Sunday, February 27, 2011


I wrote an essay over on the Western Fictioneers website a little while back, called "O Fictioneers!", that dealt with the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction.

My review of Dynamite Entertainment's LONE RANGER comic

Read my review at the Western Fictioneers website:

My review of James Reasoner's new western REDEMPTION, KANSAS

Read my review of James Reasoner's upcoming western novel Redemption, Kansas over at the Western Fictioneers website:


Western Trail Blazers has released three novels I wrote in the 90s in both print and ebook form. I wrote Riding to Sundown and Brothers in Arms in 1990, and Caleb's Price in 1993 (it was originally released by Writer's Club Press in 2001.)  You can buy them and other fine westerns at:


The fine folks at Western Trail Blazer (an imprint of Publishing by Rebecca J. Vickery) are presenting a modern take on the dime novel... they are publishing western short stories in e-book for for the great price of 99 cents apiece. They have released several of my previously published stories, with some brand new ones upcoming. The best-selling ones so far are in the Blackwell series... my humble effort to track one Tennessee family through the history of the West, a la the Sacketts: "The Blackwell Claim," "Blackwell's Stand," and "The Divided Prey." Jake Blackwell also appears in The Stealing Moon and Bound for the Promise-Land, and "The Windigo" also features a member of the Blackwell clan.

You can buy these, and fine stories by other western writers, at:


February 18, 2011

I have not been adding to my blog recently, as my time is consumed with revising my dissertation right now. There are a lot of history-related topics I have wanted to address, but I have held off. However, while summarizing a discussion in class this week -partly for the use of a disabled student who has difficulty taking her own notes, and partly for my own benefit and future use -I realized that the material could be adapted and shared with a broader audience (if they were interested.) I present below a generalized transcript of the class as I taught it- in "real time" there was a lot of socratic Q-and-A. The class is the second half of the U.S. history survey -The United States since 1877. Prof. David Roediger teaches the class, and I am one of several TAs; I lead three discussion sections with 25 students in each. Bear in mind that this is a basic overview of some very complex issues, many of which had to be dramatically simplified; any one of those could be expanded significantly, and in more depth.

Discussion of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

Racial Hierarchy, Immigration, and New York

OVERVIEW: We have been discussing How the Other Half Lives, the 1890 book by Danish-American photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis. This work caught the attention of middle-and-upper-class white America, exposing them to images from the most impoverished neighborhoods of New York City. We have examined the paradox that Riis, himself an immigrant seeking to bring attention to the plight of the poor with his photographs, expresses in the accompanying text many shocking (to modern readers) ethnic and racial stereotypes about the very people he is trying to help.

In going over the paper drafts I noticed that several people caught on to the fact that the old vs. new immigrant situation was important, but did not understand the details about that situation, thinking it was only a matter of “old” immigrants like Riis being more established and out of poverty. It was more complex.
America, from the time the first English colonies were established, has had a very rigid racial and social hierarchy (or “pecking order”.) That began to change somewhat in the 1960s and 70s, with the Civil Rights and women’s liberation movements and the election of JFK (an Irish Catholic), but is by no means gone completely. It was especially true during Riis’s time.

A hierarchy is a structure. If you wanted to rise to the top of that structure you had to be a WASP –a word that was pretty common when I was growing up in the 70s but isn’t heard that much anymore. WASP stands for “White Anglo Saxon Protestant.” (You could add the word “male” in there, too.) In other words, for most of American history, to be accepted at the highest levels of society you need to be descended from white English people.

As the “W” shows, that structure is racial as well as social. I demonstrate below a model of the racial hierarchy created in colonial America, which was the structure Southern culture was based on until the Civil War. Wealthy white planters were at the top of the structure, followed by artisans and craftsmen who would later be referred to as the middle class, then by a large number of poor whites. Below that is a thin layer –free blacks. There wasn’t a huge number of them. At the base of the structure were slaves- the foundation on which the whole culture was laid.

It was not in the best interests of the wealthy planters for poor whites and blacks to figure out they had anything in common –although in a lot of ways they had more in common with one another than with the other groups. These are the same tactics used in the 19th century to prevent blacks and whites from uniting in labor unions, as mentioned in lecture. Therefore, a line of demarcation was introduced into the structure:

It was, of course, a color line. Since this is a power structure, and white is on top, you could also call it a whiteness line. The people at the very top could tell poor whites: “Hey, maybe you don’t have as much money as us, or education, or opportunity… but at least you’re on the right side of The Line- you’re white, just like us, and that means we’re on the same side… and, if nothing else, you’ll always know you’re better than the people on the bottom side of the line.” Hence, poor whites in the South –who could not afford slaves, and probably never would –went out and fought for the right of wealthy whites to own slaves. Even though slavery meant poor whites had very few job opportunities. (NOTE: in the mountainous Southern Appalachians, where cotton could not be grown and there were few slaves, most poor whites supported the Union.)

We talked in an earlier class about the 1970s sit-com All in the Family. The character of Archie Bunker is a middle-aged, working class white man who is a) extremely bigoted and b)extremely upset about the ways the world he knows is rapidly changing. Archie grew up in an America where -even if he didn't have much going for him -at least he was better than those people. That position of security -being on the WASP team -gave him an innate sense of privilege which the socially progressive movements of the 60s and 70s threatened.

Now we will travel WAY back in time. “Anglo-Saxon” in WASP means “English.” Why is that? It comes from the names of two Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons. These groups migrated to the British Isles in the late Roman period (5th century C.E.) and came into conflict with the people who already lived there: Celtic groups including Britons, Gaels, and Picts. Eventually the Celtic people were pushed to the edges, in a sense: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. The Anglo-Saxons became what were later called English.

NOTE: These maps are much nicer than the ones I drew on the blackboard, which were abysmal.

The English viewed the other inhabitants of the British Isles as inferior, savage, and barbaric. It is safe to say that they didn’t always treat them very nicely. 18th century writer Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) wrote a famous satire of the heartless British policies towards Ireland in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he recommended that the English eat Irish children. There is a theory, which I find convincing, that the British policies toward the Irish would later influence how they treated Native Americans in North America.
What does all this have to do with Jacob Riis and 19th century America? It ties in with the difference between the “old” and “new” immigrants.

The earlier wave of immigrants that appeared on the scene in the mid-19th century were from Western and Northern Europe, mostly Germans, Scandinavians (from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway), and Irish. Germans and Scandinavians were accepted into U.S. society fairly easily- Irish were not. Irish were neither Anglo-Saxon nor were most of them Protestant, whereas Germans and Scandinavians usually were Protestant and, like Anglo-Saxons, were Germanic. From the same “race”, as people viewed it then. In other words: If the “best” race was the Englishman, the next-best must be his Germanic cousins. Irish, on the other hand, had long been viewed as brutish and savage by the English. Thus in the United States Irish immigrants were mistreated and suffered prejudice; businesses sported signs saying “No dogs or Irish allowed,” and people posting job ads specified “No Irish Need Apply.” In 19th-century newspaper cartoons in both the U.S. and Britain, Irish were depicted as dark and apish, as in the examples below:

Do Irish people look significantly different from English people in real life? Of course not. But in these and similar cartoons the difference is striking. In essence, there was a new “color line” in the U.S. and the Irish were below it. They were not accepted as part of the “white race.”

The late 19th century saw a wave of “new” immigrants. Most of them were NOT from Western and Northern Europe. They were from Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jews; they were from Southern Europe, including Italy and Portugal; they were from farther afield, including Asia- particularly China. Like the Irish, the “new” immigrants were not accepted into the upper levels of the social hierarchy; like the Irish, none of them were considered exactly “white.” It is worth noting that Italian-Americans were sometimes the victims of lynch mobs in late 19th century Louisiana. The Chinese, meanwhile, were singled out for exclusion, with laws prohibiting further Chinese immigration in the 1880s.

In essence, a new socio-racial hierarchy was in place in the U.S. by the late 1800s. Like in the earlier racial hierarchy model from the antebellum South, there is a line of demarcation that could be called a “line of whiteness”:

In this model, the farther away an immigrant group is from Northern/Western Europe –thus the farther away they are from Anglo-Saxon –the less acceptable they are.

Just as in the colonial model, African Americans are on the bottom. Writers and historians –from W.E.B. Dubois and James Baldwin to Winthrop Jordan –have long proposed that white identity in America was formed in opposition to black, using blackness as a defining “other.” I may write more about that idea on another occasion. Suffice it to say that for Irish and other immigrant groups to rise to the level of “white,” they had to also define themselves against the other end of the racial spectrum and make it clear they were not “black.”

Case in point: The New York Draft Riots of 1863.

The Civil War was raging, and a draft had been instituted on both sides. In New York, a large number of Irish immigrants were drafted, sometimes shortly after they got off the boat. At that time, anyone able to pay a substantial fee didn’t have to serve –which meant that wealthier men didn’t have to be drafted if they didn’t want to be, whereas poor men had little choice. It was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” This contributed to the anti-draft feeling in the city. What started as anger directed at draft officers in July, 1863, quickly escalated into a race riot that lasted for days, with largely Irish mobs invading the black neighborhoods and killing an untold number of African Americans (possibly hundreds, although the exact number is not known.) Among other things, they burned down a colored orphanage. African Americans had little or nothing to do with Irish immigrants’ situation; the fact they were targeted shows that the Irish knew where they were on the hierarchy.

As James Baldwin put it in the introduction of his 1985 work The Price of the Ticket (p. xx):
“…the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking. The Irish, therefore and thereafter… had absolutely no choice but to make certain I could not menace their safety or status or identity: and, if I came too close, they could, with the consent of the governed, kill me.”

W.E.B. Dubois wrote, in his essay “The Soul of White Folk,” that
“[America] aspires to sit among the great nations who arbitrate the fate of ‘lesser breeds without the law’ and she is at times heartily ashamed even of the large number of ‘new’ white people whom her democracy has admitted to place and power. Against this surging forward of Irish and German, of Russian Jew, Slav and ‘dago’ her social bars have not availed, but against Negroes she can and does take her unflinching and immovable stand... She trains her immigrants to this despising of ‘niggers’ from the day of their landing, and they carry and send the news back to the submerged classes in the fatherlands.”

This is how racial hierarchies work. To work your way into the upper levels, one must show solidarity with the upper levels against those on the bottom. Another important element is paternalism ; in fact, I would say that paternalism is the oil that greases the socio-racial hierarchy machine.

Paternalism, as the name implies, means assuming a superior position and treating your subordinates like children. In this scenario, since they (whichever groups are below yours) are “inferior,” then it follows that they cannot take care of themselves, make their own decisions, or solve their own problems. You have to do it for them, and of course you do, and isn’t that nice of you. British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in 1899 inviting the U.S. to engage in imperial pursuits in the Philippines, saying famously “Take up the white man’s burden!” It was the civilized, “superior” white man’s duty to take care of all those non-whites: to “seek another’s profit and work another’s gain” even though they would not be grateful for it, and would complain that you were pulling them out of the darkness for their own good.

This brings us back to our earlier discussion about All in the Family. The son-in-law Michael (or, as Archie called him, Meathead) was a liberal grad student engaged in many progressive causes, which was a source of endless arguments with his father-in-law. It was always evident to the viewer, however -especially when he was interacting with his (apparently only) black friend -that he had a strong and condescending feeling of paternalism.

THEREFORE: Bearing in mind that Jacob Riis was from Denmark, and thus a Germanic “old” immigrant, and that the ethnic groups he was examining in New York (with the exception of the Germans, and they came off looking pretty good compared to everyone else) were all from groups that were either “new” immigrants or, like the Irish and African Americans, fell below that “line of whiteness”… and that “superior” groups are often paternalistic against “inferior” ones… perhaps Riis was not so much a paradox as at first he seems, after all. From that perspective, it actually makes sense that he could say in one breath “I really feel sorry for these poor people, I want to help them,” and in another breath say that they suck, and throw in a bunch of racial and ethnic stereotypes. And bear in mind, he was writing the book to encourage middle-and-upper class whites to come to the aid of their social inferiors, to take up their “white man’s burden.” Also bear in mind that, in order to be accepted into the “upper strata” as an immigrant, it was important that he demonstrate that he had those powered people’s attitudes toward the “lower strata.” This is a key to understanding Riis and his work, and the time in which he lived.

How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis
The Price of the Ticket by James Baldwin
Making Ireland British by Nicholas Canny
“The Soul of White Folk" by W.E.B. DuBois
How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev
White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan
"The White Man's Burden" by Rudyard Kipling
How Race Survived U.S. History by David Roediger
Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White by David Roediger
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by George Takaki 


"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner


December 16, 2010

A month or so ago I posted a couple of blogs that were to be the first two parts of a three-part series, “Why it Matters to Me.” I looked at the ways my own experiences with race and class had informed my views on the subject and compelled me to champion various causes. This last portion, gender/sexuality, has been delayed somewhat by the end-of-semester madness that runs amok in academia, but now at last here it is.

Because my encounters in this particular area have mostly been on the periphery (being a heterosexual male and therefore not an object of imposed power, other than the adolescent societal pressure of maintaining what scholars on the subject call “heteronormativity”), many of my experiences have actually been watching the experiences of others. Since it’s not my place to broadcast other people’s private, or inner, lives –or to “out” anybody that has not chosen to announce their sexual identity –I plan to be as circumspect as possible in this essay, being vague in places and changing details in others.

That being said, I’ll address the same question I asked myself about race and class- when did I first become truly aware that there was such a thing as gender/sexuality classifications? Obviously, that kind of thing is presented to us all, culturally, from birth, and kind of sinks in by osmosis. Girls are “supposed” to act one way, and boys another. There are “tomgirls” (like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird ) and “sissies”- kids who don’t exactly conform to the “rules” of gendered behavior.

I was in a bit of an unusual situation –although it only seemed unusual compared to the ideal families of television, I guess. My parents separated when I was quite young, and I have no memories of them together. My formative years were spent in a household with two very strong women, my mom and her sister Essie. I had no real positive male influences. There was my older cousin, Essie’s son Stanton, who was as close to me as a brother, but he –though several years older –was still just a kid like me. Two of my mom’s brothers also lived with us, and I adored them, but never pictured them as someone I wanted to be like (they were fun-loving, hard drinking, quasi-employed bachelors.) I loved to read- and devoured comic books even before I could decipher the words, either having my cousin read them to me or figuring out the plots by the pictures alone. I loved movies, too- basically, I suppose I just loved stories.

So I took my models for masculinity from the stories I read and watched. Cowboys, superheroes, war movies. My dad and his brothers were all in the military; when I was three my Uncle Arthur came to visit us, in his Army uniform, and brought me a huge play-set of plastic Army men (in four different colors, to better facilitate imaginary warfare.) He and my Dad looked a lot alike, and I actually thought he was my Dad… in fact, I think I was thirty before I mentioned the incident to my mom and she told me who it actually was. Because I associated my father so much with the military –mostly because of that three-year-old’s confusion –it’s probably not surprising who I wound up choosing as my main masculinity models at ages 3 to 5: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood… and Nick Fury. Fury was a Marvel Comics character who had two ongoing series at once –one set in the (1970s) present-day, in which he was a middle-aged leader of a government spy organization, and one set in his younger days as a commando leader in WWII. The character has been played on screen by Samuel L. Jackson and David Hasselhoff, neither of whom capture the essence of the 1960s and 70s Nick Fury:

NICK FURY (drawing by Joe Sinnott.)

In my young mind, real men sported whisker stubble, chomped on cigars, often wore hats, and frequently dressed in leather, flannel, and boots (if you know me, you know I often do all those things, though the cigars are a very infrequent treat .) I think those images were substitutes for my missing father, and that dressing myself accordingly –in pretend clothes and paraphernalia as a kid, and real ones when I grew up –was a way of clothing myself with my father, which is really clothing one’s self with the essence of comforting (or yearned for) masculinity.

When I got a little older, I was still turning to fictional characters for masculinity guides, but on a more sophisticated level. Later in life I realized how profoundly influenced I had been by certain characters from my pre-adolescent years: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon; Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life; and perhaps most of all Spider-man, who co-creator Stan Lee portrayed as learning that “with great power comes great responsibility.” From all those characters, I concluded that real men are good men, and honorable ones. Their defining characteristic is the willingness to do what they know is right, no matter how hard it is or how much it costs them. I later realized that I had come up with the definition of, not just a man, but of a good person of any gender. Anyone who knows me knows that the “me” I have cultivated and constructed –and all our selves, inner and outer, are a combination of our own constructions and the fears we fortify ourselves against, with a healthy dash of genetics –has elements of all those fictional characters. With a little Andy Griffith thrown in.

But of course, it is never that simple. I had other qualities as well, which did not fit into the American cultural paradigm of masculinity, and I had no stereotypical male figure around to teach me that I am supposed to suppress those things. I was extremely sensitive, and extremely emotional. I was “bookish,” and lived in a world of my own imagination. Those are all qualities I would encourage and nurture in any child of mine, no matter their gender… but in the late 70s/early 80s, and no doubt still today, they are qualities that mark a young boy as a target by his peers.

Which leads me to the first hints I received that gender and sexuality are categories people can be put into. My first exposure to the concept of homosexuality came when I was around nine… Fred Sanford was describing a “sissified” (I knew that term) man as “kind of…you know…” and then made that famous Fred Sanford “comme ci, comme ca” hand motion. His friend Bubba, as I recall, said “Oh, you mean he’s gay.” Fred was confused by the term, and so was I, both of us thinking gay meant happy. I asked my mom what the heck he was talking about, and she explained that some boys liked to kiss other boys instead of girls. In that same time period I saw Archie Bunker interacting with a transvestite, and Billy Crystal’s character on Soap wore women’s clothing and wanted to get an operation to turn him into a woman. Well, all this seemed rather strange to me, but I didn’t give it much thought. I sort of chalked it up to just another weird thing grown-ups talked about which I didn’t understand.

I was pretty sheltered in some ways during elementary school, in part because of my school, Baker Elementary. It was small- only about a hundred students total –and only went to the fourth grade. Basically, then, you had a group of about twenty kids that you went to school with every day from kindergarten through 4th, after which you all went to the much bigger “city school.” I never rode the bus in my Baker years, and my older cousins –like older cousins and older siblings from time immemorial –avoided me like the plague when their friends were around. What all this means, and the reason I am bringing it up, is that I was never around any “older kids.” In my experience as a father and step-father, kids’ first exposures to the seamier concepts in life often come from older kids on the bus. In my case, at the age of 10 I had never heard the f-word (though I’d seen it carved into a chair arm at the movie theater, and wondered what it meant), or the term a-hole, or any of the sexuality centered insults. I had seen the word “queer” on a bathroom stall –again at the movie house (or as we called it, the Show) –and just assumed it was an expression of postmodern bemusement (although of course I didn’t have those terms for it.) “Queer” was a word my grandmother used often to describe anything strange, pronouncing it “qwar.”

Then it was on to fifth and sixth grade at the “big school”- as well as riding the school bus (and being around
high schoolers) for the first time. It was a whole new world. Almost every single fifth grade male swore in practically every sentence, often using words I had never heard before. One kid, a well-known bully, approached me on the playground my first week there.

“Hey,” he said. “You look queer. Are you queer, boy?”

Well, this was an easy enough question. I delighted from a young age in the idea of being a non-comformist –of course this would make me seem strange.

“Why yes,” I said. “In fact, I’m probably the queerest kid in this school.”

This was not the response he was expecting. He was dumbfounded. He gathered his friends around.

“This kid is crazy!” he said. “Go ahead –ask him if he’s queer!”

“Um, hey kid, are you queer?”

“I sure am,” I replied. “It’s no big deal, I’m kinda proud of it.”

Needless to say, I was not getting off to a good start in my new social circles. It didn’t take me long to figure out what the word meant when they said it, and to absorb it –and a lot of other cool dirty words- into my vocabulary. By the end of that school year I, too, was “burning” my friends by questioning their heterosexuality. A favorite tactic –and one that, with my verbal skills, I excelled at –was to turn someone’s words around to make it sound like they were admitting that they were gay (for example, someone once called me “queerbait” and I said “it works, too, ‘cause here you are.”) This was often accompanied by gestures whose significance none of us really understood at the time. Somehow it seemed to be ratcheted up several degrees when we entered middle school.

So, then, was I introduced to that world of burgeoning male adolescence, so lovingly portrayed in Lord of the Flies. It was a good thing, in some ways, that I had a sharp wit and a sharp tongue, because I needed them. I was a scrawny, cerebral, artistic kid, and looked like easy pickings for bullies. When confronted, my usual tactic (if there was a crowd around) was to verbally humiliate the oppressor, then refuse to “meet him outside” to fight. He would eventually figure out that picking on me was more trouble than it was worth, as it would get him ridiculed; if they caught me outside alone, of course, it helped that I could run really fast. The bully would then move on to easier prey.

This is the part of the story I am ashamed of. I wasn’t really joking in my Lord of the Flies reference; kids aged 12 to 14 can be very, very nasty to one another, and it is not uncommon at all to see them engage in masculine (or feminine) bonding that involves singling out some outsider and attacking them. The weaker the outsider is perceived to be, the better. Here is a basic truth about middle school: there are four types of kids, bullies, victims, defenders , and bully enablers. There are very, very few defenders, and for good reason. The whole process is about developing community by choosing an “other” to define yourself against- and at this age, peer community is just about the most important thing in one’s life. If you see another kid being bullied, and you come to his aid, you risk ostracism as well- and that goes against the grain of self-preservation.
There were certain boys that were always singled out to be victims. They were usually the more sensitive ones, who did not fit into the prevalent view of “proper” masculine behavior. Some of those kids later came out as gay; others were perceived to be gay, and that was enough. They were considered fair game.

Sometimes, as I said, I was singled out as the prospective victim. I can remember several specific instances where I was the defender, and I felt really good about myself afterwards. But most often- I either ignored it, or joined in (both forms of bully-enabling.) I joined in to take the heat off myself. And I was extremely cruel. Sometimes, I was the bully.

Now I’m going to be vague. I know a lot of people who were victimized for their perceived sexual orientation or relative degrees of masculinity. I knew such people in middle and high school, at church, through the extended church network I was hooked into, and when I was college age. I know six people who were either gay or perceived to be who committed suicide. Most were casual acquaintances, one was a very good friend several years younger than me. Some of them I defended, some I ignored, some I helped persecute here and there. I’m haunted by all their memories. And despite that, I found myself doing the same thing as an adult in the workplace years ago. I’m quite embarrassed about that; it goes against all the ideals I have tried to define myself by. I wouldn’t do it again, and it hurts to even think about it.

I have also known people who belonged to conservative churches who felt that their desires were sins they needed to struggle against. They tried to make themselves straight, getting married even though they had no sexual desire whatsoever for women. That’s their right and their choice. Most of the ones I know have had sad lives, though (as have their wives.) I often imagine what their lives could’ve been like if they’d had the freedom to just be themselves.

I tried to raise my daughter to be open and accepting, and to have a concern for social justice. When she was eleven or twelve I was proud of her for getting into arguments with older relatives in defense of gay marriage. I was touched when, around that time, she asked me: “Dad, if I were to grow up and tell you I was gay, would you disown me?” We had been discussing the tragedy of a teenage girl who committed suicide in the 1950s because of her sexual orientation. “Of course not,” I said. “I am your father, and I’ll always love you and stand beside you no matter what. Unless you become a Republican (which was only a joke, by the way.)”

When she was sixteen, my daughter told me she had realized she was gay. It was one of those situations where you are very surprised, but not surprised at all; a lot of things sort of clicked into place and made sense. She has been wrestling with concepts of identity, sexuality, and gender since then, refining her understanding of who she is and how she wants to be known. It is a very important journey, and like any parent I have been worried about her on the road while also finding joy in her journey. It is an odyssey that has been very instructive to me, as well, as I’ve seen this person I love so much face obstacles and challenges that I have never really known.

Recently she told me that there was something very important she wanted to discuss as a family. I knew that since starting college she had become very impassioned about gender and sexuality studies, and seemed to be learning about herself at an accelerated pace in her new academic setting. I had a pretty good idea what she wanted to talk about. She was very nervous, but she did not need to be. She told us she did not feel that traditional gender classifications fit her as a person, that she felt neither male nor female but somewhere in-between, and always has. It is a form of identity known as genderqueer, or GQ. Again, it made sense when I thought about it. She was frustrated at the unfairness of being put into a box that was not of her own making, of having an identity thrust upon her. She asked us to think about calling her by a different, ungendered name, and to refer to her with gender-neutral pronouns. Henceforth in this essay, therefore, I will refer to them as my child. My very beloved child.

I am going to share with you what I said to my child that night, as best I remember it. Maybe I’ll add a little that I should’ve said and left out. I have permission to discuss it in this forum, and I’m glad –because it is the thing parents should say to their children, whatever paths they take, and maybe you know someone you should say it to.

“I love you with all my heart. I don’t love you just because you’re my child; I don’t love you for who I want you to be, or who anyone thinks you ought to be. I don’t love you because you’re a reflection of who I wanted to be. I love you because you are you. I am proud of your courage, in approaching me (and ultimately the world) with this. I am proud of your passions, and compassions, and desire to help others and make a difference in the world. What you ask of me is not easy –I feel a sense of bereavement for the little girl I knew, who is gone forever. But she would be gone anyway; you’ve grown up. Whether you are still that little girl or not, or whether in fact you ever really were, you are still YOU, and it is you I have loved, not an image. I told you once not to feel bad about leaving me some day –it is your job to leave me; it is my job never to leave you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever and whatever you are- I will always be your father, and I will always love you. And I am very, very proud to have had a hand in bringing the world such a beautiful person. Despite my part in that, I have no proprietorship in you- your life, and your identity, are yours, and that is as it should be.”

In the process of writing this essay, I’ve realized a couple of things. For starters, unlike the essays about race and class, this effort to sift through my early experiences with gender resulted in me talking at length about who I am, and why. Wouldn’t it be simpler, and better, if we could move beyond societally imposed barriers and boundaries, drop the terms gender and sexuality and sexual orientation, and just call it who-I-am-ness? Or maybe just call it “me” and “you.”

The other thing I realized: I started out to pinpoint when in my life I first became aware of race, class, and gender-and-or-sexuality, and it turns out all three were at around the same time. Middle school, around age twelve. All three of those identity markers are socially constructed, and it seems they get constructed at around the time of adolescence (this would be a good point to clarify something; sex refers to the genitals you have, gender refers to how you view yourself and are viewed by others.) We get to middle school, and segregate ourselves by race and class in ways we never did before, not of our own volition. And within those constructs, we pick out a handful of people who don’t fit in and put them on the outside, to further define ourselves as insiders, like chickens in a barnyard. It makes sense that things would play out this way; adolescence is the transition between childhood and adulthood, when we are struggling mightily to come out from under our parents’ shadows, to become our own people and find our own identity. Pack mentality has a tighter hold on us during those years than at any time in our life. If we want to minimize friction centered on race, class, and gender/sexuality among teens, they need to be better educated –and their teachers should be, too. I thought we had made a lot of strides in that direction in the last couple of decades, but the evening news seems to indicate otherwise.


"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner


October 29, 2010

Last time I talked about how a grad school assignment had inspired me to think seriously about when, and how, I had first become aware there was such a thing as race or class. That thought process was extremely valuable to me; the act of isolating the ways I became aware of those things helped me to understand how those awarenesses had affected my life from that point forward, and why I felt as I did about those topics. In that blog, I expounded on my experiences with race; now I’ll do the same with class. I do run the risk of repeating myself, because I have discussed some of these things in earlier posts –if so I hope you’ll bear with me.

I’ll begin, as before, with a little background. I was born in the small town of Sparta, pop. 5,000, in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. The Upper Cumberland stretches across northern middle Tennessee and southern middle Kentucky; the Tennessee portion is comprised of ten counties. (At this point you are probably wondering why I have wandered into a geography lesson, and may be nodding off –I’ll try to control myself, I promise.)

I have a reason for bringing all that up. Tennessee became a state in 1796, and by that time the ancestors of all four of my grandparents were already living in the Upper Cumberland; there are cemeteries in White and Overton counties where I can visit the graves of multiple generations of them. The region has also been home to Civil War guerrillas (and archenemies) Champ Ferguson and Tinker Dave Beaty, World War I hero Alvin York, Louis L’Amour’s fictional Sackett clan, bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Benny Martin, and a couple of politicians named Albert Gore. There are a lot of families like mine, who have been there for a couple of centuries… and in that time, especially in the smaller towns (and the largest town, Cookeville, has a whopping population of about 20,000), there has not been a lot of social mobility among those families in all that time. If you are from there and your family has some wealth, odds are they had it before the Civil War; if your family is poor, they’ve probably been poor the whole time as well.

My paternal grandfather was a farmer –a sharecropper, really –and he did prison time in the 1940s for making moonshine. He later worked the fields many years for one of Sparta’s most prominent citizens. My maternal grandparents were townfolk, living in Sparta –my grandfather worked as a freelance gardener and handyman for several of the town’s wealthy families. My mom and her seven brothers and sisters grew up with hunger as a frequent companion. She was born in 1951 –a baby boomer. Everyone knows that baby boomers grew up in suburban houses with pipe-smoking Ward Cleaver dads in gray flannel suits, right? Not where I’m from. My mom did not have electricity or running water until the late 60s, when she was married to my soldier father (I was born in ‘68.) In the early 70s my grandma still heated with a cast-iron wood stove in the living room- I never saw that sort of thing on TV.

My mom and her siblings are all extremely intelligent, and love to read- go to my Aunt Essie’s house and you’ll see Faulkner and McCarthy lying about (their books, not them personally), my mother has an impressive library of her own (she particularly likes African American history and fiction, and historical fiction in general), and when my Uncle Gordon (the eldest) died, my mother found among his effects 1950s rejection letters for a novel manuscript. Those facts are especially significant when you consider that none of them graduated from high school. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, most of them never even attended high school. In fact, I am the first male in my family –on either side, ever, so far as I know –to graduate high school, let alone college and grad school (a couple of my older female cousins did so ahead of me, and to be fair my Aunt Essie’s son Stanton would have had he survived his senior year.)

Suffice it to say, even a town as small as Sparta had a set of tracks, and I was from the wrong side of them.
My earliest memories are of being three years old, and living in a small house (near one of the black communities I talked about last time, Black Bottom) with my (recently separated) mom, her sister Essie and her son, and two of their brothers. My mom got remarried when I was five- she and her husband, and many of their siblings, worked for minimum wage at one of the garment factories in town. There were several such factories- they’d moved into the area in the mid-20th century because labor was ridiculously cheap, since Appalachian Southerners tended not to unionize; some miners had made a go at a strong union during the Depression, which led to a good bit of murder and mayhem in Wilder. At any rate, none of us had very much in the economic department.

My Aunt Essie worked in the factory office –and ended up marrying the owner, a Czech Jew who was 20+ years her senior. Edgar Lebenhart was a kind, gentle man- the son of a Prague bureaucrat, he had escaped Europe during the Holocaust (many of his family did not.) He was educated and cultured –he spoke five languages and collected Palestinian artifacts –he was a huge influence on me. He provided me with a treasure trove of history books; no one had ever even mentioned college to me, and here was someone saying that I should be a professor someday. They bought a very nice house, and then a smaller one next door which my family rented from them. It was a nice set-up all around, especially for me: I had two families, really, and those years were a break from the poverty we had mostly known. It didn’t last long, though; Edgar died of a heart attack when I was 9, and a few months later Essie’s son Stanton –who had always been a big brother to me –died in a car wreck on his 18th birthday. Over time, Essie’s health problems ate away at the money Edgar had left her until it was all gone. The nice houses at the edge of the woods were gone (that place is still the home I go to in my dreams), and my family was back to moving from one rented trailer to another. Sometimes they had big holes in the floor that we covered with ply-board; one was so small that I slept on the ironing board built into the hallway wall. My step-father developed tuberculosis and was usually out of work, leaving us to get by on my mom’s minimum wage job. There were many days when I would not have eaten at all had I not had free lunch at school. Food stamps were a fact of life –but once Reagan’s trickle-down economics came into play, they were cut way back. To this day when I think of Ronald Reagan I think of the harsh growling in my stomach as I looked into the cupboard after a hard day of being a 7th grader and saw nothing but a small can of Crisco, and knew there’d be nothing there tomorrow either. And to this day when I hear people deride those less fortunate than themselves as lazy and undeserving welfare bums, I am enraged. My family did nothing to deserve the poverty they suffered, except be heirs to generations of it with no tools to get out.

The Upper Cumberland was one of the country’s most active moonshine-producing regions in the first half of the 20th century. In the 70s and 80s it was one of the country’s top marijuana producers; nowadays it is a center of meth dealing. Several of my relatives and friends have been in and out of prison. People need to stop crowing about how hard they are on crime and start asking themselves why people in this one region, for a century, have been turning to drugs and alcohol as both an escape and a career; is it because Appalachian people are naturally lazy and/or criminal? That is the image the rest of the country sometimes seems determined to focus on, but it is not true. There just aren’t very many opportunities there- and, with most of the factories I mentioned earlier having moved to Mexico in pursuit of even cheaper labor, it is getting worse.

So –sometimes my family had stuff (like adequate shelter and food) and sometimes they didn’t. That wasn’t hard to figure out, even for a kid. When, though, did I realize that there was more to it than that, and that there was such a thing as social class? I was forced to cast my memory back, for that grad school exercise, and I realized it was around the same age that I had started to recognize racialization.

I really wasn’t aware of class in elementary school. I went to one of the smallest schools in the county, and its location made it an interesting mix. It was near the black communities known as Black Bottom and Bluff City, and by extension was therefore near the poor white neighborhoods which bordered them. At the same time, though, it was also close to a neighborhood which included a place called Sugar Hill –a scenic area where many of the town’s well-to-do lived.

At this point, I have to clarify something. When you grow up in generational poverty in a small town, the people you view as “rich big shots” are really nothing of the kind. In any other setting, they would be considered as average middle class folks- small business owners, professionals and the like. But to poor people, middle class seems rich, and that’s how Sugar Hill denizens appeared to the rest of us. Or, more accurately, to our parents.

You see, the kids at Baker Elementary played together –black and white, poor and not-so-poor, and never thought anything about it. I had very close friends from all three neighborhoods, and there seemed to be no difference. But when I wanted to have some of my Sugar Hill friends over to the house, or go to theirs, my mom was always horrified at the prospect. She was still deeply hurt by the way kids of that class had tormented her as a child, and feared my experiencing something similar. Nevertheless, we played at one another’s houses, and I never thought anything about it.

Then, elementary school was over and middle school began. Without even realizing what was happening or how, we started self-segregating… the “popular” kids (and somehow you just never saw many poor “popular” kids) banded together, the black kids did the same, and the group known in some circles as white trash hung together. Many of my best friends had been a part of that “popular” group- and all of a sudden, none of them ever talked to me. They didn’t even seem to notice when I was close by, like I was a pigeon. It was like I ceased to exist altogether. It even seemed that many of the teachers knew who the “proper” kids were. I gradually realized that I was no longer considered an important person –because of who I was, and what I did or didn’t have. It also sunk in for the first time that those upper middle class types had things I did not, and never would, because of who my family was –not just physical things, but privileges. And the unfairness of it burned in me like a flame fed by a bellows.

To this day, one of the worst things anyone can do, and the quickest way to arouse my fury, is to imply that I am intrinsically not good enough. The second worst thing you can do is to imply that poor people in general are not good enough- that they are automatically lazy and worthless, and imply that they deserve whatever they get (or don’t get.) I take it very personally. When you say that, even in a general sense, you are talking about my family. I also despise being ignored because of who I am or what I do. I was a janitor for many years, and most people never looked into my face or even seemed to realize I was there.

Both race and class issues cut straight to my sense of justice, which –because of the things I have discussed here and elsewhere –is one of the core parts of my psyche. The difference is, I approach racial issues from the perspective of someone on the privileged end of the social construct, recognizing its iniquity and trying my best to disown that privilege. With class, I approach things as the unprivileged one (even though, from what they tell me, I am now on the verge of being a middle class professional.) And unprivileged people react to the concept of privilege by –taking it personally, and getting pissed off. It is human nature.

There are people out there who will say that someone from my background isn’t really unprivileged at all –that I escaped poverty, and that proves anyone can if they really want to. To which I say, bullshit. I am extremely lucky. For every person who tried as hard as I did and succeeded, there were three more who tried just as hard and failed because the deck was stacked against them. And seven others who never tried at all –not because they were lazy, but because poverty creates fatalism. I am in no way better than my friends and kin who wound up in prison. I am fortunate. They are not. And a big part of my good fortune was having an influence early on –my Uncle Edgar –who could envision something better for me and make me believe in my potential.

Some people start in the basement and scale the walls of the tower, until they reach its peak. Very, very, very few. And some, once they are there, become smug; I am here because I am exceptional. Let those still in the basement do the same, if they can. But that’s not how I look at it. I want to do all I can to throw wide the doors that bar their way, and welcome them all. Because I know most of them deserve to be here just as much as I do. I do realize that opening those doors is a tall order, and not one I can realistically do- but maybe, if I really throw my weight into it, I can budge it a fraction of an inch, and other people can pitch in. At the very least, in the meantime, I can try to treat people like human beings –no matter who they are and what they do for a living.

Because that’s what I expect, and demand. Whether I should be a professor or a janitor- I am still me.


"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner


October 19, 2010

I often find myself, in loosely constructed essays that begin as tirades on Facebook and turn into posts on my (erratically amended) blog, addressing social issues which are very important to me: they are more often than not race, class, and sexuality issues. I suppose one could frame them generally as social justice concerns. In debating people with opposite views it becomes increasingly clear to me that one’s stand on these issues is informed largely by one’s own experiences. Duh, you say. Well, yeah… that statement does reflect perception of the obvious. But knowing that your experiences inform your politics, spirituality, and et cetera, is one thing- truly understanding it is another thing entirely.

My focus on social justice has informed my whole adult life. The volunteer work I did with Haitian immigrants in the late ‘80s, the ministries I undertook when I was a young man, the poetry and fiction I continue to write, the themes I explore as a professional historian, the approaches I take in the classroom, all have been driven in whole or in part by the fuel of my social passions. So have my efforts to understand my own place in the universe; who I am, and who I aspire to be.

In my first year of grad school, I took a course on the Black Freedom Movement taught by Professor Sundiata Cha-Jua, whom I greatly respect and admire. One of the first assignments seemed, on the surface, ridiculously simple, and yet turned out to be so complex that it still echoes in my thoughts several years later. The professor instructed us to write a short paper addressing the earliest moments in our lives when we fully realized that there were race and class differences in our society. The very act of sifting through my memories for those epiphanies made me think about my life, and myself, in ways I never had before. I have cared about these things for most of my life –but why? I think a similar exercise would help anyone develop better understandings of themselves and of these particular issues. Perhaps you are a person who does not particularly care; well, why not? Maybe isolating the answer to that question can lead you to future experiences which will make you care more.

I intend to structure this endeavor in three parts, and explain the moments in my life that have made me care about race, class, and sexuality. It may seem like a self-absorbed endeavor, and the first time I did it, privately, it was. In this case, though, I hope that seeing how someone else’s thought processes led them to a position might give you a starting point to find where you are on the spectrum of opinion/engagement, and why. I am going to start with race.

I come from a small town in Appalachian Tennessee (Sparta- population when I was a kid, it has not changed much, was 5,000, or about one-quarter of the people in the county. The rest lived in one of a handful of hamlets, or in the rurals.) There were two or three hundred black people (the 2000 census recorded close to 250), making the town 5% black and 95% white back when I was growing up. It may sound weird, but that gave Sparta the highest percentage of black citizens of any town in the whole Upper Cumberland Region- Cookeville has more numerically, but they make up a smaller percentage of the overall population (in 2000, about 700 individuals making up 3% of the population.) No other nearby town was even close; in fact, two –Crossville and Gainesboro –were “sundown towns” and when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s had virtually no black inhabitants at all. My point is, Sparta TN has a black community, and small as that community is it is one of the biggest in the area. Very few of those African Americans lived in the rurals (virtually none, in fact.) Most of them lived in two distinct neighborhoods in town: one was referred to as Bluff City (not on maps- none of these black neighborhoods were ever marked on maps.) The other, larger neighborhood was in the center of town. It was known, to every white person in the county, as Nigger Hill. Forgive my use of that word- I hate it, but I fear that euphemisms or asterisks will weaken the impact of knowing that such a term could be tossed around so lightly so recently. Over the years most folks –except some, in private conversation- have shortened that offensive title to just “The Hill.” There was a third, much smaller, neighborhood not far from Bluff City called Black Bottom. All three neighborhoods were clustered around the Calfkiller River.

I noticed when I was a teenager that white folks from the rurals were much more likely to be vocally prejudiced than white folks from town, and I have always suspected that it was because they rarely interacted with black people. My mom was raised in town- her family had been extremely poor, and they lived on the outskirts of the Bluff City / Black Bottom area. Her childhood friends, neighbors, and babysitters had been black, and she knew them as people instead of scary “others.” There were still social differences, of course; my mom didn’t have to sit in the balcony at the movies or drink from a different fountain. But she did not raise me to think of black people as inferior, scary, or even different- and I suspect many of my white rural classmates had a different perspective offered to them at home. A few years ago I attended a Black History Month expo in Sparta, organized by my friend Louvenia Gardenhire, and couldn’t help noticing that half the audience was black and half was white, and I noticed that the majority of whites I recognized were “townfolk.” This is not to say the townfolk weren’t prejudiced, I just think it was a smaller percentage and more subtly presented. When I was a teenager in the mid-80s one my biggest influences was an elderly black man in the Bluff City area who had been childhood friends with my maternal grandfather. I used to sit and talk with him for hours, and I learned a lot.

None of that, however, answers the question asked of me by Professor Cha-Jua. When was the first time I really, really saw and understood the significance of race? The answer lay, not in personal experience, but on television.

It was 1980, and I was not quite twelve years old. The family was gathered around the set –I believe we were watching 60 Minutes, but it may have been a similar news anthology program. The program did a piece on Emmett Till, who had been murdered twenty-five years before.

If you are not familiar with the case of Emmett Till, he was an African American teenager from Chicago. In 1955 he visited relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Accounts vary, but the 14-year-old Emmett –unversed in “proper” behavior for blacks in the 1950s South –managed to offend a 21-year-old married white woman. Some reports were that he whistled, others that he called her baby, others that he put an arm around her waist and asked her for a date using “lewd” language. Whatever it was he did, it offended the woman and her relatives; Till was later abducted from his great-uncle’s house, taken to a barn in the next county, beaten and tortured, and murdered. His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His mother insisted on an open casket; photos of his terribly disfigured body, and details of his death, were in newspapers all around the country, leading many Americans to reflect on the racial problems of Mississippi and the country in general. Despite an abundance of evidence, an all-white jury acquitted the two accused murderers.

I watched the 1980 news segment in horror. The infamous open casket photo was shown; relatives of Till were interviewed, and I remember one woman –I assume it was his mother but am not certain now –broke down in sobs. I was overwhelmed. I quickly ran and locked myself in the bathroom because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, and held in the deep, painful sobs that welled up from my soul. I prayed, silently, fervently and desperately: Why, God? How could the world be such a place –how could people do something like that, because of the color of someone’s skin? I prayed that the Lord would help me understand. And I prayed, with all the sincerity of an 11-year-old, that He would somehow let me do something someday –even if it were only a little something –to help improve that world, to help set those balances straight. It was not until I thought back, while working on Cha-Jua’s essay, that I realized how profoundly those moments affected me.

Concern for racial justice became an ingrained part of who I was. A few years later, when I was in high school and looking for a church to attend (my family was not religious at the time), one of the things that attracted me most to Jehovah’s Witnesses (a religion I would join as a teen and leave when I was in my late 20s) was the racial harmony I saw at their meetings –this when I was from a town where churches self-segregated. Once, when I was 18 or so, I heard a sermon about “Freedom as the Children of God” in which the speaker pointed out that many people thought they were free, but were not. That set me to thinking about freedom- what it is, where it’s found –and (history nerd that I was) I was reminded of how the slaves were freed after the Civil War, yet both the Reconstruction South and the industrial North were not really havens of freedom for them. I decided I wanted to write a book someday –not about slavery, but about freedom. First, though, I spent several years in the full-time ministry. Two of those years I worked exclusively with Haitian immigrants (this was the late 80s, and unrest in Haiti brought a large number of Haitians to America –looking for freedom.) The first year was spent in South Florida, and the second was in New York City. I was living and working at Bethel, the Witnesses’ world headquarters, while serving and preaching in a French-speaking congregation comprised almost wholly of Haitians (La Congregation Francaise Centrale de Brooklyn.) It was while I was there, going door to door in Bedford-Stuy and Crown Heights, that I had another epiphany about race.

There was a lot of racial unrest in Brooklyn in the late 80s and early 90s –ever hear of the Crown Heights riot, or see the film Do the Right Thing? When I was working in those neighborhoods, I was often the minority. On many occasions, angry black people called me names, swore at me, threw glass bottles at me, and on two occasions threatened to kill me… because I was white. It hurt, terribly. I was trying to be a good person. I was trying to help people. I hated racism with every fiber of my being. And yet, there were people who despised me and threatened me –because just from looking at my skin, they thought they knew who I was. It was so unfair. It burned like nothing I had ever experienced. And then, one day, something dawned on me. If I wanted to avoid such treatment, all I had to do was leave that neighborhood and go –almost anywhere in the country. The unfairness would melt away, and I would once more be treated like a person. But if I had been born black instead of white, there would be nowhere I could go in the entire United States where I could completely escape that horrible feeling. And all of a sudden –even though I could never fully understand –I understood better. A few years later, I did write that book about the meaning of freedom: Bound for the Promise-Land. It won Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, and was complimented by many who read it for its verisimilitude. The truth is this: when I wrote that book, the story of a former slave who spends his whole life looking for peace and trying to understand freedom, and tried to put myself in that character’s place, all I had to do was call up the memory of the feelings I had on that day in Brooklyn when people were throwing glass bottles at me from their cars as they drove by. And I had an inkling of how my character felt, and of how the bottle throwers felt.

Flash forward now to the past few years. While at grad school I worked for awhile, as part of a teaching fellowship, at the University High School. Every year a group of those Uni High kids take a weeklong trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi to work for Habitat for Humanity there. That is a noble goal in itself, but the experience involves much more than just that. The teachers –particularly Dr. William Sutton –make the whole thing an educational experience, spending the evenings after a hard day’s work discussing race and class issues with the kids, most of whom are from privileged middle class homes in Illinois, and to whom the poverty and even the history of the rural Mississippi Delta are so foreign as to be virtually incomprehensible. I have accompanied my friend Bill Sutton on many of those trips now, both with student and church groups, and Clarksdale almost seems like a second home to me –it feels more like home, to a Southerner such as myself, than Champaign, Illinois ever could. I have discovered that my own background of poverty has helped me be able to present fresh perspectives to those students, and some have told me they were encouraged by my words to aspire to lives of greater public service. Those are some of the most wonderful words I have ever heard in my life.

On the last such trip, this past spring, I realized something. I was at the Habitat dorm, at a singalong with the young college students from my church group and several of my Clarksdale friends, and a couple of the songs we sang were old Civil Rights standby’s: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It dawned on me while singing those songs that I was only a few miles away from the spot where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. In a way, I had come full-circle… and along the way, maybe, just maybe I have done a little something to make a difference. I keep trying.

And that’s why race matters to me.

In a my next post I will talk about class. Right now I better get back to work on that almost-finished dissertation before I get grounded. It’s about race, by the way.


"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner


August 1, 2009

There are commonly some misperceptions about the words "prejudice" and "racism." 

If you are prejudiced, you "pre-judge" others without data, based on your suppositions about all people of a certain group. All black people are lazy, all Jews are greedy, all Arabs are terrorists, all white people are racists.  

Racism, technically (at least according to us wacky academics), is not the same thing as prejudice. Racism means supporting or being actively invested in the continuation of a racial hierarchy in which one's own group dominates. By this definition, anyone and any member of any group can be prejudiced. George Jefferson and Fred Sanford were extremely prejudiced, to use fictional examples. It could be argued that Malcolm X was actively prejudiced for many years, MLK was not. But those individuals technically could not be described as racists; only someone who traditionally benefited from being at the top of the social structure could do that. Archie Bunker was working class, barely qualifying as lower middle class, and didn't have a lot of leverage in society; still, he was racist. This is because, as a white man of his generation, he was taught to believe that simply being white made him superior to anyone who was not, and that was the natural order of things- he was invested in this belief, and felt threatened when liberals chopped away at how things had always been, because if that lifelong belief were challenged he would be losing the only thing in his life that made him feel naturally special, and which he had come to expect society in general to back up.  

Because of the nature of the world around us here in the U.S., I believe that none of us can ever completely rise above our prejudices. No matter how liberal you are, or how open-minded a conservative, you might still feel more threatened walking down a dark street with young black kids around than young white kids, for example. I also believe that, no matter how non-racist you want to be, it is virtually impossible for a white person in America to divorce him or herself from the intrinsic advantages of being white in what has always been, and was designed to be, and thus to a degree still is, a racist society. Sure, folks can say that affirmative action gives all the advantages to the minority instead of the white male. This does not negate either the effects of generations of disadvantage placed on a minority group, or the fact that in daily life they can still expect to be treated differently in subtle ways than a white person would. For example, one early study on racial profiling indicated that in one U.S. city black drivers made up 70% of random traffic stops, even though they were only 17% of that city’s population. Henry Louis Gates is not a unique case; I have a black friend right here in Champaign County, Illinois who was confronted in his own home and almost arrested on suspicion of burglary after neighbors saw him go in through the window when he lost his key. Now, I’ve been locked out of my own home and broken in on several occasions, as have many of my white friends, and none of us have ever had the cops called on us. I say this again: I believe that being white confers certain automatic advantages on a person which most of us never think about and don’t recognize because we take it for granted. I say this despite the fact that I come from a very poor background and in a lot of ways have had to struggle mightily to overcome that and get where I am now.  

Despite the fact that we can’t divorce ourselves from the advantages of whiteness, we do not have to be racist. It is possible to renounce the structure and no longer invest in it. Some call such individuals “race traitors.” A lot of Americans, though, are still very invested in the racial hierarchy, often without being aware of it. A lot of them are working class. The loss of that hierarchy, or even adjustments to it, means a subtle shift in their world and in their view of themselves; they feel threatened, because they sense that they would be losing that certain something which makes them feel special. I have a close relative who is probably the most prejudiced person I have ever known. Once, visiting him, he started yet another race dialogue and his embarrassed wife intervened. “Leave Troy alone,” she said, “you’ll only start an argument; you know how he feels, and he knows how you feel, and you’re being rude.” Then, however, she turned to me with a concerned look on her face. “But Troy,” she said, “I’m not prejudiced, and I have black friends –but what would happen if we all started intermarrying, and there’s more of this mixed race stuff? What would become of white people?”  

“Why,” I answered, “if that happened, eventually everyone would be brown, and there’d be no race at all.” She did not like this idea, in fact she seemed very disturbed by it. Because if there was no race, there would be no chance she could be better than her black friends. An even scarier idea, though, and one that has plagued white people ever since we started enslaving Africans, is that someday they might somehow get the upper hand and be in a position to treat us like we have treated them. This was a big fear leading up to and during the Civil War; if the slaves were freed they would surely embark on a bloody rampage of revenge and maybe even become politicians! The former, almost amazingly, did not happen except in a handful of isolated instances. Former slave masters, who tended to focus on the Old Testament, failed to take into account the forgiveness inherent in their New Testament-oriented ex-slaves. 

That age-long fear, though, is still alive and well. The election of a black president, instead of “solving” race, has brought it to a boil as more and more Obama detractors have resorted to racially tinged communication. “Obama is not actually American”; he “hates white people” and is a “racist.” To say nothing of the racial epithets and offensive racialized cartoons and jokes floating around. People who engage in this sort of behavior are afraid: afraid that their world is changing, and afraid that they are losing valuable advantages. They are afraid of things being unfairly stacked against them, and –like many whites in the 19th century –afraid that those formerly on the bottom will wind up in charge and take all those advantages for their own group. Obvious facts don’t matter. Of course Obama is a U.S. citizen. He was raised by his white grandparents- of course he doesn’t hate white people.  

This country was built on racism. Africans were enslaved and treated as non-human so that the wealthy planter class could remain in power and continue maximizing their profits. As long as workers, white and black alike, could be continually played off against each other by race, that power would remain consolidated. Poor whites from the 17th century on have been told –sometimes subliminally, sometimes directly –“yes, you are poor… yes you endure much hardship. But at least you are not black…. At least you are not one of THEM….so long as that is true, you will always be one of US.” This line of reasoning was effective enough that a minority of white Southerners who were slave-owners could convince poor whites who would never even be able to afford to rent a slave that they should fight and die to protect slavery. Slavery may be gone, but the social structure erected to prop it up is still around, and still being used in the same way. This time it is certain elements of the Republican Party, stoking the racial fears of the middle class in order to gain political leverage over the current administration. And it is WORKING.  

If you have found that it is working on YOU- don’t let it. The enemy is not a mysterious black bogeyman, it is the people who use that image to scare you into aggression and into doing what they want. If we all just realized how this system works, we could resist its influence. Disavow power for the few, even if it benefits you in the short run; wake up. 

"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

TWO AMERICAS? July 27, 2009

Okay, once more I am replying publicly to a private message. One of my conservative friends recently wrote me a sincere note expressing fear that Obama is ruining the country, and comparing him to Hitler. This is the third time in a week I have heard such a comparison. I think it's an important subject, hence this posting. Below is my reply:

I have an enormous amount of respect for you as well, and believe we probably share more values than disagreements. I have been thinking about your note since I got it. I know you are sincere, and are not exaggerating your fears about Obama. What strikes me is the fact that -no kidding, and no exaggeration -I honestly felt the exact same way and said many of the exact same things about Bush. I honestly feared, around the summer of 2005, before Katrina started turning the tide of public opinion, that our country was being led down the same slope as the Germans and Japanese were in the 20s and 30s; the need for security was playing into the hands of those who would strip away our rights and turn our democracy, slowly but surely, into a dictatorship.

You and I like and respect each other, and love our families, and love our country, and as it happens worship the same God. I find myself wondering how our political opinions can be so many worlds apart, and how there can be so many people just like each of us. Most people I know back in Tennessee would agree 100% with you- I felt very isolated when I was there, in some ways, always outnumbered by people who thought my ideology was twisted and wrong. So do some of my liberal friends who still live there. Now I live in the Midwest, in a college town. If you leave town and go into the farm country, most folks think like you, instead of like me; if you hang around town, almost no one does. In fact, I can only think of two or three conservatives I even know in this town. I now have the luxury of knowing that when I spout off my opinions, instead of starting a fight everyone agrees with me. Are there really two different Americas? And can only two political parties really represent the wide diversity of opinions one would expect from over 300 million people- or are we really so simplistic that they do?

Of course, I think it all comes down to one's fundamental life view. Conservatives want to CONSERVE- they want (at least they're supposed to want) to save things, mostly money. But they also want to save the status quo; they want things to be like they've always been, and look to the past for the "good old days" that we should still be living now. Liberals, as the name implies, are kind of liberal (or free) with the cash (among other things), more willing to spread it around. The name itself dates back to the French Revolution (as do the terms right wing and left wing) and the concept is far older than that. Nowadays a lot of liberals call themselves "progressives", since liberal has been turned into a dirty word. I don't think it IS a dirty word, and I'm proud to be associated with it (it comes from the Latin root word "liber", which is also the root of "liberty" and "liberation.")

But still... perhaps progressive is a more accurate term, after all. Because, whereas conservatives want things to either stay the same or go back to how they used to be, liberals want things to progress. They want change. One of my favorite writers is the Western author Elmer Kelton, and he once had this to say about his characters: "I don't write about good guys in white hats fighting bad guys in black hats. I write about two guys in gray hats, one trying to initiate change and the other resisting it." So maybe that's the nature of things. Maybe we are destined to engage in this back-and-forth tug of war through the generations. Maybe in a tug of war you ultimately really can have only two sides.

But this is where I take comfort. You see, throughout the history of this country, conservatives (whatever their party) have tried to keep things the same, and progressives have tried to change things. And you know what? Every generation, things have changed. Young people today, overall, are far more liberal than their grandparents were at that age. If you, a 2009 conservative, could somehow travel back in time to 1859- compared to the conservatives of that time, you would seem like a wild liberal.

Sure, conservatives have held universal health care at bay for almost a full century- but we keep getting closer to it. The best that the conservative can hope to do is slow down the rate of change- like bailing water out of a sinking boat. Every attitude and political hope of mine that scares you will eventually come to pass, and become the mainstream, and the world that comes about because of it will be nothing like the world of your youth. Just like the world today is not the same as it was in 1900. And people will wonder why so many people resisted, just like we wonder why they resisted the end of slavery or women getting the vote or businesses being forced to pay a minimum wage and overtime. Sure, there were a lot of good things about the "good old days" that it would be nice to have now... people may have tended to be more devout, polite, honest. But at the same time, black men could be hanged at random by anyone who wanted to do so, secure in the knowledge that they would get away with it. 9-year-olds could be forced to work in the mines. Chain gangs were common- not just for dangerous criminals, but for people unlucky enough to lose their jobs and get arrested for indigence. The mentally ill were practically locked away for life in dungeons. A man could do anything to his wife short of killing her and no one would dare ask any questions, no matter how broken and bloody she was.

All those things have changed, along with some of the nicer parts of the past that we might wish to have back. Taken in balance, overall I think we'd all agree that the change has been for the better. And every thing I listed above was changed because liberals made it happen. When you collect your social security, or unemployment when you lose your job; when you take a new job that pays extra if you work over 40 hours, and conforms to safety regulations... thank a liberal. In fact, thank liberals for your country: in the American Revolution, 1/3 of the people were hardcore conservatives who didn't want to see a bunch of radical changes. We call 'em Tories, and if they had their way we'd still be British. 80 years later it was hardcore conservatives- Democrats, not Republicans -who wanted things to stay the same, and wild-eyed liberal Republicans who wanted to end slavery.

Don't misunderstand and think that I am equating all conservatives with racists and bullies. Just like in Elmer Kelton's stories, in most cases there are no real villains, just people with different goals and desires.

What I AM saying is that things change. And even in politics, even if it takes a long time, it is ten times easier to change things than it is to change them back.

Change is coming. Believe in it.


"Smith creates a classic from the first chapter ... a magnificent novel."- Roundup Magazine
Winner of the Spur Award

"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner