Last year, I visited my father at his new home in Varnville, South Carolina, population 2,159. I made the trip out of a sense of daughterly duty, because I’m pre-wired to avoid small, southern towns. First of all, I’m not interested in hanging out with anything bred to eat me. The mosquitoes down there are the size of linebackers, instinctively conditioned to track my bourbon-infused high country scent, trap me in some kind of Kafkaesque buzzing halo of wings, and attack. I’m not a fan of brain-crushing humidity either, and on a day when the scale hits ninety degrees and 100% sticky-steamy sog? I’d rather self-service the mercury-lined fillings in my mouth with a pair of rusty pliers than step outside. I’m biased when it comes to the threat of boredom too, but then again, I’ve learned over time that some of us are… biased, that is, and in more meaningful ways than mine.
On a deeper level, my discomfort stretches beyond physical borders and into the psyche of my childhood. I’m not exactly from the Deep South, but my entire family hails from Georgia and I was raised in Kentucky. Our roots are planted well below the Mason Dixon line, strong enough to have thrived in an environment of patchy soil, yet somehow growing pliable and firm.
The soil I speak of here doubles as a metaphor; I grew up in an era of desegregation, when well-intended county school officials tried to right horrendous wrongs and bring together a black and white landscape dotted by socioeconomic segments of the local population that had always existed too many worlds apart.
On paper, everything looked good. White kids were bused downtown to attend predominantly African-American schools, and black kids traveled tree-lined streets each morning toward polished hallways tucked away in the suburbs. If you took the time to really look…actually peek through the window at my school, though, you’d see a different picture than the one county officials were trying to draw, because statistics aren’t three-dimensional and paint-by-number stories are often incomplete.
If you mix red and yellow you get orange, but only when the colors truly blend. That wasn’t happening in my school. We coexisted peacefully but separately, gliding past one another in the hallways like phantom ships; each as unfamiliar to the other as a foreign language. In an environment that was supposed to bring alienated people together, we remained apart. Despite the best of intentions, there was an unspoken sense of “us” and “them,” all depending on who wore the home team jersey.
Even though I was raised in a family that believed strongly in racial equality, bigotry surrounded me like the stench of stale smoke when I was growing up. It was far enough away for me to keep its cancerous tentacles at bay, but always lurked in the shadows; behind a decaying door I didn’t want to open. No one in my family was surprised that the minute I graduated from college I catapulted myself to Chicago. I have many reasons to love my hometown, but I always felt a little out of place, like I was the prototypical boomerang kid destined to wander away with a clear path toward home marked on a map tucked safely in my pocket. Just in case.
I left for college in 1988, and since then have only been back to visit. I can’t pin my permanent move away from my southern roots on racism, but in the busy streets of Chicago I found a place that truly felt comfortable…bursting with people dressed in a kaleidoscope of cultures, ideas and opinions. Everyone was different, which is to say, in many ways, the same.
All I have to do is look in the mirror to see that 1988 was a long time ago. My guess is that anyone who happens to read this post and lives in Louisville would say my hometown has grown and flourished both racially and culturally since I left. I’ll take a preemptive guess, and trust that’s the case.
So what does all of this have to do with Varnville, SC?
On Monday, as I watched President Obama ask America to look forward to the future in his inaugural address, I couldn’t help but think about the recent past. I was reminded of a conversation I had with one of my dad’s neighbors in Varnville last spring when I went to visit him: stalked by mosquitos in the blazing hot sun, and a little bored. Tucked into a backdrop of harmless talk about crops, cows, and kids, he told me that if I brought my children to visit their grandfather, I should be sure to take them swimming in Nigger Lake. The word rolled off his tongue seamlessly, as if it had always belonged right where it sat. Stubborn. Repulsive. Wrong.
No matter how much the world changes, some people, sadly, stay the same. On a day when I should have focused on how far our country has come, I was reminded of where we have yet to go.
I’d like to blame whatever remains of racism in America on the people who fought for what I consider to be the wrong side of the Civil War. My people. But before posting, I sent this to my super-scary-smart cousin, Barry Paschal, a newspaper publisher in Georgia. The subject matter I’m writing about makes me uncomfortable, and since I generally like to bask in the glow of a warm, rising sun, I wanted to test this rancid water and consider his point of view. He responded with an incredibly thoughtful critique, including a simple Google search that highlighted other parts of our country like Niggerhead Point, VT and Niggerhead Rapids, ID, two areas that clearly aren’t in the south. He helped me see that our problem is pervasive, and exists wherever we, as individuals, choose to let it live. With that thought in mind, it still surprised me that my spellcheck didn’t auto correct the word “nigger” when I proofed this piece. It recognized it. How sad.