I was in Wildwood last week to attend a school board meeting at which a resolution honoring my late father was being presented. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the board whose superintendent and chair were both former students of my Dad’s.
After the meeting I drove down US 301, the main drag of this town 60 miles northeast of Orlando where I-75 and the Florida Turnpike converge. It was clear that this was a mere shell of this once vibrant little railroad town. For years the largest town in the county, Wildwood was always bigger than my hometown of Bushnell and its high school sports teams were perennially a force to be reckoned with.
Wildwood was a hub on the Seaboard Coastline railroad where the rail lines split. The depot had a dingy waiting room where people waited to catch trains going southeast to Miami or southwest to Tampa and to Jacksonville going north. The Tampa bound leg of that track ran parallel to the highway just in front of our home 15 miles to the south in Bushnell and I can still hear the sound of train cars crossing over the tracks nearby, their rhythmic clicking noise lulling me to sleep.
When the railroad scaled back its operations, deleting most of its passenger service in an era of interstate highways and cheap flights, Wildwood simply withered on the vine. Its once proud football team has not defeated my high school alma mater in the south end of the county in years and actually had to drop out of high school competition last year because its student population was too small to support a team. Wildwood students now attend a combined middle-high school dwarfed by its larger county rivals in Bushnell to the south and the high school for the children of employees at The Villages, the sprawling retirement community that has swallowed up much of a once rural Sumter County, to Wildwood’s east.
As I drove down the shuttered main street, my mind flashed back to a time of being in Wildwood long ago which resulted in a quite unexpected learning opportunity.
Threatening Demeanor and the Smell of Jim Beam
It was Christmas of 1970 and our high school band had been invited to participate in a Christmas parade in Wildwood. It was a Saturday and a cold front had just come through making the march down the main street breezy and cool, a welcome relief for those of us in polyester red and black uniforms we often broiled in. A few cirrus clouds were being blown around an otherwise brilliant sunny sky. It was a good day for a parade though chilly by Central Florida standards.
There weren’t a lot of people who turned out that day. The decline of the railroad industry which had already begun meant that a number of the residents didn’t have a lot of money to spend on Christmas presents that year or a lot of time to waste on parades.
Truth be told, I never liked being in Wildwood to begin with. The little farm town of Bushnell where I was growing up was pretty redneck – a description its predominately beef rancher and truck farming residents celebrated - and it was clear to me from my very first day there that I would never really fit in. But Wildwood took redneck to a whole new level.
Most people describing the Wildwood of my childhood called it “a rough town.” That was undoubtedly an understatement. Legend had it that when a male child was born in Wildwood, they brought him to the stadium and put a football in his hand. If the baby dropped the ball, they killed it. In any case, I knew I wanted to spend as little time in Wildwood as was absolutely necessary.
About halfway down the mile-long parade route along a newly four-lane US 301, a group of white men stood on a corner passing out literature of some kind. As our band passed their corner, we were simply marching to a drum cadence, having already played our last round of “Merry Old St. Nicholas” set to a march tempo.
Suddenly, one of the men ran up to us and began handing out handbills to band members. One of them offered a flyer to me. His threatening body language and the overpowering scent of BO cut with a healthy dose of Jim Beam (this at noon) suggested that I probably should take the flyer if I knew what was good for me. This was Wildwood, after all.
So I took it and the man ran laughing back to the corner with his inebriated buddies. I folded up the flyer, put it in the voluminous front right pocket of my band uniform and promptly forgot about it, filing the whole incident under the “Gee, that was just a little creepy” category.
When I got home, as I was putting my band uniform on a hanger to hang in my closet I felt the flyer in the pocket. Oh yeah, I said to myself, what was that all about?
I almost stopped breathing when I unfolded the flyer and looked at it. There on the front cover was a headline which read “N****rs are Monkeys.” (editing mine) Below the headline a caricature of an African-American man appeared.
Inside the flyer was a chart comparing yet another caricature of an African-American man with the image of a gorilla and numerous arrows connecting supposed points of comparison. It was immediately clear to me that this was toxic propaganda like none I had ever seen before. What I didn’t know at that time was where it had originated.
I took the flyer into the kitchen where my Mom was cooking our Saturday evening supper. The room was full of the smell of pot roast and my Mother’s ever sunny presence. That all changed in one split second when I handed her the flyer.
“Look what somebody gave me, Mom.”
My Mother was not one to get angry and I rarely saw her lose her composure. But one look at her face and I knew this moment would be very different.
“Where did you get that?” she said, the color draining from her face.
“From some guy at the parade in Wildwood.”
“Don’t you know what this is?” The words were almost spat from her mouth.
In all honesty, I didn’t. Truth be told, I was a naïve kid generally. I had no idea why someone would take the time, effort and resources to create such a juvenile expression of ignorance and mean-spiritedness. I also had no idea what a Grand Wizard was.
But my Mother did.
Torches Lighting Up the Tropical Night
Back in the 1920s, when my mother was a very young girl, Florida was changing. Small towns like her own Homestead and the nearby city of Miami were undergoing major growth spurts. Stucco houses like the one in which she lived were springing up in subdivisions newly carved out of former swamps and sand lots. People from all over the country poured into Florida to speculate on a land boom that would go bust after a killer hurricane a few years later foreshadowing the major Depression that would soon engulf all of America.
Soldiers were coming home from the Great War, as World War I was known, returning to their hometowns with hopes of getting on with life. Among them were African-American soldiers who had become accustomed to being treated if not completely equal to their white counterparts at least a lot more equal than the subservient places their racist hometowns intended for them to resume.
As African-Americans began to demand to be registered to vote in states across the country, a wave of lynchings swept the nation. Lurid photos like the infamous one from Marion, Indiana, (pictured below) revealed these events to be times of ghoulish entertainment for local populations seemingly oblivious to the atrocities they had just committed. Florida, struggling to come to grips with a tidal wave of change, led the nation in lynchings per capita, most of them carried out by a newly reborn secretive organization called the Ku Klux Klan.
As her hands holding the flyer trembled, my Mother recounted how the Klan had come to her family’s home in the late 1920s, within a few weeks of deadly massacres of black neighborhoods in places with names like Ocoee and Rosewood. Men like those on the corner in Wildwood had come in the dead of night hidden behind white robes and pointed hoods with torches ablaze to stand in the front yard of her family home. They had come to inform my grandfather that it was his time and duty to join the Klan.
My grandfather was always a man of conscience and ethics. I admired him greatly. He was always well informed and could tell you what he thought about any given current event but more importantly he could tell you why he thought that. Though he was no liberal, I clearly remember his mourning the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy with the assertion over our breakfast table that “You stop people with ballots, not bullets.” He had little tolerance for ignorance and even less for mean-spiritedness.
“So, what did he do, Mama?” I asked.
“He told them no. No, no, no and furthermore, hell no! Now get off my property!”
At that moment she ripped the flyer into pieces and informed me “You will NEVER bring anything like this into this house again. EVER.” And I knew she was deadly serious.
Shock Over a Dial-a-Hate-Message
It would not be until a few years later when I studied the Jim Crow era in America as a history major at the University of Florida that I would realize just how daring my grandfather’s response had been. I would also come to understand what caused my Mother’s unexpected reaction to that reminder of her own life history.
The Klan often did not take no for answer. They were known to come back repeatedly to intimidate those who turned down their recruitment efforts. Indeed, those who said no to the Klan were often viewed as sympathetic to the people the Klan had targeted and could become targets themselves. Even in my childhood in Central Florida of the 1960s, one of the worst slurs one could level at one’s fellow white person was “n****r lover.”
Fortunately, I’ve had only one direct encounter with the Klan since then. In the late 1980s, one of my students at Valencia revealed in a writing assignment that he was affiliated with the Klan and included a brochure complete with a telephone number at which you could hear a recorded hate speech message. With his permission (indeed, perhaps his glee) I created an assignment to have my US Government students call the number and then report what they heard, critically analyze the message content and point to the parts of the Constitution that were implicated by that content.
Not surprisingly it made for an intense class discussion. What I heard in so many of their responses was the fear and anger in my Mother’s voice of so many years ago, echoed in the voices of young students shocked by what they had just experienced.
The shock over suddenly encountering such blatant racism is fairly common among white Americans. One of the aspects of privilege in a racist society is the luxury of naivete among its beneficiaries.
But that is hardly to say that our unawareness of racism means it has gone away. Contrary to the many self-congratulatory assessments by my fellow white countrymen and women, America has hardly “dealt with its race problem.” Indeed, while the original flyer referenced above was ripped to pieces by my Mother and thrown away, the images shown here came from a simple Google search.
As I see it, the Klan is but one tangible aspect of America’s enormous Shadow that emerges periodically to remind us of its existence. It reflects one of the many repressed, unacknowledged and disowned aspects of America’s 500 year history which haunt us to this day and prevent us from evolving into the nation our noble ideals would suggest we are capable of becoming.
This aspect of our Shadow began with the importation of the first African slaves into Jamestown, VA in 1619, a trajectory that would eventually lead to a Civil War that nearly doomed the country. The loss of that war directed by the slave holding Southern aristocracy but fought by its working class whites would only drive that racism out of America’s immediate consciousness into its collective unconscious.
It would periodically emerge in thinly veiled forms in Jim Crow laws and states’ rights arguments. By the 1960s, “law and order” campaigns with racist dog whistles would provide an effective means of pimping the fragile sense of masculinity of working class whites and stoking the fears of white flight suburbanites.
Yet the powerful Shadow behind all these efforts would remain largely unconscious for most Americans. Until now.
A Celebration of Shadow Provides an Opportunity
As I drove down the main street of Wildwood last week, its dime stores, cafes and second hand stores now mostly boarded up, memories of my youthful, naïve encounter with the Klan dancing in my head, I listened to the NPR newscast. The announcer was relating stories of desecrated Jewish cemeteries, Muslim mosques and violent conflicts in urban centers where Trump rallies are being held.
In the past election cycle, America’s white population voted overwhelmingly for a candidate writer James Baldwin would have readily identified as a “moral monster.” Reflecting a backlash against eight years of an eloquent Ivy League educated mixed race president, it has not been unusual to see Confederate flags and “Sieg Heil” Nazi salutes regularly displayed at Trump rallies. Occasionally Klansmen come out of their racist closets in full Klan drag complete with pointed hoods bearing almost invariably misspelled signs with racist messages. The once firmly repressed Shadow of America’s racist past has been called out to play with an abandon not seen in a very long time.
For many of us, it is painful to watch and frightening to endure. I can still see my Mother’s trembling hands and ashen face as she told me her story of close encounters with the Klan. Yet, like that unpredicted encounter spawned by a Klan flyer nearly a half century ago, this turn of events in America’s history provides us with an unexpected opportunity for learning sorely needed lessons in order to evolve as a society.
America will never be able to come to grips with the racism that informs everything from the world’s largest prison-industrial complex to the increasingly explosive dealings between its police and its youth of color to the enormous gaps in all measures of social well-being between whites and black in our culture until we own that aspect of our collective Shadow that began in 1619 in Jamestown. Slavery and the racist culture it spawned is hardly the only elephant in the inner room of America’s psyche but it is a major one. Indeed, as Sojourner’s editor Jim Wallis says, it may well be America’s original sin.
This moment in American history provides us an unexpected opportunity to acknowledge this aspect of our collective Shadow and to come to grips with it. How we respond is critical. Deepok Chopra recently observed, “Denial is when you ignore the shadow; disaster is when you totally surrender to it.”
Neither the denial of that history which has marked our response historically nor the current celebration of its Shadow - in all its misanthropic expressions - marking the rise of Trumpland can provide America the opportunity for healing it so desperately needs. We must be willing to let go of our collective persona of American exceptionalism, the City on the Hill, which admits to no darkness at all long enough to see all of who we are and to own all of who we have been. As Carl Jung reminds us, the brighter the persona, the darker – and thus the more potentially destructive - that Shadow will be.
We must be willing to look at our history in places with names like Ocoee and Rosewood in all of their blood-sodden darkness. We must be willing to look at the inequality and injustice that has flowed and continues to flow from that history and own it. And we must be willing to see the privilege that legacy has provided those of us who happen to be winners of a genetic lottery in a deeply racist culture that comes at the expense of those who were not.
Only then can the healing America’s soul so desperately needs begin.
It is essential to note that in any attempt to gain reconciliation within divided, conflictual societies around the world from South Africa to Canada, that reconciliation has always come only after a period of candid, painful truth-telling. With the eruption of America’s Shadow to the surface so that it can be seen for what it truly is and always has been, the time for our truth-telling has finally arrived.
Whether America is able to meet the challenge this opportunity provides may well determine whether we are able to hold together as a nation-state and remain a single people. What is clear at this moment is that it is our very soul which is at stake.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017