The Soul of East Texas

A land of tall trees and deep roots, where the past still haunts the present.

Photography by Keith Carter. 1990 National Magazine Award Winner for Photography.

My ears are attuned to the voices of East Texas even though I’ve lived in the city for twenty years. “I oughta whup the tar outta you,” I hear a mother tell her son as I finger the Jacksonvile tomatoes at the farmers’ market. I linger around the okra, hungrier for the expressions of my childhood than for the produce.

In a doctor’s office a man from East Texas tells me about his heart surgery: “Last year I was sick to where I couldn’t hardly get out of bed.” He is clearly enjoying the attention that his failing heart has attracted from important city doctors. “I was brought up hard,” he explains.

The black woman shampooing my hair summarizes her sister’s life and recent death in one confident sentence: “She did what the Lord gave her to do.” I scribble the sentence in the margin of a magazine, tear off the scrap of paper, and put it in my purse.

Perhaps I am making up for the inattentiveness of childhood. With no other frame of reference, I, like most children, regarded the landscape of my childhood as ordinary. In 1956 my sixth-grade class celebrated the end of elementary school with a trip to Dallas, where we took in such extraordinary sights as Cinerama; the Health and Science Museum at Fair Park, with its shocking plaster representations of a baby being born; and finally Love Field airport, where I snapped a picture of Ed Sullivan rushing to his flight. That was the interesting world. Today I would bypass the celebrity and take more notice of my classmates, some of whom had had the tar whupped out of ‘em, were being brought up hard, and might eventually do all

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