Now, don't get me wrong. I realize that this is a (mostly) irrational compulsive phobia
. Before I get lynched
by an outraged mob of Southerners, let me fire off a few words of explanation. Note:
this node is *not* an invitation to post your own 'stories of the South.' I have been asked four or five times why I don't go there, and this is my response; I welcome reasoned argument and meaningful contributions. If this node does get out of hand, I will personally terminate it. With...I can't resist...extreme prejudice.
So that's a good place to start. Let me add for those noders who haven't met me (nearly all of you lucky folk; there are a few doomed souls who have) that much of this is tied up in my heritage. I'm...lessee...Black, Jewish, Native American (Cherokee to be more specific), Lithuanian and Baltic in general, part Welsh, and a few more just to make it interesting. I'm a fairly large fellow, mostly in the gut. I was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by two midwestern idealistic intellectuals.
Trust me, it's relevant.
One year, when I was in junior high, my parents decided we should spend the early Spring Break in, of all places, Kitty Hawk. This was a Good Thing as far as I was concerned; I was and am an aviation nut, after all. I didn't yet realize how desolate Kitty Hawk is in late April, when it's not really warm yet. But off we went. We stayed in a Holiday Inn on the beach, and as it was too cold and windy to swim, we took walks and fished. It wasn't all bad. I got to learn the basics of hang gliding at Kitty Hawk Kites while there, on a 191-sq ft glider.
One afternoon, I was parked in front of the two lonely arcade video games in the hotel - a Joust and a Galaga. I wasn't bad at either, so I could stretch a few quarters for some time. Eventually, three other kids wandered up and began to stand around, playing Galaga for a time, obviously waiting for the Joust machine. I offered the other place, and one of them took it. We played perhaps three rounds, and I beat him all three; not badly, but quickly. I grinned at him and reached for a quarter, about to ask if he wanted a rematch.
I couldn't, though, because he'd punched me in the mouth.
That appeared to be the signal the others wanted; they waded in, too, backing me up into the small space between the machines. I wasn't really getting beaten up badly; for all their enthusiasm, they weren't putting any science into it, and backing me into an inaccessible slot meant they couldn't all attack at once, so my somewhat feeble attempts at blocks were actually standing me in good stead. I just couldn't do anything.
See, it's not that I hadn't been in fights. I have, and had at that time. I'm not really good at it, but I'm big and willing, and that's usually enough to let me escape. I couldn't for the life of me muster an offense because I was completely and utterly confused. I had no fucking idea what was going on. Now, in New York, there are (or were) plenty of fights in arcades and the local Twin Donut shop near the video games. No surprises there. I'd been in a couple. The problem was that in New York, there was always an ostensible reason given, even if the intent to really to harm; the fight didn't typically start (back in the early 1980s) without someone sweeping all of his opponent's quarters off the machine's panel to the floor, shouting something along the lines of "Yo, mutha fucka, you be lookin at my girl? Yeah, you was, don't lie to me, you piece of..."...and thus, the rituals satisfied, the fight could commence. This usually meant that the target was either prepared for the onslaught (usually countered by having four of your friends waiting for the signal to jump the poor bugger) or able to run, proving his yellow streak.
Nothing like this had happened. They hadn't been particularly hostile, just quiet. The guy had played me, and lost, and I wasn't trying to walk away. I probably would've been smart enough to lost a couple if he didn't beat me. But there was no warning.
Of course, the reason is quite clear in hindsight.
So that was my introduction to the South, and that was only in North Carolina. I bent forward and ran, pushing the one in front of me through one of the cheap hotel doors across the hall, and ran the hell outta Dodge. I didn't even tell my parents, 'cause I thought they'd get upset, and likely one of the kids was the son of a local cop (I know, betraying prejudice of my own).
Now, that alone was enough to make me realize that it's not just that there are people who hate me down there; it's that I am really not equipped to read the danger signals. Years later, in Houston Texas for a wedding, I would barely escape a fairly serious beating by dodging out of a closing elevator at the last minute before the other two guys could get up (I shove real good, being heavy).
What brings this up now. Well, I was reading the most excellent memepool (http://memepool.com) site and came across something entitled Without Sanctuary. It's a photo collection with essays, available through Amazon.Com. It consists of nothing but collected images, mostly picture postcards, of lynchings around the turn of the 20th century in the South. Sample quote, pencilled around the border of a photo of a black man bludgeoned and then hung in Dallas in 1910: "All OK and would like to get a post from you. Bill, This was some Raw Bunch."
Or a scene of a bonfire, with thick black smoke rising over the crowded spectators, with the inscription "Coon Cooking." This is followed by a picture of the charred corpse of a Black man named Jesse Washington, arms raised as if in a rictus of triumph from the burning and shrinkage of the tissues, hanging from a utility pole in Waco, Texas in 1916. A man leans against the bottom, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. He, and his cohort looking back at the camera, are white.
Of the many, many images in this gallery (it's available online at http://www.journale.com/withoutsanctuary/main.html), nearly 95 percent are of Black men or foreign immigrants. One postcard, a color photo of a Black man hanging from a tree in a pine forest, is captioned simply 'Lynched' in the lower right. The photo is a color picture, with fairly good color reproduction; the writeup mentions that copies of this postcard still turn up new once in a while. Somebody's buying them. Another, a framed shot of the hanging of two Negroes, has a scrawled inscription indicating a man in the foreground who is pointing: "Bo poitn to his niga." It is from the killings of two men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith - in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Flattened under the frame's glass are locks of the victims' hair.
Why put all this here? I don't know. I hope to ask people to think, a little; also to externalize my own non-rational feelings about the South, a region I do know is populated by some of the warmest-hearted people I've known. I've known them there and elsewhere, having met them 'abroad' from the South.
Please, think about things like this when assigning yourself a racial epithet name in an online game, or when writing things on bathroom walls. For some, including yourself perhaps, those scribblings may be amusing. I myself tell fairly off-color jokes a lot - I like to note that I'm so mixed about the only people I can't snap the dozens on are Asians and Latinos - but only to those I know, and know won't take it wrong. To some, however, like the young black boy in a strange city using a toilet before getting on a bus where he doesn't know anyone, this kind of thing brings images like those described above straight into the light. To African immigrants caught in the wrong place; to others abused for being there, these little things are the harbinger of that special fear, if they've survived it.
I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
Addendum: My bad. Judging from some responses to this node, I may not have been clear. Let me restate: The point of this node is not that 'the south is bad.' My point is that even now, even if you live in a quite different place, there are memories of experiences that can be triggered by seemingly innocous words or actions. This is the point; that everyone carries baggage, and even though mine own is pretty damn light, the veins of hatred and intolerance and ignorance that brought about the more horrible incidents in history are still around. Being reminded of them still brings cold sweats and fear. It's possible you've never had that experience. If so, more power to you; but please, bear this in mind when others may at times get a bit too strident about such matters for your taste.
Sigh. Okay. Jet-Poop has a point, namely that I made a hash of explaining myself. Look, I'm not saying New York City is any better. In my story, the reason it's better for me is that I intuitively understand the dynamics of interactions. In the South, I don't have the requisite experience to feel secure; I have no confidence that I'll be able to skirt the danger areas before tripping into them. Danger areas for me if I don't see something coming; danger areas for others if I behave so as to bring up this stuff, as I apparently did to Mr. J-P.
Coupled with a bad experience or two, I wrote that because I'd just come across the images I discuss, and realized that if I feel this way, whose only real memory is of getting beat up a couple of times (like any American kid) then imagine the effect on those who knew, witnessed, or were made witness by family recollections of a time and place where those scenes can occur. Their sensitive zones are WAY out of my sight, and perhaps rightly so. That's where the path of mutual ignorance leads.