Faulkner’s and My Racist Past

I’m currently reading Faulkner’s A Light in August, and I’m not sure I will ever finish it. It is a difficult read, of course, because it is Faulkner, and his writing is challenging in the best of circumstances, but it is also difficult because of the violence, sexual abuse and unmitigated racism. The entire fabric of the narrative is woven from the common threads of racism and misogyny, and I was cut from this cloth of southern bigotry. I’ve spent most of my life trying to unravel that fabric and create a new narrative from the threads of compassion and universal human dignity, but it’s hard to destroy what you can’t see.

For the most part, the principle characters in the novel are white. I say for the most part because one character suspects and is suspected of having at least “one drop” of mixed-race heritage. He and all the other characters use the n-word prodigiously, and violence simmers just below the surface even in the times when it is not erupting, which is far too often. Just beneath the racial violence is misogyny and violence against women. At the root of it all, of course, is the abysmal treatment of children. This is a critical story, if you have the stomach for it, and we should all have the stomach for it.

Some might think this is a grotesque exaggeration of white culture or some throw-back to days long since passed, The language and attitudes of these characters will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the American south, especially the rural south. [I should add here that I don’t for one minute think the rest of the country is or ever was free from racism, but I speak here only of my and Faulkner’s context.] In this setting, violence, or the threat of violence, pervades every living space and every waking moment. And it is meted out with a righteous religious fervour.

We currently live in a time when the overt, unabashed and unapologetic racism of Faulkner’s story is gaining acceptance in the public sphere. I had hoped we had put such times behind us. Perhaps it is good that we’ve dropped the facade of political correctness and pulled the veil off the danger lurking beneath.

It makes me think back to an earlier time (it was the 1980s) when I had a particularly upsetting encounter with this bald-faced style of racism, and it came, of course, from my own family. I was in my 20s then, and I tried to fulfil family obligations when possible. Wanting to keep the remains of his family together, my grandfather would host family reunions from time to time, and he insisted that we all attend, because nothing was more important than family.

This reunion would be my last, though. Before the food was set out and served, the family was sitting around in lawn chairs just passing the time. The weather should have provided enough fodder for mindless chat, but their minds turned to their own suffering, which was caused (they thought) by having to work with people who were not white. Even worse (they thought) was the fact that their colleagues demanded minimum levels of respect and human decency.

As you already realise, they described these people using the n-word in every sentence, and sometimes used it more than once in a single sentence. The hatred flowed like water from the tap. They said many upsetting things, but the sentence that still echos in my mind said, “We got us a bunch of sensitive (this word was drawn out for emphasis) _________. It’s bad enough we have to work with __________. Now they don’t even want to be called __________.”

I left. My wife and children and I all got in the car and left. Later, I was scolded by family members. They told me family was paramount, and that we all have to accept family unconditionally. Blood is thicker than water, and all that. The problem, which I knew at the time, is that this demand for unconditional love and acceptance only goes one way.

Would they embrace a family member who was not Christian? Not straight? A vegetarian? Gender nonconforming? Not white? I can assure you they would not. While demanding unconditional love and acceptance, they offered only hatred and judgment for anyone who veered from their vision of a “good” person.

I remember a conversation with my grandmother where she described how nice and helpful some of the local boys were. I tried to explain to her that I was the target of their bullying. I tried to tell her they were only nice to members of their own group. I tried to explain that they were violent toward outsiders. They were violent toward me. It turns out my family thought I was the one who needed to change, but I never did.

Memoir: Lonnie and Matrimonial Complexity

Like me, my Uncle Lonnie (great-uncle, actually) married an English woman. He met her when he was stationed in England during the second world war. I always heard the story that he married an English woman, she flew over to Texas and then high-tailed it back to England in short order. I always assumed she found the conditions in Polk County somewhat lacking for a woman of good taste, because conditions around there were a little Southern Gothic, to be sure.

I’ve recently found that many memories of my family are based on false assumptions I made when I was too young for the adults to tell me the whole truth. So to be safe, I asked my mother if I had the story straight. First of all, Mom said I was at their wedding, which means it was after 1960. I had always assumed it was the late 40s or early 50s in the years immediately after the war.

While I had assumed the wife wasn’t happy in Texas, Mom said the problem, as she remembered it, was that Lonnie’s Texas girlfriend was none too happy when his new English wife showed up, and made things uncomfortable for everyone.

So, I had to ask a followup question. “His Texas girlfriend? Did he have another one besides Aunt Jewel?” No, that’s the one, Mom assured me. She also added a bit of additional information: the English wife, I wish I knew her name, had “medical problems” related to sex. This was all so upsetting that my Aunt Edith took her to the doctor and let her stay with her and my Uncle JC for awhile before she returned to England. Apparently, the rest of the family was appalled by the way he had treated his wife.

My own memories of Uncle Lonnie are fairly benign. He owned an ice cream stand just outside of Livingston and a general store a few miles down the road. Jewel, previously mentioned, lived in a house next to the store with her children and ran the store. I only remember her being kind and patient. I never knew any of her children.

When Lonnie would smile, you’d get a glint off his gold tooth, and he smiled a good bit. My memory is a bit sketchy, as it would be, but on one occasion, I remember his bending down, smiling and either giving me quarter for ice cream or just telling me to tell “Aunt Jewel” it was okay for us to have some ice cream. It may well be a phantom of my imagination, but I remember his saying, “Here, take this quarter to Aunt Jewel and tell her I said to give you some ice cream.”

You know, it may have been a Coke or candy or something, but I left with something. When I got back to my grandmother, she asked where I’d gotten my treat. I told her, “Aunt Jewel gave it to me,” and she went white and said, “That woman is not your aunt, and I’ll not have you calling her that in my house!” I never forgot the lesson, but I also didn’t understand it till years later.

About the only other thing I can tell you about Lonnie is that he was reputed to be quite a miser. He never really looked like he had a dime to his name, but owned quite a bit of property in Polk County, and he was the only person I ever knew personally who owned an industrial-sized backhoe, though I don’t remember a time it was ever out of the shed he built for it. When he died, some people had quite a bit of anticipation about where his money would go, but I don’t know how that turned out. I can only share that it didn’t go to me.

Poem: The Unimagined Perils of Fire Pokers

“Did you put another log on the fire?”

As innocent as it was naive, the question
Intended no harm, no trespass
On the rigid boundaries of masculinity.

She didn’t have the image of Wittgenstein
Fending off rivals with a raised poker
In the halls of exalted moral science.

It didn’t throw her thoughts to a
Defensive Popper creating an instant,
Contemporary, and universal moral rule:

“Never put a poker in another man’s fire.”

[Note on poetic license: This doesn’t accurately describe what happened between Wittgenstein and Popper. A more accurate description is here. ]

Essay: The Pentomic Army, the Desert, and my Father

[Note: I wrote the following based on the memories of my father, who was in the Pentomic ‘secret’ Army in 1957-58. He served in the signal corps at Fort Huachuca Army Base from 1956-1958. Much of the information here was only recently declassified, so I’ve included links to supporting documents and background reading.]

I hate the desert. Actually, I don’t have any personal animosity toward a topographical feature that is, let’s face it, ethically neutral, but I hate driving through the desert. No, I associate the desert with a childhood filled with seemingly interminable hours trapped in a hot car creeping endlessly through a miserably hot and hostile environment. Hour after hour would pass without a restroom (most important), restaurant (pretty important, too), or gas station (at times critically important enough to cause panic in my young heart). As a child, the desert represented only suffering.

Nonetheless, it seemed every vacation began with the long trek through the desert, beginning in West Texas and passing through New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada before finally reaching some relief in Southern California. It seemed like no matter where we planned to visit that year, my father would say that the only way to get there from Houston was through the desert. That’s true of many places—Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, Roswell, Taos, Phoenix, San Diego—but did we have to go through the desert to get to the Smoky Mountains?

The truth is my father saw the beauty in that desert, and, to be fair, he’s not the only one. For people who aren’t hot, hungry children with full bladders, the desert can be aesthetically magnificent. My father saw more than beauty in the desert, though; he saw his past. As a child, what did I know of nostalgia?

And if I’m honest, most of his memories of his time in the Army sound more like things you’d want to suppress, so I never quite got the fascination, though in quieter moments I can see beauty in the sand, cacti, and mountains. Fort Huachuca is beautifully placed, after all. You can’t go wrong with mountains anywhere, and my father spent much of his time riding up and down the mountains as a member of the signal corps.

He says in 1957 it took a large truck to haul around all the telecommunication power that you now carry in your pocket. He said they’d drive up the mountain throwing golf balls out the back to see if the equipment could track them as they rolled down. It sounds like a good time, all right, and I always wondered if someone had to retrieve all the golf balls scattered around on the mountains, but he never mentioned having to go gather them up.

My father is a strong-willed man, and I guess he always was, but he was also pretty much law-abiding. You know, in the way most young men are “pretty much” law-abiding. Still, he has often told of his willingness to defy what appeared to be a direct order. This was a time of routine nuclear testing at the Nevada Proving Ground, and most military personnel were expected to support the research efforts, which were generally presented simply as training, not research.

Now, behind the scenes, a number of agencies were dealing with the problems of nuclear research, which most people assumed to be safe. By 1957, experts behind the scenes had decided that mandatory participation in such research was unethical and probably illegal, but nobody was really telling the men with their boots on the ground.

I’m not sure if it was a careful analysis of the situation, an intuitive foreshadowing intuition, or just defiant puckishness, but my father just told them outright he wouldn’t be going to the proving ground to watch bombs explode. Although he didn’t go, the equipment he used every day did go, and he thinks that equipment exposed him to radioactive fallout all the same, but he survived while many others did not. A University of Arizona study estimates those tests led to as many as 460,000 premature deaths of Americans, mostly from cancer.

The US armed forces weren’t doing all those nuclear tests just because they were curious to know how atomic bombs worked; they had active plans to bomb China, Vietnam, Russia, and, most surprisingly, East Berlin. The plan was to drop bombs many times stronger than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and effectively wipe out targets as large as Beijing and Moscow. It’s worth noting that wiping out East Berlin would have killed most of the people in West Berlin as well. That’s where US military thinking was in 1957.

My father was a member of what he calls the “secret Army,” which was the Pentomic Army, a military division organised specifically to bomb the targets mentioned. The soldiers were specifically trained to carry out nuclear bombing missions, and my father says they had already received orders to report for their missions when the plans were aborted. My father left the Army in 1958, but they almost recalled him during the Cuban Missile Crisis because of his training in nuclear missions.

I am aware of the slight possibility that my father’s fond memories of his Army days have more to do with what he got up to while on leave than training to drop nukes around the world, but I’ll leave those memories for another time.

Memoir: Snuff and Hand-Rolled Cigarettes

The smell stays with you. I mean, we don’t forget smells. When we would visit my great-grandparents, Oscar and Lorena Stuckey, we’d first be greeted by chickens, and their distinctive smell, milling about in the yard. As we approached the kitchen by way of the porch, and everyone went in through the kitchen door, we’d meet the mingling aromas of various boiled and fried foods, a hint of natural gas, and maybe a whiff of loose tobacco and fresh snuff. Describing that particular smell is impossible, I think. If you know what I’m talking about, the memory will just about knock you over. If you don’t know, I’m sorry to leave you perplexed.

Oscar rolled cigarettes between his thumb and forefinger with alacrity. The saw mill took the other three fingers from his right hand decades earlier, and you’d almost think those extra digits had been extraneous appendages. Like they would have gotten in his way, regardless. I made the mistake of getting him a cigarette rolling machine one year, which he accepted graciously and put away somewhere never to be seen again. Besides being a self-reliant Texan who could roll his own cigarettes, thank you, he wasn’t a fan of solving problems through technology, anyway. Maybe it seemed unmanly to him.

And he was manly. He was well over six feet tall and spoke in a resonate basso profundo that always drew attention. His voice had the natural timbre actors try to develop for their overly reverent portrayals of history’s “great men.”

Before he died, someone in the family had the foresight to make a recording of him speaking, but I don’t know whether the tape is still around. I do remember the topic of the conversation, though. Born in 1889, Oscar was too young to have known people while they were living in slavery, but he was old enough to have met the children of slaves.

On the tape, he was speaking to a woman about his age who was directly descended from slaves in Texas. They discussed the ongoing evolution of race relations in Texas over the years. Livingston, Texas, is not a place known for racial tolerance, but it is a place where black and white people have to live side by side. I wish I could revisit the insights the two of them shared that day. I can say they were friendly, and each seemed to enjoy reminiscing.

Lorena didn’t smoke cigarettes that I ever saw, but she didn’t mind taking a dip of snuff from time to time. I have a vivid memory of her sitting in a comfortable chair with a dip of snuff in her lip and the tiniest dribble of snuff-infused saliva working slowly down her chin. I don’t think I ever saw her wearing anything but a dress, usually with an apron over it. She had simple tastes.

Her son, Oscar, Jr., died at the age of 18 in Woodville, Texas, and she never stopped talking about him. I don’t mean she talked about him constantly; it’s just that he would come up from time to time all the way to the end of her life. I remember her well in her old age telling me she had spoken with Jesus, and Jesus had assured her that Junior was doing just fine and looking forward to seeing her when she joined him in Heaven. This was one of the few windows I had, as a child, into the suffering of an adult and the adult efforts to find comfort from religion.

As children, we never left the house without her giving us a dime. As we got older, inflation had no impact on the size of the gift, and she continued giving dimes to us long after it was really appropriate, but it was a quiet way of saying, “I love you,” and every dime was much appreciated. We all must find quiet way to say, “I love you.”

Memoir: Dispatching Flies to the Sweet Hereafter

The flies didn’t stand a chance. When people came in to get a hair cut, flies would sometimes follow them in the door, but they were short for our world so long as my grandfather, Dolphe, was around. He would just stand quietly, almost motionless, and suddenly flick out his middle finger and thump them from the air to total oblivion in an instant. Their carcasses would just drop from the air to form litter for the shoeshine boy, me, to sweep up. 

Dolphe was a quiet man with thick glasses. When business was light, he would just sit and watch people walking by on the sidewalk. The shop had tinted windows, so we could watch the world go by without the world watching us in return. We had the panopticon barber shop, I guess. 

Sometimes, I would go home with him for lunch. He drove a Chevy Malibu that wasn’t a race car, except for when he was driving it. I remember well stopping at a red light at one of the few intersections in Galena Park when two teenagers pulled up next to us. “These boys think they’ll be in front of us when this light changes,” he said, “but we’ll see about that.” And sure enough, he got out in front. I think it is easiest to win races when the other competitors are left unaware of their own participation. 

When not dispatching insects to the great beyond or racing teenagers, Dolphe was a gardener. He was a gardener who had many houses over the years. I can remember seeing his successful gardens in McDade, Galena Park, North Shore, and Bolivar. I’m sure he had many other gardens unknown to me. Often, when the rest of the family was milling about and making noise, he’d be enjoying quiet contemplation among the squash, tomatoes, and other edibles. 

His cats were mean. Some attributed this fact to the breed of cats, but others were pretty sure it was because he played rough with them. Whenever they would go near him, he would play fight with them, and they seemed to think this was the way to interact with humans, so the rest of us just stayed clear of the cats, ornery things that they were. 

He loved watching television, apparently, with the colours all out of whack. It never looked natural, and he liked to fiddle with the tone and brightness adjustments, so it was always changing, like a cathode ray kaleidoscope. This was entertainment in itself; anyone could see that.

Finally, I learned to play “Tennessee Waltz” on the piano just because he asked me to. Most times I visited him (not big family gatherings but quiet visits), he would ask me to play it, which I always did, quite badly. I don’t think my version ever really improved, but my audience of one was always appreciative, and I still love that song. 

He is pictured here on the left with my father, who is on the right, obviously. 

Memoir: Ice Crescent Moons

My grandmother, Blanche, made the best iced tea. It was the ritual I loved. She’d boil water in a large pan and add a generous portion of loose tea leaves as the water continued to boil. She’d then let it steep for a few minutes as she got everything else ready. She added sugar to the tea pitcher and ice (the ice machine produced four connected crescent moons of ice in sequence) to the large Victorian (I really don’t think they were Art Deco, but maybe) goblets. 

Once the tea had steeped sufficiently, she strained the tea into the tea pitcher, creating a super-saturated solution of strong black tea and what most respectably regulated people would describe as too much sugar. While the tea was still warm, she’d pour it into the goblets, and those frozen crescent moons would scream in protest, cracking with a ferocity that made me fear the glass would come apart, but it never did. Brought to the lips, the tea was a sweet mixture of warm and cool replenishing dry throats. I don’t believe the world contains a more satisfying way to quench thirst. 

When I was young, she lived in Galena Park, Texas, and at the time the only way to cross the Houston Ship Channel from Galena Park to Pasadena was through the Washburn Tunnel. Large bridges now carry several lanes of traffic across the channel, but in those days only one lane of traffic at a time could pass through. Thanks to the paper factories, refineries, and grain elevators, Galena Park had a distinctive smell in those days, and the smell was concentrated inside the tunnel. I don’t think I will ever forget that smell.

And if you passed through with Blanche driving, you’d be in the tunnel for awhile. She was cautious and never bothered about the tailbacks she created as she made her way from one side to the other. I usually prefer a quicker pace in life, but I found great amusement in giving the drivers behind us a few moments to reflect on their life choices and contingent salvation. 

In the early days of my life, I would sometimes get frustrated when she would start a story and then say, “Well, I can’t tell that,” leaving me to wonder what adventure or scandal she was hiding from my innocence. When I was older, though, I liked to visit her to hear her spinning yarns with considerably less obfuscation. A few family secrets came out, but mostly they were tales of her time working in a hospital. She had been a teacher and later worked in hotels and hospitals. Anyway, the hospital tales weren’t really scandalous, but they sometimes included more detailed descriptions of medical waste than some people would prefer. I loved hearing them, though. 

She and my grandfather had a beach house in Bolivar, Texas, and they would sometimes fish from the jetties. I can’t remember all the details, but on one occasion I think she was wrestling a catch from the water when she slipped in and was forced to struggle back onto the jetty. I just remember her saying, “When I fell in, I had my keys in my bra. By the time I got out, they were in my panties!” She was a woman to be reckoned with. 

Memoir: Just Call Her Sis

My grandmother taught me to drive. I mean, she didn’t teach me to feather the clutch or work the stick shift or anything like that, but she set an example. She used to take us on all these back roads in East Texas looking for whatever the woods and winding roads would deign to show us. I remember the exhilaration I felt as we went around curves on dirt roads and I felt the tires let loose of the road and begin to slide in a kind of controlled chaos. It wasn’t rally racing by any stretch of the imagination, but it could spark a few fantasies for a child.

When we weren’t sliding through turns and building better berms, we were exploring graves behind old churches looking for kin. Apparently, my roots run six feet under the East Texas clay and sand with more than a few entanglements. We would almost always find someone related, but I guess she knew just where they’d be, so she wasn’t performing acts of magic, even if I couldn’t figure out the trick.

For sustenance we’d stop along the way to pick blackberries, muscadine (I was an adult before I figured out they weren’t called Musky Dimes), pecans, and sassafras root (for home made root beer). From time to time, we’d also steal a little bark from a zanthoxylum clava-herculis tree, or Toothache Tree. I wouldn’t want to rely on this bark for actual dental work, but it sure did make the tongue tingle and feel a little numb. It’s the same chemical you find in hot Szechuan oil, so you may be familiar even if you never chewed the bark of an actual Toothache Tree. 

My grandmother hated her name, Lula Mae, so anyone who knew her well called her “Sis,” even if they weren’t related to her. Anyone who didn’t know her well enough to call her Sis would have to settle for Mrs. Walding, and I never heard anyone complain about that, either. If you stopped to see her, you would get a glass of iced tea immediately and most likely a meal would be offered in due course. If you were really lucky, you’d be offered a slice of freshly made coconut pie. Over the years, people have gotten the impression that I love coconut pie, but I’m really pretty indifferent to coconut pie generally. I loved my grandmother’s pie, specifically. She always shredded fresh coconut herself, and she seemed to have a preternatural ability to sculpt the perfect merengue. I’ve never met anyone who could do it better. 

Poem: On the Insignificance of Coffee

She tweeted that it was the 
worst day of her life.

They didn’t have her favourite
hazelnut soy milk for her latte,
and everything was ruined.

She singlehandedly spawned
the phrase “first world problems,”
And people started saying,
“Check your privilege” 
all the damned time.

She was aware of her privilege,
of course, and thought it would
be funny to exaggerate the tragedy
of a morning coffee gone slightly wrong.

It was meant to be ironic, 
but some people don’t see
the humour in angry rants about
insignificant events in daily life.

They are focused only on important matters.
For example, they worry about what God
people send their prayers, what kind
of sex people are enjoying, and whether 
people have acceptable clothing to
match their very real genitals.

We mustn’t be distracted by the 
insignificance of coffee.