In 1974, Alice Walker went on a road trip with her mother, back to the stretch between Eatonton and Milledgeville where she had grown up. At a lecture Walker had given, someone had pointed out that Walker had grown up just minutes from Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s dairy farm. Walker, an O’Connor fan, decided to visit both the place she lived and O’Connor’s Andalusia. She found her childhood home in ruins and O’Connor’s vacant house largely intact. As she approached O’Connor’s house, empty but cared for by a housekeeper, she contemplated the difference. “What I feel at the moment of knocking is fury that someone is paid to take care of her house, though no one lives in it, and that her house still, in fact, stands, while mine — which of course we never owned anyway — is slowly rotting into dust,” Walker wrote. “Standing there knocking on Flannery O’Connor’s door, I do not think of her illness; her magnificent work in spite of it; I think: It all comes back to houses.”
When I was researching my book on Southern writers and the places they wrote about, South Toward Home, I ran up against this again and again: There are startlingly few literary landmarks for writers of color. Literary landmarks — those plaques and preserved homes and libraries — are there to acknowledge and celebrate our literary heritage. Too often, writers of color have been left out of the conversation.
Eudora Welty and Richard Wright both grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1910s and ’20s. Welty, born just a year after Wright, lived most of her adult life on a tree-lined street in the well-to-do neighborhood of Belhaven. Her home is now a lovingly preserved visitor site, where literary pilgrims can traipse through her kitchen and peruse the knickknacks on her shelves. The garden in the back of the house, which had fallen into disrepair in Welty’s later years, has been meticulously restored from descriptions in Welty’s letters, essays, and fiction. Wright, who was born in Natchez, Mississippi, moved to his maternal grandmother’s house in Jackson at age 12 and lived there until his late teenage years, when he moved north: first to Memphis, then Chicago, New York City, and ultimately Paris. Where Wright’s childhood home once stood is now an empty, grassy lawn. There are no tour guides, no visitor center. There isn’t even a marker to acknowledge the spot where one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century spent his formative years.
There are a few traces of Wright’s legacy in Jackson — a mural of his face on the side of Smith Robertson Junior High School, a branch of the public library named after him in 1983 — but you have to really hunt for them. In Natchez, there’s a little more: a marker outside the house he was born in, and part of a room in the little Museum of African-American History and Culture. But it’s clear that the state of Mississippi and the communities of Natchez and Jackson embraced Wright too late to preserve the sites of his life.
Mention Welty in Jackson and you get a wealth of information on where she ate and bought books, what model of car she drove, where to find her favorite hairdresser. Mention Wright, and there is no such outpouring. He is memorialized on literary maps of the state alongside Welty, Faulkner, Margaret Walker Alexander, and Tennessee Williams, but in the place he grew up, there is a palpable absence of information. Partly this is because Wright left Jackson much earlier in his life, while Welty lived there until her death in 2001. But the reason that Wright was forced to move away from the South — the vicious, endemic racism of Jim Crow-era Mississippi — is inseparable from the reason his legacy isn’t as well preserved as Welty’s. For years, Wright’s books were outright banned in the state of Mississippi. The state’s governor, Theodore Bilbo, took the Senate floor in 1945 to denounce Black Boy, Wright’s powerful, aching memoir of growing up black and poor in the South, claiming that “it is the dirtiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have seen in print.” Little wonder that there wasn’t much effort to preserve the Wright childhood home. You can’t take a tour of Richard Wright’s Mississippi without wondering how many other voices were silenced, how many stories lost.
This isn’t just a problem in the South. Across the United States, the writers’ homes you can visit skew overwhelmingly white. A.N. Devers, a writer and creator of Writers’ Houses, a website dedicated to documenting writers’ houses around the world, notes that there are only four writers’ homes of people of color that are open to the public: Frederick Douglass’ house in Washington, DC, Anne Spencer’s house in Virginia, Zora Neale Hurston’s house in Florida, and Alex Haley’s house in Tennessee. When you widen the net to include not just houses open to tour, but memorial sites, the list gets longer — Wright’s home in Chicago was designated a landmark in 2010, W.E.B. Du Bois’ homesite is a national historic landmark, though the house itself was demolished — but the imbalance remains. “Considering we mark so much of our history through cultural landmarks, it feels like a failure that there are so few literary heritage sites preserved that document the contributions African-Americans,” says Devers.
The upkeep and preservation of writers’ homes is a complicated, expensive affair. Some homes are supported by large universities or wealthy trusts, others scrape by on donations. Some writers’ families are generous with donating their famous relatives’ belongings to a museum, others less so. But what writers’ homes usually signal is local support for those authors, and a degree of pride in the literary output of a place. “In so many ways, I think that the preservation of writers’ houses suggests the health of literary community, but when you think about this imbalance it also speaks to the injustice and imbalance in who writes and maintains literary history,” Devers tells me.
What that means is that the lack of literary landmarks for people of color is part of a cycle. There has been, historically, less support in the literary community for writers of color, which leads to less community support for the preservation and celebration of their legacy. This, in turn, means that there are fewer resources and less institutional support for writers of color. It is inscribing physically a dynamic that is already upheld socially and culturally, and it’s deeply unfair. We need more diverse writers’ homes not just to correct this imbalance, but to better support and make room in our literary canon for the vast array of writers’ voices in our country.
The places that we decide to preserve matter. They say something about us as a culture and a society. Alice Walker said it best: It all comes back to houses.