Monday, July 16, 2012

The South that raised me

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When I was a child, all of the South was like the Mississippi of this 1966 NBC News documentary, Mississippi: A Self-Portrait.

The only thing was that Mississippi was just a little bit more.

If we all waived Confederate battle flags -- we called them "Rebel flags" -- Mississippians waived them a little bit more. Especially during football season, for the University of Mississippi was (and is) home of the Ole Miss Rebels. Today, the name remains, though the flag and "Colonel Rebel" do not, and that transition was not an easy one for Mississippians.

If we all celebrated "moonlight and magnolias" and venerated "the Lost Cause," Mississippi celebrated and venerated a little bit more.

And if there was ugliness toward blacks -- we called them "Negroes" or "nigras" or "colored," and that's when we were trying to be nice -- or racial strife to be unleashed, Mississippians did what Southerners did back then. Just a little bit more fervently.

I was born in 1961.
Mississippi: A Self-Portrait aired on NBC in 1966, when I was in kindergarten in Baton Rouge. Until 1970, I attended legally segregated elementary schools.

Welcome to my world.

WELCOME to my upbringing as the child of racist parents in a racist, racially segregated society, which represented the only way they knew how to live. Which represented, for a long time, the only world I ever knew.

If you know anything about the South today, watching this film will show you how far it's come in 46 years. If you know anything about the South today, you know how far it still has to go. You also know this:
It gets complicated.

I was raised by white folk just like the white folk in this documentary.

You want to know the dirty little secret of that? The part that makes one both a victim and a perpetrator, brings one to the line where the difference between conscious and unconscious -- willfulness and reflexiveness -- gets . . .

It's this: Ivan Pavlov, of "Pavlov's dog" fame, was right.

Pavlov started ringing a bell whenever he fed his dogs. Soon enough, the dogs began to slobber at the ringing of a bell. We white Southerners of a certain age --
a great many of us -- were conditioned to slobber at the ringing of any number of bells, most of them cracked.

AND THAT'S what the Yankees can't take away -- what maybe even Jesus can't completely take away. We can learn morality. We can accept "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" in our minds and, indeed, even in our hearts.

We can do this. God Almighty compels us to do so; I know this. The force of our will enables us to at least attempt this.

But none of this takes away that goddamned --
God-damned, to be precise -- and devilishly cracked bell that a sick society started to ring in our ears the minute we popped out of our mamas' wombs. If we white Southerners of a certain age are honest, those of us who were neither born saints nor raised by them, we recognize that God-damned, subconscious half a second between some stimulus right out of 1966 (or 1956, for that matter) and the moral conscience that imperfectly informs our conscious mind in 2012.

Most white Southerners won't tell you that; I just did. Because that damning 1966 documentary about Mississippi -- about how old times there were not forgotten -- is pretty much how I was reared in south Louisiana back then. Hell, I remember when my eldest uncle died when I was a junior in high school (and I'm talking 1977 here), it was real important for my old man to find out whether the funeral home in Ponchatoula was "all-white."

The mortician eagerly assured him that, yes, it was. Another place in town was the "colored funeral home."

Because race mixing was
(is?) an issue, even when you're dead as a doornail, sealed in a coffin and 6 feet deep in the good Southern soil.

WELCOME to my world, the one I cannot escape no matter how far afield of the South I might wander. The world that made my mind and haunts my heart. The world that gave so many of us that God-damned subconscious half second.

make sure you go here (and that you watch the segments in order) to see how we're trying -- black and white alike -- to make sense of what made no damn sense at all, God help us.

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