Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Our Christian Nation?"

Now don't get me wrong. I love my country and I'm not sure where else I'd rather live. But you have to admit, we've had a few problems along the way.

And even though I was born (no fault of my own) in Pennsylvania, (my folks were up there while my dad was doing his two years of alternate service) I consider myself a Southerner since my folks brought me along back down to Campbell Co. Virginia when I was just a little bitty baby.

I've been known to join in  conversations when the discussion turns to how someone is a "Yankee", and you know how Yankees are. They aren't very friendly and they're uptight about getting their agenda pushed through and they're suspicious and untrusting, etc. etc. I mean they just don't understand Southern hospitality at all.Which of course isn't nearly always true, but true just enough to keep the stereotype alive.

But there are some things about the south that I am so not proud of. Slavery for instance. Oh, I've heard all the old Southern arguments that try to make it look ok and benign. Like the one that goes, "Well, in Africa the Africans themselves made slaves out of their enemy tribes". My answer is that two wrongs don't come nowheres close to making a right. Or, "The plantations were peaceful, loving places where the slaves were well taken care of". I'm sure that was true in some cases, but probably for every plantation run that way there was one that was run by the rule of the whip and the threat of the dogs coming after you if you ran away.

Now I wasn't raised in a prejudiced family. My folks taught us to respect everyone no matter of their ethnicity or color of skin. But I think all of us living at that time had sort of bought into the "separate but equal" idea more than we should have. It's amazing what you just don't think about when you grow up used to things being "as they are" and not really questioning much of anything.

Of course, living out in the country I wasn't aware of all the "Jim Crow" laws that were more obvious in the cities. And I'm pretty sure that at the time I had the feeling that Martin Luther King was a rabble rouser and a troublemaker who was just getting people worked up needlessly.

I went to segregated public school for the first seven years. The "white bus" went over the area picking up the white students while the "black bus" went all over the same roads picking up the black students. We went past the "black" school on the way to ours. I never thought much about it at the time but it seems crazy now.

I had never really had any close contacts with blacks until a new family moved into the old school house turned residence across from Perrows Chapel. We began learning to know the children in the family who were all near our age. We spent many hours riding bike and playing ball with Raz, Ruby, Randy and Kenny.  And even at that fairly young age I began to question the old Southern attitudes about the relationship between the races.

I distinctly remember being in the Gladys Elementary sixth grade in Mrs. Ida Mae Arthur's class. Now with all due respect to a teacher's position, Mrs. Arthur wasn't my favorite. She was very old (at least it seemed like it to me at the time) and had snow white hair and red lipstick.

One day she began to explain to us about race relations. (Now you must remember, this would have been about 1967-68 or thereabouts, and the civil rights movement was in full swing) She told us that she had a black lady that worked for her as a maid. (I think she called the blacks "nigras") She said that her and Martha get along just fine. She said," Martha knows her place and I know mine". She said  be courteous and respectful but to always hold yourself a little bit above them.

Something boiled up inside me that day.  I was about as mad as a shy, backward little Mennonite boy could get. I didn't say anything, of course, but I firmly decided that this was terrible advice and I absolutely would not follow it. To this day I look back and see that decision as setting the course for the way I've lived my life all these years since.

The public schools in Campbell County desegregated the year I went to the eighth grade. My seventh grade class of the year before (about thirty students) were split up into almost exactly thirds. One third went to William Campbell in Naruna. One third to Altavista, and the other third to Rustburg.This shows you how much extra busing was being done to get all the students to their "proper" schools.

 I well remember the day in the seventh grade when we rode the bus down to William Campbell High School for "eighth grade day". This was something that was done every year to introduce incoming eighth graders to what high school would be like. The bus pulled in to Gladys Elementary with the seventh graders from the black grade school already on the bus. All on the back of the bus, that is, leaving the front seats for us. (Sounds  awful much like Jim Crow doesn't it) The only black student I recognized was my friend Randy. And I remember thinking, too, that all the black students looked exactly alike; you couldn't tell one from the other.  A few years later I thought back on how crazy that was also!

So I'm going to be a friend to all, right? Not always as easy as it sounds. When I went to eighth grade I really had no friends in my grade other than my friend Randy. And I don't think we had hardly any classes together; not even lunch. So I would sit in the lunch room with some of Randy's friends that I was learning to know. Robert (Bob) Hubbard was the friendliest. So here I am, the only white guy sitting at the table with a bunch of black guys. Some of the other black students would come by and ignore me but would say to the other guys, "Aw, yall 'tommin'" Or call them an "Uncle Tom". If you don't know what that means, it comes from Uncle Tom in the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It's a saying meaning a black person that is trying to cozy up to a white person to maybe gain favors or something. And in the process would be sort of a traitor to their own race. Also, of course, it shows that they thought Uncle Tom was too docile and didn't stand up for himself like he should have. Bob never seemed to let it bother him and always was friendly to me.

So you can see that this subject is one that I've always done a lot of thinking about. And recently I've sort of re-explored it again.

It started with going to the musical "Big River", which is Roger Miller's creation based on Mark Twain's story about Huck Finn and runaway slave Jim going down the Mississippi. "You see the same sky through brown eyes that I see through blue, but we're worlds apart, worlds apart." The drama and the singing make you feel the story in a much deeper way as opposed to just reading in the book.

Now I can't put my blessing on the whole musical. The "Royal Nonsuch" should definately be left out and you can also feel Mark Twain poking fun at religion. But the truth is that the Christian religion of that day deserved to have some fun poked at it. So pious and religious on one hand, but so inhumane and uncaring at the same time. At one point in the musical Huck is mightily convicted about how he isn't doing his "Christian" duty by helping Jim run away. Finally in a fit of passion he says he'll just have to go to the "bad place" then because he just can't bear to turn his back on his friend Jim.

And then awhile back I watched some of the episodes of "Roots" on Youtube.

And even if Alex Haley made it all up as far as it being his actual family line, all the things that happened in the story happened in real life I'm sure. The absolutely horrible conditions on the slave ships. The unimaginable degradation  of being auctioned of like so much cattle. The indescribable agony of families being torn apart when one member was sold away. The rank hypocrisy of how many owners held themselves up as being such fine "Christians" but thought nothing of using their favorite female slaves as concubines. (Did you ever stop to think how most American blacks look very different from native Africans?)

And even after the Civil War the injustice continued. The "night riders" and the Klu Klux Klan. The whole sharecropping system. For a good picture of life during that time read the book "Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred Taylor. Read " The Emancipation of Robert Sadler". Robert's dad sold him to a plantation owner and he grew up like a slave forty some years AFTER the Civil War ended. True story.

One evening several weeks ago I watched several of those "Roots" episodes back to back. When I got done with one (each one was about an hour and a half long) I knew I should head for bed, but I said I'd just start a little bit of the next one. Mary was in Harrisonburg helping out at her dad's so I had no one to tell me to quit.

Finally at about 2:30 in the morning, deeply moved about all the sadness and injustices in the world, I made my way upstairs. I got my favorite praying blanket and knelt in my praying spot by the couch in the living room. I cried for all the sad things in the world. I cried before God for my sins and the sins of our nation.

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