Monday, January 20, 2014

People Working In A Field

On this, the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, I decided to put down some thoughts on race. Bear with me. I'm more use to writing smart ass comments about TV shows and comic books but I really felt compelled to put this down into words.
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When you grow up in the American South as I did, one can't help encountering racism in some form or another. Now that sounds like one of those blanket statements that plays into a stereotype, in this case the South is filled with a bunch of redneck yahoos who hold black people in contempt. As all blanket statements, this cannot be universally applied to the entire South. White proponents and defenders of black civil rights were not just from the North but also from the South. But the inescapable truth is that racism was a part of Southern culture and no, it has not disappeared. Racism may be less than it was but it isn't dead yet. 

Back in the 1950's, racism was ingrained not only in culture but in law. Separate schools, hospitals, drinking fountains, seats in the movie theater, churches, etc etc. Black people were put in "their place" and held there. In my home town, years before I was born, a newspaper reporter and editor took it upon himself to challenge this institutionalized separation of black and white. And in the face of lost advertising and death threats, he stood his ground. He knew that segregation of races was on the wrong side of history. And he would eventually convince people of that. 

My mom was one of those people. A young girl working in the tobacco fields, she heard the racial epithets and saw the humiliations and pain visited up black people day after day. But she also saw those same black people, young men and women her age and working in the same tobacco fields. Regardless of the color of their skin, they were all dirty and sweaty and just trying to earn a few dollars. They were all just people working in a field, covered in sweat and dust, just trying to get by.

As the local newspaperman kept up his pressure against the institutions of segregation and racism, certain forces pushed back. The Ku Klux Klan was very active in the region. My mom described a scene that occurred one night while she was still a young girl. I wasn't there, of course, but I can see what she described so vividly. The KKK staged a "parade" where they all dressed in their robes and held up pitchforks and torches and reminded everyone within range of their shouting voices that white people were "superior" and "chosen by God" and that "n****rs needed to remember their place" and "no college boy from up north was going to tell them different". (Never mind that the newspaperman in question was a local resident who grew up in that town.) 

My mom said someone had rigged the front end of a big black car with lights to resemble a burning cross. My mom was and is a Christian and the cross is normally a sign of comfort to her. That night, affixed to that large menacing black car, the glowing cross that led this "parade" did nothing but instill fear. And that was an epiphany for her. She was afraid but not because of black people; they were just poor souls who worked in the same tobacco fields she did, just trying to get by. No, the fear came from these self appointed bastions of white superiority. She realized she had more in common with people whose skin was darker than her's than with these so called leaders with a skin of a paler color.

This is not say that she became a crusading advocate of civil rights. As I said, racism was ingrained in the culture and even in the laws of the time and of the region. But if the KKK sought to solidify their position with that ugly display that night, they did what all villains do: they overplayed their hand. A lot of hearts and minds they had hoped to frighten to their side were lost to them.  

The good news is the institutionalized racism of the past is just that: of the past. The bad news is that racism has just found more subtle ways to survive in bitter people with small hearts and smaller minds.  When I was a young man, there was a political election where the term "welfare queen" was invoked to describe those who were reliant, perhaps too reliant, on government assistance. The image this was meant to conjure was of a black woman, unmotivated to do anything except pop out babies for a variety of anonymous fathers and cash welfare checks. And there were women in our town that I knew fit that description to a "T" except for one inconvenient fact: a lot of them were white. 

There was this one woman named Pearl who was large and snaggletooth with pale freckled skin and stringy red hair. This woman put the "ug" in "ugly". But somebody was sexing this woman up because she would pop out a baby every other year or so. And she wasn't the only one. There were lots of women like that in my small town (although I swear to you, few if any were uglier) and yes, some of them were black. Yes, as a proportion of the population, black women were over-represented in this sad group. But the inescapable fact was this pattern of having babies and living off welfare did not have skin color as a commonality. The common factors were poverty and a lack of education which affected their judgement and impacted the development of their character. 

When Martin Luther King Jr declared his dream "that one day a man would be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character", this is what he was talking about. Even now, into the 2nd decade of this 21st century, there are people who still make judgments based on skin pigment. But the real things that hold people back, hold them down are things like access to economic opportunity and a good education. Without these, people cannot succeed. Without these, people find it hard to just get by.

And ultimately, that's who we all are, just people working in a field, covered in sweat and dust, just trying to get by.

Thank you for reading and, more than ever, be good to one another.  



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