some people think taxidermy is inhumane or at the very least revolting. With the former, Johnson respectfully disagrees; with the latter . . . well . . . she admits it’s not for the squeamish. Today, as her coworker cleans deer skins with a paring knife, giving the air a sweet, gamey tinge, Johnson slices open the bird’s bright yellow belly, inserts a foam-and-wire form, and stitches birdy back up, skillfully concealing the seam beneath the feathers, which she preens with large tweezers. She began learning the craft 26 years ago when, as a fed-up schoolteacher, she answered a “help wanted” sign in the Lithonia yard of what she later learned was a taxidermist. There she practiced skinning and stuffing what seemed like every creature that once walked, crawled, swam, or flew. She also learned to be a storyteller. “Anyone can hang a deer head on the wall,” she says. She prides herself on researching an animal’s habitat and staging wildlife scenes. Her showroom is a library of vignettes, including a timber wolf leaping over a barbed-wire fence and a bear cub pawing at a beehive, complete with insect exoskeletons dotting the mammal’s snout. Of course, she’ll mount antlers and hog heads for hunters who just want a trophy. She also does pet cremations. But some clients, like this parrot’s owner, want something more. And so Johnson lovingly fluffs the bright blue tail feathers and spreads its lifeless wings.
This article originally appeared in Atlantamagazine.
Sitting on a stump beneath an old oak tree, beside a weathered barn in Sharpsburg, Maryland, a black man in a homespun woolen shirt and threadbare breeches butchers a turkey with a dull blade. His name is Marvin Greer; he is 29 years old. Around him, seven other African Americans, all of them wearing the period garb of freemen and liberated slaves — cotton dresses, straw hats and antique bonnets — go about the business of preparing breakfast for a dozen white men in blue Union uniforms who are bivouacked just downstream, a 19th-century tintype come to life.
Greer rode a bus 14 hours from Atlanta to participate in this Civil War re-enactment deep in the mountains near Maryland’s border with West Virginia, hard against the Potomac River. It’s breakfast time, and he’s part of the cooking detail. Bacon and onions sizzle in a cast-iron skillet along with apples and yams; a tin pot of coffee boils over, releasing fragrant plumes of smoke into the morning air.
A graduate of traditionally black Morehouse College in Atlanta, Greer has embraced history as more than just a major. Currently a part-time employee of the Atlanta History Center, he is paid to dress up as a slave and re-enact Southern history. Recently he landed a full-time job at Colonial Williamsburg, where he will exchange the garb of a slave for the knee-breeches and waistcoats of a freeman. As a site supervisor, at the Williamsburg, Virginia, theme park, Greer will be charged with integrating the African-American experience into the 18th-century programming.
On this warm September morning, Greer is on his own time, pursuing what many would consider an unusual hobby. He spends his weekends trekking to battlefields across the Southeast. Sometimes he shoulders a musket as an enlisted man in the Union Army — which employed freedmen as soldiers in the War Between the States. Other days, he’s simply a laborer, bearing witness to the approximation of history.
Today Greer is playing a real historical figure named Scipio Africanus, who was born free in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in the mid-19th century. When the Civil War broke out, according to Greer’s research, Africanus left his family to become a body servant to Captain Francis Adams Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania, part of the U.S. force pressed into action by Abraham Lincoln to fight against the rebels. On this day 153 years ago, the 118th was pursuing Confederate forces along this route as they retreated southward from their defeat on the bloody battlefield in nearby Antietam.
Though Africanus likely never kept a journal — one has never been found, and his ability to read and write was probably limited, Greer says — he is mentioned in Donaldson’s meticulously kept logs, which state that Africanus was here with the captain more than 150 years ago. The diary contains only a passing description of Africanus as a “sassy nigger,” so in order to fill out the servant’s spitfire personality, Greer has incorporated elements — vernacular, backstory and even posture — of other freemen he’s researched from the area and time period. For instance, Africanus most likely would’ve camped with the other African Americans, most of them newly liberated from a nearby plantation.
The turkey starts to crackle in the pan. “There’s an upside of being in a Union camp,” Greer says with an amused smile, stirring the mix with a corroded two-tine fork. “They eat a lot better than the Confederates.”
Morris Robinson is trying to lay low, something that’s never been easy for him. If anyone failed to see the 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound vocalist lumbering through the lobby of the Woodruff Arts Center an hour ago in black ostrich-skin boots, tuxedo pants, and untucked maroon T-shirt, they certainly heard his voice. Or rather felt it—a sonorous “Hello! How’s it going?” to the doorman at Symphony Hall that seemed to make the walls, the carpeted concrete floor, even the humid air waver like a tuning fork.
Tonight Robinson’s bass is even deeper thanks to some congestion—the onset of what he fears is a cold. That’s why he spent the afternoon resting alone in a darkened Buckhead hotel room instead of surrounded by family at his home in Tyrone, just 35 minutes south. And it’s why he sequestered himself in a cramped dressing room in the bowels of the Woodruff, where he periodically cleared out his pipes with bursts of la-la-la’s, doh’s, and rolling Italian rrrrr’s that made the white-tied instrumentalists start as they passed. And it’s why now, minutes before showtime, Robinson is backstage pacing, size-15 boots falling heavy on the hardwood to and from the stage door, where he keeps peeking out at the packed house. “I’m going to own the room,” he says to himself. “When I walk out, I’m going to take control.”
The sweat is beading on his shaved head. This is a rare show in Robinson’s hometown, a recital to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, his sixth performance in this building as artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Many of the people out there are friends and family. Some remember him as DeRhon—his middle name—the boy who sang in church but set aside music to play football, becoming an All-American lineman at the Citadel, before moving north to embark on a career in business. Maybe they’ve heard something about the man who, in his 30s, rediscovered classical music and left the world of corporate sales to become an opera singer.
It’s time. Robinson takes a last swig of lukewarm water and straightens his jacket. He clears his throat one final time and quickly blows a kiss to the sky, to the one lifelong fan who isn’t here—the mother who seemed to know all along that her son’s voice was meant to stir the masses.
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