To call this a travelogue is misleading and unwise. I did spend six days journeying through twelve states, most previously visited but barely explored. I did see things I had not seen before. I did learn about people and places hitherto unknown. But in trying to record my memories of each leg and each stop, I have found myself wary of using a certain tone, a certain positioning, given where I went and who I am. The travelogue is often— though not exclusively— a colonial undertaking, emotionally profiting off of some persons other than the writer, whether or not the writer shows any awareness of the colonial history of the locale. In many cases the travelogue proves little more than a form of navel-gazing, too, teaching the reader less about the area and more about the writer who visited.
I don’t really want to write something that falls into such territory. Rather, in some vaguely journalistic or documentarian fashion, I have hoped to transmit my witnessing of a total solar eclipse, which is a momentous celestial event that has only remained possible within a limited portion of this planet’s history; and for full experiential context I will also transmit the preceding and subsequent events. How I got there, what frame of reference I found myself in once the eclipse took place, what I observed in leaving the site. It does so happen that the eclipse happened at a time of peculiar importance, and that I bore witness in a geographic region of equal importance to that time.
With any luck, the act of travel itself will feel incidental to my overall focus. Perhaps, too, my contextual narrative will gaze less at navels, less at “others,” and more at points in history and topography that merit observation on a cosmic scale. As with the principle of relativity, I cannot completely separate the thing I’ve witnessed from my own position as the witness, but well—
Let’s begin. On the morning of Saturday the 19th of August, 2017, I sat myself down in the passenger seat of a sturdy, fairly dependable vehicle, and the man I love and live with— I will call him my husband here, but he is something more and better than that— he sat in the driver’s seat, and we left our home with the intention of reaching Greenville, South Carolina in time for the total solar eclipse projected to occur there on Monday the 21st. It spoils no great mystery to say that we made it there, of course, but after going to several other parts of the country together, this was our first time driving all the way to our destination with no assistance from other people, with our own vehicle, and with the underlying motive completely our own. Not until the past couple of years could we truly afford to spend that amount of time away from our jobs or spend the requisite money to enjoy the trip. We still absolutely do not have the luxury of doing such things whenever we want. I— oh, I’ll hazard to say we— simply knew that because we did barely have the means, we could not shirk the chance to see something extremely perfect happen to the world.
I say “extremely perfect” in a certain way. Maybe it will become clearer as I write more. I am a perfectionist, and perfection is so hard to come by that the few extremely perfect things in this world are equivalent to religious revelations. They are religious revelations in the case of the cosmos. To see the total eclipse was to go on a pilgrimage.
In order to reach the eclipse and in order to leave it, we would need to pass through and spend some time in what most people in the United States still call the South. Such phrasing shouldn’t imply there is anything about the South that is not southern, but if I invoke the South as a delineating term (or the West, for that matter), there are immediate connotations, both helpful and unhelpful. If you mention going to the South to a lot of terribly smug people outside it, or even sometimes inside it, they’re likely to come up with responses such as, “Oh, god, I’m sorry, I hope you survive.”
I cringe at such soundbytes. On the one hand, I’m virulently queer, gender non-conforming, specifically a person with breasts who also gets five o’clock shadow, and I wear lots of unsubtle attire— leather, spikes, low necklines, short hemlines, occult iconography— so in any place with a high concentration of bigotry, evangelical Christianity, and conservative sex/gender standards, no, I don’t feel as safe as I feel in places where there are more people like me. On the other hand, if I had lived in the South in bygone days, I would not have been enslaved or lynched or systematically deprived of my rights on racial grounds, and today I am still not in the highest risk group for being murdered by police, contemporary Klan members, and so forth. I appreciate hearing genuine concern for my well-being down South in light of certain factors, but usually “I hope you survive” means, “I hope you, Mx. Jones, whom I perceive as an Enlightened & Educated Non-Southerner Like Myself, can intellectually survive the stupidity of the Unenlightened & Uneducated South.”
There are wide swaths of Klan territory outside the South. There are cities with ugly, terrible white supremacist pasts across the United States, including my home city of Boston. I knew Christian fundamentalists when I was growing up in New Hampshire. I experience anti-queer, anti-trans violence and ignorance anywhere that I go. Almost every stretch of land in the United States is occupied by settlers who violently stole it from indigenous peoples and who continue to steal from and enact atrocities upon those very real, very alive populations. The South strikes me as having a certain flavor to its racism and its overall patterns of discrimination, and I can’t speak to how some arbitrary example of a black person ought to feel in the South versus anywhere else, but I believe that for me personally to visit the South I am not diving into some uniquely intense grotto of evil. It is simply a unique region on any level.
And because it is a region with particular significance to the history of white supremacism, it seemed like strange timing to venture there only a week after an exceptionally horrific flareup of fascist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. It seemed even stranger that the day we set off, a fascist rally had also been planned in Boston itself. If we could have realistically left any later, I know I would have attended the counter-event; I take some consolation from the fact that I’ve already participated in plenty of similar events for related purposes, and you just can’t do them all. There’s my activist virtue signaling out of the way. We set out on the morning of the 19th. Our first stop on the way to Greenville would be a city slightly less than halfway between: Philadelphia.
D. Llywelyn Jones
To be continued in part 2.