Communing With Ghosts

By Stephen Comstock


Junction City, Kansas

I stand in my kitchen in Kansas, melting Crisco in a skillet for Sunday chicken.

The warm, doughy smell of Mama's biscuits hangs in the air, but Mama isn't here. Behind the smell and the sizzle of shortening on the stove lies a childhood of hymns, prayers, and family stories. My mother herself is present just behind the surface of activity in my home, because for a Southerner, home is something to be carried on your back and in your heart. It's something to be planted down wherever you are through food, song, and exaggerated stories. To be Southern is to commune with ghosts.

It was my daddy who taught me biscuits ought to be dipped in Karo syrup, not slathered with jelly. When my mama wasn't looking, he'd stir another spoonful of butter into the sweet syrup on my plate and show me how to swirl my biscuit till it was covered in off-yellow glaze. When I ask the Kansas grocer where to find "Karo for biscuits," it takes him a minute to catch my meaning. Apparently, the stuff has other uses. That's a lesson my ghosts never taught me.

I don't know homesickness too well, because as long as I've been away from home it's gone with me. It leaks into my day through the fragment of a gospel song my mama sang while cleaning dishes, or the slang I have to explain to my girl after it jumps out of my mouth.

I think it's this mobile connection to home that makes our culture so memorable. It was connection to the spirituals of working, oppressed slaves that manifested itself in the blues, traveling to Detroit and back, twanging all the way. It was that same connection to those same spirituals that bore rock and roll and country music as distant kin. It's the insistence that there is only one kind of cornbread, one kind of tea, and one kind of way to greet a stranger that keeps our culture alive. To be Southern is to have deep roots but also feet to carry them.  

This communion with the ghosts of our past doesn't always serve us well. For a culture that speaks to our forebears so often, we sure don't listen to them well. It's not just personal histories we carry around or personal apparitions that haunt our stories. Institutional ghosts haven't gone away. Racism, bigotry, and misdirected pride bleed through forgotten channels and reign from ignored throne rooms. We point to the graves we buried them in long ago as proof of their nonexistence, while their spirits live on, watching over us through statues, flags, and bad retellings of the historical record.

That's the thing with ghosts: They are tricky things. They use disguise and deflection to keep themselves alive. I imagine if George Wallace could step away from the devil's table to speak with us, his apparition would come well clad in dress and disposition. Since ghosts exist only when imagined, they need to summon great powers of imaginative seduction to perpetuate their own existence. Myth and narrative bind folks together, but myth and narrative keep us apart as well.

When I cook Mama's biscuits, I'm not just baking dough and slathering Karo. I'm communicating with my mother, her mother, and her mother before her through a doughy medium. Hand in hand, we flour the countertop. Step in step, we dance to John Lee Hooker and Ralph Stanley songs. It's that connection that keeps my identity as a Southerner alive on the Kansas plains.

If we acknowledge we need the ghosts of our ancestors to fuel our identity but also need to overcome the idolization of our past to maintain neighborly connection and compassion for our fellow man, the question becomes, "How do we commune with our ghosts in a healthy way?"

First, we have to celebrate our ancestral diversity. The South isn't a homogeneous place and never was. I have to acknowledge the Southern identity handed down to me was the culmination of interactions between a slew of cultures, myths, and narratives. My culture isn't just mine, and by trying to possess it, I will inevitably corrupt it into my own image.

Second, we have to discern between the narratives and myths that bring us together and the ones that try to keep us apart. Listen to our ghosts. Hear their stories for what they are, not what we would like them to be. As President Lincoln implored on the occasion of his first inauguration, as our country found itself in the throes of secession and division, "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Our better angels reach across the ages to pass on values of hospitality and a culture borne of pain.

If our culture is to live on, it will only be through hospitality and neighborly love. We need our ghosts, and they need us, but we don't need flags or statues. We have biscuits, blues, and sweet Karo syrup.