Scott Woods: All the Things I Cannot Give You Because Racism Shrinks the World
In his last Columbus Monthly column, the author reflects on the beauty of old barns and why casual trespassing is a white thing.
When I was young, there was an old barn behind my neighborhood. All of the houses on my street were separated from it by a row of backyards and an enormous cornfield. If I climbed just halfway up a tree, I could see the barn from my backyard, shimmering in the golden distance of a brilliant summer or fall afternoon. Its guts were rotted enough that I could see the sky between its planks and shingles. I never saw anything in the barn. It was the cornfield’s empty sentinel, but instead of scaring away crows, it scared away bored little Black boys who would have surely found a way into its rafters and promptly injured themselves on an Icarus dare.
Getting to the barn was an adventure in itself. You had to make your way through the rows of corn, which were muddy half the time and creepy all of the time. I lost a moccasin in its sucking mud on a failed trek once, back when you could wear such things casually. All told, I think I only made a handful of trips out to that old barn. It never had any piles of hay to dive in or rusted tools to fashion plowshares to sword style. It was just quiet and a touch anti-climactic to my young eyes.
And then one day it was gone, its wooden shell demolished and carted away, with only a worn tractor path where it used to sit. I felt some romantic way about it, as if it had left me specifically. And then I grew up. And then a trucking company bought the land and leveled the cornfield and flipped a switch on night sky-destroying ambient warehouse light forever.
It turns out I loved not just that old barn but old barns in general. Functioning, well-maintained barns are fine for the tourists, but in my heart, I am a proper Southern bluesman, so the more decrepit the barn the better. I want to throw juke joint parties in every one of them or chew a stalk of straw while watching the sunset from its open doors. This almost certainly makes Columbus sound like its cowtown reputation, but some things you shouldn’t rush to shed.
I used to travel a lot for poetry readings, bouncing from city to city, almost always by car. I was terrified of flying, and didn’t make enough money to fly anyway, so I drove thousands of miles over the years to read poetry for 25 minutes in front of crowds and lose money. Part of the justification was getting to see all of the old barns along the way, some erected by the side of the highway, some tucked into long weeds and even longer time.
In all my years of travel, I never got to see any of those old barns up close. The reason is simple and as old as this country: Casual trespassing is a white thing. I wouldn’t want to get caught with a flat tire in half of the states and counties I drove through, let alone wandering around the bending planks of some old barn. There is probably no dumber way for a Black man to die than geocaching in some red state old barn for kicks. I can’t count on the hesitation of someone with a gun who finds someone that looks like me on their property. I (and if we’re all being honest here, you) just know better.
It’s unfair, really. I have white friends who post pictures online of detours they’ve taken on road trips into ancient agricultural shrines to Americana. If I were in an old barn, I’d have all of my poet senses activated. There is, in my soul, an amazing set of poems written under an array of floating dust motes in old barns, pondering their histories and the day it knew it was done. Those are beautiful poems. Wistful poems that, for once, don’t want to fight America and beat its head to the white meat. Poems that still smell the horses that have gone, and the grease of old engine wheels. None of my poems are true, but they are all honest, and so while I could fake the sensation of an old barn visit, I wouldn’t. I love them too much to lie on their magic. And asking for permission is like settling into an arranged marriage. It is a love that is ideally experienced in the wild, by chance, with the proper levels of wonder and an appetite for the ecstatic reclamation of nature intact.
Racism shrinks the world, not just for me, but for everyone else. I don’t get to experience the majesty of deconsecrated farmhouse altars, and the world doesn’t get the art I am capable and willing to give in their honor. Every old barn is a poem or song or painting waiting to be shared, and yet only some of us get to tell those stories honestly. There are a hundred glorious places and things I cannot give to you, dear reader, because, art or no art, Black wanderlust will get you killed out here. It is one of the saddest lessons I had to learn from the syllabus for Making It To Black Adulthood. It is a pitiful thing to discover the limits to your liberty, to not be able to recreate the America in your mind, where you get to chew straw in the sun’s face. It all makes me wish I’d been an even more incorrigible child and gone to my old barn every chance I had, back when I was invincible and reckless and free.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild. He's sunsetting this column so he can focus on several forthcoming books.