Friday, December 02, 2005

a day late, a few somber thoughts

Tbogg put this post up making fun of racist idiots. I'll leave those particular bigots to him; I couldn't one up his sarcasm if I tried and these jerks don't really merit more attention than the sharp sneer and dismissal he has already dealt. But his post included this picture:

Yesterday was Blogging Against Racism Day. Don't know who decided that, but a few folks whose stuff I regularly read and respect were talking about it and it seems like a fine enough goal. It was also World Aids Day. I didn't find time for blogging yesterday, so I contributed to neither, but given my recurring topics, neither topic is lacking for mention on this blog.

but that picture.

The folks in it. They don't look all that different from pictures of my family members (other than choice of background). Smiling, holding hands.

Though friends here in NYC might joke about me being country and white trash, I don't come from trashy folk back home. You have to be more than just poor and white to be "white trash". Unless just bandied about as a joke, it draws up a specific thing in my head. And we while my family wasn't rolling in money and was probably poorer than many of my friend's families, we came from educated and cultured folks and for that reason, many kids where I went to school at times thought I came from a wealthy family. I couldn't afford to go see a movie on the weekend and my parents both did side work in addition to their main jobs to keep us in the black, but our house was always filled with books, guests always welcome, family always important, and manners strictly enforced. My parents were lax about letting us grow our hair out and dress pretty much as we wanted (within reason), but being polite was non negotiable. To anyone, anywhere, anytime. Black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, whatever. Please and thank you and yes, sir/ma'am were not optional.

I'm sure my parents could think of a thousand times when each of us has seemed insanely rude to them, but I can't think of very many times they let it pass or of very many times when I have seen one of my numerous siblings being rude to someone unprovoked. Plenty of sarcasm and attitude in my family, but generally delivered with that syrupy southern sweetness that makes it all the more potent.

What is the point? Bear with me.

Growing up in AL/MS, race is right there on the table in everything. In your homes not so much all the time, but in your interaction with your community and the world, it is unavoidable. Those two states are internationally synonymous with racism, and you know it when you grow up there. You see plenty of it, but I also inherited a horror of it. Every chapter in Alabama history is about race relations, from the french and spanish first dealing with the indians straight on up til today. I knew things weren't perfect there growing up, but I also knew that they weren't the same as they once had been or the same as they were still often portrayed. People weren't being lynched, the idea of someone burning a cross in someone's yard was regarded with abject horror by the general populace. You could get angry, seek revenge on someone, but lace it with overt racism and you were dragging all of us and our very tenuous and already fairly bad reputation into it. Black people and white people went to the same schools mostly and the same stores and interacted fairly civilly.

Of course there was still plenty of division and things weren't all hunky dory, but I had the feeling that coming out of our history and having the social turmoil we had had and all the other baggage, for the most part, folks in those two states were doing better than the world seemed to portray and the general populace was pointed in, trying to point in the right direction. Even if folks still weren't quite sure how to shake off old prejudices and it would take a few generations to get there, we were trying.

For the first time in my life, when I went home last Christmas, I didn't feel that anymore. Racist statements weren't just something relegated to the trashy folks that didn't know better. Not that I suddenly started hearing racial epithets slung around, but the atmosphere had somehow changed. Instead of that past history being something that we were trying so dreadfully to escape, to forget, to distance ourselves from, we were clamouring to get back to it. It was palpable. How can any human in this country from almost any community have any illusions about what it means when they say they want to go back to the "good old days"? I know what you are saying and I don't like it. You can say this or that was good, but you can't talk wholesale about the "good old days" without there being an implicit meaning that you want the world to go back to having black people in their place or dead and a power consolidated in the hands of a few community movers and shakers and that horrible communal approval or blanketing smothering silence regulating dissent. I've felt it trying to suffocate me more than a few times and see what happens when it does keep people under and it isn't pretty.

This picture in which I had never imagined my family/community a part of in the past was suddenly something that they were willing to countenance in the future. My mom or dad would be horrified at such hyperbole, and for the most part it is just that, hyperbole. But there was that element of it that glimpsed out from underneath everything.

Why did anyone in this country vote for george bush in the last election? Honestly, name one thing he did right in the previous four years, in his time as governor. One thing that indicated that he was or could one day be a good leader. You can gripe all you want about Kerry, but honestly, if you look at Kerry's record and that of John Edwards, they have done a few things right and both spoke reasonably well in the debates. bush was an absolute buffoon and doesn't hide it very well. Growing up, if we had known him in person, I will bet you a dollar my mother would have gone out of her way not to let us around him. Because he is a liar and obnoxious and mean and self-important and I've seen how she reacts to similar folks. Suffering fools isn't something that happens too often in our family and certainly not with my mother. But put him in control of nuclear weapons and stick him on television promoting an amendment that said her son doesn't matter as much under the law and have him lie pretty blatanly and with little finesse to lead the country into an unnecessary war, and I have to explain to her why I can't understand how anyone could vote for him. I don't know if she did. I don't want to. He ran his whole campaign on dirty tricks to trash his opponent and on folks' bigotries ("let's go blow up brown people and put those faggots in their place!").

and won.

Am I trying to say that he or anyone who voted for him wants to smile and dress up and hold hands with black people swinging from trees in the background? No. Not at all. But I'll argue that those things come from the same place. Those folks smiled beneath that strange fruit for the same reason people voted for bush: because someone was putting 'those people' back in their place. What in the hell is the difference between Guantanamo/Abu Gharaib and that lynching? Torturing someone to death (there have been more than a few deaths in both) is somehow less violent than hanging them? Less racist to beat/shoot/bomb foreign brown people to death because we as a nation feel emasculated by the actions of some other foreign brown folks than lynching some black folks for somehow emasculating some white community through some real or percieved crime? Or it makes you less guilty of the crime to vote for it than to be there?

Watch the republican national convention and tell me again that that wasn't what you voted for if you voted for bush. Why did you vote for him then? The booming economy? The strong dollar? The international goodwill he had fostered? The improvements in our education system? In healthcare? In the environment? His eloquence and the dignity with which he carries himself?

That people voted for bush is one thing; why is another. And the why is what I couldn't stomach. I have never been so happy to be somewhere as I was to get back to New York after the holidays. I had a great time with my family and love them and loved the visit, but it was all somehow different.

I love my older sister, but instead of staying with her again when I flew out of Atlanta, I stayed at a hostel. Because everything we said to each other was laced with politics, even when we tried to keep politics out of it. I don't think my dad voted for bush, and in the end I don't think my mom did, but my sister I am sure did. And for all the wrong reasons. Not because she is racist, but because "He is a Christian." So is Kerry for that matter, but what she meant was "He is one of Us." And in suggesting that Kerry wasn't enough of a Christian she was also not so subtly suggesting that I wasn't either; that I was part of that 'Them' who her beloved 'Us' was called to reign in. Her vote was for me not to be a faggot. I am not so conceited to think that was the long and short of it, no other reasons in the mix, but the message wasn't subtle and it was part of it. And perhaps she doesn't realize that this is implied when one implies such things, but the implication is that there should not be homosexuals at all. 'Quit acting like a fag, boy, or you might not be around any more.' Not my sister's message to me, but it is the one she voted for. The one a majority (however bare a majority, a majority none the less)of this country voted for. So pardon me for feeling a little uncomfortable with a picture of a lynching. Both as someone horrified with the idea that the people who did the lynching were from the same social class and likely a very similar place that I am and as someone being told to get back in line. They didn't hang black people just because they were black. They hung them because they were black and stepped out of line or as a warning for others not to. Were in the wrong part of town, looked at someone wrong, asked the wrong question, refused some indignity, embarassed/challenged some weak whimpy white idiots who had to make themselves feel strong and secure again by exacting a community backed revenge on that ominous 'Other'.

'That'll learn 'em good.'

Anyway, that picture. Dragged up some stuff. Getting close to going back down south, looking forward to seeing my family, but realizing there is still alot of baggage there and not sure how some things will go. That picture is a historical document; not a representation of the South anymore, of America any more. I want to make sure it stays that way. I want to be able to believe again that that is what everyone else wants too.

(Note: I speak about the South in particular because I come from the South, but I have no illusions that only or all southerners voted for bush. And as the malcontent shows, even gay people in NYC can be so callow and self-centered as to vote for these cretins.)

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