Therese Goes to Arkansas and is Now Fully Qualified to Solve Race Relations

 

Don’t call them “Rebs” and don’t call it The War of Northern Aggression even in fun. OR in sincerity because you’re contrarian by nature and you’ve read waayyyyy too much about the Right of Secession.

They will go pale, look frustrated or guilty or…..guiltstrated…. and not be able to think of how to respond.

Never say “you people” to African Americans even if you MEAN, “you Southerners with your obsession with mac and cheese and Cool Ranch Doritos. ” That’s considered racist, though it was meant…geographicist. But if you do, just carry on and hope your non-regional dialect, (the only accent Oregon can lay claim to), is pronounced and that the lady you just said it to understands blunder-mouthing from intentional condescension.

Condescension! “Bless Your Heart!” is a flat out insult no matter how sincerely you may say it back in Oregon.

Off the top of my head, these are the first three rules of decorum I violated upon entering Arkansas. There will have been more, but me being me I do not blessknow what they were.

Oh! If you sit on a stoop with bags at your feet wearing jeans and a t shirt, you look like a hobo and no one will give you directions back to your hotel. Even if you shout after them “I’m not a bum! This is like $60 worth of specialty deli food at my feet!” In Oregon, you might still look like a hobo but the class-guilt is strong enough that people will talk to you anyway.

Men of all ages and station will tease strange women. Walk right up and say, “Now which of those sweet things you buying are for me?” Or, “Hey there! Sorry ladies, they done give away your hotel rooms! Teach you not to be such slowpokes next time!”

They do not know they are committing micro-aggressions or violating your safe-zone, nor that teasing is a mild form of hostility, one particularly misogynistic. Therefore, providing them a lecture or pamphlet explaining their transgressions will do no good.

The proper answer to this behavior is of course, to slip on your Mae West imaginary feather boa and respond “The only sweet thing here is me and I’m not for sale.” And “Well then I guess you’re going to be a gentlemen and hand over your room.” If you can do it while poofing your hair with your hand or twitching a dismissive hip, you win.

mae

The racial tension you never understood cuz there are three black people in your town is real here, no one talks about it, and they all do a remarkably nice job of getting along despite it.

Maybe.

To be fair, the only black people I met in Arkansas were in hospitality industries where they have to be nice, ladies who liked my work, or feted authors and poets.  A small a biased sampling.

Little Rock, Arkansas, was a reframe.

It’s hard to have your town be most famous for the first high school integration. They have this huge monument, Little Rock Central High, that symbolizes…too much at one time. Progress. Hatred. Being forced to do something you weren’t ready for. Being embarrassed that you were forced to do something you should have been ready for, 60 years later.

lrintergrate

The Nation Guard is called to escort nine black kids to Little Rock Central High. 

——————-

“This part of town is just coming back to life,” my friend told me as we pulled into the revamped auto shop that was now a fantastic museum.

esse

I met the owner of the museum, the consummate picture of a Southern Lady of Means and Class. Her hair was snow white and styled with edge, her bright dress a perfect unique casual that costs at least $200 to achieve. And oh, that accent. I fell in love with her for all this, not just because she too had a lifelong obsession with collecting 70 year old lipsticks and purses. My friend told me she was almost single-handedly responsible for reviving the neighborhood.

“Gentrification!” I said. We have a LOT of that in Oregon. Ghost towns built to harvest lumber becoming wine tasting destinations, old banks becoming dance studios and art galleries.

The dear lady looked…guiltstrated. “Oh. Oh no I don’t think that’s the right word. I don’t like that word. It’s just revitalization!”

We were in the special room of her museum dedicated to the purses and ephemera that had been donated by African American ladies when she said this, showing me 80 year old fire-iron hair straighteners and 50 year old skin bleachers. I asked direct questions about the products and she struggled to answer, that same consternation I’d been seeing over and over.

It hit me all in a jumble, that the South had once actually HAD a ‘gentry’ and she was likely descended of it. And if so…she wasn’t allowed to be proud of it.

———————-

Later my friend told me about the neighborhood in a hushed voice. “After integration, everything fell apart down here. White flight cleared this part of town out. The weird thing is that before the integration, the black people had a thriving neighborhood. They had all their own services, stores, schools. But afterwards, the black shops lost most their customers and had to close, people who had jobs became derelict…it’s weird.”

“Why’d that happen, you think?”

She said softly, the guilt of being smart, Liberal, but still a privileged white girl with no right to an opinion imprinted deep in her voice. “Cuz people were made to do stuff they didn’t want to do.”

There were other reasons, including new roads causing a shift in geography, but the reason she cited had weight too, and it wasn’t an easy one to say.

We sat in her car outside my motel for 15 minutes talking, and in that time I found out why I’d been blanked when asking for directions. Being fat and sloppy isn’t the same as being black, but class-conscious people must register them similarly. The neighborhood was different at night. Twice black men approach her idling car, motioning for money through the closed windows.

Her body went rigid each time they approached. I…well…I though they wanted directions, natch. She was ashamed to not have any money to give them. “I honestly already gave my last few bucks to a guy earlier today.” She looked at me. “Cuz y’know…no one wants to be begging for money. You have to help if you can.”

Guiltstration.

I have only been to the South in the history I love so dearly. And history is, and I say this quite purposefully, black and white. Brutally cubist, delineated. White people were mean to black people and we need to be sorry WHILE managing to move on with the goal of skin color resonating no louder than hair color.

That’s pretty easy to do in a place like Oregon. Every corner of America has rotten spots when it comes to whites vs. everyone else. Technically, though not well enforced, black people weren’t allowed to live in Oregon til the 1920s. Still, we here in the west aren’t surrounded by reminders of recent conflicts and cruelty and anger. And we’re not looked down on as much for the side of history our community fell on. Not when there are places like Arkansas.

“My dad says that people who are born in places like Little Rock and are Liberals, have to try much harder than people born in Oregon or New York,” my friend said. “It’s more of a fight when you have to shake off everything you were taught and raised with, shake off everything you see around you, to think the new way that you know is right but…doesn’t feel quite natural. Whereas you guys are born thinking the “right way.”

I don’t think she meant having to struggle free of sick brainwashing by bitter, horrible racists.

I think she meant something so much more complicated and messy. How it is if you grow up loving your dad, feeling safe at night as his snores rumbled the house, being painstakingly taught to use a pocketknife or hunt or do trig or gouge the eyes of a man who corners you in a parking garage by him, watching him do amazing Dad-things like make broken things run again or spending a weekend building a wheelchair ramp for an elderly neighbor on the hottest day of the summer, cracking goofy jokes the whole time, and watching him spoonfeed your stroke-invalid mother until her dying day….well you love him, hard. You’re proud of him.

But he was openly anti-integration. He thought black and white people, all people, do better with their own tribes. Racist.

What a punch to the gut to have to put an asterisk next to your own Dad’s name. “He was a good man, *BUT…(not really. One simply can’t be racist and good at the same time. Right?)” Should you have to? I mean…if you don’t then it’s like saying the stuff he thought was okay and it wasn’t but…he’s my dad. He was good.

When I flew back over Portland, the plane descended from grey clouds over the grey Columbia River. The black-green trees were clumped everywhere, grown where their seeds had landed, not where hands planted them. Even though you usually get tense when you wait for the wheels of the plane to gouge into the runaway, I felt myself relaxing. When I left my gate, I followed our famous ugly beautiful carpet,

and when I looked up there were the people. Strangers. But the slight differences leaped at me. The North Face Jackets. The sherpa hats. Few suits, not much jewelry. Men of all ages in retro t-shirts. Home. Home home home. People I know, people I can disappear into, my tribe and my land. Cheesy, but that doesn’t make it less true.

I cannot understand the complexity of living in the 21st century Southern United States. I have no experience with race relations, really, and neither do a lot of the people who talk very loud about them. My life is naturally, not forcibly integrated…and that integration mean about a handful of black people who, for whatever it’s worth, don’t have to tread the same ground every day their ancestors were slaves on. I’m not asked to feel guilty on a daily basis, nor am I living in a place where my grandparents weren’t allowed to eat at a cheap Woolworth’s lunch counter because they were black. I don’t know what it’s like to be hated because of my appearance, or, because of what my grandparents might have done. And I can’t believe I thought I knew shit about any of this. Like books and movies could possible tell even a fraction of the whole story.

The only thing I understand now is that it’s not as simple as we’ve been taught. Not as simple as we wish to god it was.  That much of what we consider good and bad is actually spin-art, not cubism. The colors of cruel, kind, justice, anger…they’re clear, but history; the time and place and the way things worked back then and there, that’s a vicious centrifuge. It whips it all around into blots and smears. You can’t tidy that.

Spin Painting with Kids

Not Black and White. See what i did there? (The Artful Parent)

And we should respect that we can’t.

 

 

 

One thought on “Therese Goes to Arkansas and is Now Fully Qualified to Solve Race Relations

  1. Fabulous. My remembrances of the south go back to the 60’s….. as a ‘lil (white) child of the era, with relatives in Alabama…….. remembering pulling our little camper, listening to my dad as we drove, remarking how our “northern license plates” were a target for the southern cops.…….hmmm….? Southern people don’t like us? Well then, I don’t like them. Later, as we pulled our little camper towards our destination, we stopped in at a laundermat in Louisiana to wash clothes. I was horrified to see a large sign painted on the window: WHITES ONLY. Asked my mom…..”how will we wash our colored clothes?!” Innocence betrayed when I found out what it meant. Nobody said we don’t like “those people.” – but nobody explained how wrong that sign was…….
    So, ………..assumed we don’t like “those people.” Well, who explains race relations to a 7 year old when you have 5 loads of dirty laundry with your name on them??? And don’t get me wrong – my parents were great, wonderful people…….but there it was, and I soaked it up. Nobody talks – nobody tells. I’ve worked with hispanics gals that were astonished to find out that us white people had alcohol fueled family drama, and black gals that told me white men smelled like “baloney.” My husband and I frequented northern Wisconsin for years, camping on the Ojibwa indian reservation….same deal. Everyone assumes – nobody communicates. Up there it was white vs. indian. This weekend I was up in Galena, where we have a second place. I happened into a book signing, and bought a book about the Ojibwa Indian nation, called: “The elders speak” – author was an Ojibwa (elder) woman. That “elder” wasn’t speaking………No way could get into a conversation with her, (no one was in line) about my travels, my interest in her culture, my experiences – her experiences……..she would only say, “things are getting better.” So, put it right out there to her, and she was afraid to speak about it……her book, on the other hand was FULL of opinions and tales of racism. Go figure. Title should have been, “an elder speaks only to other Ojibwa indians.” Or, “we’re way happier with our own tribe.” Anyway, I don’t think any of us really know shit, and most of us are full of it. Did ask if they had your book in the store – they never heard of it, so I TOLD THEM! LOL Of all the places your book would be right at home is this little town where the 1800’s is frozen in time. Home of Ulysses S. Grant – frequented by Abe Lincoln, and (moving forward) chock full of everything victorian. Would be a great venue for you to do a lecture – so, advising the powers that be….we’ll see. Big fan! Stephanie Edwards

    Like

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