When I was 15, our family living room was the staging ground for the war between me and my father.
It was 1968. We fought about hem lengths, hairstyles and curfew hours. But mostly in those days of national crisis, we fought about politics.
I stood on my side of the generation gap, lambasting sellout black leaders. To me they were worse than the white establishment; they were traitors to the race. The progenitor of them all was Booker T. Washington.
My father opposed me, saving his most ardent defense for Washington's worth as a leader.
Booker T. was one of the most famous Americans of his day. He was celebrated for his ideas, books, lectures, meetings at the Teddy Roosevelt White House and, especially, the college he founded, the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1895 he had set the tone in his “Atlanta Compromise” speech, assuring white Southerners that their colored neighbors didn't plan to fight for equality, they just wanted a chance to earn a living.
For generations African-Americans debated this stance. But the fights between me and my father weren't just echoes of the liberation movement crescendoing around us. They were personal. My father's family had been connected with Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee. To disparage him, my father warned, was to disparage my own family, our values, our past. My response as a black girl struggling toward her own identity in revolutionary times was to reject what had come before.
Besides, Tuskegee was remote, if not irrelevant. My father had fled it at 14 with his Aunt Carrie and her Army Cavalry husband after World War II. He rarely referred to his boyhood home. I learned what I knew of Tuskegee through the espionage of childhood, eavesdropping at the dinner table to bantering reminiscences when my father's relatives visited.
What emerged was paradox. A boy could run free in grassy meadows, slingshotting birds to roast for supper. The poverty of the Depression never fully lifted: there were hungry nights. Life was a peaceful oasis, free of whites and their Jim Crow domination. Violence exploded behind closed doors when my father's father drank, and that was often. There was achievement in the community, and pride. There were too many restrictions in the rural South.
Like all origins, Tuskegee belonged to a contradictory past. In the classic African-American autobiography, the young protagonist emerges from shameful conditions and achieves dignity. In the tumultuous times of my youth I did the opposite, turning our proud Tuskegee heritage into a reason for shame. When I stood there in the living room in 1968, trading ferocities with my father, no one could have convinced me that 30 years later I would find a key to myself there.
I made it to Tuskegee for the first time this year – a lifetime after those fights with my father. The time I spent there sent me spinning on a new axis. If I didn't know it before, I know it now. I'm no longer the girl who battled the past in defense of her own future.
I first realized this as I stood in the meadow on campus where my father had played as a boy after school, and he and his buddies had tried pilfering a specimen or two from Dr. George Washington Carver's legendary laboratory. This was the spot where my great-grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Ogden Anderson, a theology student at Tuskegee, held the Bible classes that marked the founding of Washington Chapel AME Church in 1896.
1896. The rural South. This was the low point, the nadir, of the African-American experience after slavery. Slavery was replaced by the Black Codes. Every Southern state passed legislation to take away the vote and repress its black residents in myriad ways. Working-class and professional freedmen were outlawed from practicing their occupations, beaten if they persisted, kept by law from testifying in court. Lynchings became epidemic.
In the midst of this, Booker T. Washington built a college and graduated men and women who, in the words of his famous autobiography, were rising up from slavery. The South wanted them to remain the nearest thing to slaves. Washington pulled strings, published a journal that recorded lynchings, taught farmers scientific agriculture, stumped the country for funds, projected the dignity of his people. I still don't cotton to Booker T.'s politics; yes, he was an accommodationist, not one of the early militants I admire. But he built an institution that still thrives, as I saw it with my own eyes.
And he had a hand in the institution my great-grandfather helped launch. When the church pioneers needed help constructing their AME parish, Washington was there. The founders were so grateful they named the church after him.
The impressive structure crests the main Old Montgomery Highway in that town, so quiet under its formidable history. I remember standing in the stream of light from its rainbow-hued stained-glass windows. At the end of our tour, a family friend asked me if I had been to my “home house.” Strange phrase – home house – but I knew she meant the family residence, built by the Rev. Anderson, where my father grew up. It stays with me, the image of the Tudor-style house bordering the grassy ravine at the edge of Tuskegee's campus. It is joined in memory with the other landmarks of my relatives' long presence there, the one-room school where my grandmother took her lessons, the former high school where my father was a star athlete, the family cemetery off a lonely road where my ancestors' lives are marked in gravestone shorthand.
The Washington Chapel centennial history displays a photograph of my great-grandfather, with his somber Victorian face, his heavy suit, the high purpose shining in his eyes. My great-grandfather knew what Booker T. Washington knew. In their time, their people could not vote, all institutions were closed against them, their livelihoods were curtailed by law and violence, white society threatened them with death. It was under such extremes that they insisted on worshipping in their own churches, learning in their own schools and developing self-reliant towns. It has taken me 30 years to come around to this declaration, but if this was selling out, then thank God for the sellouts.
My father tried to tell me that no matter how rootless I felt in my adolescence, I belong to Tuskegee and it belongs to me. It is more than a part of our family's past; it is part of America's story, the rarely told drama of the African-Americans who created sanctuary in their lives against terrifying odds. My great-grandfather did not know that what he built would survive, that he would leave a legacy alongside that of Booker T. Washington in the town they both called home. No longer an emphatic 15-year-old troubled by complexity, I can accept what Tuskegee – and my father – offer me without rejecting the other gifts of my people's past.
When he was a teenager en route to California, my father left his house, his church, his community and three generations of family in Tuskegee. For the first time it occurs to me that he and I were alike as young people, escaping the domination of family, rejecting the past for autonomy. But he was braver than I was. He went farther and did more at a younger age to stand on his own two feet. Perhaps it was because he knew all along something I have only just learned. He knew that a house is where you live, but your home house is where you're from. And no matter how far you travel, when you have a home house, a place has been prepared for you.