What Can Be Done?

I think one of the things that gets me down about America is that I don’t see a good path through. I say this as someone who loves to lecture, but lectures aren’t going to work. People’s pain doesn’t seem to work. These snuff videos don’t seem to work.

Oh, lord, that’s a genre whose meaning has changed. Do you remember–and maybe you don’t if you’re young enough–the fear of the snuff film? Had anyone ever made a film of someone dying? And I’m not sure what was supposed to differentiate this from news footage, maybe that it was artfully rendered? But the point was that someone could watch someone really dying for their entertainment.

It’s hard to imagine this being something so taboo it was mostly rumors and urban legends, since it’s an entertainment so freely available to us now.

One thing I keep hearing floated is the disbanding of police and the eradication of prisons. I keep thinking of Fish and Gacy, though. Maybe I should just be thinking of that guy the Nashville police shot the other day, who had been terrorizing his ex-girlfriend and whose family came out in support of the cop who shot him. Obviously, someone who’s a minor level drug dealer can be reformed. Someone who vandalizes a house could be made to understand how much that sucks through some kind of restorative justice. Maybe even three-fourths of folks like the Vandy rapists could be made to understand how what they did was wrong and hurtful and destructive. Maybe you can talk a lot more people into not being fuckers than we’re currently doing. I can believe that.

But I have been a woman since I was born and if there’s one thing you learn in a body like this, it’s that a lot of people enjoy the suffering of people like me. If a person commits a crime against me and it’s not motivated by need–like, sure, you can probably reform the person who steals and pawns all my band gear for drug or food money–but by the pleasure he takes in my pain, what does getting us together and sitting around discussing how much pain he caused me do but confirm for him that his goal was met and that, bully for him, he’s still causing me pain?

And why does your committing a crime against me create an obligation in me to fix you?

I like a lot of the ideas I’ve heard about restorative justice and I see how it could sometimes work in circumstances where everyone was committed to not ruining lives and to having positive outcomes.

But, like I said, I’ve been a woman a long time. I know the tremendous pressure we’re put under now to not jack the people who’ve wronged us up. I don’t see how this won’t be more of the same–where we just bear all of the pain and suffering and suck it up so that the community is not disrupted. It seems like a good situation for bad people. And a free trip to the candy store for people whose goal is the continued suffering of their victims or their victims’ families.

I could be more convinced that we should just do away with the police, but we didn’t used to have police and, when we didn’t, you had to find the person who wronged you or hire someone to do so. And possibly things are so bad right now that this arrangement wouldn’t change things, but I just think this ends with poor people literally never getting justice.

Here, I think, is the problem. Humans are self-serving, fucked-up messes and the institutions we create reflect that. We look at something as deeply fucked up as America is right now and we imagine that the solution is to burn it down and build something better in its place. But it’s us. The same fucked up people who are doing this thing. How are we not going to create new unfair systems?

I genuinely don’t know what a solution is here. I have been one who has spent twenty minutes untangling a terrible knot in yarn and I have been one who just cuts the knot out and goes on with less yarn. And a lot of times, there’s no difference to the end afghan. But I’ve never been in a situation where, when there was a difference, I didn’t wish I’d spent the twenty minutes to get the yarn unknotted, rather than coming up short when I needed it.

Charlotte and Such

One point that both criminal justice reformers and people opposed to the growing surveillance state have made is that, under close scrutiny, everyone is an outlaw. In other words, we all break laws every day, often without realizing it, and almost all of the time, nothing comes of it.

The number of people who drive over 30 miles an hour down Lloyd for instance is nearly everyone because of the hill. If you don’t ride your breaks, you’re going down the hill at 40. On an empty stretch of road, it’s very easy to decide it’s not that important to ride your breaks down the hill.

But the thing is, there’s always something. All of us have done something wrong in the past few days, weeks, months. If we’re subjected to enough scrutiny, the things we’ve done wrong will come out.

So this is the situation the State has developed into (I don’t want to say “set up” because one very troubling aspect of this is that it’s not directed by anyone. It’s not a plot by a person you can point a finger at [or not that alone]. Often it seems to rise up organically because, somewhere in our collective unconsciousness [ugh], we believe this is what authority does, so, if we have it, we do it.) is one where every citizen is also mildly criminal. Sometimes, not even criminal, just potentially criminal, but I still say, dig hard enough and there’s something.

Therefore, when the State needs to justify violence against us, there is always something they can use.

One thing that deeply troubles me–and I swear we’re still talking about Tulsa and Charlotte, but follow me here–is seeing CNN debating whether the guys who tried to bomb New York “deserve” due process. I mean, we should have seen this coming with Guantanamo, but here we especially are–this idea that, in order to have rights, you have to be a good person. Being spoken in the mainstream, being normalized, while we just blithely ignore how few of us, under close scrutiny, look very good.

In order for the State to disguise the giant rights-grab it’s doing to all US citizens, it relies on racism, on the belief held by many non-black citizens that black people are just more criminal, badder and more dangerous than the rest of us, when really, as studies have shown time and time again, they’re just under more scrutiny. But if we accept that black people are likely bad people, then we don’t question why the State is killing people who’ve called for roadside assistance or who were sitting in their car reading books or who got pulled over for having a tail-light out or who didn’t speak with the right kinds of deference, or who were sitting next to a dude with autism, or who ran away, or who failed to run away and on and on and on and on and on.

Is it escalating? That I don’t know. We didn’t keep track of police shootings. We didn’t have activists shining a light on things that used to be hidden and swept away. But it also does feel like the State’s response to a segment looking more closely at what its doing is to respond more violently.

I don’t know what a solution looks like. But America has always been at war with its black people. We call it ancient history, but here it still is.

Fake Park?

Yesterday, I went down to Murfreesboro to wander around the wetlands that used to be Black Fox’s camp. I don’t think I’m nuts for trying to do this. I came across a few pictures of the area where it appears people go hiking. I found a brochure someone had done for the city about the area.

But it turns out it’s just a wooded area behind some houses in a subdivision. I couldn’t even figure out if there was a place to park, let alone if there were real marked paths.

I felt so dumb.

I wish there were more ways to learn about Nashville’s, and Tennessee’s, Native American history. I’m just not finding the resources I want. Like, I don’t know what questions I have, but I know the stuff I find doesn’t satisfy them.

I also find it really frustrating that the conventional understanding so clearly makes no sense. Like, if there weren’t people here to trade with, why was Timothy Demonbreun here?

But more than that, when you say Jean (or Charles or whatever his name was) Charleville came from New Orleans before New Orleans existed as a city, how do you explain how a Frenchman coming from the south–Creek territory–was accepted as a trader by their enemies, the Shawnee? Like, we all know the Creek and the Shawnee fought and we all know the French intermarried with everyone. So, wouldn’t a French guy coming up from the south have been seen as Creek or Creek-allied?

I’ll tell you why we don’t. Because we’re so committed to the “no one was here” narrative that we don’t learn basic Native American history (which is also not our faults because finding basic Native American history is not that easy). We don’t think of Nashville being able to become Nashville because of what was going on in the Creek Nation or the Cherokee Nation or with the Shawnee or whatever, so we don’t look.

But it matters.

True Confession of the Stellar Kind

There’s a point in The Serpent and the Rainbow where the author claims that Venus used to be visible to people during the day, we’ve just “forgotten” how to see it. This has stuck with me over the years because on the one hand, it kind of seems plausible to me–that Venus may be bright enough for you to see it in the daytime sky if you know where to look and it’s not near the sun–and on the other hand seems stupid. You don’t forget how to see something. Seeing something is not a matter of remembering to see it.

But I keep reading things about how most people in the US can’t see the Milky Way and soon it will be impossible for everyone in the US to see. And, in fact, just now, I read something about a guy from out east going on vacation to Yellowstone and being blown away by the Milky Way.

And I don’t mean to sound stupid here–like maybe I need to travel to Yellowstone immediately–but do they just mean that they’re able to see it so much clearer in Yellowstone that it’s really stunning and surprising (which I can believe) or do they genuinely not see the Milky Way when they look up in the night sky ever? Because I mean, it’s right there.  I can see how, in cities, you might not be able to make it out, but I live right outside of a big city and I can stand in my front yard and see it on clear nights.

So, now I wonder if you can lose, somehow through forgetting, something like a star.

I don’t know. I find it baffling. Can you forget how to see the Milky Way?

Share you thoughts on cockapusses below.

Thinking Last Night About Elvis

I overheard a conversation by some young Nashville music people–white–about how Elvis was racist. And it’s been bugging me.

I’ve been thinking how in Elvis’s time, white society looked at black culture and said “That’s trash. Don’t touch it.” and how Elvis was like, “Holy shit. I found some awesome stuff here in the trash. I’m going to wear it. I’m going to shake it. I’m going to sing it. Look, look, guys. Look what I found here! It’s fucking awesome.” And how a bunch of white kids were like “Wow, yep, that is awesome. Show us more, Elvis.”

When black people say, “Hey, that’s not trash, you racist fucks; that’s our culture,” they have an absolutely legitimate complaint. Elvis wasn’t rooting through trash and it is structural racism that made it seem so.

But the complicated thing about American culture is that Elvis could have been doing something racist at one level that was also anti-racist at another level. Because saying to white kids, “No, you’re wrong. This stuff has value. This stuff is awesome. The people who made it have some cool shit it’s worth it for you to check out.” was and, sadly, still remains revolutionary.

Okay, so I think that’s clear. The same act can be both racist and anti-racist because this is America.

But here’s what I’ve been thinking about, why it really bugs me when white progressives dismiss Elvis as racist: because white racists in Elvis’s time did not want kids listening to Elvis, because they didn’t want white kids finding value in black culture and they didn’t want black kids to see their culture being valued by white culture. Elvis was an intersection–an imperfect intersection, yes, god, yes, so imperfect–that white racists did not want kids to meet at.

So whose work is being done when white progressives discourage white kids from listening to Elvis?

Slaves Built the White House

I have to tell you, I just don’t believe that people didn’t know this. I believe that people didn’t have to think about it and they resent being made to think about it, that they’re uncomfortable with how deeply something they don’t have to think about at all affects someone like Michelle Obama, who can’t not think about it. But I don’t believe people didn’t know this.

I think a “gift” we give ourselves as a country is a life-sized map of lies that drapes over the landscape of the nation and lets us not see what’s right there in front of us. And then a lot of us spend a weird amount of time demanding everyone see the map as the actual landscape and becoming alarmed and outraged when people are all “Oh, hey, there’s some truth under here.”

I also, however, based on the widespread gossip about Bill O’Reilly, imagine it is very difficult for him to empathize with terrorized people whose children were stolen from them.

Transgressions (No Pun Intended)

One of my favorite writing podcasts is Brian Keene’s The Horror Show. Last week he had on Hal Bodner and at about the one hour mark Hal starts talking about gay culture. It’s really fascinating. My perspective is that I’ll call you what you ask me to call you and otherwise, I just don’t think too much about it.

That’s not true. When I do think about it, I resent the fuck out of feeling like I have to have some kind of label and then act in accordance to it. The literal last thing I want to do is talk to strangers about my sex life or my sexual preferences. Call me old-fashioned. Call me Midwestern. I fucking hate it. If you want to know if I’ll sleep with you, the answer is probably no.

And I can just imagine even that getting turned into “Oh, well, then, she must be asexual.” No, god damn it. I don’t want to be sorted. That’s exactly what I’m objecting to. Coming up with the proper term. Sticking it on people. Holding them to it.

How’s this? Keep your eyes on your own fucking paper.

I did once pretend to be a lesbian to get my play into a contest, though, so I’m a fucking hypocrite. Kind of. I guess I don’t feel that bad about it, though.

I guess I have been thinking of myself more and more as a spinster. I’m not married. I’m not getting married. I have no social value and no stake in having a social value. I could be up to secret things or not, but you don’t get to know.

Anyway, wow, I had feelings about this I didn’t realize were so intense.

So, Bodner’s discussion of gay culture is really fascinating as is his irritation at younger GLBT people calling him out for using terms like “trannie” and “queen.” Even his hatred of the term GLBT, as if there’s some monolithic GLBT culture, is really interesting. And I found his concern about the decline of gay culture to be really interesting. Something is lost when you gain mainstream acceptance, there’s no doubt about that.

The thing, as I see it, with any movement for social justice is that it has to contain within it the seeds of its own destruction. Once the movement has remade the world to suit it, then of course there are going to be people on the older end who feel like you’ve undermined or devalued their work and people on the younger end who think your work is stupid.

Like, for instance, think of gay marriage (talking specifically about gay male culture here). Part of what made gay culture so liberating to you as a man was that you could spend every weekend in an orgy with a disco beat and part of what made AIDS so devastating was that you knew, KNEW, you were being left to die not just because you were gay, but because being gay was flouting so many social norms, not just the one about who you could love. AIDS was a cultural genocide. Not at first, of course. It was just an illness. But it was ignored and left undealt with when its victims were mostly gay men precisely because it got rid of gay men, which destroyed gay culture.

What, then, is gay marriage to you? Is it nice? Sure, of course. Fuck yes. That’s a hard lesson gay men learned during the AIDS crisis–that this terrible thing could happen to you and your loved ones could be kept from you because your relationships weren’t “real.”

But doesn’t it also feel like it’s taming and tamping down on gay culture? Of course it is.

It’s a victory, but you can see how older gay men might feel like they still lost, for good, something that was really wonderful about gay culture before AIDS.

And young people are pansexual and omnisexual and genderqueer now. Marriage is for old people. They don’t want the victory gay marriage activists worked so hard for. Or maybe that’s not quite fair. But the world has changed enough that they don’t see the importance of getting married. To most of them, the idea that they could be kept from their boyfriend’s hospital bed sounds like a terrible story from a long time ago.

Which is a good thing! It’s a victory gay marriage brought.

But, like I said, the victory contained the seeds of its own obsolescence.

Anyway, interesting stuff to think about.

The Octagon House

On Saturday, we went to the Octagon House and the Shaker village. The Octagon House is the kind of place that you’d think wouldn’t exist any more. It’s too…too…exactly what it is, reeking of tobacco smoke and lost causes. And yet, what became clear to me walking around it is that a lot of the horrors of history get lost when the preservers of those horrors learn to be ashamed of the preservation.

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This is the back of the Octagon House.

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The Confederacy is not dead inside. Which, I think, is fitting, since the owner was a huge confederate sympathizer and hid guerrilla fighters in his house and in tunnels leading from the house.

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But this, this I had never seen before and did not know was a thing. These are the metal tags–literally dog tags–that slaves who often had to leave plantations wore so that white people would know where and to whom they belonged.

The Dark Things We Won’t Admit

As I’ve been thinking about Elias Napier, I’ve had a really hard time with the fact that he kept his grandchildren enslaved. I don’t know why, out of everything I’ve read, that’s just the place I can’t get to, but that’s the place I can’t get to. Your own grandchildren.

I thought a lot about that this weekend.

I think one of the things that makes it hard to understand slavery is that we start from a position of slavery being evil and then the humps we have to overcome are things like “How could these people who I love do this evil thing?” and then we get stuck with these untrue but heartfelt beliefs that it wasn’t really that bad or that our slave-owning ancestors were the good ones or that they just didn’t know better. And all of those things are, sadly, demonstrably untrue.

Here’s the truth, though: slavery was awesome for the enslavers. That’s why it persisted, even flourished. That’s why men who didn’t own slaves fought for the right to own slaves.

Once we admit that owning people was awesome, we can start being honest about all the corrupting ways it was. All the labor around the house you didn’t have to do. All the labor on the farm you didn’t have to do. All the “sex” (what we would call rape) you could have or watch others having.

I mean, just think about all the darker impulses we have. Say you have a fourteen year old at your house who refuses to do the dishes. You may feel an impulse to beat the shit out of her, but you do not, because it’s wrong. But let’s be honest, in the moment, it would feel good to smack her around. Later, yes, you might feel terrible. But in the moment?

Now think of all the people who watch sports and, when the athletes express displeasure, complain because “They knew what they were getting into” or “look at how much money they make” as if there’s some level of recompense that makes watching someone’s bodily destruction your right.

Is the pleasure of the slaver really that foreign to us?

Your enslaved child will never grow up and move away. No matter how old he or she gets, they have to follow your guidance. Your enslaved grandchildren can never be too busy for you. Your enslaved family has to love you (or fake it so well you can ignore that it’s fake) in ways your free family doesn’t.

We’re supposed to understand Elias as generous or good for freeing his family at his death, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the value they had for him was so private, so personal, that he could not believe they retained that value after his death. Setting them free in a way kept them his and his alone. No one else could have them like he did.

We Will Not Save Ourselves

I read this, about Louisiana’s true coastline, a while back and found it interesting and depressing. I was reminded of it again when I read this, about how Florida is drowning, this morning.

I was struck by the idea in the article about Florida that, if we can just hang on, someone will fix this problem in a few decades. In a state where they’re not even allowed to use the term “climate change,” they’re assuming someone will still study the unspoken problem, find a solution to it, and implement it in a place that doesn’t even want to admit what’s happening.

We will leave people to lose everything, possibly drown, rather than be honest about the scope of the problem.

I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not a science person. But it’s hard for me to imagine how an engineer could design a solution to a problem when some part of the problem is unknowable. “Design a levee that will hold water back.” “How much water?” “We won’t tell you.” “How much needs to be protected?” “Not that much (but really, a lot, but not an a lot we’re willing to admit).” “Where should it go?” “On the coast.” “Okay, then, where is the coast? Is it where firm ground is? Is it the first bit of land beyond high tide?” “The coast is where the map says the coast is.” “But that’s under water.” “Yeah, we want that back.” “With a levee?” “Oh, good, we’re all on the same page.”

We just can’t get done what we need to get done if we can’t be honest about what we need.

I mean, I was looking at that map of Louisiana and laughing ruefully at how much the Butcher and I love speculating about what would happen if the Mississippi changed its main channel and flowed down the Atchafalaya. But that is water already. If the river won’t go down to the Gulf that way, the Gulf will come up to the river.

Anyway, I wish I lived on a hill.

In Which I Make You Work for Me

I’m still thinking about King Kong.

I read this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he talks about a “heritage of rape.”

The this article by Charles Pierce about how a lot of white people think they now face the same kinds of discrimination, at the same levels, that minorities used to face.

Then this blog post by Bethany Liston meditating on how it’s fucked up for women to act like, when men do stuff around the house, they’re “helping” the women out, as if housework is women’s work and men doing it is a special treat for women.

I’m starting to believe that the truth at the core of the funhouse mirror of America is that we believe that anyone who can dominate another deserves the labor (all sorts of labor) of the dominated person. Of course, it’s hard work to dominate someone. You have to keep it up all the time.

Unless you can get the dominated person to believe that their proper, natural role is to be dominated. This is what America wants from racism, classism, and sexism–for the dominated to understand that what’s happening to them is natural. That’s the work those -isms are supposed to be doing.

And it works. Women internalize the idea that it’s their job to keep their house clean. Black people internalize the idea that violence is some problem their community intrinsically has. And so on. Sometimes you don’t even notice the ways you’ve internalized this bullshit, mistake the funhouse mirror for truth.

I don’t want to sound like I’m downplaying the terribleness of racism, sexism, and classism. I just want to be clear that they are more funhouse mirrors. In our case, a great tragedy for us as a country is that they’re the funhouse mirrors that sit closest to the truth, that obscure the truth most thoroughly, so they are reflected in the most surfaces, spread the farthest in ugly, damaging ways.

But the truth at the core is the seducing power of theft–I can take what I want.

And there are very few people immune from the charm of the idea of being a thief.

What can you take from another person without them stopping you? How ostentatiously can you display what you’ve stolen from them and still have the support of your peers? How can you keep what you’ve stolen in the face of a crowd of angry victims? Are you powerful enough to pass down the fruits of your stolen labor? Can you teach your children to steal? Can you convince them that their theft is natural?

There is no other real question in America other than “Can I take what I want from you? Am I powerful enough to keep it without getting in trouble?”

Every sick fuck thing we do to each other culturally has this question at its heart. Every sick fuck thing we do to each other is that so many of us perceive answering no to either of these questions as being some kind of insult we can’t live with.

King Kong

King Kong has been sitting in the back of my mind for a few days. I don’t know why. But I’ve been thinking how King Kong is probably, if someone wants to try to understand the fucked up way America works about race, the perfect movie.

King Kong is racist as shit. The big black ape who wants to possess the beautiful white woman as his own, even though he doesn’t really know what to do with her or, if he did, it would destroy her to have it happen. His abduction of her is a sexual abduction.

So, there you have the deepest white American fear–these animals are coming for our women and they’re dangerous and powerful and scary. Fortunately, we can outsmart and outgun them.

But from the minute audiences started watching King Kong, they started sympathizing with Kong. His death felt like an unjust tragedy. Clearly, it’s supposed to feel like a victory–We’ve defeated the monster and rescued the damsel. But, as evidenced by the fact that they rushed a Son of Kong into theaters also in ’33, people didn’t want Kong dead. They wanted to see more of him.

That, right there, is fucking America. That’s the bitter twist at the heart of minstrelsy, too. The racial stereotype designed to reinforce white America’s worst beliefs about the talents and abilities of black Americans leaves white Americans screaming for more.

The argument we make to ourselves that justifies our treatment of black people ends up encouraging sympathy for black people in some abstract way. But, as complicated as that is, it’s also too easy. Because it’s not sympathy for black people, but sympathy for black people as we imagine them. Which is why our sympathy, throughout American history, doesn’t necessarily result in improvements for black people.

There’s a special effect here, at the heart of American culture, a trick of light and sound, a series of mirrors reflecting back to us a misshapen view of reality. We act as if those misshapes are real. Sometimes our acting on them has devastating consequences. Sometimes they have unexpected good consequences.

You can’t predict how things are going to come through the fun house.

But it’s important to acknowledge that the fun house is there, I think.

From Fact to Legend and Back Again

One of my favorite things, though I’m also often really frustrated by it, is how facts become legends that then get cemented back into untrue facts.

Take this really awesome thing about the 11 weirdest places in Mississippi and scroll down to The Witch Dance. You may remember the reference to this in my story about Little Harpe.:

First inhabited by Native Americans, the area of Witch Dance soon became a meeting spot for witches. According to local lore, the witches would perform ceremonies that included dancing. It is said that wherever the witches’ feet touched the ground during these dances, the grass would wither and die, never to grow again. Believed to be bad luck, these barren spots were avoided by Indians, travelers, and traders; however, there was someone who wasn’t so lucky. Local criminal, Big Harpe, was told to stay away from the unusual spots, but he ignored the warning and was later found with his head nailed to a tree. Many believe that a witch ended up taking Big Harpe’s head and using it for a special potion.

There are facts of a sort in here. The Witch Dance was a site the Native Americans knew about. But it’s not clear that it was ever associated with witchcraft or bad luck before white settlers got there. But holy shit. Big Harpe was in no way a local criminal and there’s nothing to indicate that he ever even went to Mississippi. This kind of insinuates that the witches nailed his head to a tree, but we know it was the local Kentuckians warning other river pirates. Weirdly enough, there is a Kentucky story that a witch took his head.

Poor Little Harpe, who actually went to Mississippi, gets kicked out of the legend all together.

An Accident

I got rear-ended yesterday morning on my way to work. We pulled into a parking lot and the driver of the other car asked me if I was okay. I said I was. I got out. I looked at my bumper. The extent of the damage was that some of the grime on my car had been removed. I was so relieved. Not for my car. It’s almost a decade old and paid off. I’m hoping to get two more years out of it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it got totaled.

But I realized I’m really nervous about involving the police in things lately. I saw the other driver and thought, compared to me, a middle-aged white woman, this dude is at a serious disadvantage if the cops show up. And as lightly as he hit me, I’m pretty confident he stopped in time but slid into me. Yes, he was at fault, but deserving of having the shit scared out of him so that he’s more careful in the rain, not deserving of having the cops involved. And he was scared shitless, scared that he had hurt me. So, from my end, everything seemed resolved how I would have wanted it–undamaged me, undamaged him, undamaged car, he’s a little more cautious in the future.

But it made me feel weird about our country that I was afraid to involve the police.

Slave Owning

This weekend, I read Joshua Rothman’s Flush Times & Fever Dreams, which is about John Murrell, the non-existence of the Mystic Clan, and the brutal, bizarre summer of 1835 when people in Mississippi murdered innocent people in Mississippi in order to keep innocent people from being murdered. It’s excellent. I highly recommend it for history buffs.

One thing that stood out to me is that Rothman’s book shows exactly why slaves couldn’t testify in court. Yes, at a surface level, it’s the racism of them not being considered people. But it’s also because it was legal to torture slaves and, if you torture someone, you can make them tell you whatever you want. Slaves not being able to testify in court was about protecting white people from false testimony coerced under torture.

I also read this really interesting article over at the Smithsonian’s website, by a guy, Edward Ball, who tracks the path of a Franklin & Armfield coffle. He finds a descendant of Franklin’s brother, James. It goes exactly how you’d expect it to:

How does a person inside the family measure the inheritance of slave trading? Thomson takes a half-second. “You can’t judge those people by today’s standards—you can’t judge anybody by our standards. It was a part of life in those days. Take the Bible. Many things in the Old Testament are pretty barbaric, but they are part of our evolution.”

Thomson warms up, shifts in his seat. “I do not approve of revisionist historians. I mean, people who do not understand the old lifestyles—their standpoint on life, and their education, are what today we consider limited. That applies to Southern history, to slave history.

“You know, I have been around blacks all my life. They are great people. When I grew up, we were servanted. All the servants were black. We had a nurse, a woman who used to be called a mammy. We had a cook, a black man. We had a maid, and we had a yard man. We had a guy that doubled as a driver and supervised the warehouse. And we had all these servants till they died. I wasn’t taught to be prejudiced. And I’ll tell you what nobody ever talks about. There were free blacks in the South that owned slaves. And there were lots of them. They didn’t buy slaves in order to free them, but to make money.”

Thomson emphasizes these last sentences. It is a refrain among Southern whites who remain emotionally attached to the plantation days—that one in 1,000 slaveholders who were black vindicates in some fashion 999 who were not.

Are we responsible for what the slave traders did?

“No. We cannot be responsible, should not feel like we’re responsible. We weren’t there.” Are we accountable? “No. We are not accountable for what happened then. We are only accountable if it is repeated.”

Thomson is sensitive to the suggestion that the family took benefit from the industrial-scale cruelty of Franklin & Armfield.

“In my family, people looked after their slaves,” he said. “They bought shoes for them, blankets for them, brought in doctors to treat them. I never heard of any mistreatment. On the whole, things weren’t that bad. You see, blacks were better off coming to this country. It is a fact that the ones over here are far ahead of the ones over there in Africa. And you know that the first legal slaveholder in the United States was a black man? That’s on the Internet. You need to look that up. I think that’s interesting. Human bondage began I don’t know when, but early, thousands of years ago. I think slavery developed here primarily because of the ignorance of the blacks. They first came over here as indentured servants, as did the whites. But because of their background and lack of education, they just sort of slid into slavery. No, I don’t believe in revisionist history.”

I’m not really interested in refuting this. If the Franklins are the bar by which “good” slave ownership is judged, then that bar was so low every slave owner in the South could have crossed it. You could leave people’s carcasses in the swamps. You could rape women willy-nilly. You could oversee people’s torture and death. You could break up families. You could sell your own children. You could repeatedly call yourself a villain. And even that’s not enough to get people to lump you into the “bad” slave owner category.

I will say, though, this is something I will never, ever understand about the South. To my way of thinking, you honor someone by taking him at his word, by believing him when he tells you something. When Southern slave owners flat out say that they are villains or that the Civil War was about slavery, I believe them. That, to me, seems like the honor and respect I owe them–to take them at their word, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable. (And let me be clear, one of the most uncomfortable things about Isaac Franklin is that he is very likable. You read his letters and, even as he’s talking about this horrible stuff, he’s engaging.)

But here, honor and respect of ones’ ancestors is garnered through recasting their deeds as noble, even if their cause was unjust, or through pretending that wasn’t their cause, or that they didn’t do those things. In effect, saying that your ancestors were liars.

To me, this is like some kind of nails-on-chalkboard level of disrespect. I’ve learned not to let my jaw drop over it and to not think less of people who say these things, because clearly there’s some kind of enormous cultural difference here. White southerners who insist on the goodness of their ancestors in spite of their ancestors’ own understanding of their actions do not experience themselves at all as being disrespectful or dishonorable. It is, in fact, this willingness to believe the best, in spite of the facts, that is the act of veneration for them.

I find that fascinating. I wonder what’s at stake there. I mean, not to be flip, but everyone my age got spanked. My parents spanked me. I hated it and it was wrong and people mostly don’t spank their kids any more. My parents were wrong to spank me. I still love them and I think very little about the fact that I was spanked. My parents’ generation was filled with kids who were beaten by their parents. It was wrong and now we actively work to keep people from beating their kids.

Not that slavery is as easy as child abuse, but fixing the damage doesn’t require demonizing the perpetrators–though, my god, it surely does require us to stop pretending they didn’t do anything wrong. I wonder what’s so hard about letting them down off their pedestals?

The Cubs

I used to love the Cubs, but then they dicked over Andre Dawson and Mark Grace. It bothered me that they were neither good nor loyal. I would have forgiven disloyalty if it would have won us some games and I would have forgiven a bad team that ways loyal to its players, but to be neither? To suck and be disloyal?

I always wondered if I would climb back on the bandwagon if they got their shit together.

And I am surprised to find that, no, I really don’t care. Apparently there are ways you can break a young girl’s heart so thoroughly that the middle-aged woman she grows into remains cold to you.

“Their Culture”

I think, if parents are begging you to stop something and kids are trying to shoot their way out of their circumstances, then, no, this pedophilia is not “their culture.”

The sad and upsetting part is that, if we allow pedophiles to bring their victims to our bases and we require our troops to look the other way and punish them if they don’t, then it is “our culture.”

But, yes, let’s have more war, always war, continuous war. Remind me again why the Taliban was worse than this?

It Never Gets Out of Me

I’ve probably talked about this a million times already, but I love this song. I was listening to it yesterday and not only do I love the guitar part which has a little unexpected swinging kick to it, and I love how she’s like, “what you do to me, baby, it never gets out of me.” Whew. It just blows my mind. It sounds like the truth about certain people.

But it also may be the only song I can think of where a mother-in-law is mentioned positively, as someone who might be on the side of the singer.

This is one of the songs I’m most curious about hearing the original women do it live, because there definitely is something about it that, recorded, seems kind of dour, but I wonder about, in a crowd, if people are dancing real close and slyly.

What If Your Culture is a Stack of Lies?

My time writing at Pith has led me basically to one conclusion–white people view ourselves as the rightful ruling class of America and we lie a great deal to each other in order to instill and reinforce that belief and those lies are incredibly damaging to white people. We laugh and point at people who elongate their necks with rings in such a way that their shoulders are permanently deformed; we’re fascinated by people who bind their feet in ways that permanently break and deform them; but we do not much look at how the ways our parents and grandparents raised us binds and deforms our souls.

Any attempts to point out how we’ve been misshapen by those lies is met by a lot of anger. Our parents love us! As if the parents who subject kids in other cultures to odd and permanent manipulations of their bodies don’t love their children and have good reasons to do what they do.

And now, it seems to me, we’re in this weird position where, in order to prove fidelity and love to our ancestors, a lot of us seem to think that we must insist on everyone accepting a demonstrably false version of history. In other words, in order for me to properly love my ancestor, I need you to accept that he was a good slave owner and the Confederate flag was a symbol of rebellion and somehow also great patriotism. If you do not accept that, I mourn as if my love for my family is being irreparably broken.

It’s weird and it’s no good for us. The work was hard and it sucked and nobody wanted to do it. Our ancestors lived during a time when you could boss around anyone you could dominate–your wife, your kids, your slaves, sometimes your neighbors, etc. We’re still trying to clean up the societal mess that way of living leaves in its wake. But the fact is that, if there was hard work that you couldn’t do alone, it makes sense in their context to buy someone and dominate the hell of of them so they do it instead.

It’s not good.

But it’s also funny to me that we live in such a Christian country that views humanity as fallen and this world as wicked and yet, even with that belief supposedly underpinning the philosophical base of this country, we won’t accept it about our own ancestors.

As I Went Walking that Ribbon of Highway

It’s going to be so close, whether I have enough yarn. So very close. In an effort to try to ensure that I have enough yarn, I’m working on the last twelve squares simultaneously, so I can use up all the yarn I have very, very little of on the middles. Then the yarn I have very little of on the next row, and so on out to the row where I hopefully have enough yarn to complete the borders. But, man, I don’t know.

I am still kind of an emotional mess over yesterday. Between gay marriage and listening to the President sing Amazing Grace at a funeral, I just felt so happy and sad and proud and all the emotions. Watching all the pictures of people getting married stream by in social media just made me feel so happy and so confused about why anyone would want to shit on this for someone else.

I heard conservatives threatening that this was going to galvanize their side like abortion did and I just think that’s not true and they have to know it. It’s like interracial marriage or marriages between people of two faiths. Some people won’t approve and some people won’t do them, but otherwise, it’s a non-issue.

And this morning I woke to pictures of Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole in Charleston to take down the Confederate flag. And I just felt so proud and honored to get to witness this moment in American history. Yes, it’s corny. Yes, they put it back up. But I don’t care. We are a country that makes a great promise to its people and the world and we mostly, thoroughly fail to deliver on that.

But sometimes, in fits and starts, we start to deliver.

Oh my god! I have Bruce Springsteen-itis!

Confederate Things

1. I argue we should stop providing racists cover.

2. I talk about how Nathan Bedford Forrest was always a man and a myth and how the man came to resent not being able to escape the myth. And here we are, still mythologizing him.

3. Coates makes the point that I have been wrestling with for years–that Confederates, actual Confederates, hated the “states-rights” origin story for the Civil War and were pissed that Southerners were rewriting what they did and why to make it more acceptable. Confederates got that their grandchildren were ashamed of them, even as their grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on mask that shame in veneration.

Out There vs. In Here

One thing I keep seeing is this idea that the people in the church should just be armed. Like some NRA dolt blamed the pastor for not having a gun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s friends, the black pastors, and how many of them, now that I look back on it, seemed fully aware that they could die in the practice of their ministry. I don’t think I ever worried about this with my dad. I worried the stress of the job might kill him. I hated what the people in his congregations did to him, often behind his back, but in front of me. But I never thought he was in physical danger. And so, even when terrible things were happening to my dad’s friends, I didn’t take seriously my dad’s fear for them. I didn’t understand then, as a child, that this is a place where people do kill ministers. I thought they were just jumpy because of MLK.

I say this because I want you to get how stone-cold and deeply ignorant I was, even as my dad was trying to wrestle with a truth he never hid from us.

Now, though, I see. I think. At least better than I did.

Here is the thing about arming people in church, as I see it. My dad’s friends were almost always in danger from people in their congregations, sometimes more broadly their communities, but usually it was someone in a predominately white church who resented having a black pastor. Should a pastor arm himself against his own people? Or are we just saying that white people and black people can never be each other’s people? That the only way for black people to be safe is to just always assume white people are the enemy?

How can you be a Christian, let alone a Christian minister, believing that your first duty to your flock is to protect yourself from them? How can you square turning the other cheek with carrying a gun with the intent of using it on any congregant that wishes you harm?

You can’t.

I don’t think you can pray and study with someone for an hour in genuine fellowship and keep one hand on your gun in case things go south. They’re just incompatible. Either you close yourself off to almost everyone in your church and only have genuine fellowship with those few people you intimately trust or you leave yourself open to being vulnerable to those who would harm you.

Christian churches can’t be open and be safe.

But a lot of this advice, to go back to my first point, also, assumes that the threat is always external. That someone from outside wants to do harm to people inside. My dad’s friends didn’t have that experience. The threat was from inside the church. And, if the Church is doing what it says it wants to do–spreading the word of God–then Christians have to be open to fellowship with strangers, who then are brought into the group.

What people are calling for is for Christians to be something other than Christian in order to be safe.

I have my issues with my dad, but I respect that he believes with his whole heart that people can be redeemed and changed by Christ’s love. (I have my grave doubts, myself.) I also respect that he knows that some people aren’t going to be. You sit across from 10 white supremacists and maybe only one changes his ways. I know my dad knows the other nine are still a danger.

I think he still believes it is his obligation to make himself vulnerable to scary people in order to reach them.

Again, he has his drawbacks, but, at least when it comes to racial justice, my dad wants everyone in church to be “us.” That’s what he’s worked for his whole life. That’s what his friends have put their lives on the line for, over and over.

A racist walking into a church and killing nine people can’t ruin American Christianity. American Christians deciding it’s safer to take precautions against “them” rather than trying to be open to folks becoming a part of “us” will.

I can’t begin to tell you how it feels to look at that list of victims and see how many have “Rev.” before their names. I can’t tell you how sad and scared it makes me for my dad’s friends, who somehow have to get up in the pulpit on Sunday, have to open their Bible studies to whoever says he needs it on Wednesdays, knowing that racists have no respect for the sanctity of the church and, in fact, that they’ll target ministers.

My heart is with them.

Charleston

I don’t have organized thoughts. But I have these thoughts.

1. I always felt it was a great unfairness that my dad was so faithful and gave up so much of what he wanted out of life and it didn’t make things any easier. I know you’re not supposed to tit-for-tat God, but being a minister is a difficult thing and, it’d be nice, to put it mildly, if someone wasn’t throwing knives at you while you were up on the high wire.

2. My dad’s black minister friends went through Hell–yes, the names and the hatred, but people putting their obituaries in the paper or turning the gas on at their churches and then locking them in. And these were always members of their congregations. A church is not a safe place for a minister, especially not from the racism at the heart of our country.

3. Since the Clinton era, we’ve had a series of terrorist attacks in this country that are, to me, obviously linked–Tim McVeigh (and whoever helped him), Eric Rudolph, that guy in Knoxville, this dude and so many more. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s some supreme commander behind the scenes pulling the strings. If there were, I think we’d go after him and get him and declare a final victory on racism. Mission accomplished, so to speak. Then we’d, for years, be killing or arresting “The Number 2” of our secret domestic terrorism organization. I think what we have, instead, is a bunch of people with similar interests who bump into each other and share information or pass things along on the internet or whatever and who gin each other up to do this kind of shit.

And that’s a lot harder to find and deal with because it means everyone admitting that there are now active, violent movements with actual power in this country. It means admitting that we let people responsible for Oklahoma City go, that some of us sheltered Eric Rudolph for a long, long time, that someone saw this dude’s picture on the news this morning and recognized him and weighed his worth over the worth of those dead Bible studiers and is choosing to protect him.

4. The hate mail I got for the Isaac Franklin piece all, it seemed to me, shared one thing in common: when they read a story about a white guy who stole, raped, and murdered black people, even though that white guy himself understood himself as evil, the “white” told these white readers where to put their sympathies–with Isaac Franklin. And then they felt they had to jump to his defense as not being so bad or misunderstood or whatever. I was doing wrong by not showing him in the best, false, light I could.

We will never keep feeding into and perpetuating the great American sin if we, white people, can’t learn to hear a story where a white person does something horrible to anyone else on this continent and have our sympathies go to the people who are wronged or, if they are wronged to death, to the families of those people, instead of feeling like our duty is to flounder around finding some way to sympathize with the wrongdoer.

Because, for as long as I’ve been alive, dudes like this jackass have had both active supporters and a lot of people willing to gloss over what they’re doing. Most of us will never be in a position to do anything about the evil villains and their supporters. But we can refuse to be among the willing to gloss over. We can stop providing cover.