Ain’t Going Back to the Stupid Times

Something you should probably know about me before I go off on this—I grew up in the (American) Deep South during the 1960’s, and came of age in the late 1970’s. And when I say “Deep South”, I mean you couldn’t go much deeper. To us, Tennessee was a border state, ‘mkay? This was a time when a guy like me couldn’t take a walk down a dirt road without some yahoo in a pickup pulling over to ask if I needed a ride to the Klan rally, and if you think I’m exaggerating, well, you weren’t there. All by way of saying that I learned about racism the way all my peers did—by being taught it. To be fair, it wasn’t as if we had classes and homework on the subject, it’s just that every day we were led by example: if I was part of a seasonal crew hauling hay, for instance, that had both black and white members, at lunch time we didn’t eat together. We ate the exact same things, but at separate tables set up for the purpose. And, like I imagine most everyone else did, when I was younger I asked why that was. The only answer I ever got from the adults was “because that’s the way it is.” I never found that answer particularly satisfying, but I finally realized that they weren’t holding out on me—it was the only answer they had. I had been told that Martin Luther King was a dangerous radical, and the ones who told me that believed it. Then I listened to MLK give a radio speech on the Viet Nam war and realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that I agreed with everything he said. By this time I definitely had the feeling that “something wasn’t right.”

When the schools integrated in the early ‘70’s, you’d think it was the end of the world, to hear the adults talk. The National Guard was called to Jackson because there was surely going to be a race war. My uncle was in it and we were worried.  A lot of “private schools” popped up about then, crappy most of them. I didn’t go, thank goodness. Some of my friends did, and I don’t think it worked out for them. As for the “end of the world,” it didn’t happen. The black kids were just as scared and nervous as we were, and we got to know each other a little better. We had black teachers for the first time, ever. Maybe we didn’t understand it completely at the time, but everyone understood that something significant was happening. Not the end of the world. Something else.

So, when all that’s said and done, am I still a racist? Well…probably. In the same sense that I’m still a Southern Baptist, as in I was raised that way, it informed my upbringing and, while intellectually and spiritually I’ve come to reject its tenets, it is still a part of me and I can’t completely escape that. Which means that I always have to be on my guard, and always aware. I’m not proud of the fact, but I own it.

That first part was an explanation. This part is more of a confession—I actually watched the Miss America Pageant. I’m not proud of that, either. Yes, it’s a throwback, exploitive, and by rights it should be in the dustbin of history. My wife and I agree on that, but she still likes to see the pretty gowns, so there you are. When Miss New York won, we thought, cool, first Indian-American to win, and that Bollywood/classical Indian fusion dance was neat.

The very next day came the Stupid. “She’s a Muslim!” “She’s an Arab!” “It’s un-American.” I swear, I don’t know if we have more stupid people these days, or they’re just louder. Listen—we’ve had seven Black Miss Americas so far, and I grew up in a time when that was pretty much unthinkable. Why? Because we were stupid. We got better. Not perfect, but better. The point is that I’ve been through the Stupid Times. Some people think that these are the Stupid Times. Sorry, no. Not that this particular moment in history is any great shakes—the national freakout at the election of our first Black President is still ongoing in some circles—but those of us who were there remember when things were a lot worse. We’re not going back, no matter how much some jackasses like the idea. I remember the fear-mongering and ignorance and this is no different—it was bullshit then, and it’s bullshit now. And as long as we’re going to have Miss Americas anyway, Nina Davuluri will make a great one, she is exactly representative of what America—at its best—is all about, so those who are inclined to froth, GTFOI.

That is all.

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