The Home Place (2016), by J. Drew Lanham
What do a bird lover, a Black man from South Carolina, and a university professor have in common? They are all Dr. J. Drew Lanham, author of the engaging and enlightening memoir The Home Place. Dr. Lanham, noted ornithologist and award-winning university teacher, has offered a fascinating depiction of growing up as a Black person in South Carolina, coupled with a call to deep appreciation of nature.
The “Home Place” of the title was a 7-acre mini-farm in central South Carolina on which Dr. Lanham grew up. As the author makes clear though, the Home Place was more than acreage, it was a place to connect with nature, to learn from his parents and grandmother how to live an ethical life, and a connection to ancestors, both slaves and tenant farmers. I was fascinated by the way place, family, and society all molded the author in various and profound ways.
Dr. Lanham traces how his environment, his experiences, and his innate interests led him to a distinguished career. But the book is more than an academic success story. Dr. Lanham directly tackles being a Black person growing up in the racially charged South and dealing with that society as an adult. In fact, the subtitle for The Home Place is “Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.” Being a man of color does refer to how society treats him based on his skin tone, but Lanham means more. In the first chapter, entitled “Me: An Introduction,” he writes “I am a wilding, born of forests and fields and more comfortable on unpaved back roads and winding woodland paths than in any place where concrete, asphalt, and crowds prevail.” He goes on to explain that his color arises from his African ancestors, yes, but also from the red of clay, the brown of flood water, the gold of tobacco, the cloudy white of cotton, and the blue of despair.
In The Home Place, Dr. Lanham owns these complexities and conflicts. He recognizes that one of the many ways he is comfortable being immersed in nature is that “I’ve yet to have a wild creature question my identity” or to judge him by the color of his skin. He has also learned that his comfort with those unpaved back roads coexists with a sober recognition of the dangers of being “out of place” in South Carolina society. He describes a particularly harrowing experience in a chapter entitled “Birding While Black.” He relates how his field research led to study sites deeply rooted in what he recognized as a white supremacist stronghold. While Lanham moved from one study site to another, a group of white men in a pick-up truck marked with confederate symbols began to tail his car. Quickly Lanham’s comfort in nature shifted into fear for his life simply for being “a colored man.” He survived … but he also changed his research plan to include safer study sites.
The writing in The Home Place can be uplifting and poetic, especially when the author writes of his “love affair with nature.” His descriptions of the land and creatures of his childhood are particularly soaring, but he also writes vividly of fields and forests from South Carolina to the far-flung and foreign. His writing is often sprinkled with bird metaphors, as when he describes his younger sister as a “swallow”, free spirited and wind-tossed. It is a tribute to the author’s sincere love of birds and his skill as a writer that these fanciful descriptions do not come across as merely clever, but rather true to his character.
Perhaps the most lasting impression of Lanham’s book is how he has grappled directly with being both a lover of nature, personally and professionally, and being a “colored man” in society. Those parts of him are not separate—he does not stop being a Black man while teaching at university, nor is his love of birds erased by racism. He is all his parts, all the time. As we all are.