Categorized | Arts & Culture

Twilight in the Robert E. Lee Fountain Square

Here we are – two effeminate gays and a half-Mexican in the Deep South – one ionic and desperately hot evening. As thin cotton shirts stick to sweat-streaked bodies, the air in Forsyth, Georgia, is so electrically charged that sandals spark cement and insects zap one another in the sunlight. Our tanned and tired limbs are covered in a film of highway dust and mosquito frass. A white, plantation-era town hall stands high above the restaurant, pool hall and fountain square of Main Street. We try to find humor in the situation but the air is heavy with something we can’t explain, and it looms over our unfortunate pit stop.
“There’s something about this place,” I say as we stroll down the street.
“Yeah…it sucks,” Carl snaps, swatting a mosquito from his eye. He’s dark-haired and small in stature but carries a large personality. Carl is the modern gay intellectual: narcissistic and delicious.
[sun2]“We’re stranded so we should just make the best of it; let’s see what there is to do here. I mean, we are on spring break,” Matt says, attempting to ease some on-the-road tension we’ve been experiencing since Ohio.
Matt is good-natured, high-voiced and loud. Even when he’s at ease, he’s in character. In a small car, the three of us set off from Detroit for Florida with our towels, pillows and a case of Coke. We wanted to be anywhere warmer than Michigan in March and we’d never been to Florida, even though everyone from Michigan has been to Florida. That’s where they go when they get sick of “up north.”
“I can’t believe we’ve got to call my dad – he’s going to murder me. And $430, I hope this damn town has a Western Union,” Carl says.
We decide to go in to what appears to be a record store on the left side of the street. The lady behind the counter, inviting décor and an impressive CD collection do not signal anything out of the ordinary. A newish hip-hop song is on radio and the three of us breeze in — snapping fingers, swiveling hips and throwing our hands somewhere above our heads. Then, all at once, we feel something strange and notice eyes peering through dark lids, necks straightening and shoulders shifting forward around us.
The lady looks at us with disdain and it hits me. We are three (mostly) white kids in her shop. And she, a proud black woman in Forsyth, thinks we’ve lost our damn minds. It was like seeing one ant on your toe and then realizing the room was filled with them. With one ant, the whole picture instantly becomes visible.
Soon after leaving we head over to the restaurant – the only restaurant – in this sleepy town off I-75. Retired couples file in for their 5:30 p.m. dinner dates. The town was diverse on the street but inside it’s decidedly one color: white. Being kids from Detroit, we are used to de facto segregation, not enforced by law but by societal pressures, but this is different. In an easy Georgian way, the energy in the room and the very apparent “otherness” the three of us feel makes the hairs on the nape of my neck stand up straight.
“What can I get y’all?” our waitress asks. We politely signal for the only thing on the menu, the buffet. Buttermilk biscuits, glistening fried chicken, fried okra and macaroni and cheese line the buffet trays and we’re happy to see we’ll at least get a good meal out of this town. When the waitress, a plump, fair-skinned teenager, comes back with our sweet teas, I ask if there’s anything fun to do around here at night.
“Well, we usually go cow-tippin’,” she says and we learn that her name’s Toya and she’s 17. Rolling my yankee eyes and coughing on a laugh in my throat, Matt nudges me and Toya gets the point. “If you’re lookin’ for a bar or somethin’ we don’t really have much. ‘Cept the pool hall,” and now she hunches in closer, lowering to a whisper. “But that’s for the other color.”
She leaves and Matt, ever silly and observant, giggles nervously. “What? Did you hear that? What’s that supposed to mean? The ‘other color.’ These people are nuts.” Carl and I agree, and I start to feel uneasy. We leave to find the sun’s still beating down fiercely, the way it does just before dusk in the South. The air is more electric than ever.
“What’s wrong with this town? Am I the only one that feels like we’re in the Twilight Zone?” I say. “No, I know what you mean, Sarah – this place gives me the creeps. I’m getting a feeling things aren’t quite right here,” Carl says in a rare serious tone.
“So much for southern hospitality,” Matt says as he plops onto a bench that rests in a small fountain park. I’m listless and sit holding my knees, unsure what to think of spending the night here until our car is fixed.
[lee]What I didn’t know then was Forsyth County had a troubled racial history. One month in 1912, its entire black population, over 1,000 citizens, was systematically driven from the county in the wake of the rape and murder of a white woman and the lynching of the accused black man. Seventy-five years later the county population remained 99 percent white. Spurred by history, Hosea Williams, a civil rights activist, lead the Forsyth County “March Against Fear and Intimidation” in 1987. Almost 90 demonstrators attempted to parade in Cumming, Georgia, the county seat, but were met with white supremacists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan and their affiliates rioted and brought the march to an early end. The executive council of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans still meets at the restaurant we dined in that spring evening.
At the base of the fountain, four black children were playing, their mothers on the adjacent bench. Looking up at the statue in the fountain, the ants creep back and they head for the plaque that says “Robert E. Lee.” All of a sudden, black ants are between my toes and all over the shallow pool and I notice the incredible irony of the children, cheerfully playing, in a fountain with a confederate general on a horse.
“Let’s get back to the hotel, I think it’s got a pool,” Matt says excitedly. No one noticed the allegory of American history right there in the fountain, and I didn’t feel like mentioning it just then. “Sounds good to me,” I say as we head down the long main street to the white-owned Days Inn.
I feel like an outsider here, perplexed by the racial tensions of the town and even more about how I might fit in. Both blacks and whites walk the ghost-like streets, and I realize they are walking on separate sides. Now the ants are here again – first one, then I see the dark, moving shadow of their army at my feet in the road ahead. Thinking back to the record store, it was on the left side — the black side — the side we’re walking on now. They’re all wondering what the hell these kids, likely northerners, are doing here. Now come the sideways looks from whites across the street, and quizzical eyebrows curling on black faces passing us. A few men in an old pick-up with a rifle in the back window pass for the second time.
Maybe it was the heat or the strangeness of the events or the thickness of the air, but I couldn’t process much of the long night we spent in that town. I’d never been oblivious to race before Forsyth, but I had also never understood the deep divisions and unspoken color rules of the South.
[twi]We only needed to fix a timing belt and somehow we landed in a time-warped, segregated place teeming with history’s scars and contradictions. But we were just kids on a road trip then, playful and hopeful about witnessing more of America. None of us noticed all of this then.
At the stoplight, Carl and Matt, as if sensing what I have and not wanting to challenge it, start to cross to the other side. “Wait, guys,” I say. “No, we’re walking this way,” pointing to the side I’m on. They smile approvingly, and I hope they know what I mean; or maybe that they’ll never know what I mean.
The three of us skip along the sidewalk singing radio tunes to pass the time, as the sun loses its potency and the gentle Georgian moon shines above.

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