When I was about ten, I started to worry that if I got too close to a black person, his germs might settle upon me like a noxious fog. This fear was partly societal, partly due to my mother’s phobia of germs, and partly due to the fact that Mississippi is a very hot and humid place and I could detect what I considered an unfavorable difference between the smell of black people’s sweat and that of white people’s sweat. Yet, there was a time when I was younger that I played with black children and rode in a farm wagon with a black family. Later on, when I was in high school, one of my best friends was black, so I only held the aforementioned attitude during the relatively short time when I didn’t know a single black person despite being surrounded by them.
Not only were water fountains and toilet facilities segregated, entrances to buildings were often separate, and even if a restaurant served black people, they would have to order from an outside window. The black area of Brookhaven was called “Little Egypt,” and, unlike the white parts of town, it had no curbs or sidewalks. Black people were exposed to constant reminders that they weren’t as good as white people, yet there were more blacks than whites in many Mississippi towns, including Brookhaven.*
I was a student at Brookhaven High when it was integrated by two black girls and a black boy in 1966. We had a no-nonsense principal whose last name was Roach, and he told us over the intercom that he wasn’t going to allow any trouble, so there wasn’t any, at least physically. Emotionally, it was another story, what with those kids being continually met with hostile stares and muttered curses. The level of hatred was so intense that it scared me even though I wasn’t on the receiving end. I felt sorry for those kids, but I never offered so much as a friendly smile because I was terrified, and because I halfway believed the common argument that black people only wanted to go to white schools because they hated their own race. If I had been those kids’ parents, I don’t think I would have let them go through such an ordeal.
Every year, Brookhaven’s Spanish class would visit Monterrey, Mexico. One year, a busload of Mexican kids visited Brookhaven. They were dark-skinned, so a lot of the boys called them niggers and told them to get the fuck out of Mississippi. I felt sorry for those Mexicans because they would have had no idea why they were being attacked or even what some of the words meant, but, again, I didn’t say anything because I was too scared. I don’t feel guilt for how others of my race treated dark skinned people, but I very much feel guilt for not supporting those people.
In 1967, I was driving home after a date when I saw a cross being burned in a white family’s yard, and I felt sorry for them and wondered what they had done to provoke the Klan. I sometimes found Klan leaflets in my family’s driveway, and I fed on a steady diet of racist newspaper editorials. The best known was Jimmy Ward’s “Covering the Crossroads” that appeared daily on the front page of the Jackson Daily News. Ward believed that God had meant for black people to be subservient and wrote that, “Our negroes were happy until Communist-inspired outside agitators stirred them up.”
Mississippi’s white population commonly believed that black people were by nature childlike and immoral, and needed white people to keep them in line for the good of all. “Outside agitators” were seen as either ignorant of the limitations of black people (many of them having come from areas of the North that had but few black people) and were therefore “dupes of the Communists,” or else they were “Communist infiltrators” whose goal was to “destroy America by fomenting unrest among its negroes.” The impression one got from the national media was that the entire country—if not the world—was united in its contempt for the white people of the South, so when riots started happening in other places, white Southerners rejoiced that “the Yankee chickens have come home to roost.”
Upon seeing a succession of bereaved black parents on the news, parents whose many children had died in one of the devastating house fires that were common among poor blacks who heated their flimsy homes with gas space heaters, my mother said, “I guess negroes grieve for their loved ones just like we do.”
When I called a black customer in my parents’ country store “ma’am,” my mother told me that black women didn’t deserve the same respect as white women. My father thought better of black people. When a rumor went around that a group of black people might try to visit our church, my father was asked to stand guard at the door, but he said he wouldn’t do it because, “This is God’s house, and if God doesn’t want them here, then God can keep them out.” (When I was in college, I often visited black churches, and was always affectionately welcomed.) My father’s views were so liberal that if my sister or I had wanted to marry a black person, I don’t think he would have objected, but it sure would have upset our mother because she was not only bigoted, she also cared deeply about “making a good appearance.”
Dad sometimes employed a black preacher—Reverend Truly Westbrook—as a carpenter’s helper, and the two became friends. Truly was a loving man, but he didn’t think much of his own race. One day, he told my father that he knew my father was smarter than he because he was black. He also told me that the hand of God was upon me, and that I was going to become a preacher. I never became a preacher, but I was touched that Truly thought so well of me. My father was a bad-tempered man who was in the habit of cursing loudly and scarily pretty much all day everyday. He took this behavior to the point of acting insane, and I could tell that it hurt Truly to listen to it just as it embarrassed me for him to act as he did.
When I was old enough to do carpentry with my father, we often worked in black people’s homes. He always treated them with kindness and respect, and would even forego his cursing in the presence of a black woman. Sometimes, he and I would share a meal with a black family. Perhaps his transsexuality—although he kept it a secret—gave him a sympathy for those who, like himself, could never be a part of respectable society.
When I was a teenager, a black neighbor named Jerry Kelly became one of my best friends. He would visit me at home (this during an era when, if a black person went to a white person’s home, he would knock at the door and then stand in the yard until someone appeared), and Jerry even went camping and fishing with me and two other white kids, John Collins and Tony Lopez (see photo). Tony was the only person with a Hispanic name who I ever knew in Brookhaven. He had black hair and black eyes, but his skin was white, so no one—to my knowledge—gave him a hard time. I also had a friend named Tony Damico, and he seemed exotic to me because he was a both a dago and a Catholic. I remember spending the night with Tony when it was awfully hot. I was surprised and delighted to find that he had a fan in his bedroom because my mother wouldn’t allow me to have a fan or even to have a window open because she thought that drafts and night air contained “vapors” (She was so afraid of germs that she would run for cover if she saw buzzards overhead because she believed their germs would fall upon her).
When he turned eighteen, Jerry joined the army, and he came home with a chip on his shoulder. Specifically, he looked down on me because, while he was out seeing the world and becoming sophisticated—in his own mind anyway—I was still in the same countrified place that he had left me. Later on, I tried to be friends with other black men, but when we started getting close, they would share their anger toward white people. I took this personally, didn’t think I deserved it, and despaired of them ever trusting me. I soon gave up on even trying to be friends with black men. Black women seem more open, but I don’t know a single black person here in Oregon, and I must say that I miss them. What I like best about black people—the women especially—is their ability to laugh heartily. Despite all they’ve been through, black people are still able to laugh more deeply than white people, plus they seem to respond well to my dry and ironic humor. I know that it’s not PC to generalize about black people, even in a favorable way, but I simply don’t care. The way I see things, all people are racists, but some are more honest about it than others, and nothing tires me more than to hear some smug white liberal bullshit me about how non-prejudiced he or she is.
I used to work with a black woman here in Oregon. She was about twenty years older than I, was from Louisiana, and was responsible for training me to do my job. One day, she said I needed to stop opening doors for her because she knew I was just doing it because she was black. I told her that she was wrong, that I was doing it because she was old. We had a good laugh about that, and she then told me that she missed Louisiana because she could tell where she stood with Southern white people, but here in Oregon, white people try to hide their prejudices, and this makes them act stilted and strange. I said I could relate because so many people act weird because of my Southern accent. Sometimes, they come right out and tell me how bigoted I must be, but more often they just act vaguely hostile, and I can’t know for sure what’s behind it. I loved that woman. So often, I’ve lost people from my life simply because I didn’t make the effort to keep them in it.
Here in Oregon, it’s such a faux pas to express even the barest hint of prejudice toward anyone about anything that a person can get fired for it, and this forces people to weigh their every word because no one can ever be sure but what an innocent remark won’t be interpreted as a microagression. Liberalism=dehumanization.
It was rare in Brookhaven for anyone to have a non-English name. Among whites, Smith was by far the most common name with Case being the second most common. I don’t know what the most common names among blacks was, but there did seem to be a lot of Washingtons. I also had several gay friends, although I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be gay until I was in my twenties.
I went to school with a Jewish girl named Schlesinger who was an albino. She had a lot of friends, but I wasn’t one of them. I probably wouldn’t have been anyway, but it was also true that her family had a higher social status than mine, and that kind of thing mattered a lot in the Brookhaven schools.
I believe that Jews were better regarded than Catholics in Brookhaven because the town had three Jewish mayors (Abraham Lewinthal in 1889, Sam Abrams in 1910, and his grandson, Harold Samuels, in the 1970s and ‘80s),** but I don’t think it ever had a Catholic one. In 1861, a non-Jewish man named Whitworth donated land for a Jewish cemetery because he considered Jews to be the kind of intelligent and ambitious people who would put Brookhaven on the map, so he did all he could to make them feel welcome.
When my father’s family moved to Brookhaven in 1908 from 400 miles away in Bridgeport Alabama, they arrived with little money, and weren’t likely to have any for quite some time. Sam Abrams—who became mayor two years later—ran Abram’s Mercantile (the store’s motto was “If you don’t find it here, go home”), and he became the first merchant to give credit to my grandpa. His willingness to do this still makes me think warmly of Jews because my family would have been in a bad way without Sam Abrams. I know that it isn’t right to judge millions of people because of the actions of one of them, but I do, partly because Mr. Abrams’ trust goes against the image of Jews as being tight-fisted and greedy. Later, I had dreams about how beautiful I imagined it must be inside the local synagogue. Even today, I sometimes think about becoming a Jew because I feel such a sympathy and admiration for them.
When I was about thirteen, I went camping with three gay friends (I didn’t know they were gay), and one of them suggested that we all ass-fuck, which they did, but I didn’t. I pretended to go along, but when the friend who was supposed to fuck me tried to stick his penis up my ass, I tightened-up so he couldn’t get in. Even that event didn’t boost my understanding of what it meant to be gay because I considered the event nothing more than a lark. My friends warned me not to tell anyone what we had done, which was a good thing because I was so naive that when the sister of one of the boys showed up at our campsite, I was going to tell her because I thought it was cool even though I didn’t want to take part in it.
Like my father, I never felt that I fit in, plus I was always drawn to people who seemed somehow different because I considered them more interesting than ordinary people. They would tell me things that they didn’t tell anyone else because they trusted me not to betray them. Not only was their trust well-founded, I liked them all the more because our differences intrigued me.
My parents ran a country store, and I sold used books in that store. One time I bought a lot of books from the widow of a black preacher, and among them were the complete works of Robert Ingersoll, a prominent agnostic from the late 1800s. Ingersoll was an incredibly brave man who traveled about making speeches against the Christian religion to immense audiences. I don’t know why a black preacher owned his books, but I wished that I had known that preacher. Another book he owned was entitled The Negro, a Beast or in the Image of God in which the author set about to prove that black people were subhuman. This was a common sentiment among white Southerners as could be seen in my mother’s speculation that black parents might actually grieve when their children were burned alive.
Whereas my home state had previously been ignored by the national media, it made the news almost daily during the Civil Rights era, and it appeared unfavorably in Life Magazine. As a result, most white people quit subscribing to Life (my family didn’t) and assumed a siege mentality. It was as if the entire outside world despised white Southerners, and instead of their hatred inspiring us to change, it made us dig trenches. Many people attached small Confederate flags to their car antennas, so I put one on the antenna of my parents’ 1956 Fairlane. I regarded the KKK’s white robes and cross burnings as romantically attractive, but I also harbored a secret admiration for the Freedom Riders and the Black Panthers. I simply didn’t have the will or the maturity to examine issues rationally or to understand why integration was so important to black people. In my mind, it was as if symbolism existed for its own sake, and I adored symbolism. The Klan did too, and it and I also shared a love for ritual and tradition. Then too, there was the common belief that the KKK and the White Citizens’ Council were doing their best to defend our “Southern Way of Life” from the evil onslaught that was being led by MLK, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, and others whose murders were literally cheered in school. However, my fear of the Klan remained greater than my attraction to it because I knew that its ultimate reliance wasn’t upon God’s help in keeping the races separate but upon intimidation and murder. I couldn’t escape the thought that if I made known my admiration for the busloads of idealistic Yankees—scarcely older than myself—who had come to Mississippi to register black people to vote, it might be my family that had a cross burned in its yard.
What I didn’t foresee was how fast the Klan would knuckle-under when it came to going up against the federal government. If its members had possessed the ruthless determination of an organization like the Islamic State, a whole lot more people would have lost their lives. As it was, I suspect that more people are murdered by terrorist organizations in the Middle East in a single day than were murdered by the Klan during the entire Civil Rights Movement. I don’t know if it was fear that held the Klan back, or if it was a basic respect for the law, but when people talk about how much blood was shed, I rather think about how little, and for that I am glad.