I’m just getting over food poisoning. During a pandemic, the universe felt it wasn’t enough for me to deal with all the usual stuff. I had to pass a kidney stone, mess up my knee, have my muscles tighten so much I thought I ruptured a disk, and then get violently, relentlessly sick, from a spinach bowl. And that was all within two weeks. If you ever wonder where Hard Luck Hank gets his luck, you know. Not that I’m complaining. Much.
When viewing Southern racism from afar, it’s easy to paint it as…well, black and white. But like all human interactions, nothing is ever that simple. Like I knew some of my extended family had racist traits, but it never took the form you’d see in popular culture. With sneering, yellow teeth. Or “what you say, boy?” Or squeal like a pig(!). It was subtle.
And the closer you got to my parents, it morphed so much as to be nearly impossible to see. As my father was in hospice, his life nearly over, I interviewed him about it. And among poor whites, which my father’s family was, the racism was nothing like what I’d ever heard. When you’re all under the boot of the world, you aren’t kicking the worm next to you. They had a happy co-existence with blacks, and there was more a sense they simply had to keep it on the down-low because of…everyone else.
When I would visit where my grandparents lived, Stephen City, VA, which was a universe away from where I lived in Beltsville, MD, I saw the same stuff. I’d guess the one-stoplight city (and it wasn’t even a real stoplight, it was a 4-way blinking red), was 50% black and white. And everyone was absolutely dirt poor. The main streets were so poorly asphalted that every summer they would bubble and percolate. We’d stomp around popping bubbles and get tar on our shoes. The blacks and whites were mostly separate but would get back together to play and socialize out of sight of elders.
Which brings me to these articles. Apparently, Jack Daniel, the famous Whiskey distiller, was taught his craft by a black slave named Nathan “Nearest” Green. And he was so appreciative, he hired him as his first master distiller of his company. And Daniel hired generation after generation of Green’s children. So many, in fact, that they still work there to this day, 150 years later. He could not bestow the official titles on Green. Because of…everyone else. But that didn’t stop him from showing his support. That’s the kind of racism I was familiar with growing up. I never saw violent racism or even overt racism. It was an us and them and no one knew why but it was the way it was and don’t think too hard on it.
I’m glad I stumbled upon these because it reinforces what I learned and heard. That it wasn’t always cops shooting defenseless blacks without cause. Or people blowing up churches. It was a cultural thing. And culture like that is slow to change. I was just watching a LOT of documentaries, all I could handle with food poisoning, and one of them was on Mozart. They mentioned that when Leopold, Mozart’s father, was taking the family to tour Europe and visit all the courts, he had to buy entirely new wardrobes for everyone at every court. Because you couldn’t visit a Bavarian court wearing German clothes, or a French court wearing Bavarian clothes. Not only would they be refused, the locals would “rob or harass them.” Culture demanded they adapt. That was the late 1700s. A long while ago, but not so long we can’t recognize it.
Anyway, hope everyone is doing good. Stay away from unwashed spinach.
Oh, and here’s a video of my dad speaking on racism in Alabama circa WW2.