When we were kids, my sister and I would make mom and dad drive past this old governor’s mansion when we were visiting Grandma and Grandpa in North Carolina. At the time it was this abandoned and decrepit old wreck of a place, but it was a lovely and haunting wreck and sent chills down our spine, invoked a sense of a time and a place, of those ghosts of the past. In time eventually someone bought the wreck and fixed it up, and now it still stands on that old back road on our way to Great Grandma Mannings, in all its renewed grandeur.
Growing up in Canada, this place, the whole state really, with the pick-up trucks with gun racks with guns in them, the cotton fields, were shacks with peeling paint lined the back roads were black families lived, with these two front doors out front, it was a strange land to us, a foreign country really, more foreign than Pennsylvania, or Maryland, or any state north of that Mason-Dixon line I’ve been to then or since.
It was these characters that first ignited my history mouse curiosity, and it was to them that I turned to first when I discovered genealogy and began tracing them back, one generation after the next, back and back and back, past 1776 into the distant annals of the United States, into the mists of the first settlers on those shores.
Almost all of Dad’s family, of slave owners and soldiers that fought in the civil war, the war of Independence, they were some southern baptist preachers and elders of the church, families living at the same crossroads generation after generation, were old abandon burial grounds lie off forgotten in grassy meadows, where not for all the tea in China Dad said he would venture, cause of the deadly snakes he knew lay in wait for him, all where each generation stayed put, his roots are long and deep.
But in 1965, maybe 1964, he had a choice to Vietnam or join up under an agricultural ticket and spend half the year as a laborer and the other in the National Guard – so off to Camp Bragg he went, and the other half of the year on a tobacco farm up here in Canada where he first met mom.
Many of y’all have an image of the south, the stereotype, and in some concrete ways all those stories, of racism and southern poverty, we drove past in our four-door silver mini station wagon or one year in our Vega. We parked outside of corner stores when dad was inside and mom locked the doors as 3 black kids came out and headed towards our car, walking past as their feet crunched on the gravel is how I learned about that prejudice that haunts those southern states, heck all the states. It is a place of dichotomy, where I learned first hand on Great Grandma Mannings front porch about her best friend she’d known since she was a young girl who was black and was not allowed into her house.
It is down there I learned about the poison that still runs through their veins, blatant racism, right in your face, and so very foreign to our Canadianized eyes, and ears, and against everything we had ever known, and what we had been taught back home, north of the 49th parallel where our racism was more hidden.
I remember when my sister was in grade three she stood up and told the whole class this racist joke, which prompted an inquiring call from her teacher, and an embarrassed mother who was horrified, but no doubt made aware of those listening ears on nights round the kitchen table with friends and a father who knew all the best racist jokes, and to which elicited much laughter, and so how was she to know? Well, she learned.
Is my dad racist? Yes. I’m not going to quibble about that here, not anymore. I could say that the racism he carries locked inside is not the racism of hoods and burning crosses, of hatred and exclusion, it is there, and it is something that does not sit well with him. He’s aware of it, I know because one night we had an all-out verbal sparring match concerning that very question, and how he responded has stayed with me till this day.
“Pawla, you lily-white Canadians, that racism you learned about in your history books sat at the lunch counter right down the street from me when I was growing up, so don’t you tell ME about racism. My best friend in the National Guard was a black guy, and I could sit and have a drink with him in the canteen on base, but off we couldn’t even go into the same bar. “
That is southern history. Racism today lies not in blatant Klan robs and segregation, not in some belief that certain people are unworthy of the same rights and freedoms as them, or in their voting rights, or any of that. No, the real racism that runs throughout that unUnited States today is not about blackness, but about WHITEness. Not about what they should expect of the government, but of what character goes along with the colour of their skin.
To be fair, to be honest, I didn’t and would not have called my dad racist until very recently. Not until Trump came along and blew a hole through all our oft held notions, I would have defended my dad and felt in my heart and soul that anyone who called him racist was delusional and didn’t know my dad.
Which I guess tends to happen when you listen to white folk’s definition of what racism is, eh? Guess I’ve been “woke”.
And yes, my father voted for Trump.
I had that conversation with him way, way back in the fall of 2015, and he told me, “yes, I would vote for him if I could”, and let’s just say I was completely stunned to hear him say that. Like, I just went completely speechless, and I can’t imagine what my face looked like. I remember saying this that or other, but inside I was screaming… “how can this man who spent something like 40 years in Canada vote for THAT man?”. It really boggled my mind that he had been fooled, tricked, brainwashed, something, something in the air down there had changed something, and I was at a loss as to explain how this otherwise intelligent man, who I had always thought of as not so easily swayed by the sort of swag and brag that man gave off like a bad smell – I was truly gobsmacked.
It’s probably the only reason I try, try and fail, but I try, I do, I try to understand and try to be open-minded about that man. Oh, dear lord, I do try. I do.
I sometimes think, maybe I’m wrong, and he’s right? Maybe this guy is not a nut job and his sole mission in life isn’t to just get filthy rich and screw as many people as he can before he dies? Maybe, I mean it is possible, right?
I entertain that idea, that maybe I’m delusional, and he really is this savour and great white hope for civilization as some of his most zealous wingnuts believe, I mean, it is possible. Maybe it is all just some left-wing plot to destroy the world and make it a Nazi fascist globe where there are no cows and buildings are made of straw and all their guns have been taken from them and new mothers “abort” their infants at home.
You know, that universe where everything he touches turns to gold and where crowds are double what your eyes can see and in that land of Nod where all his 4-star generals are wrong and Putin is the wise one with only the best intentions for America, and Kim Jong-un is not an evil dictator who murders his own family whilst pointing nuclear weapons at American shores.
Dad when quizzed by my sister back in the summer last year, when she drilled him and expounded on all the trivia concerning his dear leader, was said to have exclaimed…”well it doesn’t matter anyway, he’s funny and I’ll be dead by the time it all hits the fan“…or something along those lines and that would have caused me to hang up and never speak to him again; well, I’m still on the fence, truth be told. Yes, he did, that is the gist of what he said. That is a truth that just blows me away.
My father turned 73 or something the other day, and I texted him a happy birthday, giving myself the excuse that I couldn’t afford to call long distance, which is the truth of it. But I didn’t go out of my way, and I honestly have always had a hard time talking to my dad, as we have never seen eye to eye.
Funny how you can look so very much like someone and be such complete and utter polar opposites.
Tonight I’m having me some sausage gravy and biscuits for dinner, and might even make up some southern style ice tea, and think on all the many things my father gave to me, the lessons and love, the strong silent character, the humble roots and, well, my temper, can’t forget that slow-moving force that though hard to ignite can be fierce. And I am thankful for his insight into a place and a time that many just do not understand, a people that are lost in a time and a place best left back where it belongs, on those old dusty back roads where old slave shacks have not yet been torn down.