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“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.
Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.
In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.
Perhaps by now—if not within minutes or hours—most discussion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, will be crowded from the news cycle. What on earth could be more compelling to Americans than serious talk about the role of bias in jury deliberation, or gun laws and cultural codes of firearm manliness, or voting rights, or who really gets to stand their ground in America?
DeWitt Henry is the author of the novel The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel), and a mid-life memoir-in-essays, Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations. Both are sequels to his latest memoir, Sweet Dreams, about growing up on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, he is a Professor at Emerson College in Boston. (For more details, please visit www.dewitthenry.com.)
The first “novel” I ever finished writing wasn’t really a novel at all. It was a true story told in the third person, with all the names changed but the same events and surroundings. It was called Poundland and it was about a year I spent working at a single-price retailer.
It began in the summer of 2007, when I finished working at a hotel in St. Andrews and returned to Dundee for my final year of university. Over the summer I had for the first time in my life become accustomed to having money, and I had made the decision to work weekends during my final year so that it would be the first I didn’t spend in poverty.
The only job I could find, though, was at Poundland, and I only got that because my flatmate worked there. Jobs were hard to come by in Dundee and Poundland was the lowest of the low. It was one of the few places that actually paid the minimum wage. Poundland was a place people joked about and avoided at all costs… both as a place to work and to shop. The customers and staff were the most desperate and hopeless people I ever knew.
March 28, 2011
When Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video of herself complaining about the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA and how their existence on campus interfered with her student performance (in the video Wallace mocks the way Asian students speak on their cell phones in the library. “Ching Chong, Ting Tong, Ling Long” she sneers, holding an imaginary phone up to her ear) the response was venomous. Tons of insulted students of all races, creeds and genders logged online to insult her back, oftentimes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes designed to insult and intimidate. Most of these insults drew attention to her cleavage and the fact that she was a “stupid, slutty little white girl”, rather than a bigot. Though the rage that Wallace provoked was certainly merited, as noted on blogs like Racialicious and Colorlines, the use of equally appalling slurs to shame her begs the question of what kind of dialogue we aim to promote in our current culture. Though there has been considerable backlash about what is politically correct and incorrect to say in our culture, the constant influx of these type of insult matches demonstrates how often discussions about racism, sexism, orany other “ism” end with piled on insults and relying on hurtful stereotypes in order to shame the other. This is the current landscape of 2011, a far cry from the days where politically correct labels were slapped on to anything in order to minimize conflict. These days, people want their conflicts right out there in the open. The question is, are these types of conversations actually working to minimize hate?
Here are some quick, belated thoughts on why the Star Trek universe (which should be celebrated) is appropriately analogous to Columbus Day (which should not be celebrated):
One of Star Trek’s main purposes is to revise the tenets and practices of imperialism and colonialism, to promote the idea that humans can perhaps explore the world (the universe) around them without actually conquering it.
Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.
One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”
With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”
Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.
(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)
And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.
And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.
We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.
We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…
I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.
I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.
As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):
“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.
Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…
V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.
“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”
It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.
What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.
The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.
As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.
“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”
I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.
It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.
On December 8, 1984, south of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, the FBI surrounded Robert Mathews’ Greenbank farm house. Mathews had founded The Order, a white supremacist group connected to twelve armed robberies that netted over four million dollars, a wounding of a police officer, and the murder of Denver talk show host Alan Berg. In a Coupeville classroom a few miles north my classmates and I were informed that school busses to Greenbank had been cancelled. That day Mathews would die in a fire after a cache of explosives detonated during a shoot out. All I knew about Mathews, thirty-one at death, was that he was a “bad man”. The crimes of murder and armed robbery I could understand, but not white supremacy. What motivated Mathews to make the sacrifice? Why join The National Alliance, The Aryan Brotherhood, Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or found a group such as The Order? Are white supremacists caricatures of evil or simply misguided? Who would be willing to kill and die for these beliefs? Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: Frank Meeink’s Story (Hawthorne Books, Spring 2010) confronts these questions, as does the film that parallels his life, American History X. Frank says the film and his story, though, are not just about him, but, “Every kid who got sucked up into the white supremacy movement and had a change of heart.”
Meeink became accustomed to violence early, in part due to lack of a structured family. When he was an infant his father left, and his mother remarried an abusive man as she escaped into drugs and alcohol. Meeink, alone on the streets of Philadelphia, often truant from school, descended into a world of bullies and victims and immersion in gang life. He was raped at gunpoint, and began carrying self-hatred and a desire for vindication. The perfect recruit for the “movement”, he succumbed to skinhead indoctrination and rose quickly, eventually recruiting others and putting needle to the skin to show his allegiance: a swastika on his neck, a portrait of Joseph Goebbels on his chest, and S-K-I-N-H-E-A-D on his knuckles. He celebrated Hitler’s birthday on April 20th, feared the ZOG, or Zionist Occupational Government, and poured over literature such as The Turner Diaries. Arrested multiple times for violent and petty crimes, finally, after almost killing a person, he went to prison for felony assault. There his life turned as he befriended black inmates.
Soon after his release the Oklahoma City tragedy stunned our nation, and troubled Meeink to the point he went to the FBI. This led him to the Anti-Defamation League, to speaking out against racism, and to Jody M. Roy, Ph. D., a chair on the board of directors for SAVE (The National Association of Students Against Violence Everywhere) and author of Love to Hate: America’s Obsession with Hate and Violence (Columbia University Press 2002). Their friendship led to the collaboration of Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.
As for Robert Mathews, every year young Frank Meeink types held death anniversary vigils at South Whidbey State Park. Anti-racist protestors resented their presence, snipers with BB guns hid in the woods and peppered the skinheads, and a police presence became necessary. When the state began closing the park every December the skinheads moved to a nearby location on Smuggler’s Cove Road, their most recent ceremony a footnote in local news.
Caleb Powell: What did skinheads offer you that was lacking in your life?
Frank Meeink: I would definitely say it started with the security. I liked having a family, belonging, all the stereotypical things that make gang members gang members. I liked hanging with my crew; having my own scene.
I hated a lot. Self-hatred, violence, the anger within, was like a shaken up soda bottle and someone just took the tap off and directed it, and the someone…they happened to be the skinheads. I think I wanted to believe this stuff already. So it was easier to except. They said the right things at the right time. I don’t think they planned it, they weren’t that sophisticated, but when I was at the right low point they said things that gave pride in my being white and male. I felt completely worthless and they said you are not worthless, you have this calling, this job, and that job is to support the white race and be a white soldier, an Aryan Christian soldier.
Powell: You describe your rape in Autobiography. It is a crucial and honest moment. What was it like to reveal this publicly?
Meeink: I told Jody the story while we’re driving in a car one day…‘cause I thought she was going to hear about it from my dad. I told my dad right after it happened, and I knew she would read the police reports and the psychologist’s notes from prison, so she’d find out anyway. I wanted her to hear it from me. I just said, “Hey Jody, there’s something I want to tell you about. So, um, this guy made me perform oral sex on him, he pulled a gun on me, um – I was hitchhiking and left myself open. And Jody told me she heard all this nasty stuff about me before she met me, and then she heard this. She later told me, “I wanted to hug you that day.” She asked how it happened, and I remember reliving it with her, telling the story.
Six months later she’s writing the book, and I told her I didn’t want it in, and she said, “You don’t even understand how this makes you human. It pulls people back to knowin’ what a fucked up kid you were. You were a really fucked up kid and fucked up things happened to you all the time. So I’m going to say that I strongly want it in, but if you don’t want it in then we’re not going to put it in.” I said, “Can I sleep on it?” So I went home and I told my wife, and she said, “You think people are going to think about you differently. They’re not. You know, it’s not that big a deal. You were a kid.” I thought, hey, I’ve got to put in everything that happened. It’s the truth, it is what it is, it happened.
When we interviewed my dad he said one of the worst things he ever did to me was not to be there. I mean, I told him immediately after it happened, a half hour later, and you know what he says? He pours me a shot and says, “Shit happens.” I’m his son, I’m coming to him, major upset, and I’m hoping he’s gonna say, “I’m going to find that guy!” I told him in detail what happened, and he just said, “Hey, Frankie, well – bad shit happens, Frankie.”
Powell: How do skinheads organize?
Meeink: They’re actually unorganized. Very unorganized. Many factions. All the websites fight with each other – power struggles and so many chiefs. There’s no grand movement or plan. In fact, scary thing is, without it being organized it’s harder to crack some of the cases. Leaderless resistance is a new term, as they try not to use their names, or pinpoint where leaders are. So there are a lot of racists out there acting alone.
There are people like Robert Mathews, he’s like a God to the movement, everyone respects him…he became a martyr to the cause. Then there’s Ruby Ridge and Randy Weaver, a low level guy with few connections, or Timothy McVeigh, they are all at different ends of the spectrum. There are separatists that don’t want anyone telling them what to do, and then there are guys who want to overthrow the government.
Powell: Skinhead ideology is nonsense. Voltaire said: “Those who can make you believe absurdity can make you commit atrocity.” Do you agree?
Meeink: You believe stupid things because you fear. Belief comes from fear. The people that believe in racism, that have this hatred, have the same two components, namely fear and ego. They think, “I’m afraid they’re going to move into my neighborhood, and there are going to be mixed babies.” Things like this drive the racist movements. You join these groups because you fear something. With racists they make you believe you’re joining because you have love for the white race – pride. But everything you associate with goes back to Hitler, and all these other negatives, it’s a mental illness. When you’re really mental you don’t know that. You think you’re okay. We are all just human beings, but racists judge humanity from what continent someone comes from. Now imagine if Martians came down, they’d all see us as one race.
I was in the airport in LA and I came across this guy from a group called P-9. That’s the name of the gang, it’s called P-9 Death Squad.
Powell: Penis Death Squad? Penile Death Squad?
Meeink: No, the letter ‘P’ and the number ‘9’. Anyway, we’re talking, and he said he got away from it because they were getting more and more into hatred, and he had no hatred, he just had this white pride, and that’s why he joined. P-9’s rhetoric was full of hatred, but he still thought the root values of P-9, the foundation, was a good thing. So I say, “You think the foundation is good?” And he says, “Yeah.” And I says, “You call yourselves ‘Death Squad’. That’s your foundation.” And he looked at me and goes, “You gotta point.”
Powell: You have said that you committed over 300 acts of violence. Do you relive those acts? Do they haunt you?
Meeink: I do think about them. I think about them differently, and when I look at myself back then I look at myself in third person. When I tell you a story of me when I was twenty-three it’s as me, first person, because I’m already way out of the movement. But when it’s the “me” of that racist stuff it’s a different person. I think “him”, not “me”. And I’ve tried to make amends to people who I’ve personally harmed. I try to seek them out. I’d love to make amends to everyone, if I could. But it’s not those people from my past who hate me so much – the people who still can’t forgive me for the violence are ones who never had anything to do with it.
Powell: If racism and hatred were so deeply seated in you, how did this change? What happened in prison?
Meeink: In prison I started realizing that it has to do with girls, and having and dealing with a girlfriend on the outside. Black inmates my age had this overwhelming thought: “I hope she doesn’t cheat on me.” And I happened to be going through the same things with my girl. No matter how much of a thug you are, you still want that ultimate love from a woman, but no matter what color, you still had that same insecurity: if she cheats on me it’ll break my heart. Across every continent it’s the same – there’s gay men, of course, but the majority of men across the world want a girl, a family. There’s nothing so common in a human, in a male, than a broken heart, it’s one of the common bonds we had that made me realized that we are so the same.
Powell: About prison, you once said, “I learned to become a man in there.” What did you mean?
Meeink: I learned how to shave. For the first time. Like really shave. I always had peach fuzz, I dry-shaved as a kid, but I never had to shave or trim up my beard, and a guy showed me how to do this, and I remember thinking, “This is something your dad is supposed to teach you.”
I learned not to fear men. I used to fear men, especially older men. When I got to prison I learned you couldn’t fear – if I didn’t stand up for myself, if I cowered, I would have more regret. I learned that my word was my word, my bond. You stood by what you said.
After I got out there still was my stepfather. I still was afraid of my stepfather ‘cause he always beat the crap out of me. He’s this big guy, six-two, wiry, skinny, and he was a navy boxer so he knew how to hold his hands. And he beat me up whenever he could. I got home from prison and he was sitting on this couch. One of my cousins comes in and asks, “How you doin’ Frank?” And I said, “I’m doin’ great.” ‘Cause I was. I’m out of prison, I’m not a skinhead anymore, I had friends, yeah, I was doin’ drugs, of course – anyway, my stepfather says, “Oh yeah, he’s doin’ real good, he’s a loser. He lives in my basement, he’s a fuckin’ cellar dweller.” So I’m like, “Ha ha, funny, cellar dweller.” And I was a cellar dweller. I lived in the basement. Then he said it again, and I’m like thinkin’, “This guy isn’t jokin’, he’s in one of his fightin’ moods.” He gets up, and my little sisters were there. Bad situation, and I’m like, “That’s enough, you’re not funny.” He says to my mom, “You better get in here, I’m gonna whip your son’s ass.” I stood up, and I’m built ‘cause I just got out of penitentiary. He throws this lame-ass hook, and I just ducked it and came up and he left himself wide open and I hit him with one of the greatest right hooks I’ve ever thrown. I’d never hit someone so hard and had it feel so gooooood. Family’s screaming, sisters are mad, everyone’s mad. My sisters are eleven and thirteen years younger than me. Bad situation, fast forward – years later he’s really mean to my sisters, calls them whores, and these were his daughters.
He was fifty when he died, died in a different neighborhood, went unclaimed in the morgue. My sisters were sad, but he wasn’t much of a dad, just a drug addict. I’m more of a dad to them, my sisters are doin’ good. Both young with kids and tryin’ to make it in this world.
Powell: Tell about the process of getting rid of your tattoos.
Meeink: I had a swastika on my neck, skinhead on my knuckles, and I tried to get a job. Employers see this and they think ‘these ain’t good people skills’. I had to get rid of ‘em. There was a Jewish woman who lost family in the Holocaust. She called me up and said, “I heard you want to get your tattoos taken off.” I said, “Sure.” She said, “Come see me.” She was this bigwig doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, a great hospital, and she started telling me her story. Her family died in the Holocaust – and she’d be more than honored to help me take ‘em off, but would I mind having resident doctors do it. I remember her joking, “If they miss, it’ll hurt.” I said, “I don’t care if you use a belt sander, as long as it’s sanitary get it off.” And when I went in the doctor told me her story.
Now, I was never a Holocaust denier. I wasn’t one of those people. I believed it happened, but I just didn’t care. I guess that’s how we felt, the skinheads. Jews were evil and we wished Hitler had killed ‘em all. Then, to have this doctor telling me her story, man. In the movement, in my stupid process, I’d think anyone, like that woman, that she’d be just telling her story for charity or sympathy. But this woman told me the history of her life, and she rolled with it. She told me, “It happened, and I’m going to move on, and I’m going to get that swastika off your neck, and that’s my pleasure.”
I remember seeing Schindler’s List. I was a skinhead the first time I saw it, and I ranted. I just didn’t get it. Then years later I watched it again. The first time I thought, “Oh, typical, Jewish Hollywood’s putting out this movie, putting down the Aryan Race, Nazis are bad, they’re all bad guys, yeah yeah yeah.” Second time it was a great movie, about Schindler and how he helped.
Powell: Were you surprised that Obama was elected president?
Meeink: I voted for Obama. You know, I’m a McCain guy, too. I liked them both, and I was asking myself who was going to take us into a different direction. They both had good ideas, and then when McCain went out and got Palin I was done. Done. Obama felt right.
Here’s the thing, everyone’s screaming about how Obama’s so far left. You hear this from the far right. He’s the anti-Christ, we’re going to hell, all that. Here’s the deal: the middle voters, the undecided, the independents, people like me, if you don’t get us you don’t win. That’s the way it is, I’m a middle voter. Obama takes us in the right direction. We need to be at peace with the world, internationally we weren’t looked at as good, and Obama helps our image. And I’m for universal health care. I am. We all have these things, and I think when people look back at America I want them to say, “They took care of the people that didn’t have anything.” That’s our job. People don’t have anything so we have to take care of them. Call me a socialist if you want, but I’m for that. It takes a village. I’m strong on that.
Powell: What do you think of interracial relationships? What if one of your children wanted to date a minority?
Meeink: They do. My daughter is dating a black guy, and my son dated a black girl. As long as a guy treats her right, or a girl treats him right, I don’t care. This guy my daughter’s with, he’s actually mixed, he’s black and white, but he looks black, and she’s white, and he’s a great kid. When I met him I gave him the dad talk, “Don’t hurt her, be good to her, if you hurt her, you know, I’ve been to prison and I don’t mind going back.” Same thing I’d say to any boy that’s dating my sixteen-year-old daughter. I mean, if my kids want to date who they want, fine. I mean, if one of them was gay, they could come out. I’d rather they be happy than stay in the closet and be depressed.
The things I teach my kid are age-appropriate. I’m an addict. So I give ‘em the drug talk, the sex talk, the alcohol talk. My thirteen year-old son and I just went over the sex talk, I’ve given the drug talk to my sixteen-year-old daughter, I’m about to give that to my son – about drugs, how it’s in my blood, it’s in my parents’ blood, and it’s hereditary. Be vigilant, I say. But every kid experiments. I don’t say it’s okay, I just say, “Watch yourself, and you know that you can always talk to me about it.” If I find drugs in my house then there will be consequences, but if you come to me and say, “I tried it,” then I’ll say, “Let’s talk.” Just like with anything, I’ll say, “Let’s talk about it.”
In the world’s most wired country, two out every five people run a personal blog. When a company wants to launch a new product, or the government wants to make an important announcement, these bloggers are wined and dined lest their disapproval sink the venture. Internet addiction is a huge problem, and recently a couple was charged with letting their baby starve to death as they spent their time living in a virtual world. People are driven to suicide by internet rumours and message boards, blogs and chatrooms are awash with the vilest abuse. Korea is a country where people live online.
When I first moved to South Korea I stopped writing. I found the country absolutely uninspiring. My hopes of moving to an exotic paradise and penning the great novel of that location seemed to die when I arrived and found myself amidst an ugly, unfriendly nation.
Steve Yarbrough’s newest novel, SAFE FROM THE NEIGHBORS, has one murder, more than one affair, and white people taking up arms to prevent African-American James Meredith from enrolling at Ole Miss. Richard Russo says the book will, “take your breath away.” Ron Rash calls it “a magnificent achievement.” Tom Perotta says that Yarbrough is, “a formidably talented novelist,” and John Grisham claims he “possesses a gift that cannot be taught.”
On the way home from my father’s funeral, I stopped to fill the gas tank and use the bathroom before getting on the road. The knob on the bathroom door was broken. Everything was filthy and stank to high heaven. Somehow, I managed to hover above the toilet perched on one high heel while the other foot held the door closed, all while holding my breath. When I was finished, I didn’t bother to force the door shut while I washed my hands. Just as I was making my way out to (blessed) fresh air, the door swung open. An old black man with a cane stood in front of me. Few times in my life have I seen a look of such utter terror.
He quickly diverted his eyes to the floor, scurried backwards, bowed in my direction and repeated, as if in prayer, “I’m sorry ma’am. Excuse me ma’am. Please forgive me ma’am.” I was startled but completely understood his mistake of opening the door with me still in there. I tried to explain that the doorknob was broken, but he just kept scurrying, bowing, and ma’am-ing me. I was dumbfounded. After all, he was probably older than my parents. He had a cane for god’s sake. I should have been referring to him as sir, not him to me as ma’am. And what the heck was all the bowing about?
My father and I hadn’t spoken for nine years when he died. I was hard-pressed to go to his hometown even when we were on speaking terms, so I certainly hadn’t been around those parts when we weren’t. The Civil Rights movement had made little progress there in the 1970’s of my childhood. And apparently the world had continued to move forward around it since then, rather like Jim Crow Brigadoon.
When I got back to the car, I told my mother what happened. She’d been gone from that place since she divorced my dad in the 70s, but even she knew the dynamic. She looked at me with both love and pity that the old man’s perspective on the situation had completely escaped me. She patiently explained that he was undoubtedly scared shitless that my husband or father was going to show up at his house that night and beat the hell out of him for walking in on me.
Nah, I thought. It’s nearly the twenty-first century. Could this place really still be so backward? I thought about going back into the store to explain to the man that I understood that it was an accident and that I had no husband or father. Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t let them harm him for an honest mistake. And then the man walked out of the store. Our eyes met, and he scurried off as fast as his cane would allow.
It’s been twelve years since that experience, but it still haunts me. I always thought it was because I wondered what horrible experiences in that old man’s life left him so terrorized. That’s true, but there was something else, too. As a feminist and person doing my best to face my role in racial inequity, I don’t expect a man to commit any violent act or intimidation in my name. That said, sitting in that gas station parking lot, having just seen my father buried, was the first time that I had to admit that it was no longer in my power to refuse my father’s ridiculously antiquated and twisted version of chivalry. He would no longer offer it. He was gone.
My best friend and I met a man on the cross-Channel ferry from England to France during a summer of blissful ignorance in the late 1990s. We christened him ‘Kaffir Jim’, mainly because neither of us could remember his name after an embarrassingly short period of time.
Like ‘Dave’, ‘John’ and ‘Joe’, ‘Jim’ was generic enough to be amusing, and ‘kaffir’ served as a convenient synechdoche for his identity as a fairly right-wing white South African; a representative of a people who, from Louis Botha to Joss Ackland’s villain in Lethal Weapon II, have had a chronic PR problem at least since the turn of the last century.
Although neither of us knew it at the time, there is a line in H. Rider Haggard’s British Empire classic, King Solomon’s Mines that refers to “a Kaffir hunter called Jim” – a designation which could refer—extending overly-generous benefit of the doubt—to a Bântu-speaking South African, but is much more likely to be a racist epithet. It is more likely still vituperative Imperialist slander against a ‘white man over-friendly with the natives’. It is exactly the type of language one can imagine coming out of the mouth of the most stereotypically reactionary white South African boor.
Whether it is solely down to effective British Boer War propaganda or other aggravating historical factors, your average white South African is viewed as not far off a mildly attenuated Obersturmbahnführer, desperately clinging to a tragically intransigent set of race-bound beliefs.
Sitting at the back of a fairly-crowded bus with his shirt off, braying convulsively like a defecating horse, as though in the advanced stages of some transcendental drug experience, Kaffir Jim chose to share with us his revelation that the world was becoming inexorably homosexual.
This wasn’t the usual spiel about oestrogen leaching into the water supply; this was a terse hypothesis of gonzo evolutionism, refreshingly free of science and reason. How far we’d get with a near-zero birthrate and K.D. Lang (sic) in the White House wasn’t expanded upon, just that more and more people were becoming gay as nature’s naturally selective measure of automatic population control. Kaffir Jim foresaw a dystopian future world ruled by lesbians, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Like most other people one tends to meet at the back of buses on the Lonely Planet trail—a pathway that at the time was merely strung around the third world like a loose garland of adolescent spittle gobs, but that now eclipses the establishment of the ancient Silk Road in the depth of the imprint it has stamped out across the globe—Kaffir Jim wore the creepy, thousand-yard stare of the serial traveller.
Just like the “political kitsch” in the “fantasy of the Grand March” that sustains Milan Kundera’s Franz throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the gestalt of travelling is perpetual and continual movement. There is rarely much of talk of where you’re at, just where you’re going or where you’ve been. As soon as momentum slows to a speed that might threaten the ‘-ing’s on your verbs, the horrifying prospect of reflective thinking looms.
Hiding behind their conveniently intrepid-sounding gerund, in perpetual flight from their lives, the serial traveller seems out-of-time: “separated by an immense space from [their] past and by an immense ignorance from [their] future”
There’s a haunting scene in the film Barton Fink in which John Goodman’s character returns to the spartan room in the flophouse he is living in as the building burns down around him—slowly turning his key in the lock and closing the door behind him, oblivious to the sweat soaking through his clothes from the heat of the flames. I always think of Kaffir Jim whenever I see this.
We met Kaffir Jim in those innocent days before social networking, and at least six months before either my friend or myself had a working email address, so, although we have no way of contacting him to find whether he believes his doomladen projections have come to pass or not, I picture Kaffir Jim still out there somewhere; as oblivious as Mad Man Muntz, half-naked; projecting the disintegration of his psyche out on to the highways and byways of the world.
It wasn’t until 11 years and one too many bouts of travelling later; sat at the back of a crowded bus with my shirt off; desperately fleeing an incomprehensible city, babbling nonsense at anyone who would listen, that I realised what had happened.
IMAGES: Screengrabs from youtube.com
I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.
Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.
Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.
Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.
In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.
I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.
At what point does social conscience become interference?
When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)
A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.
Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.
Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.
A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.
A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…
Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:
I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.
I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.
I walked the rest of the way home in silence.
IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com
I’ve studied martial arts most of my life, but I don’t enjoy watching fistfights. Sure, I sometimes watch MMA bouts, mostly as an exercise in making sense of techniques I learned in my Jujutsu days. But I am a salacious voyeur of one class of fights, one that weighs more in murderous intent than in mere blood. When it comes to fights over language, I’m part Don King, part corner, part cut man, part ringside rat, but never referee nor pugilist. This is the first of a few pieces about linguistic rage. First up, the real powder-keg: words of social distinction.