Readings at Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto by authors in Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers, edited by Susan Scott.
Below are responses, edited slightly for clarity, to “The Backsides of White Souls.”
If you needed years and 26 drafts to process and eventually produce your piece, I can imagine that Black readers will also have to process the essay for a very long time in order to be at the same time truthful to their deep-down feelings, while taking into consideration the very honest and respectful way you handled the issues, while keeping yourself in the picture. It is a very good piece but impossible to dismiss the horrifying facts it is about. Trying not to be offensive to you and having to face the negative feelings is a real challenge. But you know all that… An Australian Aboriginal reader wrote to me, “A good read about a brave and decent bloke, but a disturbing feeling lingered with me. The KKK, ugghhhh.” It’s interesting to see how much you and Susan had to re-attune yourselves. Now that you have written with her, perhaps a similar dialogue would be possible with Black writers. Might be risky for sure.
I finally had a chance to read your piece. I think it’s excellent; very well written and riveting at points–necessary at this time, as well. It’s an important revelation that the politics in the States are dividing families as well as a nation.
I’ve read your essay and to my mind it’s an impressive work. I think you’ve achieved the literary style you were going for, and framing it with the dreams is highly effective. This is a sweeping, layered story but the reader doesn’t get bogged with complex family trees or extraneous details. In fact, it is the casual telling of these details such as your choice of jeans—Lee vs Levis, for example, that give us a closer look at the family landscape. You have a strong storytelling voice and it comes through here, the tone luring us into a seemingly innocuous family narrative. This essay reveals a lot about beliefs, and made me wonder about acquired beliefs (passed on through families) and those we seek out on our own. This also goes some way towards explaining how entrenched beliefs like those of your grandmother, and of your sister become enmeshed in political discussions. _____ said it has a literary tone and especially liked how you wove the dream sequences into it, and the irony of when you had to apologize to your grandma about writing KKK on her doorstep, your small-boy view realizing that her Christian beliefs would have kept her from such a group, when they in fact they claim their ideology is based in Christian beliefs.
This is a powerful piece of writing, Ron!! I had goosebumps through the final page. You have been as careful and objective as possible, and it would be difficult to imagine family members taking exception. But, then, families are families, and there can be long, convoluted emotional histories that defy reasonable intercourse.
Thanks a lot for sending this. Good to read your own heart-wrenching account of the personal impact of public/political circumstances. Liked the way you weaved the historical and current threads into the family story. Powerful.
In terms of content, I never, ever thought about a woman’s branch of the KKK; didn’t know there was such a thing. In fact, I wondered for a half-a-second if this part of the story was true! As a “family secret,” it goes back so many generations, it seems like a timely reveal for 2017. There were turns of phrases, of course, that made me chuckle, not knowing where they were headed–the kid writing KKK in the dust, staggering under the weight of confederate ancestors, the sign on the gate.
I find myself, once again, really enjoying (maybe that’s not the right word) but getting into “Sleeping with the Author.” I am still amazed and envious in the way you two work through issues. I find myself identifying with both of you, maybe jumping in on both sides of the discussion. I catch myself thinking, “Ah, good point.” Also I have to say that I’m glad I’m not on either side. It would be difficult. Susan makes a number of points that are to my way of thinking. AND Ron I believe in what you are trying to accomplish. No easy task. I think Susan says editing is probably easier when you are not familiar with the writer. Well that was just amazing. I love the dynamic between you two. Also, I now have to go back and re read the essay to see if I think it’s in your voice. I must have thought it was because I sure was caught up in the thing.
Wow, a fascinating exchange with Susan you dish up here! A family story not unlike yours has turned up many times, hasn’t it? … And in some of the damnedest places … Is there something special, unique, something keenly compelling and singularly revealing about your version? There must be for you. What is it? Make it in some gripping way the focus of your attention …. God, forgive me for saying what I have, but I had to say it.
I like your piece a lot and it certainly is timely. It is solidly provocative in all the right ways. Formally, I very much liked the way you evoked and layered different narrative positions and time frames. My hesitation was that it lost a bit too much of its momentum in the later part. Seemed to narrow it’s focus a bit too much? Quite possibly this was due to the constraints of the word count limit. Seemed it either needed to be longer or needed to not cite so many details about the Klan. That said, I am indeed happy that it is being published! And I wholeheartedly support you in doing more of this “kind of writing.”
CNQ is a perfect fit, a publication that supports critical thinking and would ‘get’ your essay. We need more of these thoughtful, probing pieces floating around in the public sphere for there is certainly enough that is nowhere near reflective or thought-provoking. Congratulations on seeing this through from a seed of an idea to a published thing in what would be considered lightening speed in most publishing circles. I think that’s called focus and perseverance.
A real value of your item, Ron, resides … I think … in your depiction of your young self, and your admiration of your grandma. Like a robin teaching a youngster its song, our folk teach us about the “objective,” the “real” world. And later, if we are lucky or persistent or of a certain character, we pull back the veil, just a little bit. Otherwise – this is the world as it is. And I think you illustrate this mightily well.
Congratulations on getting your piece published! Perfect timing, and perfect place for it to come out. (Too many p’s.) I found it on the CNQ website and I’ll share it with my social media friends (and the others who wisely stay away from that stuff). It’s a beautiful essay, a reminder that the roots of prejudice are deep, and often hidden from us as we receive the “wisdom” of our elders. As you describe in your own family, for many it is too dangerous and uncomfortable and too much work to question that wisdom. As if life should be easy or the world unchanging.
So pleased and honoured that you sent this to me. Thank you. You really did get your shit together. And how beautifully. I hear your voice so clearly. That great, raw, powerful honesty and thoughtfulness of yours. And the touch of your beloved editor, I hear that too. I know how talented she is as well.
Thank you for sharing the essay with me … I loved reading it so much. I learnt so much about Ron growing up and having been lucky enough to have met you and knowing what a wonderful person you are. I can’t wait to see you and ask you some questions about the piece and about Rituals you teach at university. I thought it was very brave and important story to share with the world. I love seeing the photos of you as a child. I loved the interview with Susan and you … I imagined both of you sitting at the dinner table drinking tea (coffee) and eating date squares as the interviewed rolled. Anyway, Congratulations on a great essay and I can’t wait to read more of your work. I like the way you tell a story and your writing voice, you kept me engaged all the way through.
Thanks for sharing. I read the essay and the dialog and can certainly empathize with many thoughts expressed in each. I can recall my first knowledge of the KKK that happened in 1964 while our family was on a brief cattle buying/ family vacation to my mother’s home state of Arkansas. Shortly after lunch hour my father took us to a small town diner for our lunch break. The tables were all dirty when we arrived , but we sat down at one while our parents went off to the washrooms. On the table was a meager tip and a small white card that I mistook for a business card. I read it briefly then slipped it into my pocket. I was ten years old and somewhat “well read” for a child from “Forked Island” but extremely sheltered from the racial tensions of the day. I was sharp enough to pick-up on the tone and purpose of the card so I hid it for several days but would secretly study it at any private moment that I had. I contemplated what type of person would intentionally leave a note like this that was designed to “threaten” the recipient and at the same time it was part of what was left as a tip to thank the server. The message on the card was simply. “You have just served a member of the KKK.” There was a USA flag, a confederate flag and an illustration of a burning cross on it. After returning home and some time had passed, I showed it first to Mom who At first told me to get rid of it then she told me that my father could explain it to me better. So I took it over to Dad and he did tell me a bit about racial hatred and that the KKK was a thing of the past and that our country was beyond such organizations and individuals who harbored such hate! Boy did the events of the next few years ever prove him wrong.
I have sat down and re-read the article twice since you sent it. I find it revealing and important and it leads me to question deep, hidden prejudices that I have inherited. Makes me think and leaves me uncomfortable. What will you do with the ritual manual? Will there be a family ritual were it is burned. Perhaps the life you have lived and the integrity and struggle that you have brought to these questions has already burned the book.
Many resonances here with my own childhood on the border between Friona and Clovis, and complicated ancestors who settled that area in the early 1900s with roots in the church and racism. Can’t say that I’ve ever been to Munday. But spent lots of time in Clovis enjoying chile rellenos.
A friend of mine, sent me your essay, “The Backsides of White Souls,” and recommended I read it. I live in Australia and have not seen any writing on the subject before. (Nor have I come across any writing by white Australians whose ancestors took part in the massacres and other depravities suffered by the indigenous people here, though some may well exist.) I found your essay most interesting. The dialogue between you and your editor/wife was fascinating, too! Thanks for sharing your musings on what you have been grappling with.
This morning I found the time, at last, to read your “Backsides.” I think there’s a good novel in the family history you sketch here. Have you ever thought of writing it? One passage stirs me to comment. You write, ” Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.” These, I think, are not two different forms of racism but overlapping ones. Racism is the default position in the USA; and your essay suggests it may be about the same in Canada. As I see it, no one in the US is free of the infection of racism, the expression of which is white supremacy. Some people (whom we call overt racists) know this and dig in to maintain white supremacy. Most non-black people since the Civil Rights Movement deny it. A minority know it and work against it. But no one, whatever their color, is free of it. Perhaps I should avoid that last, absolutist statement, but if there are exceptions they are very few. The currents of culture and history run very strong. I guess that’s what your essay is about.
Thanks so much for the article. It’s certainly a great and timely piece for Black History month. It’s also a gracious offering of your own troubling experience to help others ‘shut up and listen’ and ‘get their shit together’.
There’s a great need for poop in a group behaviour, with the White House providing leadership sound bites like, “a nice guy like Rob Porter wouldn’t do that”, comments about mud huts in non-white countries, immigrant are what’s wrong with America, yada. And don’t we all love a great military parade! Especially when there’s little aid for Puerto Rico…
I just heard a podcast where they called the inevitable and future process of disinfecting America from the virus of the alt right as “detrumpification.” Yeah, we will need a great deal of this – miles to go before we sleep…. Let your article strike the first blow for detrumpification with your strong dose of penicillin! I guess the other problem is building a better immune system for the future.
I also appreciated the opportunity to understand the process you went through in writing it. Oh, and I liked the title and the related quote.
Something else I liked was that you didn’t assume a position of superiority or moral authority when you differentiated your views from those of your right wing family members. I would have found that challenging if I was writing the article, because I tend to equate the left with moral authority. However, I realized that your neutrality added to the quality of the article.
Can’t think of anything that I didn’t like or that even made me go hmmm…
On a personal note, I have wondered about your experience of writing the article. I assume that there was a pain factor in writing the article and in releasing to the world. Not that you need to share with the group, unless you are so inclined. I recognize that some of that is included in the article, but I figured there was a lot emotional work that went into decisions about what to include and what to omit.
I also had a thought that somebody like Sam Harris might interview you on his podcast if you sent the article to him. I know you have much better gigs than this but I would love to see your article and thinking get out to the common folk. I think this is such an important article.
Having come this evening from seeing a live performance of Antigone here in Montreal, which, though not as much about racism as it is about gods, ghosts and grief, I might just have been in the perfect frame of mind to read you “Backsides of White Souls” piece, which I have just done. I hope you’ll take the following criticism as constructive, and maybe healthily un-Canadian in its risking not being nice. I take your word for it when you say it is a seminal, even dangerous testament for you, a vital interrogation/unveiling of your family’s dead. But how deeply, really, has it scoured your own soul? Examined or exposed thoughts or actions of your own that might not have been as noble as you’d like? Troubling dreams of visitations, and a knife on the bedpost, don’t tell me very much at all about the darker sides of you. You stay pretty safe, hidden like what was inside the Life magazine envelope. A less weighty thing: the single paragraph on white nationalism in Canada, though that phenomenon is unarguably terrible, true, and growing, feels gratuitous, (an add-on for your TNQ editors ?), who, if so, should have told you that your own American family’s story was enough of a bitter tonic in itself. It is a real shame, and I suppose telling about this time, that you weren’t able to find an American publisher. Don’t give up on that one. All that said, I do feel I know you a tad better, after having read your piece. And that’s to the good.
I find the essay inspiring, comforting and sad. Sad because of the chasm it opens to the readers’ face and the melancholic longing to transcend it, knowing transcending is impossible. Comforting, because your essay does not conclude to chasm but keeps alive the longing. Someday the chasm might be transcendable, although probably not by us. The longing is a thread, a runway, a beckoning for a generation to come. I find the essay inspiring, I felt it makes sense to word your emotions and carry your thoughts. They have become digital paper planes across the divide. You ask questions, your sister prays. You might not get back your planes in plain paper, they arrive transmuted in a different shape, out of a strangely similar longing. You have transcended the gulf that divides you and your family by taking up your pen. The wide gulf is still there, but you have painted a picture that holds everyone together.That is the magic of writing. Thank you for that.
Thanks for your brilliant essay. From my understanding, it showed the knit relationship and events that have taken place in your family. To me, it was a good narrative and an intermarriage between oral tradition, historical events and sound memory. I enjoyed every bit of it. As they say, history is the study of the past in relation to the present and which serves as basis for understanding the future. I am beginning to think about how to weave and craft the many things my deceased grandmother and other loved ones told me before they passed on. I think that I will share it first with my children and see their reactions.
The backsides of white souls
Ronald L. Grimes
Black History month starts on February 1, so I am re-posting this essay from its original publication in Canadian Notes and Queries (CNQ).
A selection of films for Black History Month: National Film Board of Canada.
For background on the writing of this essay see “Sleeping with the Author” from The New Quarterly.
Image: Daniel Donaldson
I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk . . . I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious.
—W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk”
Presence dreams slice open my sleep. The night hangs heavy as an intruder lurks over the bed. The Presence is so haunting and deadly that it jolts me awake, sometimes howling.
As a teenager growing up in New Mexico, I hung an Old Timer hunting knife on the bedpost. Although I used its curved blade to skin a deer then, it can’t protect me now from the Presence.
In the mountains outside Corona, I carried a cranky antique Springfield rifle bought with paperboy’s wages at the army-surplus store. I steel-wooled and re-blued the barrel and magazine, then carved a stock from a hardwood blank. My uncles admired the handiwork and cheered my incipient manhood for bagging a buck.
Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sold the rifle, but for years the Old Timer, dozing in its leather scabbard, dangled from the bedpost collecting dust. One evening after Trump’s election, I desperately wanted to shout over the world’s longest, wall-free international border, “I’m so glad I live here, not there!” Instead, I locked the knife into an attic treasure box, a wooden soy sauce crate lugged home from an alley in Toronto’s Chinatown.
Recently, a new nightly series has emerged: House-of-the-Dead dreams. These dead are ghost-story frightening, not terrifying like the Presence. The multi-storey house rambles to the top of a hill then burrows into a warren beneath it. Below ground, the dwarf-like dead keep the boiler room running but scurry out of sight when I appear. Like them, I work to keep the House of the Dead alive. It’s raining. I worry the place will collapse. I search the attic for leaks, tiptoeing so as not to disturb the ghosts, some of whom float vertically, others horizontally. They utter sounds. I reply in a language I can speak but don’t understand.
Grandma and Pappy’s house has a basement, a rare architectural feature in Clovis. I sneak into it, cutting through spider webs and stepping on centipedes. Pappy approves, Grandma doesn’t, even though she owns a stylish black dress with spiderwebs sprawled across it.
Leaving their home one afternoon, I spot a thick layer of dust on the concrete coping atop the bricks of the front porch. I crane back to see if Grandma is watching. She isn’t, so I finger “KKK” into the dust, then bike home.
Mom meets me at the door. “Did you write KKK on your grandma’s front porch?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”
“Do you know what it means?”
“No, I heard it and liked the sound.” I lilt, “Ku Klux Klan, Ku Klux Klan” hoping she’ll sing along.
“Come in,” she says.
We spend the next half hour at the kitchen table, where she instructs me about the Klan. “Members,” she says, “carry weapons, wear dunce caps, and perform secret ceremonies. They hang Negroes from trees and say ‘nigger.’ The KKK looks down on colored people. And you should know they’re God’s children, just like you and me.”
Mom is the only white person I know who says “colored” or “Negro.” She reminds me that at age three I had pointed to a black couple, asking, “Nigger? Nigger?” Now I am ten. She is determined that the N-word should never again come out of my mouth. KKK shouldn’t come out of it either.
“Don’t ever say that word, and apologize to your grandmother,” she said at the end of our talk.
I assume Grandma is outraged by my being complicit with such an un-Christian group, so I yield to Mom’s demands.
During my high school years, I study the Bible with Grandma. Compared with my siblings and cousins, I am studious and devoutly fundamentalist. Grandma chose me for this instruction, knowing that God himself had. Mom’s mom is articulate, sure of herself, the smartest woman I know, so I readily consent to her tutelage. A black, leather-bound King James Version spread across her lap, she dominates my religious life until I leave for college at eighteen.
Grandma loves the Bible. She’s fond of sweets and bacon fat. “Fat’s not good for you,” she says with a girlish grin, “but I love the taste.” She smacks her lips, playing up the minor gluttony in a mock-confession across a can of Log Cabin syrup at the kitchen table, where we are discussing Bible verses over pancakes and bacon. I ask her advice, “Do you think I should drink coffee or tea?” I want to live a pure, Methodist life, no bodily encounters before marriage and nary a taste of alcohol. Coffee and tea are debatable.
When Grandma becomes president of the New Mexico Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, she badgers her kids and grandkids into signing cards pledging they will abstain from spirits—the wet, not the ghostly, kind. Curry County is her territory to “dry” out. That goal now seems ironic, since we lived on the llano estacado, a region so lacking in water, trees, and landmarks that Spanish conquistadors drove stakes into the ground so they could find their way back to Mexico. Thanks to Grandma’s activism, my Clovis High classmates have to drive forty-five minutes to Taiban, in “wet” De Baca County, for booze.
Grandma’s WCTU white ribbon
Grandma stands by most WCTU abstentions: alcohol, tobacco, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, prostitution, gambling, pornography, immodest dress, and drugs. Like many temperance activists, she keeps her distance from Catholics, Jews, communists, and black people. She believes in keeping Christ in Christmas, the reading and display of scripture in public places, and defending blue laws that prevent paid leisure activities like going to movies on Sundays. However, she also believes women should vote and make their voices heard publicly. And despite being a fundamentalist, she would argue down the apostle Paul, who insisted that women should remain silent in church. Whereas Pappy sleeps through worship, she dominates Trinity Methodist Church. The WCTU white ribbon symbolizes purity, but far from being acquiescent, these women couple purity with activism. Their motto: “agitate, educate, legislate.”
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the WCTU was the largest women’s organization in the United States and one of the first to send professional lobbyists to Washington, DC. Sometimes called “the White Ribbon army,” WCTU women carried a pure white flag. Its members pledged allegiance to the “Temperance flag, emblem of total abstinence, self-control, pure thoughts, clean habits; the white flag that surrenders to nothing but purity and truth, and to none but God, whose temples we are.”
In Grandma’s world, what you are against defines you as a Christian just as much as what you are for. I carry in the back pocket of my Lees—we can’t afford Levi’s—a John Birch Society pamphlet printed in red ink. It lists communist movie stars whose films we faithful should boycott. The comedian Lucille Ball is among the traitorous. She is, after all, married to Desi Arnaz, a Cuban musician, and we all know it’s a slippery slope from Catholicism to communism.
In 1966, after Pappy’s death, Grandma authors a book called The Truth Seekers as Mary Sargent Williams, highlighting her ancestry by replacing her middle name, Arlevia, with her maiden name, Sargent. The book’s epigraph is from John 8:12, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The first sentence of this, her only book, rings with self-assurance, “Every statement of mine in this book is true….” Its hundred pages, a sermon laced with Bible verses, are to be her legacy. All her kids and grandkids, as well as members of the Truth Seekers, the Sunday school class she teaches at Trinity, are expected to read the book and live by it.
New Mexico’s ex-governor Andrew W. Hockenhull writes an enthusiastic blurb for the self-published volume. She and Hockenhull are mutual admirers—his woodwork graces her living room. In the years we study the Bible together, as her face bends over the holy book, my eye drifts to the curvaceously layered cherry and maple of the lathe-turned lamps he’d made for her.
In The Truth Seekers, Grandma tells the story of travelling to Atlanta as a WCTU delegate. Her imagination being steeped in biblical imagery, a trip east from the drought-ridden high plains to the home of her ancestors, lush with magnolias and pines, surely makes her think of Eden. While in the city, she visits the Cyclorama, a large diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, where she finds the name of her great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier. She’s thrilled at the sacrifice her ancestors made for their country. It would not have occurred to her that slavery had already sacrificed a large portion of the population or that, by seceding, the Confederacy risked sacrificing the entire country.
Confederates on both sides of my family made their way from Georgia or the Carolinas, through Tennessee, then to Texas and New Mexico. Confederates on both sides of the bloodline—I stagger under the ancestral weight of their presence.
Between 1966 and 1968, when Grandma is giving away copies of The Truth Seekers, I drop two sacred flags, American and Christian. By leading mixed black and white study groups in Atlanta and by marching the streets of New York to oppose the war in Vietnam, I indulge in forms of activism that render me unpatriotic, not just to Grandma but to Dad and other church members. I carry The Truth Seekers on a bus from New Mexico to New York City, then flip through the pages, and throw it away. Years later, after Trump’s election, I borrow a copy from my sister, hoping to understand the entanglement of religion and racism in our roots.
In 1972, after a two-day, sleep-deprived bus ride from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Clovis, I slip into Grandma’s room behind a cluster of aunts and uncles. A stroke has robbed her of speech. Curled into the bed, her skin is a translucent bag barely able to contain her bones. Her sunken eyes peer through black circles. Her oldest son, not one to display emotions, is praying, then wailing. When Grandma sees me, she turns her face to the wall. The deathbed scene terrifies me. I am now an intruder, an unwanted presence, lacking the courage to push through the circle to touch her hand as she prepares to enter the House of the Dead. That, not the flag-dropping, was a shameful failure.
I weigh my grandmotherly heritage. The Grandma of my memory is really, really old. Now, I am older than she ever was. I am her senior, but she is my ancestor.
Compared to Grandma’s lay-preacher flamboyance, Mom is spiritually shy, discreet about religion, politics, and sex. But at age eight, when I ask how babies are made, she gets two dolls and shows me; she answers my barrage of questions without batting an eye.
No matter the degree of your devotion, adolescence ramps up rebelliousness, so Mom devises a strategy for dealing with her question-asking, talkback son. She invites me to the kitchen table. If I’m lucky, there’ll be devil’s food cake, if unlucky, angel food. Then she tenders the offer, “Let’s exchange compliments.” I know the ritual—first the compliments, then the criticisms.
Years later, Mom becomes the only Anglo teaching at La Casita, a racially mixed school near the smelly stockyards, some of which are owned by her father. White racism in Clovis focuses more on Hispanics than blacks. Mom struggles, not very successfully, to learn Spanish. Even so, Hispanic and black women sometimes visit our home for coffee, cake, and discussions about teaching strategies, a scene I never witness at Grandma’s.
Mom dies in 1985; Dad, two years later. After his death, while cleaning out drawers and closets, we siblings and spouses discover terse accounts of dreams that marked her last days, when she was struggling with breast cancer that metastasized to her lungs. In one dream she is jerky, “meat hung up to dry.” Before her death she confessed to having upsetting dreams but wouldn’t talk about them. Now, after Dad’s death, we discover her cryptic notes about them on the backs of old Citizens Bank checks.
Shortly before she dies, Mom calls my sister into the bedroom, shuts the door, and hands her a tattered Life magazine subscription envelope.
A few years later my sister gives the envelope to me.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you giving it to me?”
“Mom gave it to me. She said not to show it to you, but she’s been gone for a while, so I thought maybe you’d know what to do with it.”
William O. and Cassie Sargent, Mary Arlevia, far left.
Later I open the envelope. Its top has been cleanly slit by a letter opener. Inside is a booklet. Folded into the booklet is a carbon-copy resolution dated 1924, Munday, Texas. The letter expresses “heartfelt sympathy” to William Osborne Sargent for the death of his wife, Grandma’s mom. William O. was a respected farmer and Sunday school superintendent in Munday’s only Methodist Church. One paragraph reads, “Resolved further: that in the loss of our noble Sister, the husband has lost a loving Companion, her children, a kind, patient and affectionate Mother and the Community, a noble Citizen, which loss to all is irreparable.”
The resolution, signed in black ink by two women, a Ford and a Campbell, testifies that one copy has been “spread upon” the minutes and another sent to the Munday Times.
Hubert Thorpe Williams and Mary Arlevia Williams
William O. had moved from Cherokee County, Georgia to Texas, where he married Cassie Griffith. The firstborn of their twelve children was named Charles Wesley after the hymn-writing brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The sixth child was Mary Arlevia, my grandmother.
At sixteen, she married Hubert Thorpe Williams and moved west to New Mexico, where they obeyed God’s command, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” They bought cheap land from the government and dominated it. Pappy fished. My uncles hunted. Together, Pappy and Grandma brought forth from their loins seven offspring, who in turn spawned myriads of cousins. We poor Methodist cousins lived in sand-blown eastern New Mexico. Our wealthier Baptist cousins lived back across the staunchly upright line that severs the west Texas panhandle from the high plains of New Mexico.
After rereading the consolation offered to my great-grandfather Sargent, I trip across a declaration that escaped my eye on first reading: “Mrs. W.O. Sargent was a worthy member and beloved Klanswoman.”
The line is a sledgehammer swung into the side of my head.
I spent much of the sixties engaged in civil-rights activities and now live in Canada, 128 km. west of St. Catharines, where Harriet Tubman helped build the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ontario. Here, many slaves, following the Underground Railroad, entered Canada. Although slavery ended in Canada in 1834, in 1850 the US passed the Fugitive Slave Act, also known as the Bloodhound Law, since it compelled citizens and officials to return escaped slaves to their owners.
Holding the Kloran, my hands shake. Also called the White Book, it is a ritual manual. The condolence letter, typed on onionskin paper, has been tucked inside for safekeeping. On the book’s cover is a white knight on a rearing white horse. Were it not for the pointy hat and crudely punctured curtain mask that makes his face resemble a Halloween pumpkin, he might look heroic.
Trying to weather the shock of touching a taboo object, I open the well-worn handbook and read aloud to the books and masks in my study, “The Kloran is ‘THE book’ of the Invisible Empire, and is therefore a sacred book with our citizens and its contents MUST be rigidly safeguarded and its teachings honestly respected. The book or any part of it MUST not be kept or carried where any person of the ‘alien’ world may chance to become acquainted with its sacred contents as such … No innovation will be tolerated, and no frivolity or ‘horse-play’ must be allowed during any ceremony.”
On another page, “Constitutional law was stripped by profane hands of its virtuous vestments of civilized sovereignty of four thousand years in the making, and was mocked by polluted political pirates in legislative assemblies; and by the diabolical enactments of these assemblies the hands on the dial of the clock of civilization in the tower of human progress were turned back thousands of years.”
The Kloran is fundamentalist not only about the Bible but about itself. It wants its readers to believe it is sacred: a direct descendant of the American Constitution, which is a direct descendant of the Bible, which came directly from God 4,000 years ago. It claims mere politicians—likely scholars too—have desecrated the Bible, the American Constitution, and the Kloran with horseplay and criticism, thereby turning back the progress of white American civilization.
On another page, among the “qualifying interrogatories” is the question, “Are you a native born white, Gentile citizen? Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?”
The manual and letter riddle my soul and rattle my brain. Why did Mom have them? Why give them to my sister? Why not to show them to me? Who had given Mom the package? Grandma probably, but where had she gotten them? From her mother? More likely from her father, to whom the letter was addressed. Was he a KKK member too? Probably. But why had Grandma, then Mom, then my sister kept this stuff? Why was the booklet so worn? The Life envelope was a disguise, protecting the manual from prying eyes, but whose? Mine, for sure, but who else’s? In the 1920s and ’30s, women moved readily between the Women of the Ku Klux Klan and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Had Grandma continued, or escaped, her mother’s legacy by joining the WCTU?
I have a truckload of questions for my ancestors, but the dead speak a language we mortals don’t understand—even if we can mumble a few words while dreaming in the House of the Dead.
My sister thought I would know what to do with the manual. I should; I study ritual. Each year I intend to do more research, but each year I sequester the shameful booklet and letter back into their Life envelope and stuff the bundle into the locked “treasure” box below Grandma’s Bible and the Old Timer hunting knife.
When I enter the House of the Dead, what ritual will my family invent to sacrifice these fraught objects?
I am a teenager, still living in Clovis. Grandma is explaining why the Bible, and therefore God, wants to keep the races separate. Like Mom, I am becoming an integrationist, although we don’t use the term. I listen dutifully as Grandma amplifies her biblical exegesis with an exposition, a story about a large black man who appears at their house back in Munday, “I see him coming down the lane. He stands there at the gate. He is huge. His presence is terrifying. I look at him through the screen door, and I know exactly what he has in mind.”
The story ends there, dangling. I listen and blink, not knowing what’s in her mind, or his.
Now it dawns on me what Grandma’s story is about. The Kloran, along with other KKK publications, considers it the solemn duty of white men to protect the virtue—the virginity—of white women from black men. Grandma had been taught well. She knew what was in the mind of the field hand, and she feared it. She couldn’t imagine that the visitor at the gate might have come from the cotton fields for a glass of water.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 at Pulaski, Tennessee, by six young Confederate soldiers. John Lester, one of the Klan’s founding members, claimed its rituals were based on those of Kuklos Adelphon, a North Carolina college fraternity. The original KKK was a secret fraternity that performed blackface satire, indulged in racial mockery, and performed awkward ceremonies in a stilted imitation of King James English. Between 1871 and 1882, this first wave of the Klan died out, suppressed by governmental and military intervention.
The Klan’s second wave was improvised a few days after D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nationfirst played in Atlanta. The filmmaker was the son of a Confederate veteran, and Birth of a Nation was the first film ever shown in the White House.
At midnight, on the eve of Thanksgiving 1915, a Methodist minister named William J. Simmons dubbed himself Imperial Wizard of the renewed Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He and thirty-four others set fire to a cross on Stone Mountain, twenty miles from Atlanta, where they took the oath of allegiance to the Invisible Empire. The next year, they published the edition of the Kloran that now lies open on my desk.
Between 1912 and 1972, on Stone Mountain’s north face, massive equestrian figures were carved of three southern icons: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
In Decatur, an Atlanta suburb half an hour west of Stone Mountain, sits a white Plantation Plain Style home belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Cobb, an old but stately couple. I never presume to call him Cully or her, Lois. To my untutored New Mexican eye, their house is a mansion, even though it was long ago severed from its original 87-acre plantation. Access to the property is through large gates framed by an imposing white wooden fence. A bronze plaque hangs on the gates: “Be ye coming or be ye going, be ye soon or be ye late, be ye sure to shut this gate.” It is the mid-1960s, and I have been awarded a graduate scholarship to Emory University that includes residence in the garage apartment at the back of the Cobb house.
I make my way into civil rights in Atlanta without knowing my ancestors had migrated west from just north of the city. I organize a Bible-study group for black and white teenagers and later discover my name is being circulated on a blacklist of theology students involved in civil-rights activities. Church officials tell me not to ask the North Georgia Methodist Conference to ordain me as a Methodist minister.
Hearing about my growing involvement in civil rights, the Cobbs offer friendly advice: “You don’t want to cross a purebred Tennessee walking horse with a mere workhorse.” The couple declare their love for Mattie, the black maid who cooks and cleans their home. At Christmas, the Cobbs deliver money and presents to black Baptist churches, “to help keep those churches alive.” They also know that maintaining the churches discourages African Americans from arriving at the front door of Peachtree Baptist Church, which the Cobbs attend.
Not long ago, another House-of-the-Dead dream troubles my sleep. Several waves of young people begin moving into the Cobbs’ dilapidated old mansion. They are making messes, stealing each other’s food. Tensions are rising. Rain is sloshing on the roof. I hear a crash inside one wall. I pull aside a piece of crumbling plaster, and a load of rubble spills onto the floor. I say to my wife, “I’ll get Mr. Cobb. He owns the house and will know what to do.” Instead, I run upstairs to close the windows. Rain is blowing in. If Mr. Cobb sees the open windows, he’ll know I’m not taking care of the house.
The Cobbs have long since departed and the mansion has fallen into disrepair, but I dream about their crumbling house in Canada, having carried a carpetbag of unfinished business across the border.
The air north of the border is better, but not pure. White nationalism lurks in Canada’s past and, some say, organizes while we sleep. In the 1920s, Saskatchewan boasted 40,000 Klan members who announced their presence with public cross-burnings. In Ontario, the Klan held large rallies in Smithville, Kingston, and London. Ku Klux Kanada was anti-French, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant. It failed to take root in Ontario because many of its goals were already pursued by the Orange Lodge. Both organizations aimed to preserve the Britishness, and therefore the whiteness, of Canada. Currently, La Meute—the “wolf pack”—an anti-Islam group, claims 40,000 members in Quebec. Although the number is probably exaggerated, hate crimes in Canada have been increasing since 2012.
In recent years my siblings have been reversing decades of westward migration by following money and jobs back to Texas—once a Confederate, now a Republican, state. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, one of my brothers told me some of his Texas buddies were buying guns. I asked why. He said they were anticipating a race war. Eight years in the White House brought no war, but white racism pumps up fear and hatred so poisonous that nothing Obama proposed would ever be supported by Republicans. We don’t call this behaviour racism, but it is. Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.
In 2015, Dylann Roof desecrated a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina by murdering nine worshippers at Emanuel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. Photos of him posed with a Confederate battle flag were displayed on his website.
By 2016 Donald Trump is running for president, endorsed by David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK. In 2017, after white racists descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, Duke publicly thanks Trump for his honesty and courage. Membership in the Klan is growing. “Make America Great,” is shot through with the same assumptions: make it white, protect it with guns and fill it with believers who look and sound like us.
Upon Trump’s inauguration the world convulses and realigns. I slog again through The Birth of a Nation. I re-read W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of White Folk,” Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. I discover Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son, and wonder what I could say to my own son and daughter about our family, about America, about the world?
I retrieve the Kloran and letter and tell them as much of the story as I can piece together. Surely this Trump-inspired, third revival of the Klan will inspire white people like us to ponder race, our own. By telling this story in public, I am prying open family closets. If we love our ancestors, let us feed them questions that will set their bones to rattling.
A month before the 2016 election, I propose to my American siblings that we meet in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for American Thanksgiving. We last gathered in 2010. I ask my brothers on the phone how they are going to vote. One, reluctantly, for Hillary; the other, reluctantly, for Trump. After procrastinating, I put the question to my sister.
“Not for Hillary, I can tell you that.”
“I don’t like her.”
“I just don’t like her.”
“Your brothers don’t like her either, but one will vote for her, the other against her … So maybe you won’t vote?”
“I’ll vote all right—just not for Hillary.”
“I doubt there will be a third, viable candidate, so that just leaves…You would vote for Trump?”
“If that’s my only option. He’s anti-abortion. Hillary isn’t.”
“There’s only issue one issue you care about?”
“That’s all that matters.”
After the November 8 election, I suggest to my brothers and sister that we exchange online articles and cartoons, hoping an external focus will prevent us from chewing each other up. My sister won’t enter the discussion. She has heard from my brothers that I am angry. They don’t like my comparing our upcoming Thanksgiving meal to that of a pre-Civil War family gathered at the table. They seem to think I want to start a civil war rather than avert one.
Grimes siblings, early 1950s
Misgivings aside, my brothers come to Santa Fe. On Thanksgiving morning we three sit at Denny’s, the only place open, to talk about national and family troubles over eggs and waffles. My younger brother rehearses his reasons for voting for Trump. I just listen. My other brother, who claims he and I have never argued, says he was surprised at my anger during an earlier Skype call. I explain, yet again, that I am not mad at him. I am mad at everybody—Republicans, Democrats, myself—hell, the whole world for witnessing the pornographic scene of America going down in shame.
We discuss a dangerous old family argument. The story isn’t easy to tell or hear, since the result is a deafening silence in the family: Dad and I agree never, ever again to talk about race, politics, or religion.
Our conversation is tense, but it ends with a round of apologies and an air of exhilaration as we begin to plan a Thanksgiving feast of margaritas and chiles rellenos at Rancho de Chimayó. We leave Denny’s slapping each other’s backs and declaring, “I love you, brother.”
Between the election and Thanksgiving, my sister insists she won’t talk about politics, race, or religion in Santa Fe—not her Tea Party politics, not her End-Time Handmaiden religion. She doesn’t want to defend her beliefs or hear about mine. We agree that she can sit silently; she can avoid or leave any discussion. “My beliefs are strong,” she declares several times. “All I want is for the family to be happy at Thanksgiving.” I say I see no problem with her Texas family arriving happy and my Canadian family arriving in mourning. What are families for?
My sister might have guessed I’d arrive with troublesome questions: How could any Christian—conservative or liberal—support Trump’s vitriolic hatred? How are we to mourn the loss of America’s moral credibility? But I swallow the questions and try a diplomatic move. “Hey, when we come down for Thanksgiving, what would you think about getting together and driving over to Munday, Texas? Do you know where that is?”
“Sure, it’s not too far from Lubbock, east maybe. What would we do there?”
“I don’t know. Have a brother-sister talk, like we used to. Trade Grandma stories. Visit our great-grandparents’ grave. Consider our roots.”
In the end, my sister digs in, refusing to come to Santa Fe for Thanksgiving. She confirms her decision by consulting a woman who walks and talks with Jesus and has visions of Grandma weeping in heaven over my soul, so the refusal is final. Since then, phone calls have stopped, and emails dried up.
We haven’t yet survived Santa Fe. And we may never get to Munday. My sister prays; I question. Yet prayer has not saved us, nor has the truth made us free.
Like the nation, my siblings and I are up to our necks in the quicksand of unfinished business. We failed to gather the whole family. We failed to elect a worthy president. We failed to open the doors of the House of the Dead to question our ancestors. We failed to pay our debts for the land our ancestors took and the bodies they devastated.
If our family were ever to gather around our great-grandparents’ graves in Munday, Texas, I’d want to tell the myth of the town’s origins:
In the beginning, there are two villages separated by a thousand yards. Some say the split is the result of a feud about building the first church. One day a new Methodist minister arrives on the scene of this great divide. Using his considerable homiletical skill, he inspires townspeople to use skids, cables, and thresher engines to drag the buildings of West Munday to East Munday. In the end, the citizens founded a happy, unified town—with a cotton gin.
I’d have to bite my tongue to keep from asking who picked the cotton.
Remembrance is supposed to be good for a community, but much depends how those who remember actually remember.
The Daily Beast reports on Mike Pence’s way of remembering the Holocaust:
“Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God’s divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.
“Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.”
If we want to reflect on the ways that rituals mobilize human memory, we need to take into account some basic distinctions, for instance, short- and long-term memory; muscle, or sensory, memory; emotional and intellectual memory.
When we say that someone has a good memory, we usually mean that he or she is quick at retrieving stored information such as names and faces, directions to work, or the contents of grocery lists. But when we memorialize, is that what we’re doing: recalling information?
In ritualized memorials, who or what is doing the remembering? Each individual? The group? The ritual itself?
And what about forgetting—is it always bad and remembering always good? Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember, and that is bad. But PTSD patients can’t stop remembering, and that too is bad. So we might want to distinguish functional from dysfunctional forgetting, functional from dysfunctional remembering.
That communities and individuals utilize their memories during and after ritual events is obvious enough. After all, memory is required for almost every human activity. But rituals are not exclusively about remembering. They are also about envisioning. (This is the less than perfect word I use to signal ritual’s capacity to look toward the future.) We humans often treat as memories things that we never knew in the first place. I cannot, literally speaking, remember the sacrifices made in the Great War. (In case you’ve “forgotten,” that was WWI.) Why? Because I wasn’t there. I experienced both world wars vicariously—by hearing stories, seeing films, and reading books.
What I actually remember (or forget) are old photos, war stories, newsreels, and memorial ceremonies. Even though commemorations may be indirectly about ancestors or heroes, they are directly about representations. Even if names remain engraved on tombstones forever (and many don’t), the dead will, eventually and inevitably, be forgotten as individuals. Someday, in the future, no one will be alive who remembers the actual people who died in the Holocaust, Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, or in the United States on the 11th of September 2001. Even if people, declaring that they will never forget, continue to memorialize these historic events, they will eventually forget.
We have memorials not only because we remember, but also because we forget. Most memorials, most of the time, are actually acts of imagining, not remembering, the dead. Eventually, all that remains are the collective dead, the ancestors, whom we know only by deploying our ritualistic and artistic imaginations retrospectively, toward the past.
I’m not saying that we invent the dead, but we do imagine and then utilize them for purposes they could not possibly have anticipated. However surely the dead once were, they are now made up. The dead become fictive personages whom we deploy in the present to help us wade into the deep waters of the future.
Assuming we remember, the next question, the bigger one, is what we will do in the future? In The Night Trilogy Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
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