Sunday, February 27, 2011


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

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful, heartfelt piece I will encourage others to read.