The other day I sent a retiring school head I admire a short list of good reads for his pending retirement. As an educator, I know the time for personal reading is limited by the demands of parents and students, but since my retirement, the hours have opened for reading, and I knew VW, a good writer and avid reader, would relish the time retirement offered for reading. Thus, the list of eight fine reads ranging from All the Light We Cannot See to The Emperor of All Maladies. I wanted a selective list, so it was short, but all the suggested books are great reads and ones I think VW will enjoy. However, I left one good read off the list. I will not bother the busy head of school with another email, so I will attempt to give the book its just due here.
The Home Place (Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature) by J. Drew Lanham is slim, only 212 pages long, but it is a packed read. Lanham, a Master Teacher at Clemson University, grew up in Edgefield County, South Carolina, a place “easy to pass by on the way somewhere else.” His school-teacher parents farmed the land that had been in the Lanham family for generations, and it was here that Lanham learned the love for family, the love for land, the love for animals, and the love for heritage.
When I first removed the book from its bookstore shelf, I admit to being annoyed by the use of the phrase “Colored Man’s” in the sub-title. Having grown up with the word “colored” to describe blacks, I felt as if I had outgrown that derogative word. However, I made a mature decision and purchased the book and on page four, in the introduction, I learned one of my first lessons from Dr. Lanham when I read: “Each of us is so much more than the pigment that orders us into convenient compartments of occupation, avocation, or behavior. It’s easy to default to expectation. But nature shows me a better, wilder way. I resist the easy path and claim the implausible, indecipherable, and unconventional.” Read on!
We are introduced to the land but also its people, and one of the best is Lanham’s grandmother, Mamatha, who lives next door to the modern ranch house of his parents. He spends much time with Mamatha whose home he describes as “broken down and mired in the past like an old plow mule in the mud, … the heart of the Homeplace.” His growing years with his beloved grandmother had “A constant dose of the Holy Bible mixed with magic made my time with my grandmother spooky and spiritually profound.”
Lanham writes lovingly but honestly of his parents. He tells of their early lives and how they studied to be teachers. His mother, Willie Mae Jones, possessed a “quiet fortitude”, and Lanham worshipped his “iron-willed” father who could not forgive himself of mistakes made. Lanham writes of James Hoover Lanham, “Complexity inhibits perfection and often destroys it.”
There is much to enjoy in Lanham’s memoir of growing up in the 1970’s in upland South Carolina: The subtle place of race in the book, the major role of nature and its influence on the growing and mature man, and his family. For all the well-crafted words, two chapters stand out for me. In “Life’s Spring” Lanham writes of the spring that supplied the water for the Home Place and how his father kept it operating—until his too-soon death from a heart attack. Lanham skillfully uses water as a metaphor for life and the relationship with his father that he sorely misses in this moving chapter. In the chapter “Thinking”, the author muses as he closes his memoir. He thinks of land and its people. He returns to the piedmont of his early life and observes, “There are Edens to be found in piedmont paradises lost.” And he shares this message from a black man with us all, “The reparations lie not in what someone will give us, but in what we already own.”