Friday, May 16, 2008

The Elephant In The Room: Part 2

My family didn't travel off the farm much during my kid years. There was an occasional trip to Maryland to visit my mother's brother, and we ventured into Montgomery, WV, once in a while when a relative was recuperating from heart surgery at Montgomery General Hospital. But our experience outside Nicholas County, WV -- all-White Nicholas County, I should add -- was extremely limited.

(I should add briefly the excitement I felt as a kid traveling into Montgomery. The Murphy's Department store there, with it's escalator, live pet shop and in-store cafe felt positively cosmopolitan. The few Saturdays I spent there as a pre-teen were thrilling.)

I was about ten years old when, during a road trip to visit my uncle in Maryland, my dad became lost while driving through Baltimore, and ended up taking the family into a very urban part of the city. To a kid from the holler, the tall buildings and as-far-as-the-eye-could-see pavement was as close to a big-time city as I'd ever been.

It was late, as I remember. Or early, depending upon your perspective. It was after midnight, and I remember finding it odd that everything was still lit up. Street lights were glaring, and people were everywhere. Kids were playing, and people were standing on the streets talking.

Most of the people were black.

In the Chrysler with me was my father, mother, grandmother and two siblings. (You could pack a bunch of people into an American made car before the invention of car seats.) Dad saw a police cruiser parked along the street, and decided to pull over and get directions back to the interstate from the officer.

The rest of the family sat nervously in the Chrysler.

While my dad talked to the officer a dozen or so feet from the car, several young African American teens walked toward our car. As a group they stood beside our car, talking. A couple of them even leaned against the car, as if we weren't in it. Suddenly, my grandmother raised her hands to the sky and blurted out:

"Dear Lord, if they're gonna kill us, let them kill us quickly!"

(I recall immediately questioning why she would pray for a quick death. If I were to pray, I reasoned, I would pray to God to deliver us safely from harm's way.)

My dad finished getting directions, jumped back into the car and we headed back to the interstate. We didn't talk about how anxious we were while sitting there, but we all knew.

It took several miles for that anxiety to decrease.

My grandmother wasn't a racist. She was a kind, loving woman who was generous and friendly to everyone she knew. She was a woman who had little power in her life, and very little experience with people who were dramatically different than she. The social inexperience that comes with geographical isolation provided her few clues about what to expect from those who were different, and how to best interact with them.

She wasn't a racist. She was "uncomfortable."

Something about that sounds familiar.


Chris James said...

Best. Blogpost. Ever.

RedZeppelin said...

Awesome post.

That description also fit my late grandmother perfectly.

Racism isn't always born of hatred.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist throughout WV either.

primalscreamx said...

I feel you, but it's only one of the elephants. There's a whole herd in here, man.

The Film Geek said...

Thanks Chris, and Red. I'm not certain lots of people really comprehend the isolation that was in WV prior to modern technology and travel.

And Bill: I agree, this is but one of the elephants. Your thoughts on Obama's decision not to campaign here is one, also. I just don't think we should ignore our role in this, too.

Elvis Drinkmo said...

With all due respect, FG, I kind of wonder if a black kid couldn't tell a similar story if him and his family got lost on a back road in West Virginia.

I guess what I'm saying is that being uncomfortable around people who are different isn't limited to particular group or culture. I think we all are more comfortable around the people who are like us and not so comfortable around the people who aren't.

In some ways, I wouldn't blame a black family for being scared about getting lost in rural West Virginia and I'm not going to say for absolute certain that they shouldn't be. By the same token, they are more than likely not going to have any problems. I imagine that some African-American people who have lived their whole lives in an inner-city might feel the same way.

You know, I live in the woods where there's no shortage of ATVs, guns, country music, and empty snuff cans. But we have a male gay couple living down the creek from us. They have a rainbow flag draped over the side of their barn and everything- nobody bothers them. 60 Minutes and CNN ain't never going to do a report on that story. It might interfere with the media's popular stereotype like the ones they play out over and over about black people on TV shows like Cops.

The sad thing about it- I think black people and Appalachian people have a lot more common than what most people think. For one thing, a lot upper class people from the "vanilla suburbs" are quick to dismiss people from both cultures as being stupid, lazy, and violent without really taking the time to really get to know any of us.

(PS- This is a great post. I love talking about these issues.)

The Film Geek said...

Thanks, Elvis! And I apprecaite and agree with your comments. All peoples seem to share that general comfort when around people who are similar.

And I know black families who spent time in Bergoo, WV, or Summersville, who felt exactly as you describe.

The difference is in terms of how that uncomfortableness plays out on the political scale.

In America, the White majority holds the political and economic power. My grandmother, after her return from Maryland, probably voted for White men who she felt comfortable with, who shared her cultural values and perspectives. In turn, they passed laws that benefited the majority to which they belonged, and served as role models who inspired other young Whites to be politicians.

They cycle is perpetual, and the legal and political outcomes generally benefit the majority.

The black family stuck for an uncomfortable weekend in Bergoo returned to their home in Huntington to an otherwise powerless existance as a minority in this country.

The Film Geek said...

I meant to add:

"Uncomfortable" can be a pretty powerful emotion when it's translated by the majority into votes and laws.

jennyville said...

Well said, FG and Elvis.

We have a chance to prove the media wrong in November, and I hope we do. We can blog all we want, but ultimately only our election results will send a clear message to the rest of the country.

jennyville said...

Well, that was kind of vague. Let me clarify:

I hope that WV democrats vote for their party - for the ideals and values that most closely match their own, for what they believe is best for this nation - even if it's a candidate they are less comfortable with. I like to believe that they can. I hope I'm right.

In a way, I kinda like that the dems haven't made the choice easy; it's forced some of us to really think about what's important.

The Film Geek said...

Perfectly said, Jenny.

Elvis Drinkmo said...

I agree Film Geek. I don't think anyone can argue that black people haven't gotten the short end of the stick for a long time. And that white candidate you speak of was probably Robert Byrd- reformed now, but he did vote against the civil rights act in the 60s. And I don't mean to sound like one of those elitist liberals, my great-grampa was Klansman down in Mason County. I never knew him, but I guess he was one mean son of a bitch. He was a hardcore union man, who used to tie Grampa to a tree and bull whip him for being sassy or whatever. (Don't think I didn't hear that story a million times growing up when I complained about my parents being mean for sending me to my room.)

But Bill Lynch has a point, if candidates, black or white, aren't going to spend any time trying to win our vote, they shouldn't expect it and the media need not try to analyze our "state psyche" and accept the fact that Appalachians are like everybody else- we don't like being ignored.

I mean seriously, imagine if I were campaigning for president and I made off handed comments about Oregon or Washington from a podium in Charleston- never once even trying to talk to them. Would my supporters have any right to complain when those states turned out against me?

Something like, "I don't expect people from the state of California to vote for me. They're too busy hugging trees and clinging to their granola. They blame all their problems on homophobes, conservatives, and genetically modified foods". Would I have any reason to complain when California votes against me? Would the national media charge Californians with being "anti-hillbilly" because they didn't support me?

Like Bill points out at Don't Print This, George W. Bush was here all the time in 2004. John Kerry was virtually non-existent. Any surprise that Bush won? He isn't one of us and yet he went out of his way to try to connect. Jay Rockefeller? Last name says it all.

But I'll quit rambling. For what it's worth, Jenny's right. This election has forced us to think about both racism and misogyny. Whether a person feels those things are exaggerated or not given enough attention- it ain't going to hurt us one bit to talk openly and honestly about them. And she might have changed my mind about voting for Obama this fall. I was going to vote for Cynthia McKinney (a southern black woman- all my bases are covered), but I agree that if West Virginia pulled together and threw its 5 electoral votes behind Obama instead of McCain- it would send an entirely different signal to the nation then the one they're used to getting. It would be kind of like taking the high road.

jacilyn said...

the film geek said: The difference is in terms of how that uncomfortableness plays out on the political scale.

It seems to me that it's the poor dumb worthless white people of West Virginia who are the marginalized ones. This isn't racism, it's bigotry against people based on their social class.

The argument basically suggests that democracy should give way to the values and decision-making of the elite, because the peasants don't really deserve the right to vote. So, since it's not possible to actually take their vote away, instead, their vote will just be ignored and minimized.

We are encouraged to ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton is overwhelmingly preferred by the Appalachians. We are encouraged to ignore that Barack Obama just suffered a defeat humiliating enough to really raise questions about his "presumptive nominee" status. Why ignore this result? Because these voters don't deserve their vote, and don't deserve to be accorded the same respect as full American citizens. They're just dumb, poor, bigoted white folk. Or as the NYTimes says,

So, when she stops casting the nomination as a standoff between the Dukes of Hazzard and the Huxtables and accepts the outcome as a fait accompli, the party can unite, and there will be a better sense as to which states are in play.

When the will of the voters becomes irrelevant because anyone not voting for "correct" candidate is dismissed as a racist and automatically assumed to be what Randi Rhodes calls "white trash", bigotry is present and needs to be challenged.