One of my neighbors living three buildings down had his leg amputated several months ago. At first, the doctors thought it was a Brown Recluse spider bite but later figured out it was a circulation problem. Much of the lower leg turned black before the VA amputated it in Birmingham. I kept wondering when they were going to treat it, as the gangrene slowly spread like a black oil slick up his leg. Or, better analogy, like one of the blacksnakes so common down here progressively coiling, cutting off circulation.
“L” is 65 years old, African-American, an ex-Vietnam vet, who by his own description, was a mean, hard drinking, street-fighter when younger. Now, he sits in his doorway in a wheelchair, chain-smoking and listening all day to religious radio, gazing at the spectacular Appalachian view in the distance. I stop by to check on him while dog walking. “L” is unaware, but he is beginning to show the cognitive impairment of early stage dementia.
Since I am one of the few non-working people in the complex with a car available during the day, I also drive him to medical appointments. His building is racially mixed, with a large contingent of stereotyped Southern “rednecks” (interest declared, I get along with all of ‘em.) These “rednecks” come by every day to ask if he needs anything and share company, more so, with one significant exception, than the other Blacks in the building, although to be fair, most of the Blacks work while the whites don’t. “L” has children locally, but the children are, in his words, “too busy” to stop by much.
Now if a team of sociologists flew down and administered a questionnaire to these Southern whites, I’m sure they would find evidence of “racial resentment.” Absolutely. But how would these sociologists know about this other side, that of a small group of poor working-class whites banding together informally to look out for an African-American invalid? They wouldn’t. These whites unconsciously fight their own unresolved inner civil war, between their socialization and their humanity. Sometimes one side wins, sometime the other. There’s no final victory yet. No survey purporting to uncover alleged “white supremacist” attitudes will ever capture the complexity of this consciousness and the fluid conflict between people’s consciousness and how their actions contradict their beliefs.
A few years ago, before I moved to Huntsville and was just visiting, I heard this remarkable – it was remarkable to me at least – story from one of the participants, an African-American. He told how he was sitting one summer night on his porch and had invited a white neighbor from across the street over to drink. I knew this neighbor slightly, a 30ish ex-Marine who looked always zoned out on pills and stared mutely in the distance. The alcohol flowed and soon, a heated argument about “nuthin’” broke loose. Suddenly the white guy jumped up and held two fingers to the other man’s head and shouted, “Charleston!” This was around the time of Dylan Roof’s assault on the Charleston church. Incensed, my acquaintance threw him off the porch and told him to never come back.
To my shock, though, a few days later they were again in contact, as if nothing had happened. My acquaintance needed someone to run to the store for cigarettes; because of a past gunshot wound to the leg, he couldn’t walk far, while the ex-Marine, unemployed and with no income except selling blood and gathering cans for scrap metal, needed the change. In other words – shades of “The Defiant Ones” -they depended on one another.
The ex-Marine lived in a house with no gas and electric – the utilities had been shut off years ago – and went to eat and shower at his brother’s a couple doors down. I saw his house once, though not inside. Trash and bric-brac piled up on the side porch and into the back yard. The house looked abandoned. But even after my acquaintance moved, he still would stop by to check on this man.
I later found out that the ex-Marine’s father was a hard-core racist who refused to have any contact with Blacks and told his sons never to associate with them either. But the man’s brother, who was straight and married, had a best friend who was Black and gay.
Again, that inner civil war, dividing families just like the first.
After spending more time around the ex-Marine, I picked up the astute psychological wisdom of my acquaintance’s decision (although, truthfully, few other Blacks dealing with the situation would show such understanding). The ex-Marine was deeply depressed, socially isolated and dealing with small armies of inner demons from the battlefield as well as civilian life. He was on his way to living like, again to paraphrase a Tony Curtis line from “The Defiant Ones,” one of those small creatures that stay silent all their lives and only scream out when they die.
Did he draw attention with the Charleston remark because it was a demand for recognition? To be hated, after all, is still to be recognized. I think his genuine feelings were closer to his brother’s than to his father’s. Or, on the other hand, did the liquor dissolve his inhibitions and let him express his real feelings? I think the first more than the second. But it is impossible to ever know for sure what goes on in another’s head.
Again, that inner civil war.
If there’s a lesson to these stories, it is this – and I speak from long, personal experience: Black and white working-class people relate to one another completely differently than do their middle class counterparts. It’s the behavior of two different class worlds that seldom intersect unless mediated by authority relationships. Among workers, there is more give and take; relations fluctuate. Racial boundaries quickly shift, with people sometimes subtly distancing, then coming closer before separating again. Workers do not need “diversity” training or “cultural sensitivity” workshops, that opium of the professional middle class; much of the time, they will informally work it out among themselves. I think this behavior is more widespread in the South than what I have seen up North and, of course, has everything to do with the South’s complicated racial legacy. This, of course, is not to deny that there isn’t a hard-core white minority down here, like the ex-Marine’s father, who drew permanent racial boundaries long ago and will stick to them limpet-tight until the bitter end.
David Chappell in his excellent “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow,” quotes Bob Moses of SNCC as saying “that once desegregation had been accomplished in the South, the eventual quality of relationships between the races would be finer and more durable than in the North” . . . ” This statement shocked fellow SNCC members back then – and I think it shocks today’s impoverished Left even more. But it captures an essential truth; an essential truth that I believe bears frequent repeating.