As I rounded the corner of the Haitian monument in the heart of Savannah, I realized that it was a mirror image of the other side, except behind the monument. It was the identical circular cobblestone area replete with benches…and the unhoused men. There in that space, were the same men that had been on the other side with me about 30 minutes before. I paused and stared around the circle. I really hadn’t meant to walk up on them that way. Hadn’t expected them to be there. For what seemed like an entire minute, no one moved. I looked from man to man. Their eyes were locked on me. Finally, I nodded a greeting and most returned the gesture without taking their eyes from me. I exited the area, preferring to remain mysterious. As I walked the emptying downtown streets, I replayed the entire thing in my head. Why did the men leave? Because I requested it…in my head. It appeared they had shifted their space to allow me mine. I accepted that.
I turned and walked into one of the only places still open. For the next forty minutes or so, I stood in a small gallery talking to a young lady about art and inspiration. It wasn’t my intent for the encounter to turn into a coaching session. I had only inquired about a “Bird Girl” art greeting card. Finally it was well past the gallery’s closing time and I had turned to leave. “You know”, she said. “All day, I haven’t had one full conversation with anyone. And just about closing time, you walk in and all over again, I’m excited about art. I’m going back to school to finish what I started.” I paused a minute and responded, paper bag in hand. “That’s what I came in here for, and maybe next time I’ll see your work in here.” With those words and an exchange of smiles, I left feeling pretty good about the evening. The young lady had come to Savannah years ago on a scholarship and began classes at SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design). Art was her entire life dream. She had gotten distracted, discouraged, and eventually dropped out. A series of odd jobs had finally brought her to the gallery where I met her. Now she was going back to school, her dream rekindled.
The next day my partner and I were eating breakfast when a gentleman we knew from Huntsville approached us. What are the odds? He was there on some engineering official business type stuff. We talked about Savannah and his job connection. He asked where all we had been. “You haven’t been to Tybee Island?!” We had not. Our goal was to eat and hit the road right after. We both had places to be later in the day. “You’ve got to go to Tybee Island. You’re already here, It’s not that far. You won’t regret it if you do. You will if you don’t.” We looked at each other searching for reasons to or not to. This guy was on the hard sell. “We’ll see”, I said. My usual answer when I don’t want to give a definitive answer. After breakfast we both decided that we might as well go. It couldn’t take up that much time. The trip had been good and my mind was invested with good stuff to unpack later.
The drive was nice. The stuff of my dreams. The road grew really narrow at times and the marsh leading right up to it was intimidating. If a person drove right off the edge they would be stuck in the ocean. The ocean. Not a good thought for me. I looked ahead and kept driving. When we reached the Island, it was still early. It was also strangely peaceful. Like in a Stephen King movie kind of way. The area of the beach we walked was fairly empty except for our voices…and the other ones I started hearing. As we walked along, I asked her, “Do you hear that?” “Hear what?” she responded.
“The voices”, I said, a little confused.
“I don’t hear any voices. You hearing things.”
I was. Voices.
From somewhere the distance, I could hear human voices like the sound was being carried. No individual words, just calling voices of people screaming out. My logical mind kicked in and I tried to attribute it to the wind. The only comparison I have is from the classic movie The Ten Commandments, when Moses was in the dessert and all the voices of the people were calling out to him.
“You still hearin’ it.” She asked.
I’m thinking she saw the look on my face and realized I wasn’t playing as I usually do. At that moment, I locked into logic and pointed out to the ships that looked like lego blocks in the distance.
“Maybe they’re coming from out there. The wind is probably carrying the voices from the ships.” I said, wrestling to make sense of it.
“I don’t think so.” she knocked over my justification. Why couldn’t she hear them? We went back and forth a few minutes, then let it go. The voices became background noise to our conversation. Seven geese announced their journey overhead. I took photos and recordings on the beach with my phone. Now I’m wondering if my phone picked up the voices. When I finish writing this, I’ll go check. Looking at the ships, the water, the shoreline, I had a jarring crash thought moment of realization. This shoreline was a place of arrival for enslaved people. Some of my ancestors could have walked this very shore, stood on this very spot, soaked this sand with theirs tears and sweat.
I’ve since learned that (according to SavannahNow, March 29, 2022) in May of 1768, at least 250 enslaved Africans brought for sale in Savannah aboard the ship Constantine took their first steps on dry land on Tybee Island at an area called Lazaretto. The healthy were processed and cleared. Those who had died while chained together below deck in the dank darkness on the month-long journey were buried in unmarked graves. This was hallowed ground. My mind knew of none of this at the time. My spirit did. I had a moment. The voices. The voices. I walked to the waters edge and cut my birthmark crown into the sand. I felt something at work here. Looking over at her, I was about to share, then never minded. I ventured slightly into the water and walked back from the shoreline leaving a trail of foot prints. I took the photo. Many thousand come. Many thousand gone, I thought. I had painted those words in a mural around 2004. As I stared into the footprints, they multiplied in my head. My eyes went back out to the ships, sitting atop the ocean’s edge. The words, ‘Them comin” came to me. “Them comin’, them comin,” just kept repeating itself in my head. Them comin’…
…To be continued…