Yes, not exactly the most enlightened approach to race relations, when one is looking for a Presidential run. Especially when the defeat of the originally Republican sponsored DREAM Act just failed to pass muster. And on the coat tails of a whole lot shaking going on with charges of racism within the GOP, and much finger pointing and revisionism on the part of lots of folks on both sides of the aisle, it is maybe not the most politic time to choose to defend the White Citizens Councils, and then incite a media that is already looking to sharpen their teeth in preparation for the Presidential race to come.
Unlike the Slate article above, and the assessment that Barbour is looking to white wash his past–which is not entirely inaccurate given the current level of revisionism that is going on by many in this political climate–is, I think, simplistic, but I can feel for the man in a way.
I grew up an Army brat. By the time I was in second grade, I’d been to Okinawa, California, Texas, Maine, and South Carolina. In second grade, I lived with my Grandmother, a grand KC lady who worked at the JP Regal plant outside Whitmire. We moved to Whitmire because of my Grandmother’s transfer–my father was once again on the move, and it was far more stable for me to be with my Grandmother post his recent divorce. I was already a bit of a rolling stone.
Whitmire was a grand little town. It sits right near one of the largest tracts of logging land in South Carolina. The folks who own a good sized chunk of it, and whose ancestors helped found Whitmire were our landlords and neighbors. The Bakers moved to a single level ranch that they’d built so Senior didn’t have to go up and down stairs, and they put up their old family home for rent. The sons were likewise our neighbors across the highway, and in the fall, they’d give away the corn they grew to whoever wanted to pick it. They were ardent churchgoing folk. Giving, and kind, the Bakers showed my Grandmother every courtesy, and the ragged and gangly boy that came in tow as well.
Growing up in Whitmire was as close to the American Dream as I’ve ever seen. I rode my bike up and down streets with real white picket fences. I chased snakes and lizards through wet country, and I chased, and was chased by dogs of all shapes and sizes. In spring, I joined the throng of kids on the playground for the honeysuckle, I went to the drug store for the soda fountain, the magic tricks for a dollar, the 35 cent comics, and the Matchbox cars on a rotating display. We attended the Methodist church in town–and despite the recent assessment by the TEA Party that the Methodists are Godless Commie/Soshulists, I found them to be good and accepting people–and even the Baptists and Catholics were friendly all around.
I have many fond memories of Whitmire. It was a grand and glorious time to be a kid. Deep in the South, it gave me a love of that country, the sound of the katydids and frogs in summer, the sight of a water moccasin sunning itself on a log out back before it got up the gumption to go kill something, the sight of my Great Grandmother running a lawnmower over a nest of copperheads and then passing out in the middle of the yard after the explosion of snake parts across it. I was baptized there. I went to Sunday School, I met a girl that I suspect was my first crush but didn’t have the words for it at the time. I made great friends.
It wasn’t until years later that I began to have some disquiet about those years. Because it wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized something.
I was an Army Brat. I attended more schools than I attended grades. A year was a luxury in a lot of cases. I got to make friends fast, and on base schools, or at least schools with bases near by, the military brats need that skill. Because of that upbringing, I was used to all sorts of kids. I had a Puerto Rican/Filipino babysitter who pretty much laid out what I consider attractive–my father dated, but I didn’t really have a single “mother” figure, so I blame Isi for my love of dark girls with cobra black hair, and Catholic school plaid skirts. Black, brown, yellow, sallow, pale, mixed up kids with even more complicated backgrounds than my own German-Irish-Japanese heritage were more the rule than the exception. I didn’t really think on it much until later years–and when I realized that my Grandmother was a little bit racist, in the sort of institutional way that many of her generation were. Pickaninny was just how she said “cute black child.” She didn’t mean anything disparaging, but that was how she was raised. She got over it in later years, but it was a revelation to me when I remembered some of the things that she’d say. She was my Grandmother after all, she helped raise me, after all. But, I realized, even at a young age, that we saw people in very different lights.
Whitmire was, as I said, an idyllic town. It was a slice of Apple Pie America.
I don’t remember one black face in my school. Not even a janitor.
Mind you, this is in the Deep South.
There were plenty of black folks working at the plant. Plenty in Newberry, Clinton, and Greenwood. But not one dark face in my school. Not one. Which, in second grade, I didn’t really notice too much. The previous few years had been busy with moving and a divorce, and all sorts of things. I was just glad that the teachers smiled, they dealt with my restlessness and precocious energy, and treated me gentle. It wasn’t until later that I realized that something was odd there.
As I said, these were folks who had an enormous capacity for kindness. The church did all sorts of outreach to the poor around Whitmire. The Bakers were deeply involved with all sorts of charities, and giving to the community. Personally, I’ve never felt safer than in that town–everyone knew everyone, and they all looked out for one another. This is, of course, through the skein of eyes from a second to third grader, but that is how I remember Whitmire. Safe, kind, and so much the sort of place that so many Americana bands like to invoke.
But, there still wasn’t a single dark face that I remember in that Methodist Church. Or in my school. Or in our neighborhood.
I can understand a certain degree of insulation on the part of Governor Barbour. I experienced it myself. A separatism that isn’t so much institutional, as much as it is social. I can’t imagine Mrs. Lemon dealing with any child without love and kindness. She was a grand little woman, with a huge heart, and easy smile, and she managed our classes with wit and humor, and nothing but affection for her students. The Bakers were equally kind. But, that doesn’t change the equation, that in many places, such separatism is normalized. Not overt, not handed down by night stick or threats, but still, houses don’t come up for rent, jobs dry up, and heck, John at the plant knows a guy who can get your wife a job over in Newberry, and I know a guy who has a great place on the other side of town that would be a damn sight closer for both of you…
Not mean spirited, but folks seem to know where folks stick to their own kind.
I understand the world that Barbour grew up. Mind you, the White Citizens Councils may have put on a nice face for young folks, but their purpose was hardly the soda fountain world that I grew up in, in Whitmire. And mind you, my experience in the South was twenty years removed from the pains of desegregation. Which, in some ways, makes the whole thing more insidious as I have grown older. Barbour wants to paint an ideal for the voters–because many don’t want to confront their own prejudices, and their own history.
The South is impossible to put into perspective without the context of slavery, the War Between the States, and the Reconstruction. It is a land rife with beauty, and pain, and joy, and all wrapped up together. It is much like watching that water moccasin sunning itself in the morning. There is beauty there, and respect for the danger, and the threat of very real violence and death, but that’s all wrapped up and bound up with beauty and a love for the land and the people around you too.
Even the racist ones. Like my Grandma, who was a little bit racist. She was my Grandma, and I love her, but I also learned from her mistakes. And I’m glad that my father did as well, and raised me up to not care so much about color as character. Well, that, and for that babysitter who set me on the path for dark haired, dark eyed girls who like tartan.
Barbour made a decision to paint events in the best possible light. He did so out of his political ambitions, and to try to appeal not so much to the voters in the North, or the Mid-West or the West, but to appeal to those who don’t like to admit that they were deep in a movement to restrict rights. They tried to prettify it up by calling pride, calling it keeping neighborhoods safe, protecting their own or whatever excuse was used, but in the end, it was about keeping folks out and down. His sin, wasn’t that he white washed, but that he was trying to protect the honor of folks who had little.
But I understand that sin. Because I grew up in the South. I grew up with a kind teacher, and a minister with an endless capacity for questions from a child raised up a Buddhist, and who let the kids out of Bible School early to go berry picking. The South is rife with all sorts of contradictions and duality. While Barbour is going to have to face the distortions that he’s made over the years–and as a politician, it’s sort of expected–I can understand his desire to protect the folks that he grew up with, his own heroes. The difference is, many Southerners come to grips with that Dame Bitch Duality, in love of place, and full knowledge of history.
The problem is, that when we look to revise history for the comfort of those around us, we forget the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And if anything, the history of the South screams for remembrance. Not just for slavery, not just for Jim Crow, not just for lynching and the institutionalized racism that became so endemic that it stains the character of the South today, but the carpet baggers and the sins of the Reconstruction that helped fuel that anger and focus it on the faces of those freed slaves as a symbol. While many in the GOP are using Barbours remarks to try to paint the Democrats with the brush of the 50s–and it is likewise damn foolish for Democrats to try to forget Robert Byrd’s own history. Or that Strom Thurmond started out as a Democrat, and changed party in 1964.
It’s not simply a sin of trying to spare feelings–and that I understand–but the real sin is trying to spare feelings that NEED to preserved. We need to understand the hurt. We need the context, and that is the real sin here. We need that pain, to remember it, so that we don’t let it happen again.
Already, we have folks who are clamoring for controls on Muslim Americans. Forgetting the lessons that my mother’s people faced with the Internment. We cannot simply pooh pooh on history that doesn’t fit narrative. We need it.
I understand the discomfort, and I understand the desire to protect ones’ own. I get that portion of the show. To preserve honor and dignity for those you love. But some things, we can’t just wash away. Some stains need to stick around, so you learn from them.
**As an aside, I suggest a small side jaunt from Governor Barbour and his bending of the truth.
I found it fascinating, and it reminds me a bit of some of the intentionally segregated gated communities in Atlanta, as affluent black couples move back to the South, and form their own communities, which likewise shut out not just pale faces, but dark faces who were born in ATL as well…