Discover more from Trespasses of the Holy
These Haunted Streets
...On the matter of ghosts
I sent my children to Scarowinds last week, and I do not feel at all guilty about it. Scarowinds is the end-of-season hurrah for Charlotte’s theme park, Carowinds. Staff dress up in Halloween costumes, the park stays open late, and people try to turn their happy amusements into frightening ones. It’s all in good fun for thrill seekers. Some young adults from the neighborhood took the boys, so Helms and I enjoyed a rare date while the kids rode a bunch of rides whose goal, as my father used to say, is to “turn your liver over.” Success on all counts.
Following the weekend, I managed an afternoon away to catch up to some friends who were making a stop in Black Mountain. They were Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, both activist-scholars from California, who were speaking about their recent book Healing Haunted Histories. Ched in particular has been a mentor for me over the past couple of years, and their work is deeply influencing the way I am thinking about this project examining Urban Renewal and the roles and theological understandings of white churches. (Also present were Tevyn East and Jay Beck, both amazing artists and cultural organizers whose new project, Dreaming Stone, I look forward to visiting soon.)
Ched and Elaine began their talk by noting that Halloween is now the second most-commercialized holiday of the year, following Christmas. Among the cultural impacts of the capitalist takeover of the holiday is the “trivialization” of the spirit world, they said. This is not without consequence. What the market has done is to turn ghosts into cartoon characters we can use to entertain ourselves to death. Or, in another manner of dismissing the import of hauntings, people create TV shows and museums about the “paranormal,” replete with tools for detecting sasquatch and yeti and things that go bump in the night. Either strategy trivializes how this land is haunted. As a result, the USAmerican culture has yet another manner of avoiding the “actual hauntings of our streets,” Ched and Elaine said. What the settler-colonial project has done is to construct us as people free of history and geography, in a land without ghosts.
“Haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with,” writes sociologist Avery Gordon. “What’s distinctive about haunting is that it is an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known…. Specters or ghosts appear when the trouble they represent or symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view.”
She further writes, “haunting is one way…we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present.”
Both Gordon’s Ghostly Matters and Enns and Myers’ new bookhave become essential companions for me in understanding the history I have been digging around in. I recall early on, while talking with some former Brooklyn residents about their former home, standing in one of the many acres of parking lots now there. I remember the overwhelming sense that those bleak asphalt lots were attempting to entomb some stories that wanted to be told. This stunning sentence from Avery Gordon helped me make sense of that: “I see that you are not there.” As I keep working on a book manuscript, and writing these shorter pieces, I’m trying to reckon with the specters of the place, and the specters of my own place.
In his landmark article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “what is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.” Myers and Enns’ work has been about exactly that, done at personal, cultural, and systemic levels. Under their guidance, and with the aid of their voluminous footnotes, I’m stepping cautiously into some stories that want to be seen, but which have until this point remained hidden.
Gordon says that “to write stories of exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories.”Not cartoon ghosts, and not fetishized, made-for-tv evidence of the “paranormal.” Instead, these are stories of “exclusions and invisibilities.” And hauntings, according to Gordon, are distinctive for producing a “something-to-be-done.”
What it is that is “to be done” is not yet clear to me, and least not in practicable terms. Nor is it within my control. That may be the most frightening element of ghost stories. They make material demands on our lives, demands beyond what we can control, perhaps beyond what we think we are capable of. But once we’ve come to acknowledge the old ghosts, our accounts must be settled before the specters will flee. This is in no way trivial. It may be the hardest work many of us have yet encountered. But like it or not, we are already involved. The ghosts are knocking on our doors.
Something to Read: Beloved. Perhaps the greatest American novel. By the greatest writer this country has produced. The novel is a story of a haunting. As evidenced by some recent campaign to ban it, the novel and it’s subject matter still haunt the consciousness of white Americans, who must finally stop fleeing from the specters and face them.
One more note: While driving home from Black Mountain, I listened to Cannonball Adderly’s solo on “On Green Dolphin Street” from the ‘58 Miles sessions about a dozen times in a row. It is some of the finest musicianship you’ll ever hear.
Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). p. xvi.
Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).
The Charlotte neighborhood Brooklyn, destroyed by the Urban Renewal project that is the subject of this project.
Gordon, p. 16.
ibid, p. 17.
ibid, p. xvi.