The guiding principle is to emphasize the positive, but today I am not inclined to do so, because that would not reflect my experience. Every once in a while you have to move past “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I am not surprised by what is happening in North Carolina politics today, especially the assault on minority voting rights.
During the 1980s when I was married to a man from Nashville, North Carolina I got a dose of North Carolina culture.
The first trial for me was the “Yankee” lectures, delivered reliably and at length by my husband’s family and friends. “You Yankees don’t understand people. You don’t care about people. Down here, we know how to take care of our own.” (The Yankee Lecture is the main reason that I avoid traveling in the South today.)
Their professed compassion for “our own” contrasted starkly with their behavior when my husband became desperately ill with manic depression, and the most they could manage was the occasional telephone call. My wealthy sister-in-law Mary considered her brother’s illness a family disgrace. “You’re not a man,” she told him. She died quite young and with enough advance notice to assure that her will excluded him. Even after her death no family member was allowed to use any of her fortune to help my husband. Mary was a stalwart of the Republican Party in California and her view that his illness was a sign of weakness aligns well with videos of present-day Republicans mocking people in wheelchairs.
One summer we took the children and drove to his hometown, Nashville. The temperature soared into the 100s, so I asked where the public swimming pool was. Of the hundred or so people at the pool, we were the only whites. When I returned home, I asked my mother-in-law why and she answered, “The white people are all at the golf club.” (This paired well with the comment I had heard in Memphis years earlier that “You never swim in a pool with a black person because they all have syphilis.” I was about 14 at the time and didn’t know what syphilis was, but it sounded scary.)
Aged Aunt Annabelle once told me that she liked black people, “if they know their place.” In the little town of Nashville, the black people knew their place, literally. They lived on the other side of the railroad tracks. I took my kids out bike riding, and without a second thought we meandered beyond the tracks. People stared at these bleached intruders. My mother-in-law seemed annoyed by our transgression. We were messing up the standard operating procedures.
A college buddy of my husband’s was a bandleader and came to New York once to play for a convention and he invited us as his guests. He was a good old boy; charming and lively. A little while later my husband told me that his band had been playing at a dance in North Carolina and the friend got carried away and said what he thought, something like, “Tonight has been something special, just like the old days when there were only white folks at our dances.” According to my husband, that remark cost his band a lot of work, but hey, he was just saying what most people were thinking.
In North Carolina today the good old boys (and girls) are just saying what has been on their minds all along. I never did much like their style, and I still don’t like it. I could never say the right thing. Once a fraternity brother of my husband’s from the University of North Carolina who had moved to Alabama came to visit with his wife. They complained about the unsatisfactory schools and said they were sending their children to private schools to avoid the black teachers who didn’t know anything about Shakespeare and spoke with an accent. I mentioned that these teachers had grown up in a culture where black schools were inferior, and a little further back it was dangerous, sometimes illegal, for a black person to be literate.
“Well what would you do if your children had to go to one of those schools!” The wife asked, indignant.
“I guess I’d do what black mothers have done forever, give them some pencils and tell them to do their best”
I was rude to my guests, but I was just saying what I was really thinking.