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E.M. Monroe

"I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live." Weems

Month

July 2011

Kentucke II

In my effort to begin placing myself into my family’s narrative of the history of black Kentucke, I visited a very good friend who lives in Lexington and we toured places previously of no particular interest. This time, we traveled the city as tourists might. So the Kentucky Horse Park was first on our agenda. There, we were able to visit the memorials erected to some of the greatest horses in Kentucky history. Secretariat greeted us first.

Secretariat became the first Thoroughbred in 25 years to win the triple crown. The sculpture at the KHP features his groom Eddie Sweat as well as Ron Turcotte, the jockey who rode him in the Kentucky Derby in 1973. Secretariat.com contends that the Disney film Secretariat about the famed horse dedicated much time and attention to getting an accurate portrait of Sweat, who was African American. In at least one place, I read that the film is exactly a waste of time because Sweat functions as the product of a limited racial imagination. I plan on making an effort to judge Sweat’s character in the film so stay tuned.

KHP is the final resting place for Man O’ War.

Competing within the context of the Great War, Man O’ War was a horse that excited the imagination during bleak times. Many thought of the horse as the greatest Thoroughbred of the 20th century. In the two years he competed, Man O’ War won 20 out of 21 races.

When I tell people outside of Kentucky, and outside of the horse racing world, that Man O’ War is actually buried here, they seem perplexed. I then have to explain what a tremendous tribute it is to the horses as well as to how much care it shows Kentuckians have for horses; though there have been recent reports on the cruelty shown race horses. There are even Thoroughbred cemeteries in the Bluegrass state. The most renowned of these are Calumet and Claiborne (where Seabiscuit grew up) farms. According to Lucy Zeh, author of Etched in Stone: Thoroughbred Memorials, there are “more than 400 Thoroughbred memorials” in Kentucky.

Ostensibly, laying Isaac Murphy’s body directly in sight of Man O’ War’s final resting place extends a high honor to this African American jockey born of the enslaved. History ranks Murphy amongst the greatest jockeys of all time. He won 44% of his mounts and was the first in history to win the Kentucky Derby three times. As a result, he was the first entered into the National Museum of Racing in the pivotal year of 1955.

Though Murphy was initially laid to rest in African Cemetery No. 2, his body was exhumed and moved to Man O’War Park before ultimately coming to rest in its current location. The exhumation proves most interesting because Murphy’s wife Lucy remains buried in an unmarked grave in the African cemetery.

Think about the significance of separating this husband and wife while reading Frank X Walker’s book of poems, I Dedicate This RideHow much of an honor do you find Murphy’s final resting place?

Kentucke

Yes, I know how Kentucky is spelled on a map but this spelling references a Frank X Walker poem in the book Affrilachia, a work I highly recommend. In my reading, the altered spelling references the difference black folk make to the state even though written out of the history and representation of the region; particularly, Appalachia. Walker coined the term Affrilachia after consulting a dictionary and learning that the term Appalachian specifically referenced white residents of the Appalachian region.

While I lived in Lexington I was underwhelmed by the experience of African American history; not so since I left. My son’s birth brought Kentucke history into greater relief as I set out to mark our family’s history in the state. My grandparents were born in Louisville in the 1920s. I was raised in my grandparent’s home surrounded by gorgeous pictures of their past. This is a photograph of my grandmother and her parents:

My grandmother’s birth mother, pictured here, died of a rare brain tumor shortly after this photograph was taken. My great-grandfather would later marry a wonderful woman who my grandmother would come to call “Ma Ma.”

My grandmother and grandfather met while students at Catholic Colored High. I recently obtained a copy of my grandfather’s report card from his years there:

Though my grandfather wasn’t the greatest student, I thought he was a thoughtful man. I wanted to be just like him; think like him; value silence. My grandmother performed much better in school. She was sixteen when she graduated:

My grandfather served in World War II and he and my grandmother exchanged photographs while he was stationed in the Pacific:

When he returned from the war, he and my grandmother would pose for a picture that would become a family classic:

Everyone in my immediately family loves this photograph and they used to fight over who should own it. My Aunt Sharon used to own the only copy we knew to exist but we recently learned that my Aunt Shirley, my grandmother’s sister, owned a copy.

When I grew-up, photographs like these covered our basement walls. One of the reasons why I think bell hooks’s “In Our Glory” is one of the top ten essays ever written is because it helps me understood why these images were so important. hooks writes:

Most Southern black folks grew up in a context where snapshots and the more stylized photographs taken by professional photographers were the easiest images to produce. Displaying these images in everyday life was as central as making them. The walls of images in Southern black homes were sites of resistance. They constituted private, black-owned and operated gallery space where images could be displayed, shown to friends and strangers. These walls were a space where, in the midst of segregation, the hardship of apartheid, dehumanization could be countered. Images could be critically considered, subjects positioned according to individual desire.

It took me a while to realize it, but my family’s walls were the first place for making Kentucke an important site for considering, observing, and appreciating black history.

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