Monday, August 29, 2011

Bless her heart: A gal from up north is here to write about us!

"Them nigras does such stupid-ass things, sometimes you just got to laugh."
      "We've alerted people to keep an eye out for you, but you’ll need to exercise caution,” my editor at the Rockefeller Foundation Journal told me. "It's like time stood still in these little backwoods Southern towns. The black poverty is stupefying. The Klan is king. And the whites will see you as a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ who is there to stir up trouble. They’ll probably try to scare you, at the very least.”

     It was 1976. I was being sent on a two-week trip to write for the Journal about the impact that young black lawyers and doctors, former recipients of Foundation scholarships, were having in these remote enclaves.
    I should have turned this assignment down. My alcoholism had taken over my life. The two other driving forces -- my commitment to civil rights and my ambition as a journalist -- remained intense, and I was still functioning at a reasonably high level, but the three elements weren’t a prudent mix.

   I must admit, though, that some of the hardest-hitting scoops I’d obtained as a writer had occurred because my interviewee -- as well as I -- had been loosened up by a few drinks. Wow -- that stuff can be magic.
    Whether I was dealing with political scandals or nostalgic personal reminiscences, it was clear that people’s deepest joys, fears, ambitions, secrets, antagonisms, passions and regrets came pouring forth via alcohol in ways that would never otherwise have emerged. Men told me things that could have destroyed their marriages and/or their careers. Some of them later begged me not to publish certain information, and I didn't, if it was merely great gossip with no redeeming public-service value. But it generally involved information that the public had a right to know, and it was my duty to make it available. 
    I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this modus operandi, but I reassured myself that it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t usually the one who said, “Let’s meet for drinks,” when I requested an interview -- but if they didn’t, I generally did. It virtually always paid off, sometimes in sensational ways. It certainly had propelled my career along -- helping to get my work into some of the country's best publications -- although being a young female had helped as well.


   I had already made journalistic forays for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to the more prosperous, urbanized parts of the South. In Atlanta, Charleston, Little Rock and Savannah, the sense of dynamic possibility and pride were palpable. These places had a sheen that suggested a corner had been turned and a new era had begun.
Savannah was quaint and beautiful.
     The relationships between black and white people seemed to me -- and this is obviously a superficial observation -- to be easier, more natural and warmer than they were in the North. Others have noted this as well, and I‘m sure that‘s one reason that so many African-Americans have returned to the South in recent years.
    When I had conducted my interviews with black people in these bright, progressive cities, I enjoyed their upbeat, assertive confidence. They did not amble -- they strode. They didn’t avert their eyes -- they held their heads high. They seemed to be imbued with the certainty that they were equal (at the very least!), and it was beautiful to behold.
    I was particularly awed by John Walker and Richard Mays at Walker, Kaplan and Mays in Little Rock. These were glowingly strong, smart, handsome, principled, effective men who made one think, “Man, there is hope for this crazy country!” They were both leaders in the civil-rights movement in the city, particularly regarding school desegregation, and each was elected to political office as well.
A beautiful mind: John Walker was brilliant in crafting desegregation plans. 
    Arthur MacFarland in Charleston, S.C., brought a quiet, modest dignity to his work. Not much joshing around with this gentleman, who so impressed the establishment with his sober bearing and even-handedness that he was named the city’s first black municipal judge. For 28 years he was the city’s chief judge. When I met him, he had just taken the bench, and he retired two years ago after a much-heralded tenure.
    Spending time with young black professionals such as these in the urban South made me almost forget that race remains an issue -- a deep and deeply anguished issue -- in this country. But that little fantasy was soon to evaporate.
Charleston has maintained its architectural heritage despite great social changes.
    Henrietta Turnquest, who grew up in he struttin’, soulful tumult of Harlem, N.Y., had come South to serve “her people” in the obscure enclaves of rural Georgia. Amid the wildflower gullies and aching field songs, she pressed black people to unite in seeking redress: to demand their rights and to fight their way out of the drowsy inertia, the deadening injustice.
The beauty of nature camouflages horrific poverty and suffering.
    I watched as she tried to rouse a gathering one evening at a small church. They nodded and repeatedly said, “That’s right” as she spoke, but they remained wary. It seemed so discouraging to me, but she was determined to stay, even though she was single, pregnant and acknowledged that she was very possibly risking her life.
    “I have to do this, no matter what,” she said.
Henrietta Turnquest was magnificently brave and feisty as a young woman.
       She went on to practice law for more than 30 years and spent 12 years as a Georgia State Representative.
    Joe Hudson in Gulfport, Mississippi, was another earnest, unassuming and wonderfully conscientious young lawyer who, in his early twenties, had the guts to run for mayor in an oppressively racist town. He knew he couldn’t win, but he wanted a platform from which to enumerate -- in his calm, controlled way -- the outrages that were inflicted daily on his people.
This sort of thing was regarded as an acceptable aspect of landscape design.
     “If he had a chance in hell, he’d get smacked right down,” a white store owner on the main road told me.
     Larry Jackson, a young lawyer in Lakeland, Florida, had brought what one white judge called “a new style of black leadership” to the racially tense town, where the Klan had regular parades but white people were increasingly supportive of the NAACP. The Columbia University graduate was able to inspire such respect that 40 percent of his clients were white. He became president of the NAACP and helped finalize a school integration case that had dragged on for years.

The people who lived in these places were generous, gentle and uncomplaining.
    As I went deeper into the poverty-wracked backwaters of the Deep South, I felt as if I had been dropped into a bygone era. The segregation and the black poverty were shocking. I was also unsettled by the tone, or the atmosphere, of these places, in which back-slapping white good-ole-boys camouflaged their iron grip -- and their reign of terror -- with aw-shucks banter. One guy told me about a little linguistic device of theirs that I've been using just for fun ever since.
     "If they really hate your guts, if they really hope a 'stray' bullet takes you out, they'll say 'bless her heart.' Like, 'Bless her heart --I shore do hope nothin' terrible happens to that cute little thang."
    Bless their hearts: I certainly wouldn't want their guns to blow their balls off:

Guys like these loved killing for sport, and they let everyone know it.
    There were Confederate flags everywhere, as if to provide a constant insult and threat to the black community. They were in store windows, plastered to trucks, hanging from poles and jauntily worn as the basis for all sorts of clothing.
Just havin' a little Klan party -- no need for alarm!
    There were even businesses along the main drags of these towns that used Ku Klux Klan hierarchical terms in their names, ie. the Grand Wizard general store and the Cyclops tavern.
    One white man told me, without shame, that "If you're not in the Klan, you're a nigger lover, as far as we're concerned."
    Small groups of men were standing around or sitting around all over the place (at least that's what it felt like)  -- blatantly and purposefully watching everyone’s every move. For the first time in my life, I sensed what it must be like to live in a police state. I was under constant scrutiny, and so was everyone else.
    I interviewed white as well as black people for my articles. Some of them were genuinely decent people who believed in equality, even if they weren’t willing to stick their necks out and fight for it.
Contrary to stereotype, many poor whites felt a real kinship with the black community.
    Then there were the white men who treated me like a long-lost cousin, but the menace just beneath the surface was palpable. They had known, somehow, that I was coming -- and what for. They made it clear they’d be “keepin’ an eye” on me -- for my benefit, of course. And all of them pointedly said pretty much the same thing:  “We don’t got no trouble here -- and we don’t want none.”
Just providing a watchful eye, and "maintaining the peace."
    The black people in these places looked like the ones you see in photos from the 1940s: their posture, demeanor and facial expressions were a profound reflection of what fear and humiliation can do to a person. Their house dresses and lye-straightened hair came straight out of a history book.
It seemed like a bygone era, or a different country.

    Maybe you’ve noticed a similar phenomenon when you see those pictures of immigrants to America, just off the boat, in the first half of the 20th century. Whether they’re from Ireland, Italy, Russia or Eastern Europe, they nearly  always look, to use the historic terminology, "genetically defective."
      But it becomes clear over time that genetics and nationality have nothing to do with it. That “look” of inferiority is the reflection of generations of poverty, malnutrition, hopelessness, shame, and a lack of decent housing, education and sanitation.
     I was seeing something akin to that in the Deep South, and I was honestly dumbstruck that it was still going on. I had gone from the exhilaration of “Black is Beautiful” to “burning cross” territory. It was almost as if the black people in these two contrasting environments were different races, or that some were a more highly evolved form of the other.
    These little towns, in which time seemed to have stood still, and the “pecking order” was palpable, were deeply disturbing. I had a feeling of dread in my stomach the entire two weeks I was down there.
    I had to do quite a bit of walking along country roads to get from one interview to another, and a little convoy of white guys in big trucks was always slowly driving past in a way that felt oddly predatory. They waved at me -- actually it was sort of a “Heil Hitler” salute -- as if to say, “We got you in our sights, little lady.” Sometimes they grinned, but it was the ones who remained expressionless who expressed the most.
    I interviewed young black civil rights attorneys and doctors in places like Calabash, N.C.; Magnolia, Arkansas; Promised Land, S.C.; Roopville, Ga.; and Beulah, Mississippi. The story I got was not what the Rockefeller Foundation expected to hear; the lawyers were doing virtually no civil-rights work. Black people were too fearful to be plaintiffs, even in class-action suits about the most egregious discrimination in employment, education, city services and housing.
    So the lawyers were generally just doing the mundane work of divorces, wills and trusts, personal injury and criminal defense. Still, there was surely value in having black lawyers in these towns, even if they weren’t able to tackle the civil-rights issues the Foundation had envisioned.
The natural beauty camouflaged the extent of the suffering.
    Ironically, though, most black people went to white lawyers, especially if the stakes were high. It was a pragmatic decision: They thought they would fare better in court if a white person were their advocate, which was probably true.
    What a sad, sad mess! And most of  the young black lawyers, who had worked so hard to become professionals, were barely scraping by.
"It's a proud symbol of our heritage." Bless their hearts.
    The young black doctors were faring slightly better. They had plenty of patients, but few of them could afford to pay. And it remained an arduous uphill battle to instill healthy habits in people who were so fundamentally unhealthy and demoralized.
    The last part of my trip, I visited several towns that -- at least at that time -- weren’t even on the map. The Foundation had arranged to have me driven to these places from the nearest airport, because they were at least two hours away, deep into an overgrown netherworld.
Despite the deprivation, there was grace in these places that time had passed by.
    The poverty in these places -- as harrowing as it was -- seemed placid and picturesque in comparison to what I’d seen in the rat-infested tenement buildings of New York City's crime-wracked ghettos. Even the sparest shack down here was overhung with spectacular trees, nestled among hibiscus and camellias, and surrounded by mists, vibrantly fertile swamps and exotic bird sounds. It was like “shock and awe” at the same time.


In Part Two -- "Thanks, Miss Bleeding Heart" -- my alcoholism and journalistic ambition hinder my effort to be a positive force in the civil-rights movement.