Thursday, November 06, 2008
It was the year my grandfather died, I was in a school bus accident and I got a rare case of stress related stomach ulcers--rare because I was ten. Parochial school will do that to you. The windows of the second floor school building looked out onto a side street that was most often blocked off and one of those creaking, gently decaying Savannah mansions--abandoned during those days. I remember day dreaming, looking at that old house. My mother told stories of how that house had been quarantined one summer. Big posters warned everyone away. My grandmother became obsessive about literally laundering money--washing all the money that came in to remove the polio cooties. It was a polio summer and no one could go swimming.
While I lazily thought about this--ignoring the mysteries of prepositions which had thus far eluded me--inviting the nun to cuff me on the back of the head (ergo the stomach ulcers), Margaret sat behind me unplaiting and plaiting my hair. She'd get it just so--then undo it and start all over again. We had these old fashioned desks that were connected and had actual ink wells in them. The ghosts of miserable students past clung to those old desks and when I lifted my desk to gather my notebooks, I could smell the fear so much like my own mixed with beeswax. Evil Irish nuns smelled of altars, incense and bitter potpourri. Poor little Anthony, the tiniest boy in class, but also the most chatty, had knuckles like a bare fisted fighter that entire year.
Margaret was black in the way I miss so much here in Tennessee where skin is usually coffee and cream or burnished red. I miss the Lowcountry and the lush darkness, the shiny, tactile glow of West African roots. She and I were just kids--bright kids--and I fancied her my best friend. Her nervous handling of my long, white girl hair, spread out on her desktop, calmed her as much as it calmed me, I think.
I asked if I could bring Margaret home for the weekend for a sleepover. Permission was denied when my parents found out Margaret was black.
"It's just not done."
I pressed the matter as far as I dared but lost that battle. Margaret and I drifted apart through the years. She was always so much smarter than I was, but argumentative and on the debate team--in my heart's dreamscape I imagine her as a lawyer. I don't really know what happened to her after high school--but I think she would be a judge or someone very important by now. Definitely someone more important and accomplished than me.
The truth is racism exists in the South much like the stain of original sin. All of us, of a certain age have it. To deny that we don't is just stupid. Some of us are unrepentant, some of us deny we are racists and some, like me, are always wondering how things could be different and examining our selves for the hidden stain. We know it's there. We become hyper-aware of it, but at the same time, know we are completely clueless as to what it means to be a person of color in this country. It's very sad to me that the most profound advance I've achieved in my own quest to eradicate racism in my self--is the ability to say, "You know, you're right. I have absolutely zero point of reference for what it must be like to wear your beautiful skin--to exist in your culture."
I've seen how this played out in the election on Tuesday. Of course, the South went red. And there is absolutely no way to know how much of that was issue based and how much was driven by racism. Things are very snarled in that respect. I'm sure there were quite a few of my fellow Dems who voted McCain because they had problems with Obama's skin color. I'm pretty sure they would deny that, too.
I think what has excited me the most was how the vote broke down by ages. The younger generations are indeed making headway. All this ugliness we white Southerners have been toting around with us is fading. That's so exciting to me. To think that a South where people could stop lugging around the chains of hatred is in our grasp in a few generations. And I have this crazy elated hope that the Obama presidency will jumpstart that--that it will serve as the river baptism that will sweep all of that ugliness downstream.
Oh...yesterday's Newport Plain Talk--after the most historic election in anyone's lifetime placed the article about Obama's landslide victory below the fold at the very very bottom of the page in a teeny tiny article you had to turn to page 3 to finish reading. Under an article about how Cocke County overwhelmingly voted for McCain--but Eddie Yokley of course won his seat, despite being a Dem. Cause he's a damn nice guy and shows up.
But that doesn't have anything to do with racism, because today I saw a bumper sticker that said "TN is for Jesus, Not Obama." And Jesus was another fine, upstanding man of color--so, if He was running, TN definitely would have elected Jesus--dark skin or no.