GROWING UP SOUTHERN;
with MISSISSIPPI MADNESS
There is no generic person, or one size fits all. Each of us is a combination of Nature, Nurture and Kismet.
1. Nature: Genetics, inherited from our parents, which has a major influence on our looks, physical health, our temperament and our IQ.
2. Nurture: Our early childhood experiences, which imprints likes, dislikes, points of view, beliefs, prejudices and mores.
3. Kismet: The real life Chaos Theory where each choice we make leads to numerous different random outcomes, which tempers and redefines who we are. This is what Solzhenitsyn was talking about in the Gulag…. “One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being.”
Nature vs. Nurture: my early years.
I have good reason to be screwed up (so don’t we all?) I was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1939, or so I am told; the actual date is a matter of suspect. My grandmother (who I believed was my mother) raised me. She had had six children: four girls and two boys (who I believed were my brothers and sisters.) My mother (who I thought was my sister) had been impregnated by her sister’s fiancé (you’ve got to remember my roots are in the south.) Anyway, to make a long story short – I was born.
Now we move from the ridiculous to the bizarre: when my grandmother took me as an infant she decided she didn’t like the name on my birth certificate - so she changed it. She also decided I wasn’t born on a good date so she changed my birthday. All of this came as a complete surprise to me when I tried to obtain a birth certificate to enlist in the Navy, and the Georgia Bureau of Vital Statistics kept insisting there was no record of my birth.
I think the Navy personnel officer believed I was a Russian spy because he would address me as Comrade, and then pause to study my reaction. In desperation I decided to try the Immaculate Conception bit (after all it had worked for Jesus.) I told the personnel officer that an angle of the Lord had impregnated my mother (grandmother) and that was why Georgia didn’t have a record of my birth. He said he had trouble enough buying into a Virgin Mary.
It was a year before I was able to get the information straight from my family and obtained a copy of my birth certificate. Even then the personnel officer wanted me to have a member of my family send a notarized letter stating that I was the same person as the name listed on the Birth Certificate. To save time and confusion I offered to write the letter myself - after all it appeared I was my own uncle.
I could go into the dysfunction of my family which included insanity, suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and violence, but I am sure that every family has enough dysfunctional family members of their own to keep them entertained.
I was small for my age and slow developing which is probably the result of my mother smoking and drinking during pregnancy. When we stop to realize that during the 1930’s and 40s, women who smoked and drank were considered liberated - it might lend credence to the idea that the intellectual norm on the bell curve during those decades took a real hit. The only argument I can see to that supposition is that in the convening decades, even though women are more likely to refrain from smoking and drinking during pregnancy, people haven’t gotten any brighter.
My first memories are of Marion, Kentucky in the 1940’s. Marion was the county seat of Crittenden County: a beautiful area of rolling hills and hardwood forest and bordered on the north by the Ohio River. It is not my imagination that things were slower and less hectic. There were problems (war, money and jobs) but the pace was comfortable. First of all, there were less than one hundred-fifty million people in the United States in 1940: we have almost doubled our population since then. There were fewer cars on the road and people drove slower. Airplanes traveled less than two hundred miles per hour and not many people flew. It took a week to send a letter from Kentucky to Mississippi (where my Grandmother’s people lived) and a week to get a reply. Kids walked to school or rode bicycles. There was no television. In the evenings my grandmother and aunts would sit on the porch after supper and talk until time to go to bed. There was stability and comfort in the slowness of change. Change came slowly and was easy to adjust to.
Today everything is rushed. The population has doubled. The highways are crowded. Airports are packed. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere. There is e-mail and instant messaging. You carry a cell phone. News programs run twenty-four-seven. Microwave meals are ready in five minutes. There are fast foods and quick stops, jiffy lubes and drive-in-banks. The faster you can do things the more you can cram into a day. You don’t talk to the people you live with, they are watching television or on their computer
Rural Kentucky was a good place to live as a child in the forties. I felt secure.
In 1947 my grandmother took me “back home” to Rolling Fork, Mississippi. For a seven-year-old boy it was total culture shock. Rolling Fork was as different from Marion, Kentucky as Reykjavik to Cape Town. Rolling Fork was located in the very center of the hot, flat Mississippi Delta. This was cotton country. Whereas Marion had had less than fifty “colored people” white people were the minority in Rolling Fork, and blacks weren’t called “colored people.”
I must state here that “political correctness” has caused as much confusion in American English as it has in gender. African Americans seem to prefer (demand) the ethnic identity of African American but don’t feel the need to speak of European Americans (Irish Americans, Italian Americans, English Americans, French Americans…) as anything other than “whites” or “white people.” They also use idioms and slang when referring to each other that would enrage them if used by a white person. It is a game I don’t intend to play. My racial prejudices are neutral and I have no intention of offending. For the purpose of expedience in recording my years in Mississippi in the nineteen-forties and fifties I will refer to African Americans as blacks or black people and European Americans as whites or white people. I apologize in advance for the use of the N-Word and the term Colored People as I find both distasteful, but an account of life in the deep south in the 1940’s and 50’s can not be recorded otherwise .
My grandmother had often told the story that her grandfather had owned a plantation outside of Rolling Fork, but after the Civil War the Jews had come down from Memphis and stolen it. You can imagine the picture in a kids mind of “The Jews” (whoever they were) dressed in black capes, sneaking through the swamps to steal the family plantation. Exaggeration in the family was always rampant. It is more likely her grandfather owned five acres and a cotton shack and lost it to the bank.
It was not only hot Delta cotton country and segregation, however, that brought to an end the safety of my early years – it was starting school at Rolling Fork Elementary.
At seven years old I found myself an alien in the second grade. It was like waking up in a science-fiction horror movie. I didn’t have a father, I didn’t speak the language, I wasn’t Baptist, I was small for my age and I didn’t dress right. If you want to see the real unvarnished cruelty of the human animal, just secretly observe elementary children at play on any school playground. To say I became a target is an understatement. Kids are the basic human animals and there is a pecking order. Might is the rule and intimidation is the name of the game. All kids quickly learn the rules and eventually I found my place in the pack.
Rolling Fork was not only in the heart of the delta but was also in the heart of racism and segregation. Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “A bigot is like the pupil of a human eye: the more light you expose it to the narrower it grows.” White people of Mississippi didn’t see themselves as racist and bigots – it was just their way of life.
There are people who try to romanticize the old south and make excuses for its history, but the Mississippi south that I moved into was a south of white supremacy. I was indoctrinated very quickly to have nothing to do with black people. It is impossible to recount the era of segregation in the Deep South and not use the word “Nigger.” My grandmother told me that I should use the word “Negro” as it was a more refined way of speaking of “Colored People.” But my aunts and uncles and all the rest of Rolling Fork white people seemed not to know about refinement. The more respected blacks were called “Colored People,” but the rest were “Niggers.”
There was always a stereotype of the Deep South, perpetuated by white northerners (Yankees,) most of who never visited the South. It was an image of southerners that hated and despised black people. Actually there was more animosity toward “Yankees” than toward black people. Rolling Fork prejudice also extended to any non-Protestant white. It was a strange situation. The black people weren’t hated or despised, but they were just looked down on as inferior. Black families who traced their generations from around Sharkey County were accepted and extended some degree of courtesy that white outsiders weren’t.
Still there were “Colored” restrooms and waiting rooms at the bus station and “Colored People” rode in the back of the Greyhound bus. Rolling Fork school was segregated (I have no idea where black children went to school.) The black people I saw always acted subservient. Almost all black adult men looked down when talking to whites. The inferiority of blacks was the status quo in the South of the 1940’s. Whites didn’t question it and blacks didn’t question it (at least not openly.)
Young people don’t have enough experience to determine right and wrong. They believe what their parents and community tell them. Segregation was the way of the south.
As a young boy in Mississippi I was indoctrinated with all the stories of Southern valor and Southern honor. The fact that the Civil War was fought wholly on the issue of slave ownership seemed to be omitted. I soon learned that we did not celebrate July 4th, because Vicksburg fell on the 4th. We did, however, celebrate Jefferson Davis’ birthday. The Confederate battle flag flew over the state capital, and was accorded more respect than the American flag
The South has, to some extent, adjusted to integration, but white people still fight the Civil War, and we still see the remnants of racial prejudice in the white, Southern Congressmen and Senators of today.
I left Mississippi immediately upon graduating from high school.
In my next blog I will record the history of the lead-up to the Civil War and the transmogrification of Southern, Fundamentalist Christian, Racist Democrats into today’s far right wing of the Republican Party.