Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Even in 2008 Wyoming, the past isn't past

Scott Horton writes a fantastic essay in the March 24 Harper's magazine about racism in William Faulkner's novels -- and what it has to do with Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run.

Sen. Obama quoted a line from Faulkner in last week's historic speech about racism in the U.S. The line he quoted was this: "The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past." While the meaning remains the same, Faulkner's actual words are these: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

According to Horton:
They come from Requiem for a Nun. But the meaning and use that Obama takes is from an earlier Faulkner novel, Go Down, Moses, a brave and profound work about race relations in America. Being bound to, but struggling to overcome the past is a key message of that work.
When it was first published, Go Down, Moses was subtitled as "a collection of stories." But Faulkner considered it a novel. It focuses on Mississippi's McCaslins, a mixed-race family whose white members have no interest in acknowledging their black past.

I first read Go Down, Moses as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of South Carolina. The honors English class was taught by a noted Faulkner scholar. While brilliant, he wasn't the most patient of teachers and not particularly tolerant of lackwits such as me who shouldn't have been in the class but were. This really became a problem when we read The Sound and the Fury, a novel I appreciated only later in graduate school.

In South Carolina in 1969, the past was not dead and was not past. The stars and bars still flew from the state capitol building which had been shelled by the Union forces of William Tecumseh Sherman during his march through the South. The state still celebrated the birthdays of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The year before, in 1968, several campus buildings had been trashed during riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The all-white USC basketball team would only admit its first black player when I was a sophomore. That was hometown player Alex English, whom I saw play for the Denver Nuggets in the 1980s and is also a pretty good poet.

The university's Horseshoe was the oldest section of campus, dating back to 1801, and the site of a Confederate field hospital during the Civil War. In 1971, I lived on the third floor in one of the dorms along the Horseshoe. Each room had three bedrooms and a large study with four desks and a sink. The bathrooms and showers were on the main floor, as was the only phone. In antebellum times, these large dorm rooms used to house one white "gentleman," a couple of slaves, and maybe a hound dog or two. I didn't know of a single black student who lived in those Horseshoe dorms. Wonder why.

My southern friends, on hearing that I originated in Colorado and came to USC by way of Florida, called me a Yankee. Cal, from Anderson, S.C., told me this old bromide: "I was 18 before I knew that Damn Yankee was two words." I can hear his accent still. My friends from north of the Mason-Dixon Line figured me for a southerner without an accent. They called their Southern classmates "Grits" and their less genteel cousins either "hicks" or the time-honored "Rednecks."

We had some fights, I can tell you. And what nobody seemed to understand is that Central Florida in the 1960s was as South as Anderson, S.C., and maybe even more Southern than places such as Charleston. Daytona Beach had four high schools: Seabreeze for the surfers, Mainland for the gearheads, Campbell for African-Americans, and Father Lopez for us Catholics. We were the only one that was integrated, mainly due to our athletic director, who was ahead of his time recruiting talented black football and basketball players. He knew he had to recruit in a school with barely 400 students -- 200 of them male -- in grades 9-12.

I was a starter for two years on the basketball team. Two of my teammates were black -- Marvin Benford and Willie Prince. We played in the St. John's River Conference. Our opponents in Bunnell and Hastings (the Spudsters) and Baldwin and Callahan were all-white. In Baldwin one evening , a fight broke out in the stands during the varsity game. Some Baldwinites had taken exception to J.V. player and black person Lenny Lucas sitting in their stands. They called him the N-word -- several times. His white teammates -- including my brother -- started waling on the hometown boys and a big brawl ensued. When the cops arrived, they saw the one black face in the melee and dragged Lenny off to jail. A couple of the Lopez fathers, including a circuit court judge, left to have a word with the authorities while we resumed beating the hometown team. Another time, in Callahan, we were refused service at a greasyspoon. "They can't come in here," said the high-minded white owner, pointing at Marvin and Willie. Our coach came up with a plan. We ordered items to go for all of us. When the food and drink was ready, we waved farewell and peeled off into the night, leaving the Rednecks holding the bag(s). Not much of a revenge, but it made us feel a little better.

When our family moved to Daytona in 1964, blacks took their lives in their hands if they were on the beachside after dark. Before the Civil Rights Act, blacks had to have a work permit to be in the tourist part of town after dark. Uppity blacks were beat up or they were arrested and then beat up. White teens sometimes enaged in "N----- knocking," a time-honored practice in which testosterone-laden white boys roamed the countryside knocking N------ on the heads. Sometimes, the knocking gave way to another quaint local custom: lynching.

This is a long intro to my point that the past isn't past, even in Wyoming in 2008. Racism is alive and well, steeped in ignorance, as usual. At Easter dinner at our friends' house, we met some of our friends' relatives from Green River. Green River is about five hours from Cheyenne, an aging railroad town along I-80 with a heavy Mormon influence. It's experiencing some of the oil and gas boom that has turned its eastern neighbor, Rock Springs, into a boom town. It has a progressive mayor who wants to turn it into an artists' mecca.

The visitors were a forty-something couple and their teen daughter. Typical teen, cellphone stuck to her head most of the evening. Surly attitude. She could be from anywhere. Her mother said she was a good student and active in Job's Daughters, a teen girl offshoot of the Masonic Lodge.

Halfway through the evening, her parents encouraged her to tell one of her political jokes. "What do you call it when Barack Obama goes door-to-door?" We didn't know. "N----- knocking." I was stunned. Neither my wife nor I laughed, although there were some titters around the room. We were probably the only Democrats, not unusual at a Wyoming gathering. "Not funny," I said. And my wife: "I grew up in the South." The girl's father said something about political correctness, which is the way that ignoramuses dismiss their racism. Our host launched into a joke about McCain's age. He's from Georgia and knows how to defuse an uncomfortable social situation.

The moment passed, and we decided to play a game of Cranium. I wondered if I should have said more about the girl's joke. I didn't, which seemed cowardly. But she's a kid, after all, and her parents encouraged her to be a racist.

I've been thinking about it ever since. I knocked on doors for Sen. Obama in the weeks leading up to the March 8 Democratic Party caucuses. I saw him speak in Laramie. I was moved by his televised speech on racism. He's going to be our next president. This Southern-raised Wyomingite is going to work hard to elect President Obama. Each time I knock on a door, I'm going to think of that so-called joke and smile.

The past is never dead. It's not even past. Not in Florida and South Carolina in the 1960s, not in Wyoming in the 21st century.


mpage225 said...

That is a fine story MIke and yes, racism is alive and well. And "political correctness" has become an excuse for it.

My Dad left Hartwell, Ga as soon as he graduated high school because of the racism. I remember how stunned I was to visit there in the 60's and stop at a gas station with 3 rest rooms-Men's Women's Colored.


PhotoPhritz said...

Yes, racism is alive and well, and won't go away until Jesse Jackson and his like finally quit whining and blaming and blackmailing, etc.

Michael Shay said...

An odd thing to blame racism on the victim. Oh wait -- you must listen to Rush Limbaugh. The Haitians brought the earthquake on themselves! How pathetic.