Steve has been encouraging me, gently, to mail a letter to Vernon Jordan ever since I wrote about his then-new memoir in 2001.  8 years later, I finally put one in the mail.  Here is most of it.  I have been wanting to lead conversations about racial identity and ethics for years, but felt like I still hadn’t read enough, or written enough, to have my ideas fully developed.  I guess I’m posting to get that conversation started even before I’m ready.

Dear Mr. Jordan,

 In June, an Episcopal priest crumbled red clay over the coffin of my grandmother, Laura Maddox Smith, and I realized that I did, finally, need to write you a letter.   It was from this grandmother that I first heard about your memoir, Vernon Can Read.  I think my grandma Laura had read only the Reader’s Digest version, but sitting on her sun porch on Woodhaven Road, she complained about your description of her father, Robert Maddox.  If I remember correctly, she muttered something like, “The man never left his bedroom without a coat and tie.  To think of him in his boxer shorts in the library.  Well, ridiculous!”  

The boxer shorts were the center of gravity to her that day, not that Pops insulted your intelligence and humanity with a racial slur, nor that he lived in ignorance of your potential for leadership.  (And to think that W.E.B. DuBois was working and publishing in Atlanta when Robert F. Maddox was younger, and still such ignorance!)  At the time of that conversation, I didn’t know what your memoir would teach me.  I just knew that I wanted to read a description of Pops from your vantage point.  You didn’t disappoint. 

When your memoir was published, I was working on a Ph.D. in English and Education at the University of Michigan.  Ann Arbor is the kind of town that doesn’t care whether one is a fifth generation Atlantan on both sides of one’s family.  The library stacks are labyrinthine and open to all.  In a fifth floor cubby, I opened your pages and read your take on my personal history. 

History.  Identity.  Language.  Race.  Cultural Capital.  Power.    I hardly need to explain that these topics were the air I breathed as a student in my interdisciplinary program.  I was no stranger to reflection on racism, social justice, and my

responsibility to my neighbor–black, brown or white.  Yet reading your descriptions of Robert Maddox evoked emotions that startled me.  I didn’t expect to feel either pride or anxiety about my own accomplishments as I read you describe Maddox as “one of the leading figures in Atlanta’s white elite for most of the early part of the twentieth century,” “mayor of the city in 1910,” “active in the civic and social affairs of the town,” “a man of finance,” “president of the American Banking Association,” and a man whose “interests and influence were wide ranging” (3).  But I did.  All of the way up in Michigan, I felt an internal call to live up to something, some tradition of being a “leading figure” with wide “influence.”  All of my deconstructive schooling about “history” did not lesson the power of your narrative to call me in those few sentences, even though I knew that a scathing indictment of its attendant elitism and racism was pages away.  Intellectually, I could readily tell you that the past is never accurately reenacted in the present and that even traditions are always remade under present and new conditions into something unfamiliar to the thing they claim to perpetuate.  More practically, I know that Pops is dead and doesn’t care what I do with my life.  My parents “just want me to be happy.”  Still, some need to be recognized as a leader was stirred up by your words.  Some desire for recovery rose up in me, too, an ache even, to walk through the Maddoxes’ sprawling Tudor house and its “fabulous garden” that you describe, which was torn down before I was born.  

This past June I flew home for vacation.  My mom and aunt had scheduled an outing for the family, simply driving grandmother Laura around the block to the Georgia governors’ mansion.  She still lived on land that used to be her fathers, now an address on Woodhaven Road.  Last summer, Laura Maddox Smith was 93 and seemed somewhat put out by the jaunt.  She preferred to stay on her warm couch rather than be wheeled around in a chair and shown photos of her childhood home.  But the state of Georgia provided us with cold lemonade in a crystal punch bowl on a hot day, and the staff came out to meet the woman who grew up where we were standing.  We walked the grounds and compared the terraced gardens, now mostly grass, to the photos of their lush perennials in the 1930s and 40s.  I carried my nine-month-old daughter one arm and a rain umbrella in the other to shade us both from the Georgia sun.   That was Monday.  Tuesday, back on her porch, I held my grandma’s hands, and we told each other we loved each other.  She died Friday. 

Child of this family, I enjoyed reading your description of Woodhaven.  Your description has become a foil to the mental picture I keep of that lost estate:  the one of my grandmother’s childhood there.  My grandma Laura often described her lonely youth to me.  She played checkers on the black and white rattan rug using her father’s phonograph records as chips.  She dressed up marble busts with hats and scarves—afraid of her father’s wrath if discovered. She described her parents’ parties: hundreds of guests, musicians, and caterers; and her own parties as a teenager: swimming in the pool, playing badminton, and losing birdies in the lush vines that surrounded the court.  She looked positively impish describing some of those parties, eyes twinkling with mischief.  She and her friends would use the (new) telephone by the pool to call next door when the neighbors were having a party with a band to request songs that wafted across the lawn on summer evenings.

Reading your memoir gave me new stories about my family to supplement these old ones.  All I knew about Robert Maddox was that he built Woodhaven, was mayor, and had a bad temper.  I also knew that he paid to have built a play house for Laura as a girl, big enough for her to sleep in–and filled with child-sized everything.  She was a good decade younger than her brothers.  As soon as she was able, her parents sent her off to boarding school, and then to “finishing school” in New York to learn to bake a soufflé and talk to men about their golf game.   

Reading your text connected my history to the history I’d studied in school.  You write that “Maddox was a symbol of the New South—open to business and economic development and devoted to progress, as long as it was within certain boundaries” and that when “Booker T. Washington gave his famous Atlanta Exposition address (sometimes called the Atlanta Compromise), Maddox had been among the dignitaries on the platform” (3,4).  Really?  I was surprised.  I’d read Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery in high school, and again at the University of Chicago in a class with Ken Warren, but I didn’t know either time that Pops had been on that platform that day.  My discussions with Dr. Warren about Washington’s dilemmas, his position between a rock and a hard place in Southern politics, began to feel personal as I read.  The scene came closer to me.  I started feeling the need to apologize, to be the one who makes a new way—it being my family who sustained the old, hard way, the way of bitterness and pain for so many.  I felt both proud that Pops was involved in so important a historical event, and embarrassed that he was on the wrong side.  When I see the scene in my imagination, I’m angry at him and the men standing around him.  I don’t like them: their anxieties, their fear, their meanness, and their mind-numbing rationalizations. 

So, thank you for sharing your memoir with a wide audience that included me.  I have learned a lot from adding your perspective to my prior view of my history.  I knew that I had racist relatives, but I hadn’t explored my own reactions to the retelling of their stories from the perspective of someone who was insulted by their ignorance and prejudice.  You have also helped me to confront some unexamined assumptions that I carried about “being someone important” by heritage, when that heritage is built upon, and keeps being reproduced by, racist systems of social, cultural and financial capital. 

I’ve struggled to decide whether it is appropriate for me to say “I’m sorry” for Mr. Maddox’s insulting words, attitudes, and actions.  Globally, there is a tradition of currently seated presidents issuing statements apologizing for the actions of their countries a century ago.  Someone needs to speak to right the wrong.  While I’m no dignitary, I would like to say I am sorry for Pop’s ignorant racism, his underestimation of your potential, and his inability to see you as a peer.  I say it in lieu of him or Laura doing so, now that they are both gone.