He had a beard, and the authority that comes from being a Guest Speaker.
He told us, at our little school that had the Rebel as our mascot, a gray-clad god who towered over us in a thirty-story painting on one gym wall, flanked by the two flags we had always witlessly venerated, as children trustingly do. What did he tell us? I can only recount from the haze of decades passing, of normalcy that I now recognize as the slow subtle indoctrination of sleepy Southern hate.
What did he tell us?
He was invited, that much I know. I stood on the grass outside of the school that only taught through the ninth grade, after which we were left to disperse to the un-truncated spaces of education that, for whatever reason, we had not already vacated to. And I listened. You listened to Guest Speakers. How could you not?
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic is not a hymn. If they try to make you sing it in church, and they might, don’t let them do it.”
He had a beard, as I recall. And we were little. So we listened.
“You know that part, where they’re trampling the grapes of wrath, where they’re stored? That’s us. That’s us they’re trampling. So don’t you go singing it in church. It ain’t a hymn. Here’s what you should be singing.”
And he played his banjo, and he played “Dixie.” And the banjo’s a fine instrument, and “Dixie” is a fine song, when played and sang with soul, which he had. It was enough to make someone believe whatever.
(There were no Black kids in the school. There was a kid, his dad was from Iran, and he was mocked ruthlessly for that, and for some physical deformity – his hand? – that I barely remember. No quarter. If we had had a Black kid, oh boy. Better that we didn’t.)
He had a fine voice, and a fine way with the banjo. And he was racist as fuck, probably, surely, but whatever. There were only sixteen people in my grade. Who cared? I helped to raise the flag (the one that won) and lower it, to get out of class, so I was right there with them. No one’s trampling me. Sure, why not?
I had read Huck Finn in kindergarten, on a dare to myself, competing with my older brother, who had been compelled to read it. I finished it, maybe a couple years later. So I knew that there was – at least – one good Black person, and his name was Jim. I was ignorant. But maybe a touch less so.
I can’t say what happened to most of those kids, standing rapt to the tune of a fine man singing a fine song about a (problematic? sure, let’s soften it) Lost Cause. Some became, maybe, general managers of some general thing. And some became other things, totally unrelated. We listen to the most craziest shit, and we become what we will, and we call it life. Okay.
“What’s your deal with Black people?”
It’s creepy, how many times I’ve been asked. “What’s you’re deal? With Black people, I mean.” Guilt, of course.
When you’re raised in white supremacy, however normalfied it may be, how else can you feel?
But heritage, sure sure, and states’ rights, of course. And war muddies everything, because there are no good wars. So maybe, hey why not, we need some reason why we are the butt of everyone’s jokes that allows us our dignity. Black people? Of course. Never met one, but of course.
I realize I was raised in a small pocket of the world that – like the soldiers of Nippon, stranded on long-forgotten islands – doesn’t realize that, hey, yeah, that war was over, yeah, like waaaaay long ago. But I only slightly realize it, not as much as I should. And that is my struggle. To be less ignorant, day by day.
And that’s okay. Because we all must see the soul in one another, no matter where we originate. Fire off, if I’ve said anything funny.