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A Bad Start: On Growing Up in the South
August 30th, 2017 by Dr Karma

I am 14. My beloved (grand)daddy says, “You need to have white babies; our race is dying out.”

Where do I start?

Not “how do I answer that?”

How do I start to tell you this?

My (grand)daddy is recently deceased. I am mourning. Atlas dropped the world.

But he said that.

When I told my mother, she said he didn’t used to be racist. She and Mindy have told me about how when Mindy was a teenager and was working in a store that catered mostly to African-Americans, she was told they wouldn’t be upset if she dated one.

I have heard it so many times.

It’s an alibi.

And now I’m the prosecutor.

Why wouldn’t I have been allowed to?

Why did you hide your non-white boyfriends and lovers (they were roommates) from them?

Why did they have to say it if it were true?

How do I start this?

***************************************************

No one in my family would call themselves racists.

Some context: my maternal grandmother was born and raised in the South. She is an official Daughter of the Confederacy. She married my (grand)daddy, who was a Yankee in the Air Force. After he retired, they built a house on the land she inherited and settled in to a very insular, very Southern, existence.

My grandmother would lower her voice when she said the “n” word–even though she lived in the woods where no one would hear her. I presumed she got quiet because she knew what she was doing was wrong.

When I moved to California, my grandmother asked me if there were many black people where I lived. She was relieved when I said my town was mostly white and Asian. “Oh, they’re okay.”

A few years before her death, she stopped lowering her voice when she said the word.

I wanted to blame FOX News, which was convincing her that her President was not hers–that he wasn’t even American.

But that’s not where it started.

And she still would have said she wasn’t racist.

******************************************************

My son is 5. I am called into his kindergarten. He has been saying he doesn’t like the janitors because they’re black.

He spends a lot of time with his great-grandparents.

I move to California. My grandparents try to guilt me into leaving him with them. Permanently.

Then, my son is 8. We are watching a show–the teachers on it are talking to the principal about a student who has said “the N word.”

My son finally looks at me, frustrated.

“What are they talking about? Nipple?”

And I have to say it, to explain it to him. Grateful that he hadn’t heard it yet some other way.

****************************************************

Where do I start?

I am in kindergarten. It is 99% black.

I come home and tell my mother that I and a boy in my class will get married. He is my boyfriend.

She tells me he can’t be, because my grandmother wouldn’t like it.

It was unlikely that I would have married him. I can’t even remember what we had in common.

But I was transferred to another school–one that was 99% white.

(The South is still pretty segregated, y’all!)

It didn’t occur to me that my mother should have told my grandmother to mind her own business about my boyfriends.

Or that my grandmother was her excuse.

*************************************************

I am 13.

I hear my stepfather getting his Great Dane riled up to go outside.

Usually, he says, “Wanna catch a squirrel?!?” and the dog practically pees itself with excitement.

Today, he says, “Wanna catch a nigger?!?”

“What?!?”

He hadn’t known I was behind him, that I’d heard.

He tells me that it was what his parents always said. I make him swear to never say that word in front of my little brother.

Usually, I was punished–severely and physically–for talking back.

This is the only day ever that I give an order and get away with it.

Because he knows it’s wrong.

It’s years later, thinking back on this, when talking to my students about the importance of language and the words we use, that I realize my mother must have known he used that word.

After class, I remember other things he’d said. Like “Cleopatra couldn’t have been the most beautiful woman in the world. She was black.”

And how no one corrected him on Ptolemaic history or racism.

Or talked back.

***************************************************

When I was little, I had a Dukes of Hazard night shirt. It said, “My heart belongs to Bo.”

A couple of years ago, in my stand-up, I tried to make the point that racism was alive and well in America. (Until recently, I had white Californian students tell me there was no racism because they’d had multicultural days in high school, where they had an ethnic food fair.)

I asked people to remember The Dukes of Hazard. The Duke brothers are moonshiners–you know, drug dealers, with a slutty-dressing cousin, and they spend every episode running from the cops in a car with the confederate flag on it called The General Lee. It’s a comedy. White America loved it.

“Just some good old boys / Never meaning no harm / Beat all you ever saw / They been in trouble with the law / Since the day they was born.”

If there’s no racism, we can do cross-racial casting.

Imagine that show–except the boys are black. They run illegal drugs. Their cousin dresses like a ho. They run from the cops in the Malcolm X.

“Just some good old . . .”

Bang!

Cause they would have been shot in the credits.

****************************************************

My grandma used to say, “Our family didn’t have slaves. We were too poor.”

And thus she was free, she thought, from recrimination. Even though her ancestors had fought for the South.

(My grandfather bought a certificate, from Rush Limbaugh, I think, that absolved him, as a white man, for everything. It was signed by a black man.)

But my grandfather was a genealogist.

One night, he shows me what he’s found–that one of grandma’s ancestors had owned at least one slave.

“But they treated her just like family,” my grandma interjects.

I wonder how she can be so sure, since a moment ago, she was convinced there was no such person.

But this narrative is important. She needs her story to lead to a South without racism that she can see, so she can be proud to be Southern, so she can be Republican. All these things have to be unrelated.

That way, it can be the race’s fault when she doesn’t like them.

*******************************************************

I am in my thirties. My grandmother and I are sitting in the car, while my mother is in the store, getting my grandmother’s prescription.

I don’t talk about politics with my family at this point. I’ve escaped, after decades of feeling like a misfit, in both my family and my society. I try to enjoy the few times I go home. To ignore the framed pictures of the current and former recent Republican presidents over the dining room table. To ignore the framed picture of a donkey with a red X drawn over it hanging by the washing machine.

Thus, I do not know and have no memory of how this came about–I remember it slapping me:

“All abortion should be illegal unless a white woman gets raped by a black man.”

I try to talk about abortion as necessary, to find common ground about how when it’s illegal, doctors aren’t even trained to take dead babies out of women, how some women who have lost their children have to live with a rotting corpse inside them–to carry it to term.

It is all I can do, because my mind is whirring. It repeats the statement all day.

“All abortion should be illegal unless a white woman gets raped by a black man.”

Is it that the child will be mixed? I know she “feels sorry” for mixed race children, since “they don’t belong anywhere.” In her world.

But no. Because almost all mixed race abortions would still be illegal.

“All abortion should be illegal unless a white woman gets raped by a black man.”

Not a Mexican? No, because she’s probably not even thinking about any other races. Many times, in the South, all ethnicities/races disappear from consciousness. It is literally black and white down there.

“All abortion should be illegal unless a white woman gets raped by a black man.”

But this isn’t about rape. Because a black woman can still be raped by a white man and have to carry it.

“All abortion should be illegal unless a white woman gets raped by a black man.”

I am in bed, not sleeping, when it hits me.

If I were raped by a white guy, she would of course be upset. But the life of that baby would take precedence.

But if I were raped by a black man, and were forced to carry it, and maybe to raise it, then someone might misunderstand–they might think, if they saw me with the child, that I’d had sex with a black guy on purpose.

How would they know I’d been raped, since survivors don’t usually wear t-shirts attesting to the fact?

(In my mind, these t-shirts are airbrushed. Cause it’s the South.)

****************************************************

President Obama is running for President.

I ask my mother to send me some instant grits.

(I do not think these things are related.)

When the grits come, they are accompanied by an airbrushed (read: homemade) shirt.

The shirt features a confederate flag.

The call:

“Well, I know you’re not going to wear it inside.”

“I’m not a racist inside the house.”

“It’s not racist; it’s heritage.”

I stop.

I try again, rogerian-style.

“I’m an American. Why would you expect me to wear the symbol of people who didn’t want to be American any more? Who told America to go fuck itself?”

“Alright.”

************************************************

Obama has just been elected.

My mother: Well, now we’re going to lose our rights as white women.

Me: Which ones?

Long pause.

Silence.

Me: Cause as a white, straight, educated American woman, I have more rights than most people have ever had. I have more rights than some of my friends have right now. Which ones can he take?

Silence.

*******************************************************

Obama is serving his term. My mother is taking care of her parents, my grandparents.

They encourage her to plant her garden. They think they’ll need it, when Obama comes for their guns. When he starts a race war.

*******************************************************

Here are some things that are true.

1. I miss my (grand)daddy so much. And even though this part of him disappoints me, I am deathly hurt by the thought that I disappointed him, as I know I have.

I have always cried–for hours–at the end of Mulan, when the father expresses pride for his daughter.

2. Now that my grandmother has died, my answer to the Pivot question about what you’d like to hear at the Pearly Gates has changed.

I’d like to hear, “Well, hi, Karma!” in my grandmother’s voice, the way she said it every time I called home.

No one has ever sounded so perfectly and consistently happy to hear my voice.

3. Typing this, now, has made me cry.

4. My family is normal in the South.

And they are polite to people’s faces.

They are not seen as extremists there at all.

They are not the people who start to whisper when you’re at the park having a picnic with a black man, the whispers getting louder, until the air starts to crackle, and you pack up early–carefully, fearful that if you move to fast, they’ll chase you.

5. My mother said that all people were equal when I was young. With some her words.

6. When people wonder where all this racism and hatred have come from, I’m surprised. Didn’t you hear them whispering? Didn’t you see them start to not lower their voices when Obama got elected?

7. When people try to tell me that the alt-right isn’t really racist, that they’re just angry because they’re poor, I shake my head. Did you live with them? Were you taught by them? Were you their neighbors? They, rich and poor, for all they years I’ve been alive, have said all the things at home that you’re just hearing on the internet now.

8. I have benefited from white privilege. When I was treated well the two times I’ve been pulled over. That I’ve only been pulled over two times. That I could walk down the hall in high school and not get asked for my pass. That I wasn’t asked for references when I tried to rent my first apartment. “You don’t need those.” Everyone else in the complex was black.

7. When I tell people these stories, they say, “how are you you?” And I don’t know. But I’m still part of them. And they’re still part of me.

*******************************************************

The statues need to come down.

My grandmother was a Daughter of the Confederacy. Technically, that means I am too, though I’m not registered. It’s not what I’m proud about–it’s not about who I am.

The statues need to come down.

When my relatives say taking them down is a liberal attempt to erase history, my eyes roll so hard my head hurts.

One of the best field trips in school was to a museum of the Civil War. I liked it because I learned a lot — like where “bite the bullet” comes from. I don’t remember the South being celebrated there–and that’s how this war should be remembered–as a rebellion to study, not to celebrate. Moving the statues to museums isn’t going to erase this history.

(Contrast this to a teacher I had in elementary school–an elderly woman–who told us lots of stories about how the South was better in Plantation days. Yes, this was the 99% white school.)

When my relatives say taking the statues down is an attack on their way of life, I can feel the blood vessels in my chest constrict.

What way of life is in danger? They’ll still be able to put way too much sugar in their tea, to fry absolutely everything, to deny science, to wear confederate clothing, to think racist thoughts and to say racist things.

It’s just that all of those actions have consequences.

When I was younger and I would see a “The South will Rise Again” bumper sticker, I would joke, “And do what?!?”

But it’s not funny at all. They white Southerners are rising again–and what they’re trying to do, by their own admission, is to push an agenda to ensure the prosperity of the white (Christian, straight) race. They want every one else gone or else so subservient that they might as well be. Race traitors like me deserved to be destroyed too, since I’m not helping their cause.

The “American” “way of life” they’re talking about losing is one of state-sanctioned white privilege. It’s the one where your whole state puts on that airbrushed confederate flag t-shirt.

It’s not about being Southern. It’s not about states’ rights. It never was.

That’s why the only “right” talked about in Confederate papers and speeches was the right to own black people.

That’s why black Southerners don’t fly the Confederate flag on their pickups.

And that’s why Nazis fly the Confederate flag in Germany, where Nazi flags are banned.

There’s a meme going around that says liberals think Southern statues “aren’t important.”

They are so important. That’s why they need to come down.

**************************************************

The KKK and the Nazis can march with assault rifles, and the cops do nothing. And the President defends them. That way of life will apparently be fine, statues or no statues.

Unless we do something.

Removing the statues is a small step, but a necessary one.

I don’t know how this started.

I just know it has to stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses  
  • David Norton writes:
    August 30th, 20171:43 pmat

    very thoughtfully written

  • Melissa B. writes:
    August 31st, 20177:16 pmat

    This is so beautifully written, so powerful and gripping. It needs to reach a broader audience. Yes, we can share it on social media. But I encourage you–please, please, please write this up as a personal essay and get it out there!


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