The Folklore Project
Greenville, South Carolina
Daddy’s Too Quiet
By Brad Willis
My son picked through big barrels of candy. He eyed pieces he might share with his friends at his upcoming 13th birthday party. His little brother darted from barrel to barrel, ignoring the throngs of Saturday shoppers. It was everything I wanted for them in that moment — Southern childhood awe and innocence in the simplest of terms.
They had no idea their old man was about to cry.
I was in Greenville, South Carolina, at Mast General Store when I learned America — its values, its true patriots, its heart — was under attack again.
You don’t forget where you stood when your heart broke. When a bomb tore open the Alfred P. Murrah building, I was walking through a college campus commons area with the sun on my face. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center, my mom’s scared phone call woke me from a morning of oversleeping. When a car tore into a crowd of protesters in Virginia, I was in a general store and debating myself about what it means to be a capital-S Southerner.
Mast General Store has more than a few shelves dedicated to people to identify as Southerners. By coincidence, I was wearing a hat my wife had bought a couple of years earlier, the one with the silhouette of South Carolina and the word “Home.” The Palmetto State is as much my home as anywhere else. I’ve lived here for nearly half my life, and I don’t intend to leave.
Yet there, one table away, sat an almost identical hat. The only difference was this: in place of the word “Home” was the word “Born.”
Humans, we do make our distinctions, don’t we?
I don’t know why I opened my phone in the middle of the store. The alert on the screen told me the news was going to be terrible. Still, I keyed open the phone and confirmed what I already knew to be true. Charlottesville, already reeling from a march predicated on hate, had just seen what amounted to murder. Or, to call it what it really was, terrorism. Homegrown, premeditated terror, nurtured on internet poison.
I asked my wife to watch the kids. I couldn’t stand there in the store sweating and feeling my chest get tighter. I wasn’t going to be able to pretend to be OK in front of my kids, as I had so many times in recent months and years. I escaped to a rocking chair in the plaza outside, lost in a sense of purposelessness that had developed a darkness I’d never expected.
Twitter was already a mess. Facebook was again on its way to madness. Every hot take had been taken, every outrage had already been outraged. I watched the video of the carnage over and over, sicker each time I watched it, and even sicker with a thought I’ve had too many times over the past few years: “What can I possibly do? What can I possibly say that hasn’t been better said thousands of times already?”
This impotence had begun with the best intentions. I’d recognized that as a white guy, I’d been afforded every possible privilege an American could hope to receive. I had never been oppressed. I had never experienced discrimination. I had no real struggle that I hadn’t created for myself.
Somewhere along the way, I’d let that recognition get corrupted. It began with a simple and well-intentioned reluctance to insert myself into daily debate and outrage. Again, what could I, a white guy of unmitigated privilege, have to add to a discussion of institutional racism, gender bias, or discrimination based on gender identity? What place did I have to say anything?
Eventually, that reluctance turned to reticence. I still read the news. I still researched what was important. I said almost nothing. And as a guy who makes his living with words, I stopped writing in public forums almost entirely.
Which is to say, I did nothing.
For the next 48 hours, I read. I listened to friends. The more I read, the more I saw a lesson developing. So many people in the communities targeted by discrimination were speaking almost directly to me.
Jose Antonio Vargas summed up one of the overriding themes that struck me. He wrote, “Dear Well-Meaning White People Who Want Nothing To Do With Alt-Right: We, people of color, cannot carry this burden. You must engage.”
And there it was. For all the ways I’d convinced myself that I was too privileged to speak, for all the ways I’d convinced myself that I couldn’t write words that mattered to the most important of causes, for all the ways I’d decided my silence would let others be better heard, I’d gone too far. I’d disengaged.
For the next 48 hours, people looked at me and knew something was wrong. When they asked, I had a hard time articulating what I had finally recognized: I was ashamed.
I’d fallen prey to the Distinction Game. Like staring at the hats and wondering which one was more legitimate — Home or Born? — I’d decided nothing I had to say would make any difference in the struggles of people who didn’t have my privilege. In other words, I had come to believe my voice wasn’t legitimate or necessary.
I was wrong.
I had to face that reality as my kids stepped into the sunlight with Tootsie Rolls in their hands. No matter what Distinction Game anyone tried to play, it occurred to me at that moment that those two little boys had been born under the South Carolina flag. They were natives.
And right then, under a Southern sun, with a bag full of candy, with a Southern life ahead of them, those two true Southerners needed a dad who didn’t keep his mouth shut.
Even now as I type, I’m cringing at the number of personal pronouns. It’s uncomfortable to believe that anything I think matters. It’s even more uncomfortable to suggest in writing that my experience is in any way important. My gut keeps screaming, “There are enough middle-aged white guys telling people what they think!”
But maybe my gut is wrong. Maybe more middle-aged white guys should be standing with the people who have been fighting against swastikas, Nazi salutes, and burning torches. And even if it’s not always appropriate to add our noise to the cacophony of the daily Twitter timelines and Facebook comments, there is still an important audience. You’ll find an example of that audience suffering from sugar withdrawal in the bedrooms next to mine.
My children know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They know about immigrant struggles. They know about bias and discrimination in all its forms. My wife and I have made it a mission not to hide these realities.
And that means my kids know about hate. They can’t fight it if they don’t know it.
I don’t know exactly how I will effectively recapture my voice after so many months of sitting in scared silence, but it’s helping me to re-read something I wrote after white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I wrote it as a guide for myself, a mission statement for an era that defies what I hoped the world would be for my children. I’m publishing it again because I have a lot of jobs to do. The most important of those jobs is to raise two Southern men who will have the courage to fight harder than I have for what’s right.
Love your children. If they learn love first, they’ll find it harder to hate, because there’s not enough room in one heart for both.
Let your children live as long as they can without recognizing hate. There is bliss in never seeing the superficial difference between you and the other kid in the dugout.
When your kids learn hate — and they will if you ever let them outside the house — teach them that hate is a giant, blinking sign of ignorance. No kid wants to be stupid.
Don’t just teach them that hate is wrong. Teach them why hate is wrong. It hurts the people you hate, and it hurts you. Hate serves no purpose but to breed more hate.
When the kids know why hate is wrong, teach them it’s dangerous. Let them see the pain and havoc it can cause. Ask them to pretend what it would mean to lose their daddy because he was a white man.
When they understand all that, then teach them why hate exists in the first place. Teach them about culture and history, and the ignorance and meanness that bred hate in the first place.
And then, start over… and love your children. There may be no way to extinguish all the hate in the world, but at the very least, there will be a couple more people to pass on what it means to love.