Ahmaud Arbery Holds Us AccountableRoundup
tags: racism, Georgia, Southern history
Jim Barger lives on Saint Simons Island in Glynn County, Georgia with his wife and their two children. Jim teaches White Collar Crime at the University of Alabama School of Law and represents whistle blowers nationwide as a private attorney general on behalf of the United States and the states against corporations that defraud government programs.
Ahmaud Arbery was from here. He descended from one of the oldest families in coastal Georgia, one of the oldest families in America for that matter. I know his relatives, personally, and I know their history. As we say in the South, “I know his people.”
As a young graduate student, before attending law school, I studied and documented African American folkways, specifically the 20th century folkways of the Georgia Sea Islands. For almost two years, I walked freely in all-black neighborhoods, knocking on doors, peeking into backyards and empty buildings, introducing myself, generally making a nuisance of myself — and yet, I was always welcomed with a hospitality the likes of which I have not known since. For months at a time, I lived in an electric blue, single-wide trailer on an isolated island in the front yard of one of the families who supported my research and treated me like a son. Together we fished, hunted, and combed the beaches for conchs. We foraged for clams, saltwort, bay leaf, sassafras, wild grapes, wild herbs, and traditional medicines. They taught me sweetgrass basket-making and how to knit cast nets — skills I never quite perfected.
We worshipped and prayed together, ate smoked mullet and deviled crab together, drank cold beer and moonshine together, danced, laughed, and cried together. Mine was a strange white face intruding into their intensely private community, and yet not once did anyone demand me to explain what I was doing there or threaten my life because I was different or because they thought I didn’t belong there. They treated me like a neighbor. Because of the friendship, love, and nurture they gave to me, I know exactly who Ahmaud Arbery’s people are.
We can accurately trace Ahmaud’s roots in the United States directly to the late 1700s when plantation owner Thomas Spalding, purchased captive Africans for forced labor on his rice and cotton plantation on Sapelo Island, the northernmost of the now loosely defined “Golden Isles” of the Georgia Sea Islands, which variously include St. Simons, Sea Island, Jekyll, Cumberland, and the mainland towns of Brunswick and Darien. The community of Hog Hammock on Sapelo is one of the few places left where direct descendants of enslaved people fastidiously preserve many of their West African words, syntax, roots, music, crafts, mythology, and traditions in a distinct Creole culture known as Geechee — a word etymologists believe derives from the Kissi (pronounced Geezee) ethnic group of what today is known as coastal Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
During the War of 1812, Ahmaud’s Geechee ancestors from Sapelo fought for the United States, even as we alienated all of the unalienable rights endowed upon them by their Creator and so extolled in our country’s founding documents. After the Civil War, Ahmaud’s ancestors bought their lands here as freedmen and paddled from the islands to the mainland in hand-hewn bateaus once every year to dutifully pay their taxes. Despite relentless attempts to steal their land, beat them down, and drive them out, Geechees like Ahmaud’s ancestors thrived and settled throughout the Golden Isles and the mainland, living in harmony with this delicate estuarine ecosystem — fishing, hunting, clamming, crabbing, oystering, and farming — for more than a century before the first industrialists showed up to poison our waters with chemical plants and long before the first snowbirds arrived to convert our community into a sun-soaked playground for the rich and the retired.
Ahmaud’s birthright to this particular place is strong. His people’s fight to maintain their ownership of this particular place is resolute. The dignity and kindness and richness of culture that they have imprinted on this place is indelible. And while that doesn’t give him any greater right to life and justice than any other human anywhere, it does highlight the depravity of any argument that white men had a right to confront him with guns and end his life simply because he was a black man who stood his ground in their neighborhood, because he didn’t explain and supplicate himself to them.
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