The Best of Who We Are
I did not cross the threshold of many churches when I was a boy, I guess because I was afraid the aisle would crack wide open and flames would shoot into the air. We mostly went for the Christmas play and for dinner on the grounds. Still, I like to remember it, remember black suits over white socks and grandmothers with arms full of fat babies and giant purses stuffed with butterscotch candies and Juicy Fruit. I remember how pretty the hymns were, even if Sister So-and-So could not carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, bless her heart. I remember how the old people raised their hands as they sang "I Saw the Light." I figured they were waving at angels only they could see. I even remember the sermons, how men in clip-on ties stood before their congregations on a low dais, to show they did not think they were somehow better than us. I can still see them raise tattered Bibles to the rafters and preach on human kindness and peace.
This was the 1960s in an all-white church in Alabama, and in the turmoil of that time, those men of God could have preached politics, could have used their modest pulpit to stroke the resentments of the place and time like a mean cat. They chose to do otherwise. They did not give in to expediency, to opportunism. They preached, instead, about loving your brother and your sister. They asked us to be generous if we could, to help the sick and poor. They also preached on hell, of course.
It may be that it didn't take, in the long run. But it was perhaps the first time I understood the power of words and formed a belief in my people, which I have retreated into when I was hurt to my bones by the rhetoric of this new, New South. I guess nostalgia is our sanctuary in sorry times.
Like many people, I watched in sadness and disgust as the images from Charlottesville, Virginia, flickered across my television, watched a man steer his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing a young woman and wounding many others. I am told these white nationalists believe they are justified in their actions, by the rhetoric of demagogues old and new, and are encouraged by their modern-day leaders who don't hide in the dark woods but live in the political spotlight.
I don't write much about politics or news here; this magazine is, in its own way, a refuge. But I recognize evil when I see it, and stupidity, and banality. I hear many of the people who marched in Charlottesville were Southern men, but I didn't know them. I saw men in custom-molded neo-Nazi helmets and designer flak jackets and hundred-dollar aviator glasses. It used to be that all they needed to dress up to hate was a good white sale. Southerners should be angry to be dragged down among them, by even the vaguest association. We can say that's not happening, but it is.
WATCH: Rick Bragg on Southern Writing
I did not grow up gentle, or much enlightened. I grew up in an everyday racism; the Confederate flag license plates that rode on the front bumpers of our pickups hurt others like a thumb in the eye. It took me a while to get it, but it came to me, even as a boy. I do not need a statue or flag to know that I am Southern. I taste it in the food, feel it in my heart, and hear it in the language of my kin. It may be that I only remember this through the eyes of a boy, but I believe I heard the best of who we are in those sermons in that little bitty church.