Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The sword in the stone

In front of an elementary school near my house stands a sculpture: a big rock with a sword sticking out of it. The sword in the stone. It is incongruous. Swords aren’t usually sheathed in rock. Yet many of us understand it immediately as the sword Wart managed to pull from the rock when he was a boy and thereby became King Arthur. The incongruities, a sword in a stone, a king in a boy, are explained by the story.

That is the key, that stories explain, provide understanding, make sense of things.

Here’s another incongruity. Same place. At the school someone has strung Tibetan pray flags around the trees that surround the sword in the stone. What have the prayer flags to do with English mythology? Perhaps everything and nothing. But they don’t fit together in my head. I don’t know the story. And I suppose there is one.

Perhaps the flags and the sword just happen to be there in the same place, that they are otherwise unrelated. Perhaps a pupil at the school met a Tibetan Buddhist and thought of the flags as a response to the story he’d heard about King Arthur. You’d have to visit the school and ask around to learn the story.

But I’m sure the story you dug up would make sense of the incongruity between the flags and the sword, as the story of King Arthur – and the knowledge that kids learn about King Arthur when they’re in elementary school and about the same age as Wart was – makes sense of the sculpture in front of the school.

Again, the important thing is stories make sense of things.

I was thinking the other day about the sword in the stone as I walked my dog around my neighborhood. My mind wandered. I thought of how some people think of Montford as white and affluent, full of large renovated Victorian houses, wide quiet streets, and liberal Democrats.

That is its reputation, at least among some in Asheville.

But that’s not all it. Montford takes in Hillcrest, a public housing complex at the bottom of Hill Street, and Klondyke, another housing project at the neighborhood’s northern tip. The projects are in a sense incongruous with the stereotype of Montford, but they are part of Montford nonetheless.

Likewise, Montford contains Stumptown and Hill Street and the Ocala-Magnolia neighborhoods, which are, or were, historically African American.

In the 1960s, under the city’s “urban renewal” efforts, and with white flight from white parts of Montford, residential patterns shifted and Montford diversified. White minds being white minds, people remember the Montford of this period, through the early 1980s, as African American. Sometimes I meet a white person in Asheville and they shake their heads and say, “You should have seen it.” Actually I did. I’m white and I lived in Montford then.

With Asheville’s economic revival in the late 1980s and 1990s, Montford became steadily whiter and whiter, with affluent whites buying homes and fixing them up. The complexion changed again. The housing projects remained, and the historically black neighborhoods of Stumptown remained largely African American, though even there white folks have started to move in.

You see, Montford is more complex than “white and affluent” suggests. It has variation within it, now and over time.

This is the problem with symbols, ways of talking about things such as neighborhoods and sculptures in front of schoolhouses. Nestled within the symbols are incongruities. A symbol represents something else: it is itself and the other thing, what it represents. Making sense of a symbol requires that we know its story, that we have a story to tell about it, which connects the one with the other.

In order to make sense of my neighborhood – or any neighborhood – you need to know a number of stories, for they will tell you about the incongruities, the things that don’t fit with the stereotype. What doesn’t fit complicates, provides validity, creates verisimilitude. That’s why stories are important.

I’d like to know the story of those Tibetan prayer flags.

I’d like to know what African Americans, those that remain, really think of all the white people living in Montford.

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