Hillbilly Eulogy

Yesterday I had a rare day off without the girls. Their mother finally delivered on that trip to Disney World, and they’ll be gone for a week.

I didn’t want to stay cooped up in the house, so Gina, Willie and I went for a drive to scenic Hardy, Arkansas. I haven’t been up that way since the girls and their mother had a harrowing car accident last July, and it was nighttime then. I wouldn’t have paid attention to the sides of the road, anyhow, because I was too busy screaming.

The hills around here have always harbored the remnants of the Old South. When Lee stopped throwing poor misguided individuals into his meat grinder and gave up at Appomattox, my great-great-granddad took his bullet-riddled ass to the house, which was on flat farmland. He was a sergeant in the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, and I can’t prove this theory, but back when I was into genealogy it seemed like there was a positive correlation between being a stand-up-and-fight (or run-and-hide) infantryman and knowing when to go home and crush people of color all civilized-like, with institutions and personal discrimination instead of open warfare (except for a bunch of folks wiped out in Oklahoma and Arkansas, but we don’t hear about those much, unfortunately).

The cavalrymen, the bushwhackers, they were usually the ones forming militias, or the Klan, and they took to the swamps and the hills. They stayed in those swamps and hills, as poor people do, and while Trump yells about poor urban (which, along with words like thug, has become one of the various new dog-whistle n-bomb equivalents) citizens (arguably impoverished, at least in part, by the echoes of the very conflict I’m discussing) there are generations of poor rural folk who never left the muddy low ground or the forested high ground to learn the valuable lesson of getting along.

I lost count of the Confederate flags flying at homes, farms, and businesses along the way yesterday, but it was at least a dozen and probably closer to twenty during the just-over-an-hour long drive. One ranch had a tall black iron gate with not only the Confederate battle flag, but the first Confederate national flag and the Bonnie Blue Flag flying above it. Those people aren’t fucking around.

I’m a white descendant of Confederate slave owners, so I’ve tangled with this issue my entire life. I’ll still be grappling with it when caffeine, retail work, and my terrible coping skills seize this old ticker. My Dad was a Heritage not Hate type of guy. If I said, “The Civil War,” he’d say something like, “Which civil war? The American Civil War? That’s what Yankees call it. It’s the War Between the States or as my daddy used to call it, the War of Northern Aggression.

Later in life he told me some of the guys his father ran around with were actual Klan members. I’ve already poked holes in my theory, here, because this is my grandfather we’re talking about, the guy who said black people (and not in language that kind) had brains the size of walnuts, and he certainly wasn’t from them there hills.

Dad was a step removed, though. He was Republican enough that all he saw was green. That’s not to say his ideas weren’t problematic from time to time. If I mentioned Chinese or Japanese people, he’d quickly calculate how many years it had been since they had been, as he said, “Sticking bayonets in our boys,” and holler it at me. (If you don’t know what a holler is, it’s a couple of steps down from a scream or a yell, and there’s joviality implied, usually at someone else’s expense.) He usually didn’t use slurs unless he was quoting someone, but he hung out with guys who did. He was big on decorum, and he thought it was tacky to behave that way.

Though I considered myself a liberal at a young age (or a Democrat as far as I understood, which was very little), I gleefully accepted Civil War related gifts, like a Confederate kepi I got for Christmas when I was eleven or twelve. I still own the damned thing, and I’m not sure why. Somewhere there exists a photo of me dressed as some sort of Neo-Nazi on Halloween fourteen years ago, and I have that hat on in the photo. Prince Harry, eat your heart out.

I’m required to mention how absolutely reprehensible that costume was, but in retrospect, it’s actually a wonder I wasn’t up to much worse. There was a time in high school when the pep band played “Dixie” with glee. It used to be Trumann’s official fight song until it was changed to “Arkansas Fight” somewhere down the line. We still played it, and sometimes a friend and I would bring our Confederate hats and do our best to intimidate the visiting players from rural towns in the Mississippi Delta, the populations of which were mainly African American.

Mom worked in one of those towns, which is why she wasn’t ever keen on this bullshit. I never heard a racial slur pass her lips. She might call someone a motherfucker or, to take a line from Dad, “The sorriest son-of-a-bitch who ever farted through a pair of cotton drawers,” but that just wasn’t her style. If I had any mercy or compassion for anyone in those days, it came from her. Still, I was my father’s son, and my friends weren’t any help.

I’ve been avoiding the word because it isn’t mine. I can’t tell this story without it, though, so if you don’t like to see a white dude type it, this is where we part ways.

There must have been a fistfight a day at Trumann High School, or at least it seemed that way. The short break after lunchtime was usually prime time for fisticuffs. From time to time they broke out in the halls between classes, or in the class itself, but those folks weren’t ever that serious about fucking someone up. If you wanted time to spar, lunch was it. The guys who really wanted you dead scheduled their battles royal after school behind the Methodist Church across the street, which is the church where just about every member of my family was married, including me (the second time).

Occasionally, the conflict would be interracial, and that’s when everyone did the chant: “Fight fight, a nigger and a white, white don’t win, we all jump in!” That last part was a lie, of course. No one ever jumped in. There’d be one kid going like Golden Gloves and one fat larval-stage redneck on the ground. No idiot among us was ready to sign up for an ass-whoopin’.

Stranger yet, when the Klan came to town and held a rally at the corner of Arkansas highways 69 and 463, every teenager and unemployed person in Trumann seemed to be gathered at that spot, and with a 40-50% unemployment rate that was quite a few folks. We were a multicultural crowd, or as much as we could be in 1990s Arkansas, and we’d joined together to jeer those sheeted assholes. A young black man took his shirt off and got ready to defend his title, but the cops intervened and whisked the half-dozen Klan members away. In Trumann, we wouldn’t have any outsiders busting into town and oppressing our black neighbors. We could do that ourselves.

I don’t think the cognitive dissonance of these things struck me until I was selected for Arkansas Boy’s State. If you aren’t familiar, these shindigs are run by the American Legion and they drag kids off to college campuses for a week of conservative indoctrination camp. We learned about government, calisthenics, and how worthless we all were. Our counselor was a large cruel man who said things like, “You boys are supposed to be the cream of the crop, but it looks like some of you done slipped through the cracks.”

It couldn’t have been their intent, but the sheer stress of being hazed by West Point cadets and old Republicans brought us together. It was a treat to gather in the small common television room, and one day when Cheers came on, a guy started singing, which quickly led to us all joining in. If you ever thought those spontaneous film musical numbers were unrealistic, think again. Maybe they’re not as common as Hollywood would like us to think, but even young Arkansas teenagers burst into song if placed under enough pressure.

As luck would have it, one of our first football games back home that fall was against a team full of guys I’d attended camp with. One of them was the drum major of the band across the way, and as the president of the band council it was my job to go over and greet them. I received a hug, which I didn’t expect, and we chatted for a bit before we were forced to return to our stands and cheer on our respective teams. Our band director, who was new that year, told us to get out “Dixie.”

My heart sank. The fellow I’d just embraced was black, as were at least half his classmates, and what we’d been doing finally hit me. “No,” I said. “I can’t.”

Someone went down the stands, I cannot remember who, and relayed my message to the band director. He just looked at me and shrugged. I don’t know what my old director, who’d left the year before, would have done. He was a bit of a drill sergeant, and he probably would have told me to play it or else. The new guy was more passive-aggressive, but the result was the same. We played “Dixie.”

I held my trumpet to my lips and pretended to play. It was probably the weakest rendition we’d ever performed, which wasn’t saying much. Within the months since we’d been abandoned by Mr. Massey we’d fallen from being a national award winning band who often performed college-level music to a mediocre small town shitshow with strictly junior high levels of competency. It was a disaster, which was even more of a disaster now because the first chair trumpet wasn’t playing, and some of the other kids weren’t either.

Thing is, this wasn’t an awakening for me. I was embarrassed about potentially offending that one guy I knew. The realization that we’re wrong comes in fits and starts and setbacks. When a person of color asked me out in high school, I’d considered saying yes, but when I told my best friend he looked at me with big eyes and quietly said, “But, Bob. She’s a nigger.” He didn’t speak that way often, which gave his words more gravity in my teenage mind. I couldn’t do it.

I vacillated between Dad and Mom, right and left, for years. My politics were weird and fuzzy, a basket of contradictions. By the early Aughties I considered myself the master of post-racial irony. I’d prance around wearing swastikas because it was funny, and I’d display irreverence for any racial issue because we’d already had our first black president, Bill Clinton.
It wasn’t until I watched black people die in the streets on television during Hurricane Katrina and witnessed the refugees coming into town on buses that something clicked and made me put that shit to rest forever.

I’m not going to outline the events of the past dozen years, but you and I know there have been enough for anyone even half-paying attention to recognize how absolutely fucked we are as a society. It’s only gotten worse, and my eyes are open. I’ll not claim to be cured or to have seen the light. It doesn’t work like that. I fuck up constantly, online and in real life, and I have to readjust my behavior. I’m the kind of guy who learns from my mistakes and I still have trouble because it isn’t just a bad habit we’re talking about here. It’s defective programming I can’t remove without blowing my brains out, so I’ve had to learn to think around it. Sometimes I have to repeatedly relearn things I’ve learned and forgotten, but it’s part of the process.

So knowing who I am and what I’ve seen, when we drove down that road yesterday I didn’t feel rage. I’ve been there and I’ve dealt with those feelings. I was perhaps a bit embarrassed, but I was mostly sad that America has failed these people. They’ve been used as tools repeatedly and thrown into the brush to rust. I don’t want to rewrite Hillbilly Elegy here. There’s plenty of blame to throw around, and people aren’t ever entirely free of personal accountability, but it would be pretty bootstrappy of me and against everything I believe to say, “Well I did it, why can’t they?”

My mother and other family members and friends did their best to tolerate my ignorance and let me fuck up repeatedly until I figured things out on my own. There’s probably a way to accomplish this before someone reaches their mid-twenties, though. My daughter attends a daycare and a preschool where she is the minority, and I think she’s going to be great in this respect. While, again, she’ll always have to struggle with the complications of being a white person chained to the baggage of history, her own actions will be honorable. I know this, and it is a blessing.

We also never were poor. My classmates called me a rich kid from time to time and I didn’t understand it. Our huge house seemed normal to me then, but the one I live in now is much smaller. It wasn’t until I started visiting my friends houses in my teen years that I realized most people didn’t have a sprawling mid-century modern home. Some of them lived in trailers or the remnants of old Singer shotgun houses. Some of them lived in the housing projects that comprise what seems like a third of the residential areas in town.

My mom struggled and wrecked her credit but she always provided. We probably had way too much, and it’s thanks to her and Dad, as well, who didn’t let us go without anything. If we had to get braces, Dad ponied up. If we needed new shoes, Dad took us to Foot Locker.

F. Scott Fitzgerald put it better in the second line of Gatsby with, “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

But if, if we’re going to go through the mental gymnastics of “You too can be a shitty guy or gal, just the worst, and learn to be less shitty, maybe even tolerable considering your background within the context of American history,” we have to ask ourselves how. The right-wing of the American political clusterfuck has seized on this opportunity to drive a despot into office. For every regretful sign-holding red hat-wearing frowny faced apologetic piece of meme fodder there’s ten or twenty more hiding in the bushes who aren’t sorry, and they’re ready for this shit.

Unless you’re a fellow shitty white dude, I can’t make you do the emotional labor of considering answers. If you want to vote for Democrats and take the classic liberal view that people just haven’t had it explained to them the correct way, have at it. Maybe there’s some weepy corporate propaganda that will turn the rural poor’s lives around. I’m sure that terrible Blind Side bullshit makes some white people feel good enough about charitable acts, or at least it appeals to their business sense. There’s nothing better for your portfolio than cruising Memphis and searching the streets for star football players. I’ll see you kids on Poplar.

I can and do yell all day about how fucking ridiculous this seems, but I cannot focus upon well-meaning slacktivists the level of ire I should reserve for not-so-well-meaning Neo-Confederates. Thing is, and here I go playing my sad white man fiddle, I’m often too tired, too busy, or just plain too sad to give you anything but, “Take it to the pink march,” and block you. I’m not proud of this, but I’m human too. This is my sorta half-assed apology, take it or leave it.

There’s something to that rage, though. It would be too convenient for me to go, “Well, Marx said any social justice effort that gets assimilated by the bourgeois, like John Carpenter’s Thing, and made into a pulsating mutant version of itself, only serves to perpetuate the monstrosity’s life and eat you in the process while convincing you it’s the only way.” At least I think he said that. What’s important is that while I could and often do throw the concerns of moderate activists into the trash heap of opinions where they usually belong, it is crappy for me to revel in this.

It is a special sort of nihilism that says, “Well, your efforts and cause would be legit except you answer to a CEO who makes seven figures so off with you.” It’s not so binary. There are probably some charities that are only 30-40% evil, when you get down to it, and at the end of the day, is that so bad? I give money to children’s hospitals, which seems like one of the best gestures I can make towards the system I despise, but I also acknowledge that the hospital administrator is probably living in a huge house and driving up and down Poplar looking for new football players.

So I’ve been bad lately. I’ve gotten a bit too extreme in my methods, but my point still stands. What, exactly, has the ghost of the American Left done for rural workers? What has it provided them since the days of Joe Hill? Who has spoken to them since Woody Guthrie roamed the land figuratively killing fascists?

The Democrats don’t have answers for the rural poor. The Republicans say they do, but they’ll take that tarnished, broken Craftsman back to Sears and trade it in for a new model as soon as its convenient. I don’t put the onus on you, the oppressed and the downtrodden (if you are that), to shed a tear for Merl at Dixie Auto. I do put it on you to have political goals that support the rights of American laborers everywhere and the dissemination of information about class consciousness. This is a must, a priority, and if your political leaders aren’t doing it, they are not your leaders, they are your owners.

It is not original to suggest the Democrats have made long careers of annihilating or assimilating progressive movements in America. I’ll also not feign ignorance of the American political system and suggest you could vote your way out of this one. I will say, however, there’s ugly in them hills, but it’s ugly I’ve shaken hands with. I’ve hunted with it. I’ve eaten dinner with it and I have, on occasion, loved it.

It’s such a jolly notion, “Bob Talbot is arguing for Neo-Confederates today,” and if that’s how you’d like to wrap it up, I can’t complain much. You’re incorrect, but I can see how you got turned down that road. Back up a bit, and come down the one I’m on, which is down here:

For all my faults, I stand here today a great-great-grandson of slave owners, a grandson of Klan associates, and a son of an often-misguided conservative. I don’t think I’ve beaten the odds, but on paper it looks like something that would end with, “and now I’m president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

It actually ends with, “I am a guy who fucks up a lot, constantly, but at least I know I do, and I’m working on it every day. I also don’t think it’s cool to treat people like shit based on how they look or where they’re from, and that flag is fucking stupid.”

I’m also an atheist, which isn’t required, and a space communist (arguably a revolutionary brocialist), which pretty much is required (if we want to survive, at least).

Politics won’t ever end hate. There’s a door people have to walk through on their own, a gate, perhaps, attached to a big black wrought iron fence. When I look back down that gravel road, I wonder if it had to be so, and if maybe some folks profited from making the trek so damned long. I can’t ask you to take to the swamps or the hills as a missionary with compassion in your heart. What I can ask, or plead, is that when someone comes stumbling out from under those three flags, maybe point them to a good book or two. If they’ve made it that far, there’s a good chance they’ll step into the clearing.

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