861: Apologia

861: Apologia

861: Apologia


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Several years after purchasing my home in Burlington, Vermont, my neighbor, a fellow professor, called. He jokingly informed me that, “our” presence in “our” tree-lined neighborhood was technically illegal. Our deed contained racially restrictive language. He said, “Let me read it out loud: No persons of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building or any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants domiciled with an owner or tenant." Ouch! Really?!!

My perception of quaint, even progressive, New England’s enlightened status was shattered.

I wasn’t alone. Turns out Vermont had a rash of whites-only properties, and not just whites but the right kind of white. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist's summer home in Greensboro, Vermont also bore offensive language in its deed. It read: “no feet of the herein conveyed property shall be leased or sold to any member of the Hebrew race.” Ouch! Really?

Rehnquist learned of the covenant during his confirmation hearing. He did what any right-minded justice would do; he sold the property then purchased it back two days later, so that he could record a new deed without the odious language, and also, of course, to clear his confirmation.

To release the language from our deed in Mayfair Park, South Burlington’s town manager required signatures from every household in our fire district. We went from home to home, petitioning neighbors’ John Hancocks. Many expressed disgust about the covenant, particularly younger neighbors who also had not read the fine print. The only person who refused to sign lived next door. He claimed he did not want to participate in erasing history. Ouch! Come again?

No human alive today should encounter racial relics from the past. Old laws meant to discriminate, although unenforceable, should be eradicated from living records. Their memory belongs in the history books, not on the county books. For some this might constitute wokeness, but knowing of the history of segregation in our country only makes us more unified against dehumanizing practices that prevent Americans from fully participating in our democracy today.

Today’s poem, drawn from the language of biology, contains a strong and simple message about diversity in society.

by Cherene Sherrard

Today in the mail I received a handwritten
note from a person whose illegible signature 
required that I google the address to discover 
its provenance. Let me restate: its provenance 
was benevolent privilege. So accustomed am I 
to the casual pokes and missteps of daily 
interaction that I failed to be offended by,
or maybe misremembered, the incident 
obligingly related inside the card, imprinted 
with an abstract collage of what I think was
an Asian carp, an invasive species my son
likes to fish for in the lake and let suffocate on 
shore. He lures them with sweet corn. A kindness, 
he says, because these carp have no restraint. 
They obliterate biodiversity and we do not 
want a lake that only holds one type of fish.

“Apologia” from Grimoire. Copyright © 2020 by Cherene Sherrard. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Autumn House, autumnhouse.org.