For many years now I have sought ways to reconcile with my Southern roots. My white Southern roots. I find it painful to re-read my journals and stumble across blatantly and unselfconsciously racist entries. But I am done with white guilt, as I see that only perpetuates white privilege narcissism. In the words of poet, psychotherapist, and anti-oppression trainer Leticia Nieto, “refuse to re-use recycled guilt.” (From Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, Cuetzpalin Publishing, 2014, p 55.)
I am reminded of a powerful quote from one of my favorite authors, William Maxwell (Time Will Darken It, Harper and Row, 1948): ” The present with its unsolved personal relationships and complex problems seldom intrudes upon the past, but when it does, the objects under glass, the framed handwriting of dead men, the rotting silk and corroded metal all are quickened, for a tiny fraction of time and to an almost imperceptible degree, by life.”
And I am reminded of an essay I wrote entitled ‘Gone South’ (Silk Road: A Literary Crossroads, 6.1, 2011, pp8-40), in which I addressed the intrusion of the past that is part of what it means to be Southern. Here are a few excerpts from that piece that I find relevant to our very un-post-racial reality. Of note, I grew up on land that had been taken from the Pamunkey Indians (of Pocahontas fame), which just this week received federal recognition (see The Washington Post article by Joe Heim “A renowned Virginia Indian tribe finally wins federal recognition,” 7-2-15).
I was born and raised on 600 acres in coastal Virginia that was the first racially integrated children’s summer camp in the South. In 1957 my Presbyterian minister father was recruited from his North Carolina church to open and run Camp Hanover. He presided over each solemn opening and closing campfire deep in the nighttime woods, reciting the poem, “Kneel always when you light a fire, kneel reverently and grateful be for God’s unfailing charity.” As he lit the fire, a circle of restless faces gathered around. The faces of the white children glowed in the firelight, while those of the black children stayed hidden.
Our land near Cold Harbor had witnessed the bloodiest battles in the Civil War. Two battles that were two years apart; soldiers on both sides in the last battle unearthed decomposing bodies from the previous battle as they dug trenches. The grounds of Camp were strewn with their bullets, musket balls, and deep earthworks. From an earlier time, the Pamunkey Indians had scattered white quartz arrowheads. My mother collected arrowheads and bullets along the road. She taught me to search for them. (…)
One late summer day in 1970 I was riding in our VW bug, my mother driving on back roads from the Richmond airport. I was ten, sitting in the backseat reading a book, vaguely registering the Virginia countryside and farms we were passing, when she slammed on the brakes.
I never heard my mother curse, so I looked up quickly.
“What?” I asked.
“Keep your head down and stay quiet,” she said, adding more softly as she turned off the engine, “It’ll be OK.”
I could see her leaning forward, both hands tightly clutching the top of the steering wheel. I slumped down in the seat while quickly peering out the side window to see what had stopped us, to see what would be OK—to see what she didn’t want me to see. I figured it was a bad car accident.
It was approaching dusk, the witching hour for the waning sun. The field next to us glowed golden, with large rectangular hay bales strewn about the field of wheat stalk stubble. Hovering over the field, suspended in the thick damp evening air were shining motes of hay bits, effervescent like Fourth-of-July sparklers. With our car engine turned off, the sound of cicadas and crickets became a curtain of white noise, as mesmerizing as the floating hay.
“Evening, ma’am. Don’t mean no trouble. Gotta stop you here awhile. There’s a meeting passing through, that’s all.”
The man’s voice, polite, official sounding, with crisp words stuck in a slow southern drawl, echoed through our open window. I looked between the seats and saw a spotless white-gloved hand cupped over the doorsill. Behind that was blazing white with a thin, trickling, blood red cross. Above the cross was a white mask and pale thin lips moving within an elliptical cutout area. From the words spoken and the weight of the voice, I expected to see the blue uniform of a policeman. When I first saw the white mask, I had to remind myself it wasn’t Halloween.
As the man moved away, I looked out the front windshield to see where he was going. Up ahead, perhaps fifty feet away, was a swarm of ghostly pointed-hat masked figures swirling around a huge bonfire. It took a moment for me to see that inside the bonfire was a ten-foot dark wooden cross.
“What’s that and why are they wearing those weird costumes?” I asked.
“Shhhhh—I’ll tell you later. Stay down and stay quiet!”
Absorbing the fear in my mother’s voice, I sank deeper in the seat, but moved over in the middle so I could see out the front windshield at the fire and the figures. Several of the white-clad men reached into the fire with long wooden sticks and withdrew flaming torches. Then en masse, with fluid amoeboid movement, the group came toward us, sucking in lone figures as it streamed forward. I heard deep-voiced chanting, words indecipherable as a foreign language. They grew louder, surrounding our car, lighting the inside with their glowing whiteness and lit torches, gently rocking the car as they brushed past it, moving across the road, and thinning to double file down a dirt path. The comforting familiar smell of wood smoke followed them.
I didn’t hear my mother start the car. We were speeding away, screeching around bends in the road. Reflected in the rearview mirror, I saw my mother’s face set hard as stone, etched with the fierce anger I seldom saw. I was more afraid of her anger than I’d been of the men we’d seen. I stayed quiet, bracing myself for the rough ride. When we got home she disappeared into her bedroom, talking quietly with my father—so quietly I couldn’t make out what they were saying, even with my ear pressed against the rough stucco wall between our bedrooms.
At the dinner table that night, my father told me we’d been in the middle of a Klu Klux Klan meeting. “They’re racist white men who wear those costumes to look like ghosts of Confederate soldiers to scare black people—and to scare white people who don’t agree with them— like it scared your mother.”
As I slowly chewed a mouthful of food, I considered this information. The ghostly man who had stopped us seemed polite, a Southern gentleman. Being in the midst of the KKK meeting had been exotic, dreamlike, seductive—almost beautiful. I knew that what I had seen—the way I had seen it—was not something to discuss. I swallowed the dissonance between my mother’s reaction and my own experience of the encounter.
The dissonance remains.
The landscape of my childhood is a landscape of half-buried violence, covered with violets, punctuated by deep, abandoned wells. The roads leading back to it are as twisted as the country roads I grew up on. Within the accretive layers of nostalgia, lie the sludge of orange dust tasting of blood. I fear—and yearn for—the complexity, the offbeat rhythm of the South that formed me.