Monday, January 23, 2012

The Wretched

...and then I happened to look around, and see that paper. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell."—and tore it up.
-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It was School Spirit Day and the junior high school gymnasium echoed with forced celebration. I found a seat on the second row next to some older kids I didn't know and planted my feet on top of the seat in front of me to save it for a friend.

I didn't notice Rhonda Washington until she plopped down on top of my feet. I knew her name because we'd shared classes since kindergarten, though we’d never shared more than two words. There was still room further down the bench, but she refused to lift her weight even enough to let me slip my feet out.

"Look at that," I said, so she'd hear, "that nigger stole the seat I was saving."

I thought for a half second that she hadn't heard me, until she turned, her hand already flying, and slapped me hard in the face. Then she turned back around, never having said a word.

As the cacophony of school spirit washed over us, my cheeks went red. Even though no one would look at me, I still felt them staring. Near the end of the assembly, Rhonda got up and walked away before the band was even finished playing. I watched her angry steps leave the gymnasium, relieved when the door closed behind her and she hadn't approached a teacher.

When I was growing up, my family threw around racial slurs like Santas tossing out candy at a parade. It wasn't completely indiscriminate; there was a methodology, which my brother explained to me:

"There are black people and there are niggers," he said. "And white people can be niggers, too, if they dress like them or act that way."

"But what's the difference?" I asked.

"Niggers are lazy," he said. "A black man has pride. A nigger has no pride."

The word was used in white company constantly, but whenever a black person was around, we affected a sort of forced politeness, as though it would've been rude to tell them what we really thought of them.

I thought every black person was on welfare, all the black women were unwed but had dozens of children. Who knows what the men did.

People talked about gangs as though there were heavily armed groups of teenagers who only came out at night to prowl the streets of big cities (and they were getting closer). This is why we never went to cities.

It was as though once black people reached a certain age, their childhood toys were taken away and replaced with semi-automatic weapons. None of them had jobs, and they were all drug addicts. Anyone who listened to rap music would instantly become addicted to drugs and start shooting people. This is what they'd done with the freedom we'd given them.

My brother's best friend was a sociology professor at a local community college. He also taught high school history. He considered his black students incapable of learning and blamed the Arkansas' school system's rank of forty-ninth in the country on integration.

He wore thick glasses and collected guns like squirrels collect acorns. I once went to a gun show with him where he bought an AK 47.

"Stick it under water and it'll fire seven rounds before it locks up," he said.

"What's it for?" I asked. He didn't hunt; I hadn't known him to ever fire the guns he already owned.

"Protection," he said. "If some nigger tries to break into my house..."

He lived in a run-down house that looked exactly like every other house in the all-white neighborhood directly across from the high school at which he taught. He kept a pistol beneath the cushions of his couch, another one under the couch. He kept guns on the walls; guns leaned in the corners. They were, by far, the most valuable things in the house.

"I wish one would break in," he said. "There'd be one less nigger in the world."

My home town was segregated–split down the middle by railroad tracks. Almost all the blacks lived on one side, the whites on the other. Sometimes, a poor white family might move to the outskirts of the black side, but they were considered trash. And black families never moved to the white side of town.

This was in the Mississippi River Delta, in eastern Arkansas, where many of the blacks were descended from slaves. They were in the minority, there, but not much further south, closer to Louisiana, they became the majority. Many white families and black families shared last names, because the blacks were descended from slaves who'd taken their owners' names. This was something that wasn't spoken of, though the days of slavery were often referenced.

"A lot of folks were good to their slaves," the sociology professor said once; "why else would slaves have fought for the Confederacy? Cause they liked being slaves. They didn't have to think or do anything on their own. It's just like welfare, except now they don't do anything."

I couldn't argue: he was the history teacher, how could he be wrong?

The majority of businesses and schools were on the white side of town. The junior high where Rhonda slapped me was on the black side. It was a run down old building that had been the black school before integration. My sixth grade year was the last year we used it.

It was frightening going there, crossing the tracks into a world I didn't really know. I heard stories from my older sister of gangs, race riots on the playground, murder.

"They won't fight you unless there's more of them than there are of you," she told me.

Some kids I knew formed a group to protect themselves from blacks. They adopted KKK symbology, but avoided the Klan proper, which was a dinosaur of old men who met for fish fries at the state park every so often. There were one-on-one fights, occasionally, as there always were at school, but nothing more. They settled into a kind of cold war, each side watching the other, waiting for an opportunity. All of this was unprovoked; none of us were ever attacked by a gang of blacks or ever saw anyone attacked. The whites chalked it up to cowardice; they were organized, superior, they never allowed the gangs a chance to catch them off-guard.

As I grew older, black families started to cross the tracks. Towards the end of
high school, a black family moved just down the hill from my father's house. The family kept to themselves and were quiet and kept their lawn meticulously clean. They smiled and waved whenever they encountered even a white child. They dressed better than anyone else in the neighborhood.

I remember wondering why they would move there; why raise your children in a place where no one wanted you? The Little Rock Nine and the idea of forced integration seemed like ancient history. We learned about it in school, but we also learned about evolution and Reconstruction, and nobody believed those things had happened the way the books said. Besides, this was the 80's. That was all over and they should just be grateful for what they'd won, instead of expecting more. They were forgetting their place.

No one said anything to them, openly; that would have been rude. But we watched them to make sure they weren't running a crack house or selling guns to gang members.

My family ran a farm and also raised catfish and buffalo fish, among other things, and sold them during the winter months.

My earliest friends were children of our mostly black customers. My father would joke with the customers and tell stories, and I played with the kids out back. I had to remember that it wasn't their fault they were the way they were. They were the descendants of Ham, after all, cursed to servitude. If one of them didn't want to share and take turns on the tire swing, well, I couldn't be mad at him any more than I could a dog for farting. Besides, if I called one a name, he might want to fight, and you couldn't trust them to fight fair.

These were by and large poor people. They drove old, beat-up cars the same as we did, and the fish we sold them was one of the few luxuries they could afford. Sometimes they were sullen or bored, the way any child can be, but mostly they treated me with a quiet, awkward politeness.

I saw some of the boys frequently and even became close to a couple of them and played with them at school. But I never seriously thought of inviting them home, and they, likewise. Though once or twice one of us brought the idea up, we quickly abandoned it. It would've been too uncomfortable.

When they left with their freshly filleted fish, my father sometimes ribbed me about my friendships with them. I smiled, I laughed with him. I called them names.

* * *

My childhood was littered with bitter veterans, old men who spent their days drinking cheap beer and whiskey and hanging around my father's farm bullshitting. Some of them worked on the farm off and on. Many of them were on disability and worked under the table for unreported wages.

They wore cowboy boots, listened to music on the radio that praised God and America, and most of what I knew about life I learned from them. I learned how to cuss, how to drink, how to tell a joke. These men had fought in wars ranging from WWII to Vietnam. They'd seen the world and lived lives I couldn't imagine.

They talked about the Civil War as an old slur. The same with integration, civil rights. These were things that had been stolen from the South; injustices committed upon our land. We had been kicked around from day one by the Northern colonies, and finally they'd come into our homes and tried to tell us how to live, how to treat each other.

It was a commonly accepted belief of the old men that blacks got breaks that white people didn't get. Equal opportunity laws meant that blacks got jobs more qualified whites should have gotten. The ones that wanted to work, anyway—most of them were content to lie around on welfare eating steak all day. Whenever blacks accomplished anything, it was generally felt to be through cheating.

My father told stories about seeing some black woman in line at the grocery store in front of him with ten kids, her cart full of Twinkies and filet mignon, her wallet full of food stamps. He'd follow her out to a brand new car in the parking lot.

When they weren't ranting, they played practical jokes on anyone dumb enough to fall for them. They rigged trucks so that when one was started, it would shock the driver. They took out fake ads in the local paper offering things to sell with each other's phone numbers. They'd turn on each other in a heartbeat. They had terrifically fueled senses of humor; it was best not to be in front of them when they went off.

Their rage was addictive. When they ranted, their wrath swept through me, filling me with righteous indignation. The blacks were a good target, but we were pissed off at everybody: politicians, foreigners, anything different. It was better than feeling poor and worthless and afraid of a world that wouldn’t stay put.


My father raised me on pragmatism. He was ever the contrarian, teaching me not to take anything at face value, be it religion or hearsay, or any accepted truth. His friends would rant for hours, and then, on the way home, he'd mutter a few choice epithets that shattered their complaints in seconds. When I talked to him about things I'd learned at school, he shot holes all though my poorly remembered lessons.

"'I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,'" he would say, quoting Mark Twain.

One of my father's favorite pastimes was to yell at the television.

"Look at that," he'd say about some cop drama, "they've always got to put the nigger in charge. Ought to string him up for talking to a white man like that."

Since we all lived about a mile from the Trail of Tears, many families in the area claimed to have Cherokee blood, and we were no different. We'd watch cowboy movies and root for John Wayne, and then chalk our cheekbones and black hair up to a proud lineage from the civilized tribe who'd fought on the side of the Confederacy.

"You know Dad," I said once, "they used to hang Indians for talking to white women. Remember the Trail of Tears?"

"Did they?" he said, sarcastically. He was quiet and didn't yell at the TV any more that night, choosing instead to yell at me.

This pragmatism was the fatal flaw in my father's education of me. I had been raised to believe that blacks were subhuman. Though a distinction was made between blacks and niggers, this idea only really existed to save face in case a white man found himself in the situation where he was forced to interact with a black man on equal terms. And it was a rare individual who achieved this lofty stature, regardless. It took years of hard work for a black man to be accepted by whites, and even then, it was grudging. Really, the blacks were all thought of as niggers, but some knew their place. This meant that they took the abuse and didn't argue.

Rhonda wasn't exceptional. Actually, the way she acted fit my brother's definition, and yet she clearly had pride. How could she be both? I was capable of writing off the contradiction. After all, every day I was faced with a world that had been created in a week, seven thousand years ago, and yet science spoke in terms of billions of years, natural selection versus the Flood. Even the first page of Genesis contained two contradicting stories. More troubling than that, Rhonda had made me feel like something I'd never felt before: a bully, worse, a coward.

It took me years to come to terms with these events, or even to begin to understand them, but my experience with Rhonda threw me down a different path. Maybe it was as simple as the idea that I started to think before I spoke, instead of just repeating the rhetoric around me. I didn't use racial slurs anymore and didn't want to hear them. The old men noticed and made fun of me, but I ignored them.

The more those old men complained about their lot in life, the more I realized that this was all they did; they were mired in misery. And that was what bothered me the most—their misery. It began to feel like a disease I was afraid to catch. They acted as though they were oppressed in every way. The black people I knew were by and large struggling, just like everybody. So where were the ones getting all those breaks? To me, they seemed to be stuck in the same misery, just coming at it from a different direction.

* * *

I go back to my home town occasionally to visit my family. The lone black family who moved down the hill from my father's house is gone and hasn't been replaced. The junior high school across the tracks, which, for many of us, was the only time we ever ventured into the black part of town, is closed and a new one has been built on the white side of town. The borders are blurred; I see white families in what was once the black part of town, and vice versa, though the centers of each remain the same.

I see interracial couples from time to time, something I couldn't have imagined growing up. Their faces are strangers to me, and as the town grows, it, too, becomes strange, not exactly different, just messier, which may be better. I have no idea where Rhonda is, or any of my old tire-swing acquaintances. I wonder if she is married, has kids; I wonder if she's stuck in that town subsisting, like a lot of people I grew up with. Or did she get out? I wonder if slapping me was as pivotal an event for her as it was for me. Or was I just another yokel?

The white friends I grew up with who formed the junior Klan are now married with kids and mortgages. If I see any of them in a gas station or a restaurant, they don't recognize me.

Every year or two, I hear of one of the old men dying off. People repeat stories about them, remembering the practical jokes they played, the stories they told. With each one, I feel a little bit of my history dwindling away. It's sad and comforting at the same time, the way the ending of any life is; whether it was mostly good or bad, it's nice to have someone recognize the loss and the potential that remains.

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