|Integration Protest, 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas|
In my mind, it's always 1957 sending the snatches of conversation, the turns of phrase I never hear any longer, back into my head. Or is it 1964? They all blur together, those years of the 1957 integration crisis in Little Rock, when Eisenhower had to order the federal troops in to quash our defiance, and 1964, when the defiance defeated by Eisenhower's troops met added humiliation in Johnson's passing of the Civil Rights act.
And always Christmas day. There's my aunt Pauline delivering herself of an oracular pronouncement at the dinner table, a pronouncement that, even to my child's head, sounds plain cracked:
I don't care what anyone says. If I were one of them, I'd be out there marching for my rights, too. But Daddy lived and died a segregationist, and I intend to live and die a segregationist just like Daddy.
"Daddy" was born in 1869. In Alabama. He grew up in Mississippi.
Pauline lives in the 1950s (or 1960s, depending on which Christmas this is) in south-central Arkansas. Unlike "Daddy," she has been to college. She teaches school. Because Daddy lived and died a yellow-dog Democrat, she'll live and die a Democrat, but she doesn't like it one little bit that liberals from beyond the South are trying to take over "her" party.
Today (C.E. 2012) Pauline's daughter is now not merely a garden-variety Republican (I'm riffing off Jesse Helms's famous lesbophobic statement here), but a fire-breathing secessionist one, who has sent me impassioned, anguished messages this past week about how the end of the world is at hand, how my vote helped re-elect antiChrist, how I've listened to the devil and not GOD, and how "our precious Savior" tells us we absolutely must work for a living and not expect others to support us through handouts and Obamagifts.
That is, she has sent me emails about race. About raceracerace. About all that ever matters, in the final analysis, to us white Southerners. About all that ultimately matters in 1760 or 1860 or 1960 or 2012 to us white Southerners.
About the same racial conundrums that confronted her mother in the 1950s and 1960s, which resulted in her mother's bifurcation of mind as she recognized simultaneously that 1) human beings denied rights have every right to demand them, and 2) if she happened to be such a human being, she'd be marching for her rights, too, but 3) we have a responsibility to do what Daddy did even when Daddy grew up in a world entirely different from our own--even if what Daddy did meant denying rights to a minority now justly demanding rights long denied.
In other words, we in the South have not budged a single inch on the matter of race in, oh, fifty years. Make that a hundred years. Make that several centuries.
It remains the insurmountable obstacle we cannot overcome, the fly tainting our milk of human kindness that we refuse even to see in the antique rose-bedecked milk jug bequeathed from Great-Grandma So and So. It remains alive and well in wild, wild chatter about antiChrist and Obamagifts and "our precious Savior" and his command that we work, work, work and therefore scorn the lazy, who happen to be immoral by being lazy. The lazy and immoral who happen to be black . . . .
It's Christmas day, and my aunt Pauline has just delivered her Delphic statement at the dinner table, and so it must be 1964, since we children were not allowed at the long mahogany table in my grandmother's dining room until well into our teen years. We were banished to the nether reaches of the kitchen (where the Help ate), to the breakfast room off the back of the kitchen, where we sat around a decidedly more plebeian construction covered in swirls of yellow fake marble, held up by shiny chrome bent legs, and surrounded by yellow chairs covered in some squeaky fabric called some godawful mid-century fake neologistic name like naugahyde.
Or it may well have been 1957, and we were in the dining room to hear the Oracle pronounce as we fetched our desserts from the long sideboard groaning with cakes, pies, trays of cookies, platters of candy, bowls of glowing ambrosia, the large punchbowl on its separate little sideboard that my grandmother filled each Christmas day with eggnog she mixed herself from scratch.
Whatever the year, the declaration is followed by the same ritual: the women retire to the living room to sit, sew and crochet, sip coffee or ladylike tots of after-dinner whiskey and tell hilarious and sometimes bawdy stories, while the men go to the little dark wood-paneled den at the back of the house, a feature my uncle had added for his mother and sister in the paneled-den-crazed 1950s. There, they knock back stout glasses of peat-brown whiskey and talk endless politics, cigars and cigarettes transmuting the air of the little room to blue fug as they proclaim, bluster, and threaten for all the world as if the War happens to be at hand again.
My mother's brother W.Z. aka, en famille, Brother aka Dub to outsiders:
Tell you one damned thing. They try to shove more of it down our throats and there's going to be some more damned Yankee bodies lying around the countryside all over again.
He's not talking about, I realize, people like Schwerner and Goodman or Viola Liuzzo. If it's 1957, none of those murders has yet taken place. If it's 1964, Schwerner and Goodman will have been killed only months before this Christmas day and are merely ciphers in a seemingly incessant chain of murders committed to safeguard our Sacred Way of Life.
No, he's talking about "the" War, the only War that has ever mattered for us. The War we refuse to get over, the moment at which we lost our bid for sovereign states' rights (and the continuation of slavery per omnia saecula saeculorum, as our precious Savior decreed).
A few years down the road, he'll sternly warn me that, with my race-mixing ideas, I'll be one of those bodies found in a bayou outside Little Rock with concrete blocks attached to my feet. This after I inform him--I can never keep my sassy mouth shut when a biblical verse appears to subvert some idiocy proposed by my parents and other members of their generation--that one of Abraham's wives, Hagar, was an African, and so if the patriarchs married across racial lines, how can one argue that the bible forbids race mixing?
And then my father launches into a story we all consider witty, about the Yankee caught in a speed trap in our town in south Arkansas, who had so little sense he imagined he could defend himself in court against what was plain and obvious entrapment. The more he blustered, the more the judge determined to fine and then re-fine him, every bit like Sam Ponder in Miss Welty's Ponder Heart: the more Mr. Ponder raved about how he wasn't crazy when Uncle Daniel slyly gave his father the slip in the mental hospital, the more he proved himself to be a mental patient--since raving is, as Miss Welty informs us, precisely what crazy is.
Man just ranted and raved. The more he ranted and the more he raved, the more every lawyer in the courtroom and everybody sitting in the gallery laughed. Thought he could escape our justice just because he was from New York.
My father acts all of this out with his pitch-perfect mimicry, doing the New York accent to a fare thee well, we judge, as we hullabaloo along with those imagined courtroom spectators. New York notions of justice meet Southern reality on our turf for a change. We'll show you what justice really is . . .
That War. Which we don't intend to forget. Which has never really ended for us.
Because the conundrum of race we don't propose ever to face honestly remains with us every bit as much in 2012 as it did in 1964 and 1957 and 1860. And Rick Perlstein and Ari Berman and Steven Hsieh are speaking God's gospel truth when they observe that the Republican party, as it's now configured, thrives on the Southern strategy of Lee Atwater with its race-baiting and dog whistles about entitlement, handouts, Obamagifts, and our precious Savior and his solid work ethic.
And it's absolutely no accident that the waning demographic strength of the Republican party, post-Southern strategy, now lies squarely in the states of the old Confederacy. Who are once again making ludicrous noises about secession that I heard as recently as Christmas day 1964 and Christmas day 1957, and hoped I'd never have to hear again in my lifetime.