I am a life-long Southerner. My family, branches both here in South Carolina and in Virginia, were plantation owners; cotton and tobacco growers who bought and sold people, broke families and bodies and spirits for profit. I was raised by genteel racists who still claimed “Our darkies did not want to be free. They depended on us to take care of them. Why, we saved them from the torment of everlasting hellfire when we brought them over here and gave them to Jesus and they knew it! They’d been nothing but heathens, living like monkeys over there in Africa, practially swinging from trees…”
I’m not proud of my heritage. My children were grown, well into their twenties before I ever told them the truth about their ancestors. I have pictures of the old homes in Upstate South Carolina and on the James River in Virginia. The homes we lost in the “War of Northern Aggression.” In the fifties and sixties, when I was growing up, the Civil War was still being fought down here. I lived in the middle of that battle, that bitter war of words against the Yankees and what they’d done to us, what they’d taken from us. I lived the Great American Apartheid. Fear and hatred, burning crosses, lynchings. The noose was a terrible symbol of the dark soul of the South.
I had hoped we’d outgrown all that. Apparently, some of us have not.
The analogy — a tree, intolerance, loathing, threats and nooses — is too familiar. I cannot fathom the chord struck in the African American community by the sight of ropes dangling from a tree in a Louisiana schoolyard. I read over that last sentence and realize I’m dissembling. The ugly truth is this: I know exactly what that image, that reality, provoked in every black citizen’s heart. Terror. First the gut-wrenching fear. Then the outrage. Not again.
Racism in America rears its hideous head again. It’s real. It’s palpable. Scratch the civilized, enlightened surface, and there it is. All it takes is a single tree, a few black kids who want nothing more than to share the shade of it. The threat of unthinkable violence is made, loud and clear: “Sit here and pay the price, nigger!”
It shames me. It should shame every Southerner, every American.
The violence sparked by the white threat was a terrible thing. Worse is the inequality evidenced by the jugment of whose “crime” was the greater offense. The charges brought against “some” of the students for fighting and not others, the decision by a Southern prosecutor to try a few justifiably frightened, angry teenagers as adults for fighting in school, to have them face jail for most of their young lives, is a travesty. It smacks of the old unequal justice system in the South, brings to mind the old saw about what law enforcement had to say when the body of a young black man, wrapped and weighted in chains, was dragged from the Mississippi or the Pee Dee some other Southern river: “Ain’t it just like a nigger to steal more chain than he can swim across the water with…”
Barack Obama is right when he says “When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it’s a tragedy. It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions. This isn’t just Jena’s problem; it’s America’s.”
He says it’s clear that our criminal justice system isn’t working in this case. He’s right about that, too.
Obama is generous in saying the problem is larger than the South. But it happened here. Southerners hung the rope, Southerners defined the “crime.”
This Southerner is outraged.