Forget Route 66. Try 67 instead. Head north out of St. Louis, across the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers into Illinois. There, past Alton and Godfrey, Route 67 splits. Take 267, once upon a time the old 67, and you’re in farming country. What you might not notice as you blow through burgs like Brighton, Medora, Kemper, Rockbridge, and Greenfield are the creeks you cross. Piasa, Elm, Macoupin, Taylor. All of them eventually feed the Illinois River not far to the west, the Illinois heading due south to catch and feed the Mississippi just before the Missouri does the same. Keep heading north through Greene County and you’ll cross Bear Creek, then Apple. You’ll know because you’ll see the state signs that name which creek is which, a system of marking that will also tell you where you are. And where you are by now is a couple miles north of Negro Lick. You drove over it just before you passed a township road on your right. The road was marked by a sign. Athensville Baptist Church 1 Mile.
Negro Lick has no sign.
Pull your car over. Imagine Illinois prairie grass so tall and thick that white folks stopped at its edge for fear they would get lost or burned alive in it. Get out your state road map, or turn around and retrace your route. Consider the apples that must have given Apple Creek its name soon after Americans, acting on government advantage and protection won through the War of 1812 and subsequent skirmishes, began populating the area and claiming parcels of land. Consider Panther Creek and the day a man shot and killed three of the big cats in succession not too far from where you’re driving. You can assume Bear Creek got its name for similar reasons. And Indian Creek, farther up 267, two counties to the north? As late as the 1830s Kickapoo and Whites were still killing each other in central Illinois. Often creeks shared names. If your map’s detailed enough, you’ll see two Lick Creeks in Greene County alone. Sometimes creeks had more than one name. Indian Creek, for instance, was also known at one time as Negro Creek, which is not to be confused with three other Negro Creeks you can find on a good Illinois map. Look all you want. You won’t find another Negro Lick.
If you do your homework, you’ll learn that a few Civil War soldiers in the 91st and the 133rd Illinois Infantries listed Negro Lick as their residence. That was probably because Negro Lick was an official U.S. Post Office from 1858 to 1870. How did Negro Lick get its name? One story, probably true, passed down from generation to generation is that Blacks hid along the creek in the decades before the Civil War, perhaps among the Indian population, to avoid capture and enslavement. But here’s the thing. Ask a local where you can find Negro Lick, and expect an odd look. The name’s Nigger Lick. Has been from the beginning. Look at the plat maps farmers have used for decades. Look at the most recent. Nigger Lick. Federal government might have called it Negro Lick during the Civil War, but look at a Greene County map from 1861. Nigger Lick. As you’re retracing your route back down 267 past the Athensville Baptist Church sign in search of Negro Lick or Nigger Lick or Lick, the name many locals now use because times have changed there too, look for the creek with three names. You won’t find it if you’re looking for words.
Lifelong friends from the area tell me Lick had a sign back in the day and it carried the marker “Nigger Lick” like it was nothing but a couple of words They tell me the sign disappeared in the late 1970s when state road crews came through, took the sign down, and asked locals for another name for the creek. It’s possible somebody on the road crew or some folks back at IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) or the Governor’s mansion had been sensitized to race issues by the 1977 TV series Roots. It would make for a tidy story if that were so. Tidy’s not the general rule for such things, though, and I have no way of knowing what happened exactly.
I do know that a couple of decades later, while researching and writing entries for Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations, I was told by Eddie Smith, co-founder of the Hollywood Black Stuntmen’s Association, that he worked on a shoot for Roots down in Savannah, Georgia, because the nearby landscape approximated the African veld. The white woman whose job it was to find black children to work as extras thought nothing, he said, of stopping at a grade school and rounding up interested children without the sort of written approvals she would have sought with white children’s parents. Eddie objected and she changed her approach. I’d like to think he taught her something, but that might be too tidy an outcome for the times.
Despite, or maybe because of, concessions made to basic storytelling and the white audience it needed and got in record-breaking numbers, Roots taught me some things. The primary lesson was the humanizing of black bodies, by which I mean the actors as much as I mean the characters they portrayed. For eight straight evenings in late January 1977 I sat in my parents’ home in my little white town as one actor after another brought their voices and craft to prime time. For eight straight evenings our living room and my head were filled with black bodies. That summer I would graduate from college (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) with a secondary teaching certificate and apply for a few jobs. A week after interviewing with a couple of administrators (both black, or so my memory tells me) to be an English teacher at Soldan High, or maybe it was Sumner High, both of them predominantly African American schools in St. Louis, I was called and told that I had done well in the interview but they were going with a different candidate. My shortcoming, the man said, was that I hadn’t taught black students before. Okay. Thank you. I’m confused. Was there a class I was supposed to have taken in teacher school? Imagine my further confusion when the next day the principal of that district’s middle school called and offered me a teaching job without an interview. I turned him down because I didn’t want to teach kids that age and because I couldn’t get past my initial confusion. Why wouldn’t the same concerns about race and teacher experience apply to middle-schoolers?
Looking back, I see my response to middle-schoolers as odd. After all, the best memory I had and still have of observing schools comes from a middle school in Brooklyn (or Lovejoy), Illinois, an American Bottom town famous for being this country’s oldest town incorporated by African Americans. It was there I saw a tight community and the energy any teacher would want to bottle for a long career. It was there also that a teacher asked her students to contemplate Paradise, what that might mean in the world they live in, what Paradise might look like. Sitting in the back of the room, I accepted her prompt. I asked myself the questions she was asking of her students, whose hands were waving for her attention. Too many hands, in fact, for the teacher to pick one. Where, she asked, is this Paradise of yours? Is it a real place? That’s when it happened. The moment that changed things for me. I raised my hand. Then I lowered it. The teacher looked at me. I looked at those kids and shook my head.
You can finish this story for me. What I wanted to say, what I would have disastrously said that day, were the two words that named and still name the place I loved and still love, a name I haven’t said casually in decades but a name that’s built a sturdy nest in my mind no matter what I might think about it. When my tongue lifted to the roof of my mouth to begin that name, to make the first syllable of the first word, Ni-, my mouth went dry, N-, my tongue got thick, -, my face flushed. That name, those two words, which I might have once said had nothing to do with race, had everything to do with race. I looked at the teacher and the students, shook my head, and the kids in that classroom turned back toward their teacher and raised their hands anew. Pick me, teacher! Pick me! I looked at the students’ arms. Don’t pick me, I thought. Please don’t pick me. In that moment, Paradise became the vilest of cuss words, became unspeakable. Paradise isn’t meant for real time. It has no home in history because time leaves marks, the traces and scars of human struggle, of mortality, of change. My Paradise wore its name like a slaver’s hat. My Paradise was no paradise.
The hardest thing about love? Loss. The hardest thing about loss? Love.
Once or twice a year I travel well out of my way to drive up or down 267, turn at the Athensville Baptist Church sign, and drive a mile to see the town where I spent so many Sundays as a child. Many of the homes are gone, some of them replaced by trailers. There’s a corrugated metal building my mother’s generation has rented over the years for family reunions. I no longer walk down Lick’s banks to revisit my favorite creek. A peculiarity of Illinois waterways like Lick is that they’re owned by the person who owns the land they travel through. Even if I wanted to ask permission, I don’t know anyone in Athensville anymore. As my eighty-year-old mother says when I slowly drive her through, “These people aren’t from Athensville.” With or without her, I take the road leading south out of town until I hit the small bridge with the metal guard rails covered with spray-painted names and obscenities. I keep expecting to see all or part of the creek’s name. I never do.
I loved that place and the name was part of it and the name had to go. A couple of decades after the sign came down, I was riding a city bus in Champaign and telling this story to a white librarian, the head of the African American library at the university. He said I should return immediately to the area and do something about it. What would that have been? Divert all rainwater to Apple Creek? Hypnotize or kill everyone who had ever heard of the name (including myself and the librarian)? Pave paradise and put up a parking lot? What would be the draw?
Like it or not, Lick’s full name is part of history, inseparable from it, an ugly scar on the map of human struggle and change. Here’s what I’ll tell my daughters if and when they hear the name. It’s a simple story really. Something happened in the late 1970s, I’ll say. As with any number of other words that fall out of favor and thus certain forms of public usage (see Charles Krauthammer’s recent editorial), that word, the N word, was suddenly no longer tenable on a state highway sign. Because the locals who were consulted had no other name for Lick back then, no new sign was put up.
Truth is I don’t want a new name for Lick unless it’s Lick. Not Lick Creek. The county already has two of them. My creek’s special. Truth is I want to use Lick to keep getting at the truth like Tim Parrish does with 1970s’ Baton Rouge in his Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist. I want to contribute to the conversation Jabari Asim smartly lays out in his The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. I like that plat maps carry the scars for those who want to find them and keep them in our institutional memory. I’ll stick with Lick because it’s in my emotional memory and I need to keep writing about it. If my daughters ask what I write about it, I’ll send them to one of my Black Guy Bald Guy stories. This one, I’ll say. I rename and relocate Lick, but you’ll find it. “Where the Water Runs Uphill.” Start there.