I read Marion’s recent article, Bageant and Webb: Virginia Will Miss ‘em, several times and failed to come away with the same sense of regional attack that others did. Perhaps, coming from the South, I viewed the comments filtered through a certain culture lens. (Or perhaps I’m just slow. You know how we Southerners are. ) In either event, I recognized the views expressed about ‘coastal elites’ as those as expressed by people with whom I grew up. Marion’s article generated a good deal of comment and it brought back some long-buried memories. I’d like to share a bit about my upbringing in good ol’ boy country… southern Mississippi during the 1950’s and 60’s.
I found this definition of good ol’ boy on the web: a white male Southerner with an unpretentious convivial manner and conservative or intolerant attitudes and a strong sense of fellowship with and loyalty to other members of his peer group. These are the people around whom I was raised – a mix of contrasts, a study in gentility and grace one moment juxtaposed against virulent racism and violence the next.
Children were schooled in manners from an early age. I remember when my uncle introduced me at the ripe old age of 8 to one of his associates; I subsequently received a harsh lecture about the importance of not giving a limp handshake. I remember my uncle’s words clearly. “When you shake a man’s hand, you shake it. By God, you grab ‘hold of him and let him know that there’s a “man” on the other end of that handshake. Do you understand me, boy?” I had embarrassed my uncle within his peer group. I had never, ever in my short life been spoken to like this. My uncle was visibly angry. I had violated the ‘code.’ More lessons would follow.
In many respects, my aunt and uncle did more active “parenting” than my biological parents. My uncle had a firm code by which he lived, a work ethic and unshakeable conviction of what it meant to be a man. He was determined to instill the right character traits in me early on – to make sure I grew up to be a proper Southern man.
I got my first job at the age of ripe old age of 8 or 9. My job was to water my uncle’s chickens. He raised premium fighting cocks. Upon showing myself dependable, I was given $40 dollars at the end of the year in a small ceremony around their kitchen table. I’d never seen so much money. It never occurred to me when I accepted the job that I was going to be paid. Not only was I paid, but I was promoted.
The next year I got to mow my aunt and uncle’s lawn AND the half-acre of land housing the chickens. The thing about chickens is they poop a lot. And this poop will make the grass grow so fast you can almost see it happening. Chicken manure is powerful stuff. I probably weighed all of 70 pounds and I was pushing a Big Wheel Yazoo mower through chicken poop-enhanced Johnson grass using a mower that weighed as much or more than I did.
I understood that my uncle raised, sold and gambled on his fighting cocks. I understood the sport (and what he did) was illegal, although I did not witness my one-and-only cock fight in the Mississippi Piney Woods until I was much older.
I understood from my uncle the concept of honor… doing the right thing. I noted the contradictions, but they did not seem to be contradictions at the time. You could be an honorable man and break the law, too – like when he took me to buy his daily bottle of Jim Beam whiskey at the local bootlegger’s. Our county was “dry,” but there was always whiskey – even for me when I got a cold. Peppermint candy dissolved in whiskey makes a beautifully syrupy drink that soothes a sore throat. And besides, my uncle and the sheriff were buddies at the local Shriners Hall and EVERYBODY there had whiskey. Thus, I learned there were laws that it was OK to break and laws that should not be broken. I decided all this ‘code’ stuff was pretty complicated.
When new neighbors moved in across the street, the moving van was still in front of the house when my aunt immediately began baking a casserole to take to them. It was just what one did. And when one of my aunt’s black housekeeper became ill, my aunt cooked for her. But — the food she took over was delivered in special dishes. I learned that it was important to keep the dishes of white folk and black folk separate. And my uncle, too, would work side-by-side with the ‘minority help’ and treat them sternly, but respectfully – even though my uncle was a fierce racist and would belittle Blacks when none were present. As long as Blacks followed the ‘code,’ (did not call at the front door, behaved in a subservient manner, etc.) my uncle played the role of benevolent overseer.
In 50’s and 60’s Mississippi, the races operated within prescribed boundaries. “Whites Only” water fountains were to be observed. Blacks were not allowed in the white section of the movie theater. White women were to be treated with the utmost respect by Black men. And for Blacks that did not conform to the established code of behavior, well there were other “remedies.”
When I was in the seventh grade, my family’s TV repairman was arrested for firebombing a black family’s home. There were no survivors. His son told me at school shortly thereafter that he could not wait until he was 18 so he could be the best Klansman he could be. Frankly, I was stunned by his confession and shocked by the violence. Neighbors would shake their heads in obvious sadness. Some were upset at the violence. Others were upset, not so much at the violence itself, but at its ‘necessity.’
My second run-in with the Klan was at another Uncle’s home. He was a high school principal and was in the process of complying with the Federal Desegregation order. The Klan called that night and threatened to “come kill us all.” I still recall the image of rifles and shotguns stacked next to the door and all of the adults sitting solemnly around the kitchen table… waiting for the possibility of death. (As an aside, when Haley Barbour says things weren’t that bad in Civil Rights era Mississippi, take it from me; he’s either lying or doesn’t want to admit the truth to himself.)
We moved further out into the county after I graduated from middle school. At my first day in the 10th grade, I could not believe how many pick-up trucks in the school parking lot were sporting a Johnny Reb bumper tag that read, “Hell, no! We Ain’t Fergettin.’” It was here, in 1960’s Mississippi, that I learned the Civil War was not quite over.
On my bus route, there was a family with the last name of Knight. They were infamous throughout the county for reportedly being of mixed race. Not that you could tell from looking at them; they were perfectly white. But like Hester Pryne of the Scarlet Letter, they wore a mark of shame. This original Southern sin of mixing-of-the-races actually took place a few years after the Civil War ended, but the Knights were known to be not of pure blood and so time did not matter.
As the five Knight children boarded the bus, the bus would remain deathly silent as all the other children on the bus watched the ‘N-word-Knights’ take their seats. Watching the Knight kids be ostracized was both painful and surreal. The following is a picture of a Black slave, Rachel Knight, who after the end of the Civil War married her owner, a former Confederate soldier, by the name of Newton Knight.
For a fascinating story of war, love, courage and racism, please visit: http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/309/newton-knight-and-the-legend-of-the-free-state-of-jones
My immediate family never talked about race. If I heard my parents use the “N-word,” I do not recall it. (For that I am eternally grateful.) But not all racism in Mississippi was overt. I first learned about my father’s racism while my soon-to-be wife and I were planning our wedding. We had invited a Black ROTC classmate of mine to attend. My father promptly said he would not attend if there was a Black present. My friend came to the wedding. My father also attended and wept like a baby during the ceremony. But I also had relatives who never spoke to me again… ever. Perhaps my dad was just embarrassed by our Black friend being on the guest list. He was a proud man and by inviting my friend, I had shamed him and broken the ‘code.’
After college, I served a number of years in the military during which I had my ‘sorry butt’ (as we Southerners would say) looked after by some truly wonderful people of color. For a time, these people were my family. To be honest, I liked them better than most of my biological family.
Upon leaving the military, I found that my extended family remaining in the South had passed the poison of racism on to their kids. The use of the N-word in my relatives’ homes was so rampant that I simply couldn’t stand it. After repeatedly asking that they not use that word in my presence, I finally gave up; I left. I could no longer go home. I have no intention of returning.
Are there things I miss about the South? Absolutely! I miss the sound of cicadas in the evening.
(If you’ve never heard a cicada, there are audio clips at the following website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cicada#Cicada_song The recording from Greece is closest to what I remember.)
I miss catfish fries at the river camp we used to visit. I miss seeing painted turtles sunning on logs in the river. I miss Southern “hospitality.” I miss the biscuits and the corn bread and fried okra… and there’s nothing like a nice bowl of steaming hot grits on a cold winter morning. And I miss the five or six dogs that would invariably bound off the porch and run to greet me when I visited friends and relatives.
I miss the manners… the “yes, ma’am” and “no ma,am” expressions of respect I found to be so comforting during my youth. And I miss my uncle (now deceased) and his sense of honor. I miss all these things but choose to live far from the Deep South. I choose to live elsewhere not because the South I grew up in remains unchanged, but I prefer to remain apart from the South because of the painful memories it evokes.
The “Rednecks” with whom I was raised are just another species of good-ol’-boy folk who are ‘brought up’ with a ‘code’ and a powerful sense of belonging to a group. They reinforce each other’s beliefs and hold to these beliefs with tremendous sense of pride. Belonging to this community is critically important to them. I know this place. I was raised there and I have found communities with similar traits all over the country.
My father was never accepted as a good ol’ boy. He liked to wear ‘fancy’ clothes more suited for church than working in the field. When I accompanied him into the local coffee shop, the good ol’ boys would look up, greet him coolly, but not invite him to join them. He was not one of them and it was evident from the way they looked at us that we were tolerated but not truly welcome. They, in their blue denim overalls, boots, and John Deere baseball caps, lived in their own world and we were not a part of it.
If you’ve never lived in or belonged to one of these closed communities, their ways and beliefs can be difficult to understand. The members of these groups will sometimes cling to a disproven belief with incredible passion… a belief that the South will rise again… that Northerners are not to be trusted. Why would anyone willingly hold to evidently misguided or false beliefs? It is easy to explain, but much more difficult to understand and accept.
Good ol’ boys hold to their beliefs, both true and false, because these beliefs are their buddies’ beliefs and their loyalty to their good-ol’- boy buddies can be stronger than blood – and certainly more important than something as tenuous as Truth. They would rather be wrong together than right alone. It is part of the ‘code.’
This is not the story of the entire South. Not everyone in the South is intolerant of race. This is simply my story… or a part of it. When I read Marion’s post, it took me back home… to a place I no longer visit… to recollections I rarely call up… and to memories of a different time, a different place and a different code of life.
Author’s Note: I grew up in Jones County Mississippi. Believe it or not, but Jones County actually seceded from the Confederacy. The story of Newton Knight, his slave and later wife, Rachel, is a fascinating one. Do check out the weblink provided above for a unique taste of southern history. If you want to learn more, there are numerous books available through Amazon.com about the Free State of Jones. See: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_1_19?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=free+state+of+jones&sprefix=free+state+of+jones
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.
- Haley Barbour refuses to denounce Mississippi license plates commemorating KKK leader (crooksandliars.com)
- Ongoing Supremacy of White Supremacy by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH (dandelionsalad.wordpress.com)