Essay by Charles McNair
In the halo year after the election of the nation’s first African-American president, a newly minted phrase came into heavy rotation:
When you walked into an Applebee’s in south Alabama and found mixed-race couples, kids on dates and married pairs, comfortably dining out … that was Post-Obama. When a mixed-race couple attended a garden party for the first time ever … that was Post-Obama too. When a teen-aged brother pulled up his drooping gangsta pants without complaint … Post-Obama.
The wistful term spread like hope … naïve though it would prove to be. The term suggested America had at last broken the shackles of a racially troubled past, once and for all. We had moved beyond black and white, our issues forgiven, forgotten.
Well … hardly.
In Georgia, we recently witnessed a segregated prom night at an integrated high school. Gerrymandered political districts corral people of color. Open contempt for a black president among many Southerners, especially those in rural spots, borders on rebellious, fanatical.
Much work remains to finally make peace with a past that colors our present every hour of every day.
Every American knows about slavery. Every American knows, bone-deep, the peculiar institution was inhumane, terrible, just monstrous.
But knowing and feeling are as different as white and black, aren’t they? On the subject of slavery, we’ve grown comfortable behind our social defenses. Mention slavery in a mixed crowd and you’ll see white people immediately get defensive and pull in their necks, not wishing to accept blame for wrongs done elsewhere, generations past.
At the same time, black people grow equally uncomfortable, angry and loud, or sullen and quiet, simmering with – what? Rage? Stigma?
So much exhaustive explanation seems due on the subject that no one really knows where to start … never mind how to end.
I’m reminded of a passage from Beloved, Toni Morrison’s book.
Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe.
In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that.
Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right.
The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside.
But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them.
And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them.
Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.
I have a Post-Obama reflection.
In the early 1960s, I was eight or nine years old, a curious kid … in every way the word curious can mean. A bookworm in the Deep South, where hunting and sport earned manly respect. A kid so tender-hearted I wept and prayed for forgiveness when I shot a little cedar waxwing with my BB gun … and it stared up at me, mortally wounded but still alive, with its wondrous little eye.
One Saturday night, my family returned to our home in Dothan along dark two-lane U.S. 231 from Troy, Ala. My stern old grandfather lived in Troy, and we visited his boring house every couple of months, choking on the smell of gas that leaked from the furnace and wishing with all our might, from the moment we arrived, that we could quickly escape the place.
Six McNairs packed our old boxy Chevrolet on the ride home. We tuned in the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville. Skeeter Davis sang, “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?”
Then we came to the end of the world.
Cars lined the highway. People stalked eerily through headlights, streaming down in the dark toward pale figures in a field. Three wooden crosses stood among corn rows, crosses empty of Jesus or thieves but soaked in reeking fuel by men in white robes with jerry cans.
My daddy took my little brothers and me to the front edge of the rally. A man in a hood, its dark mouth open like a scream, ranted into a microphone from the back of a flatbed. He talked about George Wallace. He talked about Martin Luther King – “Martian Lucifer Coon,” he called him. And he talked about how niggers would take over if good white men didn’t rise up and protect all they had and ever wanted to have.
It was the Klan, of course – America’s very own terror organization. As the crosses went up in flames that night, a cheer rose from the crowd. I can’t recall if my father joined in, but he surely believed at that time … and likely until the day he died … that the Klansmen who shouted incendiary words that night on the road to Troy spoke for people like him.
People in love with defeat. People who held a grudge precious … because they had so little else to hold onto.
Boys down here are taught to believe what a father believes, taught to honor a father. It’s right there in the Bible. You can look it up.
So, sadly, a family with prejudice passes on its prejudice. Lots of us got programmed early with bad code, flawed social DNA. It took many years, until I grew old enough to ask my own fundamental questions about right and wrong, for me to begin to separate my beliefs from those of my childhood indoctrination.
My conversion started when four little girls died in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. I felt troubled especially that one of the children bore my own family name. Denise McNair was 11 years old, just about my age. Were we … kin? Family matters more than anything, I’d been taught. Was this my blood cousin they lowered down into the red dirt of Alabama? What did a little girl named Denise do to deserve such a death?
Once the troubling questions came, I went through hard years, soul-searching years. Not hard because I had come to believe in racial equality – that was only a wedge to split the tough wood. No, those were hard years because, in a way, I chose to leave a father and grandfathers and a family behind. It was especially hard to watch my old man, once all I had in the world to trust and depend on, diminish and fade away, some of his beliefs grotesque.
I have many friends who never did escape the past. When the time came to choose, they just couldn’t go against blood and brothers and belief. They threw in with the prejudices of fathers. They held fiercely onto flawed ideas passed down to them, an inheritance just as unfortunate as diabetes or heart disease. They clung to bigotry and found it a comfort to believe God made them white because it’s somehow better than other colors.
I pray for them, these friends. I love them and hope that they find the kind of confidence and faith that helps them understand something: From inside the skin to the heart’s deep core, the color is all the same.
It took many years, many crumbled beliefs, many rivers to cross, before I could stand before the world free of my Southern albatross of prejudice. Our fathers pinned its wings to my chest. Their fathers pinned the same wings to their chests, and so it went, as far back as the days when white men stood before auction blocks buying black men, women, and children like chickens or hogs.
Post-Obama, that failed passing fancy, that sentimental figment of audacious hope, turned out to be just another notion gone with the wind.
So much more has failed, for so long, among us all.
The Side Bar
Get Ready to Groove
To our ears, soul music most richly expresses the melding of Southern cultures. It mixes black and white. It mixes the sacred and the profane. It mixes our best and worst feelings about life itself. Plus, it makes you shake your moneymaker. The Bitter Southerner asked soulologist Nelson d. Ross to give us two lists: first, the essential Southern soul songs, the ones you’d give as a homework assignment to someone who’d never heard a note of the stuff; and second, a list of the most sadly overlooked Southern soul songs. Next week, we dive deep into that beautiful confluence, where the rivers called Rhythm and Blues come together.