I think we love any cord that binds us to family.
From Night Orchard
She drove an old Buick, down every dirt road in central Florida, and never once did she wash it. Each year was added a coat of the fine black dust that blows on the wind from the coast until it was hard to tell that the paint underneath was blue. In the same way, that same black dust coats the fruit of each December; the citrus that grows in the groves by the road, hiding the bright skin beneath. You’d hardly know they were oranges until you cut them and looked inside.
We rode together, my grandmother and I, in the front seat of that old car when I’d visit from Atlanta. Beginning each drive from their house by the lake, bouncing down the rutted track through the mile-long field where the Brahma bulls lived. They seemed both stupid and malevolent; their chewing jaws and following eyes as we passed… don’t go into that pasture boy, those bulls would just as soon stomp you as look at you… to the barbed wire gate that I would open and close again; pretending to be her matador as she drove through. Then leaving our land and onto the paved road that led to the sundown towns of Palatka, Mount Dora, Umatilla and whatever crop my grandfather was selling that summer; cabbages, strawberries, tomatoes.
We’d talk of gators and cattle-birds and the chiggers that lived in the Spanish moss that draped from the Cypress branches. Of rattlesnakes and the proper motor for a fishing boat. She’d tell stories of our family, my mother’s side. How they left Germany long ago to farm cotton in Mississippi and came to Florida only lately, drawn by the price of cheap land; half swamp and half pasture. Both the leaving and the buying a casualty of the Depression. Most times, she’d stop at the little market and buy me a Moon Pie and a Pepsi, a pack of Camels for herself. Then, windows down and seatbelt free, we’d sing along with the Merle Haggard eight-track… if you don’t love it leave it, let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’…. when you’re runnin’ down our country, Hoss, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side o’ me... It felt good to shout such boyhood bravado into the summer wind. And should there be trouble, I knew that she carried a thirty-eight special in the glove box.
With Grannie I felt manly, though I was just seven or eight. I felt seen and admired and equal and important. She loved me without condition, unlike the love of my parents and my church. And in that place, with the people of my youth, I knew I belonged. A member of a special tribe. A son of the South.
In the seventies in the South, race was inescapable. It was in the air that we breathed, in the water we drank, in the fears of the evening and in the way we walked the earth as rural whites; proud, quick to temper, distrusting outsiders, claiming Christ as redeemer. As a boy and young teen, no part of my world was separate from race. It was in my school, in our church, in our stores and the work of my family, on our streets and on television and in the stories we told ourselves… blacks are dangerous, blacks are violent, blacks are lazy, blacks will steal, and above all you must never mix with or marry a black. The Civil War was freshly borne and we all shared the shame of the loser and a hate for the victor, especially General Sherman who had burned our homes on his march to the sea.
As white and male and from a farm family, we were the rarest of tribes. Down there, I walked the world as a prince. I remember the scraping deference paid me by the the grown black men; addressing me with downcast eyes and shuffling steps… Yassuh, mistuh Rick… though I was just fourteen or fifteen. I remember how my uncles called them boy to their faces, though they were of equal age and size. But the black men never sported the overfed paunch of the whites; lapping over their hand-tooled belts, rodeo buckle the size of a saucer. Away from the women or the pastor, they called them nigger and coon and monkey. Such speech was as common as the peanuts that grew in the sharecropper fields. Among themselves, they slyly referred to the Sportsman’s Club; their oblique way of claiming kinship in the Ku Klux Klan. Everyone knew what was meant by the reference. The air was filled with implied and awaiting violence. As a man, you kept a pistol in your boot, hung a rifle in your truck, drank Jim Beam from the bottle and took no shit from anyone, especially a nigger or a yankee. This was the male society of my youth. The society to which I then aspired.
But there was a tenderness too. There was always a contradiction. Not more than a baby, I remember being held at the breast of a black mammy; named always Willie Mae or Lottie Mae or Hattie Mae. They worked in my home, attended me at Sunday church. I remember their starch white uniforms, their white hats and stockings, their white teeth and their coffee dark skin. Their ample legs and arms, their fat bellies and their jolly ways. I remember being enveloped in their embrace; smelling their pungent smell, hushed by their humming… Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so… Little ones to him belong, they are weak but He is strong… With them too I felt warm and safe, like being with Grannie. Much later, I learned that these were not their given names, but imposed on them by the whites for whom they worked; cleaning and cooking, changing and feeding and watching white babies. That their true names, given by parents like the me of today, might have been Miriam or Helen or Irene, my mother’s name. Only now can I ask the mammies of my youth… how could you find such love for the child of your oppressor? Or did they shed their love for me, along with their borrowed names and uniforms when they went home at night to their part of town? I think not. I think they knew of a deeper love, born of fire and grief and knowing. I often wonder if it wasn’t they who first showed me the true face of Jesus.
Racial violence wasn’t always implied, not always hidden. I remember a beloved uncle once calling me into the main house of a nearby plantation to show me a photograph, framed three feet by three and hung on the billiard room wall. Not small or placed in an alcove, but the centerpiece in the room where the men drank their whiskey. An image of a lynching; the handwritten date December, ‘32.
The man hung from the branch. His clothing disheveled and stained with dark stains, his body elongated, his head twice its size, his neck bent akimbo, his arms and legs and hands and feet the most deathly of still, pointing straight down and accusing the men below, gathered in rank at the foot of the tree. The seeing stars now given to morning.
Their faces solemn and dutiful, arms cradling like children their lever-action Winchesters and double-barreled shotguns. So many guns for a single lone black man. We fixed him good my uncle said over my shoulder just like we’ll fix any nigger. Speaking as if he himself had taken part though the lynching had occurred some forty years before. Oh Lord, my Lord. How our sins are taught us. From father to father to father to son. How the blood of the blameless soaks the roots of the Live Oak.
This same uncle, who taught me to hunt and shoot a rifle, to ride a horse and crack a bullwhip, who gave me my first real job and who later did me the kindness of a lifetime; paying my college from his working man’s wages at a liberal school in the west when my own father had left penniless my mother and me. Thus setting in motion the very learning that would cause me to reject the racism of my youth. Thus making certain I would never return to the tribe of my birth.
How can this also be? How can the man who gave me my love for the woods and my path from the South have also given me an image that hurts and haunts me to this day?
How can I have been taught about love in the pews of a Sunday morning, yet taught about hate at my family’s own table?
As I said, the air was filled with contradictions.