Category Archives: Racism

My Racist Friend

joyriding

When I see the hate-filled faces of the Neo Nazis, KKK, and assorted white supremacists, I feel revulsion, anxiety, and sadness. I also feel familiarity. Like most white Southerners, my family tree contains a carefully taught, particularly intense fear of difference.

My maternal grandmother, Gammie, was in the United Daughters of the Confederacy – her grandfather, Josephus Camp, Sr., fought for the South – and she cleaved to the Gone with the Wind fantasy of “the good old days” of Dixie: the Civil War was about state’s rights, the generals were men of honor with rebel spirit, slaves were often “family,” and the Jim Crow South was when “everyone knew their place,” etc. You can boil down all of the above to fear, learned at her daddy’s knee; fear of difference, and desire to remain separate from, and feel superior to that which is feared.

My estranged father died driving drunk in 1972, when I was seven, and my mother, Mary, never remarried, so she depended on Gammie to help raise my brother and me. For that we were lucky. Gammie loved us, we loved her, she showed up. It pains me to write anything negative about her, lest she be reduced to something she was not. But in truth, among many other things, she was an apologist for the Confederacy.

Interestingly, although raised Southern Baptist, Gammie married and bore the children of Salvatore “Sam” Lucchese, my grandfather, a Sicilian Catholic son of immigrants and lifelong Democrat, not a racist. Her distraught mother would only ever refer to him as “The Wop.” I like to tell myself that an unconscious-yet-engaged part of Gammie, a genuinely good and brave element discouraged and suppressed by her forebears, sought to commingle her DNA with Sam’s to begin the process of breaking the cycle of racism, of hate. If so, it worked. Mostly.

My mom, a Baby Boomer, rebelled against her upbringing. She exposed my brother and me to narratives and morals wildly different from what we saw and heard in Gammie’s house. We were hippie kids, grubby, longhaired, and barefoot, raised feminist (in our house, at least), taught that the absolute worst word in the world was nigger. (To this day I have a visceral reaction when I hear it.) Mom presented the rising multiculturalism of post-Civil Rights Act Atlanta as something to embrace. And embrace it we did.

The times were on Mom’s side. The 1973 election of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, signaled a shift that felt as normal to me as a change in season. We enjoyed the brief, post-Watergate, welcome novelty of our state’s former governor Jimmy Carter, an erstwhile peanut farmer and blue collar Democrat, rising to the White House in 1976. Other aspects of this environment that shaped us were integrated schools, friends and teachers of color, Jewish neighbors, queer neighbors, immigrant-owned businesses, and pervasive, genre-bending, rainbow-fueled music. Gammie’s politics didn’t stand a chance. They actually made no sense.

Yet somehow, I strayed. For years, when I’ve told told the story I concoct of my life, I’ve omitted an aberrant period of a year or so, when I rebelled against my mother’s rebellion. From age twelve to thirteen, I ran with a rich, charismatic, racist kid. I’ll call him Ricky Green. Today, when I see the so-called alt-right, I see Ricky, and I cringe at the version of myself that maintained a friendship with a kid who routinely said nigger, even as I protested. Especially as I protested.

I wonder why, exactly, I put up with it, as I didn’t before and haven’t since. I can say this: As a child, I was often afraid, obsessed with thoughts of death, made all the more intimate by losing my dad, having him here one day, gone forever the next. I was acutely aware of my connection to other people, and the prospect of another rupture terrified me.

Ricky Green’s cardinal trait was a dumb kind of fearlessness, and engaging with that helped alleviate my fears, of that I’m sure. To thirteen-year-old me, his racism was worth the payoff of feeling unafraid. Until it wasn’t.

~

Ricky’s and my story began in the summer between 7th and 8th grade – the summer of ’78. Quite abruptly, our shoulders had broadened, we’d grown taller, and girls bloomed all around us. They paid particular attention to sandy-haired, movie-star handsome, foulmouthed Ricky, who was not yet my friend, though we’d attended the same school for years. Even as he gleefully popped their bra straps, I noticed how girls nevertheless drank him in, how they convulsively giggled at his quips. How everyone gasped as he talked back to the teacher, even as that teacher hit him with a hockey stick, and pulled him, still seated at his desk, by his hair across the classroom. All the while, Ricky just laughed.

Soon after the hockey stick incident, Ricky seemed to sense my admiration, and invited me to his house. On the way home, we stopped at the Majik Market to play the Kiss pinball machine. Ricky mercilessly made fun of the Pakistani counter guy’s accent (behind his back). My face went hot with shame, but Ricky’s magnetism won out. Even as he whispered nigger in my ear when we passed an African American on the sidewalk – in part because it upset me, which he found hilarious – I continued hanging out with him.

Like me, Ricky was a latchkey kid. His very successful attorney father – who I never saw – had divorced his mother, and she was either not at their splendid, pine-shrouded home in an upscale neighborhood, or she was asleep in her upstairs bedroom, or, as Ricky said, she was “at the fat farm,” leaving us the run of the place. I have no recollections of her present as we raided the pantry, and/or watched R-Rated movies – Ricky called them “fuck movies” – on HBO. (The Greens were the only family I knew with HBO.) She slept so soundly, Ricky could sneak into her room and grab her car keys from her pocketbook.

“Let’s go for a ride in the Caddy!” he said, laughing. “You gotta help me push it into the street, though.”

“You can drive?”

“Fuck yes, I can. I’ll drive us to Kathy’s house. Ally’s there. It’ll be like the panty raid on Happy Days!”

Of course I helped. In the wee hours of the morning, we pushed his mom’s 1979 Cadillac DeVille down their driveway and into the street. I hopped in as Ricky started it up, wrestling with my nerves as he caromed through the suburbs, wind in his hair, laughing, radio blasting Styx and Kansas. We had no drugs or alcohol, just Ricky’s contagious bravado, perhaps the most potent intoxicant I’ve ever imbibed.

Incredibly, we got away with it. This further emboldened us to joyride several times that summer, two thirteen-year-old boys in a Cadillac in the dead of night, dropping in on girls having sleepovers. We were never caught.

Eventually, Ricky got his hands on a bag of pot, and we began to get high, which dampened the impulse to sneak out the Caddy. We just sat around smoking joints, watching HBO, and eating junk food. As I dragged on the joint, Ricky was fond of saying, “Don’t nigger lip it!”

Later, while smoking a joint with my friend Johnny and his much older disco dandy brother, Gus, I aped Ricky. I said, “Don’t nigger lip it!” This was the only time in my life I’ve used that word. Gus and Johnny’s parents had emigrated from Cuba, and I thought Gus was the coolest. He said, “Don’t say that, man. I got a lotta black friends.” He seemed personally hurt, disappointed.

In that moment – an older person acting parental, calling me out, caring – something shifted. It would take a night of wingin’ for me to fully awaken.

Wingin’ entailed hiding in bushes and hurling rocks at cars. These episodes pain me the most, even more than my wimpy protests to the word nigger. Because we endangered people. For fun. The night our mutual friend – I’ll call him Jim – joined us, things escalated. Jim was particularly insecure, desperate to be liked, and would do anything Ricky asked. After a few volleys of rocks at cars, followed by running into the woods, Ricky held up an aluminum baseball bat.

“Wing this at the next car,” Ricky said to Jim.

Jim readily agreed, laughing maniacally. Soon, a Volkswagen Bug much like my mom’s headed our way. Jim flung the bat as hard as he could and it slammed into the car door with a resonant bang. The car screeched to a halt and we bolted into the woods by Ricky’s house.

Instead of my usual adrenal euphoria, I felt a cold wave of guilt. Clueless Jim and Ricky cackled, pushing pine branches out of the way, and once again, we escaped retribution. But for me, the thrill was gone. Was it because the VW reminded me of my mom and reignited what she’d taught me, clarified my shame? Perhaps.

Soon after, Jim told me Ricky was sick of me talking about my dad’s death. My father had been gone for six years, and to my horror, memories of him were fading. And I did, in fact, often mention him as a means of keeping his memory alive, and, quite honestly, to gin up sympathy. As sad as that seems now, I can actually understand how it could irritate a thirteen-year-old. But at the time, I seized on Ricky’s insensitivity toward my grief; I would use it to sever ties. This particular affront produced actionable rage. I challenged him to a fight next to the tire swings at school.

“Don’t say shit about my dad,” I said, as kids gathered to watch.

“I didn’t say shit about your dad!” Ricky said.

Ricky and I grappled and swung for about ten seconds before a teacher broke it up, and gave us a talking to. The teacher made us shake hands, and Ricky said, “Can we be friends again now?” I nodded, but we both knew it was over.

Summer came. I kept to myself. I slept on our screened-in porch, and rode my bike all over Atlanta in the middle of the night, thinking about finally learning to play bass. I’d been procrastinating picking up an instrument, resisting a pull from my future, but I was about to give in. One night, riding in the middle of a deserted road, I nearly wept with sweet anticipation, a sense of destiny. Mom bought me a plywood starter bass, and I immediately devoted myself to it. Within three years, I would be gigging in clubs, a working musician.

The last time I saw Ricky was junior year of high school. He was hanging out with the druggies, waving to me from the smoking area, a glazed Cheech & Chong expression on his face. He would soon either drop out or transfer. Years passed, I moved to New York, and my time with the racist kid faded, in part because I was loath to revisit it, afraid of being judged for having been so cowardly. My brother occasionally crossed paths with Ricky, though, and reported that he had become a restorer of old Atlanta houses, but had subsequently developed an anxiety disorder, become addicted to Xanax, and never left his home. A couple years ago, I learned Ricky committed suicide.

Had he changed in those post-school years? I do not know. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about him until I saw those young white supremacists marching, and I recalled childhood time spent with Ricky, thinking we were invulnerable. The pleasure I experienced in his company was in feeling unconnected to others, until I woke up to the painful, beautiful fact that no one really is.

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I Am A Weekling, II: Six Things I Learned From the Syria Crisis

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Friends, Roamers, Countryfans,

Twice in one month, a Facebook exchange about the Syria Crisis resulted in my being called upon to express my impressions in other media. I was surprised both times. First, when Obama proposed military intervention, I posted something along the lines of “no way!” and my friend, WDST  DJ/programmer Jimmy Buff, saw it and invited me to come on the radio to talk to our Republican Congressman Chris Gibson, a veteran of both Kosovo and Iraq. Even though I’m a Democrat and would have a hard time casting a vote for someone as conservative as Gibson, I was eager to talk to him. We did not debate. Like a lot of conservatives (and liberals), Gibson is against military intervention in Syria, and his stance is part of an increasing Tea Party/Libertarian influence in his party. Interestingly, this puts us on the same side re: Syria, which is: diplomacy before missiles, because missiles will lead to even more death. I get the impression people look at Syria and think, “Well, it couldn’t get much worse, could it?” I firmly believe it can.

Regarding the Republicans and their shifting platform, I see Gibson’s stance auguring a different political landscape in the coming election cycles. (Last I heard, Rand Paul was the G.O.P. frontrunner in 2016.) Whether or not the conservatives’ “New Isolationism” is based on morals or money or both is debatable. In any case, I am almost always happy to talk to a politician,  especially a vet, regardless of whether or not we agree. (And Gibson and I disagree on a lot, including the Affordable Care Act, which I am in favor of and which he voted to defund.) It’s not often I get to compare notes with someone of Gibson’s experience, which humbles me. For God’s sake, he’s been shot at. (Our conversation is archived HERE. Gibson does most of the talking, but I did my  best to get a word in, and he was gracious.)

A couple weeks later (last week), my friend Greg Olear, writer, mensch, and editor of The Weeklings, posted a Washington Post op-ed by fearless badass journalist-filmmaker-documentarian Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm and War); Junger was/is dismayed at the outcry against intervention, and his op-ed is intense. While I wholeheartedly disagree with him, it’s a worthwhile read. He advocates military action as the best way to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s as-yet-unproved use of chemical weapons, an attack which killed approximately 1400 people, 400 of them children. (Assad’s forces have already killed approximately 100,000 with “conventional” weapons.) As a journalist, Junger has spent time in Kosovo, Bosnia, Liberia, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and, having seen outside forces quell, or, in the case of Afghanistan, moderate brutal conflict in those countries, he is an ardent, unapologetic advocate for America: World Police. Like most interventionists, he downplays past and potential future collateral damage, and he glosses over the elephant in the room that is Iraq. Above all else, the nail he hammers is this: anyone opposing military intervention – a catchall, and as-yet-undefined term – is actively supporting evil. That got my goat. I vented in Greg’s newsfeed. He took it well.

Make no mistake, Junger is no wingnut, and I get his passion. I have not seen wartime horror up close, and he has. Like most, I have only seen the horrific photos, and I agree Syria is a tragedy verging on genocide, and Assad is a madman, a despot. We can all agree on that. But, simply put, I  believe military intervention will make things much, much worse. I also think Junger’s broad strokes are conveniently skewed. For instance, in his op-ed, he opens with a graphic scene from his time in Kosovo, and implies that the only way to stop similar brutality in Syria – and it is nightmarishly brutal – is to attack, like the U.S. did (with U.N. help) in Kosovo. But, as Rep. Gibson told me, Kosovo is not Syria. Far from it. In a nutshell, Gibson said, “We’d be helping the guys who shot at me in Iraq.” Of course it’s much more complicated than that, God knows, but that’s one of many things to take into account, and Junger doesn’t address it.

Anyway, Greg asked me to write something for the Weeklings, and I did. Below is a link to it. Please give it a read at your leisure. Feel free to comment. Thanks.

Six Things I Learned From The Syria Crisis

P.S. # 7: It’s not over.

Christian Nation – a review

Christian NationChristian Nation by Frederic C. Rich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frederic C. Rich’s gripping novel Christian Nation straddles the line between speculative fiction and passionate indictment of today’s Christian Right. In a nonlinear narrative covering three decades, narrator Greg, a Manhattan attorney and clearly Rich’s political doppelganger, inhabits two time frames; in one, real-life Evangelicals are working to erode our democracy; in another, they have succeeded, and we’re screwed. The alternate universe takes hold in 2008, when McCain/Palin win the presidency and, mere weeks after the inauguration, Commander-In-Chief McCain dies of a brain aneurysm. Voilà: President Palin.

The novel opens in 2029, and from the first pages, we know Palin and the Christian Right have long since transformed the nation. The reeducation of the general public is a fait accompli, and America has closed its borders, real and virtual. Greg is in hiding, typing his memoir on an ancient Selectric typewriter, unhooked from the Purity Web, which monitors every keystroke of every US citizen (not unlike our modern-day NSA, it turns out). Despite painful memories, Greg hopes his readers will understand why and how the law of the land was dismantled, particularly how bystanders allowed it to transpire.

Lest this become a mere jeremiad, Rich entwines Greg’s personal story into the narrative; we travel back to 1998, when Greg was a rising corporate lawyer, entertained by the antics of Fox News and its ilk. We meet his shrewish girlfriend Emilie, and his best friend, the gorgeous Sanjay, a gay Indian Internet entrepreneur and founder of Theocracy Watch. Sanjay may as well have a target on his back.

We soon learn that Palin’s first term, albeit fraught with economic woe and global embarrassment, was a beachhead for the Christian Right. An Islamic terrorist attack that makes 9/11 look like a rehearsal ensures her second term, during which she extends martial law. It is never rescinded. The Fox network merges with the Faith & Freedom Coalition (an actual organization) to become F3, and fearmongering reigns. Palin’s adviser/puppet master Steve Jordan, intelligent and malevolent as any degenerate Caesar, takes the presidency after Palin’s two terms, and the hammer comes down in earnest. The Left finally wakes up, Holy War ensues, the government engages in escalating atrocities against gays, immigrants, and non-Evangelicals, and New York City becomes the last holdout against a liberal’s worst nightmare. Until the Siege of Manhattan, which is riveting reading.

Like his protagonist, Scenic Hudson Board Chairman Rich is an excellent attorney, impressively conversant in the intricacies of law. This expertise gives Christian Nation terrifying verisimilitude, yet he sometimes loses us when detailing just how laws can be overturned. Greg admits to being uninterested in his emotions, and while this frees him up to discourse at length on certiorari and precedents, it also renders him distant as a character, especially when both his personal world and the country are crumbling around him. The tragic accident that claims his parents and sister barely gets a mention, for instance. He mourns far more for democracy than for his loved ones.

Thankfully, Rich includes frequent quotations of poetry, Bible verse, philosophy, and literature, peppering the text with moving, multitextured language, all of which supports his thesis that we’re closer to theocracy than we care to admit. The narrative clicks into high gear toward the end, with some breathtaking, brisk passages about mental fatigue, madness, and the resilience of hope. Rich’s characters note that every empire falls, thanks in part to the storytellers. And that isn’t speculative fiction. That’s true.

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