I grew up in central Arkansas and for those of you from other places, growing up there is like growing up twenty years in the past. The place never seems to be culturally caught up to the rest of the country. Fashion trends hit there last. Back in high school, I had a friend who was a full-on punk with Doc Martins, trench coat, and a mo-hawk. He was from out of state and people always asked me about my "gay" friend. The was the best they could do with punk since he was the only one they'd ever seen.
Race, however, was a part of every day life. I could not get through a day without hearing the N word. I remember first noticing this when I was in third grade and we played Star Trek on the playground. Demetris was one of my school friends and we let him play Captain Kirk because he was the only kid who had an authentic gold Star Trek shirt. This was the only criterion to play the coveted role of Kirk we seemed to respect. On days Demetris didn't wear the shirt, he was Scotty because he wanted to try his best at that outrageous Scottish accent. Demetris was one of my first black friends. He was a nice kid and I wanted him to come over and play. I didn't have many friends back then because my home life was a nightmare. And you probably guessed by now when I wanted to invite him over, he wasn't allowed, even if he wore the gold Star Trek shirt.
Right around that time in my my life, my mom was on her second marriage and this guy was quite the dick. His name was David and he did things like hit my mom and beat me with a boat paddle. He kept loaded guns in the house and I was nearly killed by my step-sister. David was as stereo-typical white trash as you can image. After duck hunting, he plucked the dead fowl in the front yard causing a fog of feathers that spread out in a radius of two adjacent homes.
Around the time I was seven, I found out a black family moved into our neighborhood. I can't remember exactly where they moved in relation to our house, but they should have known better by looking at the mushroom cloud of feathers, dead fish guts on the carport, garbage-strewing Labradors, and the overt public yelling and beatings all within the constrains of our lot alone. Alas, they moved in. David was furious. This was personal for him. So personal, he did something I've never told publicly before. David bought black house paint and sneaked down to this new family's house and defaced their house with the black paint. He finished off his work with a burning cross. I know this happened because my mom told me about the paint and the whole neighborhood buzzed about the paint and cross. I suspect David had accomplices. I also suspect he was privately cheered in that neighborhood. However, being seven and continually hiding from an abusive step-brother kept me away from most adult conversations.
During this time, one of my places of refuge was my grandmother's house. She drove into "nigger town" twice a week to pick up one of two ladies to do her house cleaning. On Mondays she would get Lucille and Thursdays it was Rose. Both of these ladies were nice to me and busted their asses to clean my grandmother's house. Now, my grandmother was busy all of the time running the family construction business and wanted cheap housekeeping. So my grandmother took time to drive over to one of the poorest place in North Little Rock, Rose City, to bring these ladies to our house. I clearly remember one trip playing in the back of my grandmother's 1976 Ford Country Squire station wagon with my mother riding in the passenger seat. I remember my mom saying "nigger babies are really the cutest of them all."
Yeah, I grew up around racism. I know what it feels, sounds, and tastes like. From the subtleness of my grandmother ignoring my repeated questions as to why I couldn't use the same bathroom as Lucille to the ugly behavior of David trying to drive a black family from our street. I've seen a lot of it. Growing up white in this environment was like some sort of club. Other white kids felt comfortable saying the most vile and hate-filled comments because I was somehow in on the joke. I grew to hate people in general.
There is something about me even my family never understood. I'm way different than they are. I always have been. My grandfather was all about construction and mechanics and working the earth. I wrote stories, drew comic books, and lived in my head. I had few real friends and was generally considered a weird kid. I never liked the racist talk at the dinner table and remembered being embarrassed when they said things in public. It wasn't until I became self-aware that I could pin-point my disgust at that behavior. I hated it just as I hated working construction, as much as I hated David.
Eventually I left Arkansas and the biggest reason was its seemingly irreparable broken culture. I grew to loathe the way everything was racial. Martin Luther King Day always stirs up this complex torrent of memories, feelings, and images. I am reminded white resentment that Dr. King received a day of honor and how racist Southerners unofficially embrace it as Robert E. Lee day. I am reminded of Central High School and the forty-year struggle and financial nightmare that central Arkansas schools became. I am reminded of taking a black girl on a date to the Arkansas State Fair and being publicly ridiculed by whites while she was publicly harassed by blacks. I am reminded that there are many types of trauma a person can suffer, and one of them is growing up around so much hate.
Surely I'm not the only out there who grew up this way and who has similar feelings. If there are people like me, they recoil at any racism and try to avoid any appearance of it. It has nothing to do with white liberal guilt or making up for their own sins of the past. They are who they are because deep inside they know right from wrong in spite of how they grew up. I'm not trying to present myself as special. The truth is I'm just an average guy who can barely take care of his own family. I hate politics and I especially hold disdain for racial politics. I avoid openly talking race but I enjoy reading publications like The Root because I know there are different and reasonable sides to every story (and it's a damn good read too).
I do credit Martin Luther King, Jr. as a role model. I know reading about him in the fifth grade made a life-changing impression. I clearly remember his picture in my history text book. I believe it's the same photo I included in this article. I'm still in awe of his driving desire to make a difference in a world where most of us have a sphere of influence only within our own households. Honestly, if I had been Dr. King, I'd have given up long before getting the national spotlight. As long as I live I will never fully understand his optimism, faith, and drive. Such things seem to evade me even to this day. However, Dr. King made a difference in my life. At a time when I began to question who I was, I read about a great man who confirmed I did know the difference between right and wrong even though it had not fully articulated as such in my mind.
Ironically, fifth grade was also the year I was bussed to a school outside my neighborhood to, of all places, Rose City Elementary. My teacher, Mr. Allen, an extraordinarily tall, thin black man, loved being a teacher so much I remember him working with me as I struggled with math and athletics. It was this man who so passionately taught us about Dr. King. I've never forgotten Mr. Allen or his kindness, or the fact he was so incredibly tall. Sadly, my mom pulled me out of public school because I got the snot beat out of me daily by a gang of five white kids from my class. They beat me up on the way to school and on the way back. So began my all white private school education for the next three and a half years. But that's another story for another time.
Martin Luther King Day is special to me. Like all holidays, it's personal and evokes memories, some of which are painful and some are painfully wonderful. However, every year I go through these memories trying to figure out what to do with them. This year, I decided to share. I hope somebody somewhere can identify with the pain of growing up around this kind of hatred and turn it into something positive. None of us have to be like our parents, on any level. I'm proof of that.
Previous Related Posts:
- Little Rock Central High School Museum
- Central Arkansas Schools, Desegregation, and 50 Years of Government Micromanagent
- 10 Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotations (huffingtonpost.com)
- Father Paul Mayer: MLK Day and Arizona Evoke Memories of Selma (huffingtonpost.com)
- A personal tribute to MLK (deenar116.wordpress.com)
- What needs to be said on MLK Day (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2011: Nation Ponders King In Wake Of Arizona Shootings (huffingtonpost.com)
- Robert Kuttner: Consolation and Inspiration From Dr. King (huffingtonpost.com)