Monday, September 24, 2007

Southern Racism: Community and Evil

While I am quite glad to be back in the deep South, I cannot help but notice the racial tensions, which -while improving- still exist in communities here. I expect that someday I will need to teach my children how to live with an injustice that will focus particularly on them as children of mixed race.

This is an piece I wrote in my gridbook back in 1999:

I saw a documentary on the Ku Klux Klan last night on television. I was disturbed as an American and as a human being watching the history of the Klan, but as a Southerner the disturbance struck a deeper cord. It is a history of my own crimes.

Although have lived in the South my whole life, I have never even seen a Klansman, but I have always heard about them. They dwell in the recesses of our thoughts like some endangered animal on its way to becoming a mythical creature. There were a couple of boys in middle school that told everyone they were Klansmen to try to impress people, but we all suspected they were lying. Even the Klan wouldn’t want thirteen-year-old boys with cracking voices. But maybe the Klan was accepting pubescent boys; according to the documentary their membership has been rapidly dwindling over recent decades. Most Northerners seem to assume that every white Southerner has a white-hooded costume in his closet and just can’t wait for a black family to move into his neighborhood so he can light a cross on their lawn. Misconceptions constructed from made-for-TV movies frame our problem incorrectly. The Klan has been a minuscule fraction of Southerners ever since Reconstruction ended. Like all problems of Southern life our Klan problem is more insidious and ambiguous.

Growing up in Georgia the only times I have seen images of Klansmen outside a Hollywood production were the rare public rallies, which never failed make the evening news. These rallies never lived up to their film counterparts. They were pitiful little groups of bland looking men wearing white sheets carrying Confederate and US flags. They would stand up and give grand speeches for the news cameras as if they were rallying troops. The ranks, however, were never more than a dozen men, who were doing their best to look bold and determined, acting as if they didn’t notice the group of onlookers that gathered around them to watch the rare spectacle and disapprovingly shake their heads. The existence of the Klan itself wasn’t much of a shock for me. They were nobody I knew, and no one approved of them. The Klan may be a part of us, but only a small and insignificant part. I realize that that tiny cancerous growth among us is responsible for much evil. Those few hateful men have done horrendous and shameful acts that make us all shudder, but I suspected that every human society has within it some comparable vicious element.

No, it was not the Klan among us that disturbed me, it was our toleration of it. I fear that we in the South have developed a strange ambivalence toward evil. The South is somewhat unique that we still sense our connection to the past. Northerners associate themselves with the past, but they are not connected to it. They can read a history book and commend all the good things and denounce all the bad. That seems to be the only level at which the American individualist can associate with the past, as if changing your name could make you no longer a descendant of your ancestors. But our Southern soul, in spite of our American mind, is reluctantly tied into the idea of a culture, which was given birth rather destroyed at Appomattox. Our minds are all American: bold and iconoclastic, democratic and unsuperstitious. But our reluctant hearts are haunted by the ghost of a defeated nation, in which we all retain citizenship. And it is no loose confederation, but a union so strong that it somehow diffused through the humid air we breathed as children. Lost causes and the defeated nations are the secret framework of our minds. Like most ghosts, it is ethereal and usually invisible. Love it, hate it, or deny it, a Southerner can no more exorcise the haunting of the past and present South than he can drain his body of its blood. It comes to him when he walks at night or in the back of his imagination during an account of history. Somehow he is tied to it all: the guilt of slavery and lynchings as the well as the stubborn glory and resilience of the great Southerners. The ability to simultaneously experience both pride and self-loathing is both the talent and the burden anyone raised within Southern culture. Our heritage comes as a package deal, and even if the Southern son consciously rejects it all and moves away, it will secretly follow him all his life, like a disturbing dream that he can’t quite remember, but cannot forget either.

It was this same sense of connection to history that gave birth to the Klan. Now they are a small and pitiful reflection of the Southern pathos from which they took their life. They have fully embraced the evil of their heritage, and thus become a wicked and abortive thing. The problem of the Klan is that it is a wicked and abortive thing that is a part of us, like at tiny cancer growing too deep within our own body to be easily extracted, deeply centered among our most sensitive nerves and vessels. We cannot bring ourselves to fully hate it. So we in the easygoing South have learned to tolerate it. We cannot extract an evil that is part of ourself, so we ignore it.

It was not the acts of violence and hatred from the Klan that disturbed me about our history. It was the Southerners’ protection of this thing within us. Not a protection from any love or respect, but the sort of protection one gives to an infected wound, shielding it from any touch. I began watching the documentary as it was accounting the history of the Ku Klux Klan from the 1950’s. Every once in a while some Klansmen would commit an atrocity against a black person or a young Northern civil rights worker. The Klansmen would get arrested and a famous Northern civil rights lawyer would come down to stand for justice and righteousness in the face of Southern racism, and the juries composed of white non-Klan Southerners would free the obviously guilty Klansmen. Why? I could not understand how such a thing could happen. The Klan at that time had only fifteen thousand members in the whole country: a pitiful amount. Most Southerners wanted nothing to do with the Klan. How did juries of twelve Southern whites always contain so many sympathizers with the evil and hatred of the Klan? I know racism is common here, but almost usually in its milder forms --Southerners are more likely to admit their prejudices and thus must confront them, and fortunately Southerners even manage to be hypocritical even in our racism, often making friendships with those we claim we dislike. Had I been wrong? Do more of us share that deep and soul-destroying hatred that rapes and murders and applauds those who do?

After pondering the shameful acts of those juries, I suddenly saw what I had missed. Just as I had longed to somehow justify these unjustifiable juries in my mind, these juries longed to pardon the unpardonable crimes of the Klansmen before the northern lawyers and northern press. Why did we defended the guilty among us? Because we were family. I cannot know for sure, but perhaps it was the same feelings that made the all-black jury in LA declare O.J. Simpson not guilty. It did not matter how many bloody bodies might have been covered with his DNA; they saw a family member surrounded by outsiders. I used to fear what would become of my stubborn younger brother, and I must admit no matter what horrible thing he could have done, if he had come to me on the run I would have hidden him. I could never betray my own brother to an outsider no matter what evil he might have committed. It would tear my heart out to hand him over to justice.

Look here and see, I have done it: I have rationalized even the mockery of justice, because I had to. I am connected to it. Southernness is a familial thing—a tie that binds us into one culture, which although imperfect, is the only thing separating us from being just like the rest of the country, which would be intolerable. Disowning any time or any one is disowning the whole family. It is both a flaw and triumph of my psyche that I cannot accept my heritage except as a unified whole, and like quite a few of us I can no more disown it than I could disown my own self.

Southerners, of course, are not blind to evil. It seems that we have an acute sense for evil, because we have lived in close proximity to it for so long. Who hates a broken family more than the child who has grown up in one? And who loves his broken family more that same child? He knows better that anyone that his sister is promiscuous and that his father is abusive. And he lives with the anger and the lust that he so hates. He is also close enough to admire his father's strength and his sister's tenderness and to sense that their virtues and vices are tied. Does he wish his sister to be virtuous and his father kind? More than anyone else could possibly know. But bring in an outsider... let someone come in from outside to impose change, pointing fingers, calling his sister a slut and his father a beast. Watch him! Watch how close he draws to them. How the child stands before them to defend them! “Go ahead mess with us! See what happens! My father is old, but strong and brutal enough to send you out on your back. Mess with my sister? I hope you catch every disease she’s got!” See how his shame rises violently to defend the very ones that shame him most!

It is easy to hate evil at a distance, to walk into another’s house and point fingers. It is much harder when the evil is a part of your family, when it is even a piece of yourself. Don’t you know that as he grows older he is haunted by his own face in mirrors? He may be proud of the stubborn strength and longing tenderness he has inherited along with his shame, or he may have run away from them and changed his name –either way he will always recognize them in his own features. By looking into his own eyes he will know both the broken heart of his sister and the fiery rage of his father, and he will dread that some day some vile thing he has hated will arise within himself.

The white Southerners are the past embodied in the present. We are both pride and shame, both the good and the evil. I cannot deny my part in all of this, just as I cannot deny my own brother. I do not wish to deny my brother. There is so much value in him, and yet there is much about him that makes me hang my head in shame. He is a piece of me, and I am a piece of him. We were born from the same womb. Although we constantly shame each other, breaking up the family (dismantling our Southern culture) is not an option I could accept. Yes, we Southerners are guilty of many things. We have loved our sins. We have loved our sins as if they were our virtues, because we have been afraid we might be forced to exchange them for Northern sins. But our sins must be burned away. The modern American may ignore the sins of his culture and his history. But our Southern sins are living and rooted within us all; we must all dig deep and painfully draw them out. Forgive us for our reluctance, we wish to salvage the virtues that are so intricately entwined with the evils. Our strange psychology runs deep, but there is a value there as well, because it costs more this way. No one can have a loathing for racism stronger than that of the white Southerner, because for him to hate racism he must also hate a part of himself.

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