“One good thing about Jennifer Hudson’s family tragedy – two less Obama voters.”
A 57-year old grandmother is killed in her home, as is her 29-year-old son. A seven-year-old child is missing and there is every reason to fear for his survival as well.
And [a reader who commented as] “Dagny and John’s Love Child” expresses pleasure that two Obama voters are now gone.
–Jay Bookman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The Cape Fear BBQ and Chicken Restaurant. Some powerful and at times ugly interaction today.
12:33 p.m. Sen. Barack Obama entered the barbecue joint where an older and majority white clientele of dozens was eating lunch after church services. At the other end of the restaurant, Diane Fanning, 54, who works at a discount club, began yelling: “Socialist, socialist, socialist -– get out of here!”
….Later, Obama came to the long table where Fanning and other members of a local First Presbyterian church were gathered. He held out his hand to her to shake it and asked, “How are you, ma’am?” but she declined to shake.
It’s after midnight and my wife thinks I’m brushing my teeth and coming to bed. Instead, I’m holed away here in my writing corner, needing to get something off my chest at what, you’ve surely noticed, may be a world-historical moment, whether you’re an American or not. I’ve tried to get it right and don’t feel I’ve succeeded. But I want to put it out anyway, in time to meet that moment.
~ ~ ~
Last Things First
I’m a 46-year-old man, a white minority in an interracial marriage in Korea.
Many people in my adopted country look down on my wife for marrying me. They look down on me too. They stare. They occasionally try to menace. They say things in their language that they think I don’t understand. I catch enough words to get the gist.
Other people here, though – my in-laws above all – accept me, value me, and show me through their actions things that feel like love. They help me when I don’t even ask.
You need to know that before you read on.
A Portrait of the Teacher as a Young Racist
The Winner’s Ticket
I spent my first eighteen years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a scenic little rhinestone studding the Bible Belt in the American South.
When I was about eight years old, around 1970, I was the bat-boy for my older brother’s baseball team. I wore the team uniform with pride, indifferent to the laughs it drew for being several sizes too big.
One night, the team played a city championship game of some sort in the city’s semi-pro Lookout Stadium, in downtown Chattanooga. It was a big affair for us little boys.
Two things were interesting about that night.
The first is trivial, though I want to read meaning into it, and it’s simply this: out of two thousand or so tickets drawn from in a raffle before the game, my ticket was a winner. I remember the laughter as I went onto the field in that oversized uniform to claim my Louisville Slugger baseball bat, emblazoned with Hank Aaron’s signature. The 34-inch bat was as oversized for my eight-year-old frame as was the uniform, but I was proud of that Hank Aaron. Aaron was a Southerner on a Southern team – Go, Atlanta – and even though he was black, he’d set the world on fire by breaking Babe Ruth’s record for most career home runs.
I’m convinced my ticket was drawn because, having no idea what a raffle was and thinking that ticket was just an admission ticket, I had wadded it up as trash and thrown it under my seat as soon as I sat down. When someone came to our section to collect the tickets, a teammate of my brother’s – his name was June, and he was African-American – helped me find it, and tossed it in the box for me.
To this day I still maintain there was a lesson there: The hand that drew my ticket felt something different when it hit that wadded thing among all the flat, straight ones. My ticket won because it was different. I’ve wadded my tickets in every raffle from that day to this. And since then – though usually not by accident – I’ve also wadded up and discarded much of what I was taught was right in my childhood.
The Loser’s Joke
The second thing that happened that night occurred as we rode home after the game.
There must have been more than one vehicle taking the team back to the school, because I was surrounded on that ride home by only white players. June and the other black players were not in the back of that truck with us.
We sat in the open bed of that truck riding under a very fine night through the very worst slums of the city. My brother’s team must have won, because spirits were high all around. These bigger boys hooted, they hollered, they filled the night with their voices. Some of those voices, as we drove through this poor neighborhood, cried off-color things.
I must have wanted to impress them, and so gave it a shot – with the earliest instance of rhetorical sophistication in my entire life. At the appropriate lull in the noise, I filled the silence in that sad neighborhood’s night by yelling, at the top of my eight-year-old lungs:
“Welcome to Nig*ertown, USA! Population: Too many!“
“Population: Too many!” – What a great line. Almost as good as “Two less Obama voters.”
It was a hit for many of the older boys. They slapped me on the back, congratulated my brother for having a little brother with such wit, and for that brief moment, I was on top of the world. With that one joke, I seemed to have suddenly grown into that uniform.
But that world was the wrong one, and there are hopeful signs it’s dying now. And that uniform? It’s wrong too, and too small for us all.
I’m a 46-year-old man, a white minority in an interracial marriage in Korea. Many people in my adopted country look down on my wife for marrying me. They look down on me too.
Thinking back on that childhood moment, I wonder if any darker-skinned boy or girl, sitting on one of those anxious porches or stoops in that fine night, heard that happy line. I suspect several did. And I wonder if they still remember it, like I do, almost forty years later. Again, I suspect they do.
It’s too late to say I’m sorry to them. But it’s not too late for a different amends.
Baptised in Bigotry
Monday School in Dixie
Though my family didn’t go to church beyond the occasional Christmas or Easter service, my childhood was nonetheless suffused with the Southern Baptist brand of Christianity. I’ll only point at the regular visits to my elementary school of a sweet little lady we called “Mrs. Methuselah.” Her real name I’ve forgotten, but not her blue hair and palsied voice, which croaked out Bible stories as her bony, blue-veined hands manipulated felt Bible characters on an easel – all at taxpayer expense. Because of her visits, I remember to this day the names “Shadrach, Meschach and Abednigo,” though I’ve long since forgotten their story.
I also remember this verse:
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the glory of God lasts forever.”
I wrote that verse in crayon in a little state-sponsored, constitution-violating scrapbook she assigned us to keep. I Scotch-taped some grass from the school lawn underneath it that obligingly turned brown after a few days. Beside the grass, for good measure, I taped a dead flower, and drew above them both – framed with a jagged border I hoped suggested lightning – a stern, bearded God. I was a very good student in those days, doing whatever teacher told me to do. Being a Good Boy was for some strange reason extra-important to me. It still is today, with the difference that now I want to be a Good Man.
Anyway, this was 1968, probably. My first year of school. First grade.
At that time, of course, I had no idea my country was dropping napalm on peasant farmers and their families in thatched huts on the other side of the world – surely at the very moments this good woman was giving us these lessons. John McCain probably had no idea he’d soon fall from those skies himself, alongside his payload, while I was still learning my ABC’s, Matthew Mark Luke and Johns, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigos in a public school.
Scott was my best friend in those years. I spent as many days at his home as I did in my own. Scott’s mother and father were second parents to me, and good people. The bookcase and side-tables in their living room were full of books by an author whose name I, the good first-grader, was proud to be able to read: the Reverend Billy Graham.
Scott had a couple of sisters, though, who were already in high school when we were in first grade. Scott and I would often go into their bedroom when they weren’t around, and I can still remember other names I first became aware of in that household, names attached with images on the sisters’ many vinyl LP records: Joan Baez. Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Jimi Hendrix.
I remember being struck with how different these names felt in comparison to Reverend Graham.
Stefon, Cedric, General, and Scott’s Father
Elbert Long Elementary and Junior High School must have been desegregated a few years before I entered first grade there. At eight years old, I was as clueless about that milestone in American history as I was about those Asian farmers in thatched huts who were daily aflame, literally, via the same tax dollars that paid the good old lady to teach me about fading flowers, withering grass, and glory of God.
All I knew was that I was a six-year-old with classmates who were about 50% dark-skinned and 50% light-skinned. My otherwise decent grandparents called the dark-skinned ones “niggras.”
Besides Scott and some other whites, I had friends whose names were as different as their skin-tone: Stefon Talbot, whose spondeed first name was as distinctive as the long-lashed white eyes shining like pearls from his smooth, jet-black face; Cedric Winston, so much bigger than the rest of us we called him “Big Boo,” whose preacher-father equipped him with some hymns that made us laugh to tears when he performed them; and most memorable of all, General Lee Webster. General was not a nickname like Boo – it was birth-certificate official. General had a tougher life than Stefon and Boo – not as handsome as Stefon, not as gently parented as Boo, and infinitely more beetle-browed and bug-eyed than both of them, with a forehead twice as high as normal – and it showed in his hair-trigger temper. Thinking back on him now, General was a black Mercutio to my Romeo, and I loved him.
We all lived near school, and we all walked to and from it. Often, after school, we’d walk together to each others’ homes, to the mall, to all the places we roved in those days.
One day at Scott’s house, his Southern Baptist, Billy Graham-revering father pulled me aside and, with great concern and gravity, asked me, “Clay, why did I see you walking with that black boy on E. Brainerd Road?”
“That black boy” was General.
Coach Moser Teaches History
I’ve changed all the other last names in this story, but I’m not changing Doug Moser’s. Mr. Moser was my junior high art teacher and, more importantly, baseball and wrestling coach. He was new at our school when, now age 12, General, Scott, Stefon, Boo, and I entered seventh grade in 1974.
I don’t know much about Doug Moser’s background, beyond that his accent marked him as an outsider to the South. Thinking about him now, I’m struck by the fact that he coached several sports but didn’t, like most coaches, teach health or physical education – he taught art. And that suggests he had something in him refined, something cultured. I know that now because I’m a teacher, and know that teachers teach subjects, typically, that they liked in college.
Doug Moser was also, I suspect, fairly new at teaching. He looked to be in his twenties, so he couldn’t have been that far out of college, and while he was married, he and his wife had no children. But the biggest clue to his newness was his classic “new teacher” attempt to create true, caring, authentic relationships with his students.
He invited General, Scott, and me to come with him and his wife to a college wrestling tournament one weekend. He paid for the tickets, he paid for the cokes and hot dogs – and he paid with the disillusionment. My friends and I were too young and immature to appreciate his gesture; instead, we slurped the cokes and wolfed the franks while obsessing – for a ridiculous thirty minutes at least, as we sat in the bleachers two rows behind him and his wife – on some stupid chant we’d created around his name. “Middi-mo, middi-mo, middi-mo.” We chanted it over and over, laughing hysterically at this unfunny play on the name “Mr. Moser,” while he sat awkwardly with his wife, pretending it wasn’t happening. We never had a decent conversation with him that whole day.
He never invited us to a second outing. A teacher now myself, I understand why: I tried similar things, and got similar results. I’ve experienced that sad gap, as Joni Mitchell would sing, “from both sides now.”
But I liked Mr. Moser. In his art class thirty years ago, I was drawing a still life of an ear of corn. He eased up behind me, and very quietly said – I think this is verbatim – “Nice. You’ve got a good eye.” And that felt calming, affirming, good to hear – so good, I remember the corn and the man and his words now, at 46. I remember very little else from those years so clearly.
In short, Doug Moser seems to have been an athlete, an artist, an outsider, and an idealistic young man. And while my bone-headed friends and I disappointed his idealism at that wrestling match, we later, he told us, redeemed it.
Baseball and Race, Take Two
It happened at another baseball game. I was about the age of my brother that night I disgraced myself in the back of that truck by shouting my harmless little genocidal joke.
We had lost the game. We were in the locker room, sullen and self-important over this bit of stick-and-ball-centered trivia, when a few boys walked in who weren’t on the team.
They were all African-American.
One of them spouted some trash about our loss that rubbed me the wrong way, and I told him to shut up. A cliche stand-off followed and we finally came to blows. As usual, I probably took more punches than I threw, but who cares. All my fights back then (and I hope it’s so for kids today) were always broken up before they got dangerous, and this one was no different – with one exception: My friends separated us by pulling me back by my arms. This rendered me defenseless, and my enemy took full advantage of this by landing a free punch or three to my face. The punches didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t serious. Soon that whole gang was persuaded to leave the locker room.
We went back to showering and changing clothes, until somebody came into the locker room with some news: There was a gang of black boys waiting to jump me outside the building.
Again, though I didn’t understand it then, this was 1974 – exactly a decade after the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow and racial segregation. My friends and I were guinea pigs in the progressive “social engineering” decried by so many conservatives and reactionaries.
My teammates – not only Scott, but also Stefon, “Boo”, and General – surely didn’t understand this either. They just did what was natural to them: they protected their friend by walking out with him, and stood by him when that gang appeared – and they faced that gang down. I got home safely because of them.
The next school day, there was the schooly disciplinary thing, with the predictable slapped wrists and all of that. But afterwards, at baseball practice, Coach Moser gathered us up for a talk. And in that talk, he interpreted what was just a schoolyard fight to us as the slice of progressive American history it was. He told us that he was not proud of the fact that there was a fight, but that he was proud that in that fight, watching the white boy’s back against the black boys, were other “black boys”: Stefon, Cedric, and General. They had taken sides based not on skin color, but on something deeper. And he was proud of them.
Years earlier, in a little harmless American genocidal humor, I had joked that the black population should be decreased.
Coach Moser interpreted that moment in my young life in a way that taught me something important.
First Things Last
I’ve left my Southern roots and, like that raffle ticket, become something different. Many other Southerners have too, thank goodness, as the polls show. They’re voting for the more intelligent and respectful candidate – who happens to be darker-skinned – instead of the reactionary ticket indulging in smears cloaked in unAmerican Stars and Stripes and unChristian Crosses.
So goodness bless Ms. Betty Waylett, the fellow churchgoer of Ms. Fanning, the lady who refused to shake Obama’s hand in that North Carolina diner, and bless the church’s Pastor Bremer, too, who’s voting McCain for reasons other than race, for their remarks in that LA Times article:
[Obama] spoke at length with many of the other parishioners at the long banquet table, however, and got a much friendlier reception as he spoke about healthcare, taxes and Social Security. Fanning told the pool reporter, “Some of them are just nicer than I am. I know how some of them think.”
But several of her fellow churchgoers said their support was genuine. Betty Waylett, 76, told him, “You’re doing a great job.” She told the pool reporter she is a Republican but will vote for Obama because she likes the way he speaks and his manner.
Waylett, who is white, said Obama’s race was not a factor. “I never thought about it one way or the other.”
Pastor Randal Bremer, also at the table, said Obama told him, “Whether you vote for me or not I’ll need your prayers.” Bremer told the pool reporter, “I’m very impressed by his ability to meet people on a down-to-earth level” and that he would pray from him but that he planned to vote for John McCain, mostly because he prefers smaller government and McCain’s position on the Iraq war.
Scott’s father was a good man, but – Reverend Billy Graham and all – a weak one. He couldn’t apply the Golden Rule of his faith unto all others. “That black boy” – “that one” named General Lee Webster – was closer to any god than the good Southern Baptist father of my white friend.
Stefon, Cedric, and General sided with me against their skin color because they knew I was on the right side. I was on the wrong side when I poisoned that childhood night in a poor neighborhood with that shameful “Rebel Yell.” And I’m siding with Barack Hussein Obama because I believe he’s on the right side as well.
Doug Moser saw history when the desegregation experiment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 redeemed itself in our schoolyard ten years later. That was the beginning. I didn’t think I’d live to see the culmination of that experiment in the election of an African-American president of the United States in my lifetime.
I’m awed to discover I may be wrong. I want to see more history on November 4. I want to see an America – and my American South, in particular – that has learned that race, while nothing we should vote for, is also nothing we should vote against.