Howling Sea Lane

Ebony and Ivory, and Actors

Just home from the SAG Awards party. It was great fun, and I was fortunate to have Melissa come along on short notice, when B’s knees gave out. I loved seeing all the dresses and the pretties.

Have I mentioned that I am reading Freedom Summer? I am reading Freedom Summer. It is painful. You see, I grew up among people who were adults and young adults, living in the Deep South in 1964. I was born just six years after the Freedom Summer project. Just six years after some of the most depraved and horrible instances of racism and bigotry, that were defended by white people.

B and I were talking about it today. I know my maternal grandparents well enough to tell you that they would never have considered taking part in any wrongdoing, and that neither of them would have been able to turn a blind eye to it–they would have defended anyone in the moment, black, white, green, it didn’t matter. But I also know, from experience, that after the fact, when racially motivated crimes were reported on the news, they would say with deep sadness, “Well, they should have known better than to be in that part of town/be with that white woman/say that there.” They were resigned to the fact that Blacks and Whites had their places, and if either got out of their box, there would be violence. They did not promote it, or agree with it. It was just the world.

My paternal grandparents are another story. I fully believe my grandaddy would have turned a blind eye to violence. I fully believe that he would be a spectator to it. He wasn’t big or brave enough to take part in it, but he was gleeful in retelling about anyone getting a comeuppance. I hate to say that I think Granny would have looked away, too. I know for a fact that other of my father’s relatives have used words like, “Don’t let the sun go down on you here.” At least once, those words were directed at my mother, who had been foolish enough to say what cowards she made of the Klan.

My upbringing was a muddle. I was raised to believe we were all equal. I was also raised with the socialized understanding that black people hated white people because of slavery, and that it wasn’t fair that they hated us because our people weren’t slave owners, so we didn’t like how people couldn’t get over what had happened over a hundred years ago. And I have said my share of ignorant things about that, too. God help me–seriously, I mean that as a prayer–I have probably not said the last of my ignorant things. I’m working on educating myself, though!

I think a lot of Southerners fall into that grouping of socialized angry ignorance. When Sherman razed the South, it was done indiscriminately, and a lot of innocent (mostly women and children) people died of starvation, and it was decades before families could rebuild even the small holdings they had lost. And those were my people. My people were dirt farmers and Indians.

So you grow up with this chip on your shoulder about what it means to be Southern. What it means to be white in the South. What it means to shoulder a burden of shame that your people couldn’t even aspire to with their low station. You grow up narrow-eyed at people who mock the South, or people who lump all Southerners into the category of Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara. And, you grow up with a backwards pride, a lock-jawed, angry pride, willing to spit in the eye of anyone who dares tell you that the Civil War was about slavery. Because, your people have always told you, slavery was an issue, but there was much, much more to it.

And you grow up a little angry with Black People because what you’ve always been made to understand is that if the Yankees had stayed out of your business, and if those trouble makers like MLK and Malcolm X had just left well enough alone, things would’ve been fine.

Hopefully, while you’re growing up, you are challenging the contradictions. Ain’t no such thing as Separate but Equal, Grandaddy. Those don’t mesh. Hopefully, by the time you are full grown, you can pick out the splinters of racism that you picked up, rubbing your heart along the rough wood of your grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ experiences and you can remove them. And hopefully, you grow up to find the stomach for the truth. Hard truths like this:

From the wikipedia article on Freedom Summer, which was basically an attempt to register Black voters. Long story short, insane laws and regulations had made it nearly impossible for Blacks to vote in Mississippi, and if a black man or woman dared to register, they ended up on the wrong end of fists or shotguns.

Many of Mississippi’s white residents deeply resented the outsiders and any attempt to change their society [ed. I grew up hearing about the Yankees who knew nothing about nothing, coming down here and trying to make us do what they wanted…never attached to race, mind you. Just Yankees trying to make us mind. Hurts to hear the words your Alabamian grandparents said, put in this context. Hurts bad.] Locals routinely harassed volunteers. Newspapers called them “unshaven and unwashed trash.” Their presence in local black communities sparked drive-by shootings, Molotov cocktails, and constant harassment. State and local governments, police [emphasis mine–but can you believe that? the people who swore to serve and protect were doing this?!], the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan used murder, arrests, beatings, arson, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality.[5]

Over the course of the ten-week project:

* four civil rights workers were killed (one in a head-on collision)
* at least three Mississippi blacks were murdered because of their support for the civil rights movement
* four people were critically wounded
* eighty Freedom Summer workers were beaten
* one-thousand and sixty-two people were arrested (volunteers and locals)
* thirty-seven churches were bombed or burned
* thirty Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned[6]

Violence struck the campaign almost as soon as it started. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney (a black CORE activist from Mississippi), CORE organizer Michael Schwerner, and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman (both of whom were Jews from New York) were arrested by Cecil Price, a Neshoba County deputy sheriff and member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They were held in jail until after nightfall, then released into a waiting ambush by Klansmen who abducted and killed them. Goodman and Schwerner were shot at point-blank range. Chaney was chased, beaten mercilessly, and shot three times. Reported on TV and on newspaper front pages, the triple disappearance shocked the nation and drew massive media attention to Freedom Summer and to “the closed society” of Mississippi.

As soon as the men had turned up missing, SNCC and COFO workers began phoning the FBI asking for an investigation. FBI agents refused, saying it was a local matter. Finally, after 36 hours of foot-dragging by the FBI, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered an investigation and FBI agents began swarming around Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been arrested. For the next seven weeks, FBI agents and sailors from a nearby naval airbase searched for the bodies, wading into swamps, and hacking through underbrush. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover came to Mississippi on July 10 to open the first FBI branch office there.

Throughout the search, Mississippi newspapers and word of mouth perpetuated the common belief that the disappearance was “a hoax” designed to draw publicity. But the search turns up the bodies of eight other black men found in rivers and swamps, one of them 14-year old Herbert Oarsby, was found wearing a CORE T-shirt, two others, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore had been expelled from Alcorn A&M for participating in civil rights protests, and the other five men were never identified. On August 4, 1964, the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found buried beneath an earthen dam.[7]

That’s over the course of just ten weeks. Ten weeks, and no official had the balls to make it stop. And God as witness to my shameful ignorance, I didn’t know any of that until I was 39 years old. And all of a sudden, it made sense. All of the racial tension I grew up with. All of the fears and the anger. Everything. No wonder black people hated white people!

I’m sorry to say it took so long for the lightbulb to go off. I mean, I knew there were problems after the war, and I knew Blacks didn’t have it easy, but I always thought my father was just joking about Blacks in Alabama being allowed to vote, so long as they voted for the right fella. I lived in a bubble of privilege, thinking that because I wasn’t a racist, I should be exempt from anger. The ignorance, it burns!

So what’s that got to do with the SAG Awards?

Ever since working for a woman who was the first African American Vice President of our international company, I have been much more sensitive to diversity. She really opened my eyes to disparities in minority representation, and made me empathetic to what it must be like to be the only face like yours in a room. She said how hungry she gets to see someone who looks like her. I never thought about that before–didn’t have to. I can’t look at a crowd now without asking myself, “Is this diverse? Or, is this a place where X,Y,Z minority would feel uncomfortable? Are there more than two faces that look the same?” I also find myself asking, “Is this a crowd where diversity is forced?” Because that’s almost as ugly. No one wants to be the token.

Well, that was one lily white awards show, wasn’t it? Not a single Black actor nominated. Not a single Black project nominated. Just a bunch of white people congratulating themselves. We had white fighters, white ballerinas, white royalty, white television execs, white cowboys…white, white, white. Why?

Really? There wasn’t a single Black actor who deserved recognition? Because the American Black Film Festival found plenty of men and women to honor.

It isn’t right. The disparity isn’t right. And we can’t keep trotting Eva Longoria out to show that we have Latin diversity either. Where were the Latin actors? The Hispanic actors? The Asian actors? I know they are on television because I see them. Where are their nominations?

I’m a little worried that this whole post is ignorant. Or will come off as ignorance. Thing is, I am ashamed to be even historically associated with people who were, or might have been involved in anything like this. I finally understand what there is to be ashamed of, and that Southern Born and Southern Bred chip I’ve carried…wow. I could no more wear a watch that played Dixie now, than the man in the moon. (I owned one when I was ten. Grandma bought it for me. I got mad when my mother suggested it was offensive, and wouldn’t let me wear it to school.)

I can’t be sorry for what was lost in the South, not only because all that antebellum romance was never destined to be mine. If the South had been successful in its bid to secede, it is highly likely that I would be living in a trailer somewhere in north Florida, drinking a Pabst and watching my three year old run around the front yard in a dirty diaper, yelling things like, “Little Stonewall Lee! Don’t git too far. Them gators are out there! Now come ‘ere. Diddy’s done brought us some squirrel to eat!”

But also because, you know what? I would still have had the right to vote. Because, by accident of nature, I am white. So there’s the thing right there. Well, maybe not. I am a woman, and women didn’t get the right to vote until well after the Civil War. But I would have had rights as a free born citizen.

That is not the truth for what would have happened to Blacks, had the South won. It would not have been a win for them. And that’s why the Rebel flag is so offensive. And that’s why Gone with the Wind is so offensive. And that’s why–that’s why it is important for people like me to educate ourselves, so we can stop talking like fools, and start making real progress.

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