I was a child of the Wonder Years, coming of age in the South after integration and near the end of the Vietnam War. The insular rural community I called home fostered both innocence and ignorance. My parents’ and their parent’s lives had been mostly hardscrabble; they fought to support their families and hold onto their small farms through the Depression years. Perhaps it was my growing awareness but the world’s events seemed far away back then and did not begin to infiltrate my world until the late 1960’s.
My mother’s family had grown up working shoulder to shoulder with a black family who sharecropped their land during the depression years; both families needed each other and the black and white children grew up playing in the fields together, retaining a certain degree of color blindness throughout their early lives. As our community had moved from agriculture and as textile and furniture industries began to boom in local small towns, it brought a kind of WASP homogeneity. Old prejudices were revived and reborn, morphed into a communal consciousness which was spread through osmosis. Whites ranked higher than blacks; men ranked higher than women and adults ranked higher than children.
It seems to be human nature that even people who have nothing want to believe they are better than someone.
An undercurrent of fear began to permeate our world in the late’60’s, and it reminds me of the fear that is so prevalent today. Back then, a black and white television with aluminum foil rabbit ears brought tumultuous images into our living room each evening. Our country was losing its young men in the jungles of Vietnam. Assassinations of great leaders became prevalent: Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy, Martin Luther King. We lost countless innocent lives in the turbulent Civil Rights movement and for a purpose that seems so fundamental to the beliefs expressed in our country’s Constitution, it hardly seems worthy of being questioned, much less fought over.
The world seemed to shift on its axis.
I remember one night when I was 5 or 6 riding home in the back seat of the car with my parents. Seat belts were not required back then and I was small enough to nestle into the angled space between the back seat and back window, watching the stars and moon through the glass. We were driving along Jubilee Road, one of the more prominent roads in our community that was paved instead of gravel. We came across a road block, where shapeless forms walked around in white robes with hoods covering their faces. A fire burned in a clearing. It seemed huge, maybe 12-15 feet high on a slight hill with what looked like boards nailed together in the shape of a cross. I crouched behind mama and daddy in the dark as a man came to Daddy’s window, talking to him in a voice I immediately recognized as a prominent man of the community and a supervisor at The NC Finishing Plant where daddy worked. I had heard this man speak at the Union Hall Meetings, had taken paper sacks of candy and oranges that he distributed from Santa during their annual Christmas Program, heard his clear tenor lead us in jubilant renditions of “Joy to the World.” I’m not sure what my parent’s told me about the event then, but I was practically an adult before I understood this was a cross-burning and this man I knew was part of the Ku Klux Klan. I do remember the curiosity it spiked in me that this grown man would be hiding in a creepy costume in the middle of the night scaring people and I wondered what on earth had happened to cause such a scene. In hindsight, I am glad I knew the whereabouts of my father that night and that he had not chose to participate.
Around this same time or maybe earlier because my memory of this event is fuzzy, there were some curious incidents closer to home. Occasionally items would go missing for no reason: equipment, tools or gasoline would vanish from our gas tanks. People didn’t lock their doors at night then and robbery was uncommon as no one had much of anything worth stealing anyway. One night when all the menfolk were away at the Union Hall meeting, my teenaged sister saw a Peeping Tom through the blinds and recognized it as the face of a black man. Mama loaded us into the car to go down to my grandma’s and on the way, saw the black shadow of what she assumed was the same man now smoking a cigarette across the road in the yard at my Aunt Polly’s house.
All of us kids were stuffed into in the small bathroom at the center of the house and ordered not to come out; this was myself, my older cousins Patty and Bobby and my sister and perhaps my brother, all stuffed into a bathroom the size of a closet. All the women including my grandma were toting shotguns and once in a while we’d hear the boom as the shot blast somewhere into the dark. Later, we’d learn our cousin Jimmy had been at home at his mama’s house that night and with one phone call, he came out with his shotgun blasting in the direction of the cigarette. The man hollered and took for the woods with my cousin in pursuit.
Soon the other men returned from their meeting and followed the commotion with hunting dogs, something I’d only know later through watching movies and reading books as a “posse”. Years later, I asked some of the family about this event because in my mind, it was all being done to simply scare the man, like a bunch of grown men playing cowboys in the woods. I was assured, however, both the pursuit and the shot were real. It’s hard telling what my kinfolks would have done to that man had they gotten their hands on him. Due to past troubles, they felt fairly certain they knew his identity, and while he was not killed, it’s likely that he was injured or perhaps scared into a few weeks of “bedrest”.
What does this have to do with today?
My Christmas Eve was not untouched by this sort of prejudice when a family member cited Donald Trump’s business success as an endorsement for his presidency and another family member chimed in how “Trump says what everyone is thinking.” I know you’re not supposed to talk religion or politics in social situations and especially at Christmastime but I wasn’t going to sit there and let anyone believe Trump is talking for me. Trump reminds me of that man behind the white mask I witnessed as a child. He clothes his prejudice behind a mask of success and bravado, spewing ignorance and fear from his lips and through his actions. This person does not speak for me and I shudder to think the negative impact someone like that could cause in our relationships with the world. I’m not a political spokesperson and I am not savvy enough to present my viewpoints in any sort of debate, but as I told my relatives that night, just because someone thinks something doesn’t mean they should say it. Even as a red-neck hillbilly, I know enough about the world to know that is not what I want in a leader.
I apologize if any of you reading this disagree with my political leanings; I don’t want to get into the pros and cons here about any particular candidate or party system. This is my blog and I’m free to express my viewpoints and insist on a respectful dialogue. But I’d be lying if I did not confess that I long so for that age of innocence, even if it was imagined and not as innocent as I remember.
It’s nearly impossible to approach the New Year without some form of hope or another and I believe joint hopes work like prayers and assume their own kind of power. It is my hope that in 2016, we all look within ourselves and others and realize that when fear is leading our thoughts and actions, God is likely absent. God lives with faith and light and compassion to our neighbors; God would not have us live in fear but rather in love. I hope you remember here in the shadow cast by the Christmas season that Jesus came to us, himself a helpless refugee and how he suffered at the hands of those who feared and ridiculed him. I hope we can all find the courage to speak out for what it is that we believe in and have respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree. I hope we do not blindly follow propaganda that is untrue or does not align with our hearts. I hope we always remember the value of a human life, the value of all human lives. No one should wear the smug crown of righteousness; those who choose to live rigidly in their convictions leave no room for the light to seep in.
I wish you health, love, peace of mind and happiness in the New Year. I’ll see you in 2016!
The Girl From Goat Pasture road