I know I have a romantic view of old East Wilson (old, as in before it was ravaged by the crack trade), and though I know that’s attributable to my very safe and happy childhood there, I am reminded of just how shallow my rosy recollection is. One of my cousins, 20 years older than I, has just published a memoir. The early pages of Sherrod Village are set on streets I walked and peopled by folks I knew in East Wilson. Barbara Williams Lewis’ grandmother was my great-great-grandmother’s sister; they were two of the “innumerable” children of Adam T. Artis. (Her mother, in fact, is who described them to me that way.) I thought I would recognize so much in Barbara’s book. But I didn’t.
Children are shielded from so much ugliness (if they’re lucky) and understand so little of what they see. The ragged pasts of sweet old people are not always apparent in their mild presents. Nonetheless, I had believed that my truth was true. I had, perhaps, counted on it. I’d thought that I’d viewed East Wilson as a palimpsest. Instead, though my family’s story there involved poverty and insecurity and pain, I processed little beyond the surface of my own memories of crepe myrtles, corner stores and swimming lessons at Reid Street Center. I knew the history of the place, but not the lives of its people. Fifteen pages into Sherrod Village, I wrote to Barbara that I was “staggered.” I finished the book in the same state of astonishment. I HAD NO IDEA, I told her. No idea. And I thanked her.