Thursday, August 12, 2010

Southern Hospitality?

It's late and I can't sleep. Just a few days ago I packed my three kids into the car and we headed south to visit family. We stopped in North Carolina to visit my sister Erin and then headed to South Carolina to visit my sister Elizabeth. I have, at various times in my life, been a strong critic of the South. I lived for 10 months in Mobile, Alabama in the late 80's and I definitely suffered from culture shock. The lifestyle is pleasingly slow and ostensibly friendly but I had had terms like 'nigger lover' hurled at me on several occasions when it was revealed that I had an African-American boyfriend. I held a grudge, I admit it. I painted the entire South with a broad brush and that was a failure on my part. Sometimes, in anger, it is easier to generalize than to analyze and understand.
I have visited South Carolina regularly over the years in order to spend time with my sister and her children. People here have been friendly and for the most part kind. Today, however, was different.
At 15 and 17 my sons are no longer cute, pudgy-cheeks black boys that everyone loved, they have grown into striking young men. My sons are now tall, well-built, handsome and, for some, suspect. At 6'3 and 5'11, they are robust, intelligent, and full of charisma. Growing up in a biracial home they are equally at ease with blacks and whites, they have been loved and have loved people of both skin colors and though racial differences have been addressed they have never existed as the chasm for them that they can be for others. I fear that after today, that may not be the truth anymore.
The brass tacks, so to speak, of the events are as follows; while I ran errands with my sister my children and their cousins decided to visit the community pool. Six teenagers piled into the car with towels and headed up to find relief from the stifling southern heat. They jumped into the water, they joked, laughed, and then after a little over an hour they packed up and drove home. Seeking the same kind of solace from the oppressive heat I headed to the pool about an hour after they'd arrived home, I had barely been in the pool for ten minutes when I heard a bit of a ruckus, someone had found feces in the pool.
I got out,chalking the 'disaster' to a leaky diaper or a child who, having too much fun swimming, had waited too long to head to the bathroom. Nasty, but these things happen in pools open to the community. Upon returning to my sister's home I shared the tale, showered and went on with my day.
A few hours later, however, a vestige of the Old South came knocking on my sister's door. A representative from the homeowners association had come to inquire about the strange boys who had accompanied my niece to the pool. She wanted to speak to Mary about 'the incident' because someone thought they saw one of these strange boys pull something brown from his pocket. It did not take long for me to see where this was going.
I admit, I never for a second entertained the thought that one of my sons had saved his feces, stuffed it into his pocket, emptied it into the pool and then continued to swim for over an hour. Generally, I try not to be a 'not-my-kid' kind of mom, but this I was certain they would never do.
Tone is a funny thing, when someone asks you to describe it the words are often elusive, but, if you are even half-witted, you know the sound of accusation. I wish I could tell you this was the first time I'd heard it but it isn't. The woman, after being ushered in by my brother-in-law, asked my sons to tell her what happened at the pool. They gave the typical teenage response, we swam a little and then came home. She, in what can only be called an accusatory tone went on to tell them that someone thought they saw one of these boys pull something brown from his pocket. I asked her what, exactly, she was asking my sons. I was assertive but not aggressive. She repeated, "What happened at the pool?". They looked like deer in the headlights, they didn't understand exactly what it was that she was asking but I did.
I knew this block, I'd been around it before. I asked my sons directly if either of them had defecated in the pool. They said no. She informed them that there was video tape and that she was going to watch it. This, I admit, was where my head started to feel like it was going to explode. I urged her to go do so, to please watch the tape and then to come back and share with us what she found on the tape. I asked to be there see the tape as well, to discuss it, and, barring her being a complete idiot, I think she understood clearly that I was expecting her to apologize once the tape cleared them.
Her story changed, she might not be able to see the tape, the tape might be grainy, she may not need to come back, I understood the subtext as well as she did. She hadn't expected to have to deal with a mother, with a mother who was unyielding, with a mother who knew exactly what made these two young men suspect in her eyes.
People are more sophisticated than they used to be, they avoid buzzwords, they parse their prejudices in vaguer terms but country wisdom holds, "If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck," I think we all know the rest.
Think about this accusation for a minute, in order for these 'strange' boys to have pulled this off they'd have had to defecate, retrieve the fecal matter from the toilet, shove it into their pockets, drive in a hot car to the pool, pull the odious cargo from their pocket and then release it into the pool. The logistics of it are simply absurd.
How many houses did this board member visit? Just one, the one with the 'strange boys'. Not one visit to kids in diapers, to young ones prone to accidents, just here, just to the house where the 'strangers' were. She spoke of cost, begged me to understand her position, I asked if she'd thought at all about mine. She didn't answer. How could she? What did she know about being the 'usual suspect' about people assuming your skin is stained with sin?
When she left my husband and I told our sons a horrible truth, to some people you will always be suspects. Some people will never see past dark skin and corn rows, some people simply don't see you. In order to be seen as equal you'll need to behave better, be smarter, and unfortunately goofing off is not an option for you.
Is this post-racial America? My sister was appalled by this incident. She wanted to shout from the rooftops. I just cried. I can see the mountain in front of my sons, I pray daily that these acts of the ignorant do not embitter them or me. It's not easy to believe in goodness tonight.
Tonight I'm angry, I'm hurt, I'm frightened for my sons. How easily this woman believed this absurd scenario. How quickly she and others assumed these 'strange' boys were capable of such a thing. It's heartbreaking to stare this kind of prejudice in the face, it's heartbreaking to love your children and not to be able to protect them from the ignorance some people carry inside them. It reminded me of the school children banned from a pool club outside of Philadelphia earlier this year, some patrons there couldn't see the kids as anything other than trouble. What horrible irony that the real danger lie inside the members so eager to expel 'strange' children. Tonight, here in well-manicured neighborhoods where stranger are viewed with a caustic eye, where assumption and accusation of those who are different is the norm, the past is alive and well, and hospitality is laced with hostility.