As a member of the cohort coming of age in the Old South in the 1960s, I had more than a front-row seat for the era's hyper-accelerated shift in race relations. Occasionally, I was a participant. Not in any extraordinary way, usually unwittingly and apparent to me only in retrospect.
These moments are preying on my mind in the wake of the colossally stupid and aggressively retrograde remarks that lately have made race-relations news, which just now seems to be about the only kind of news anyone seems to be making.
Clearly, when a philosopher-rancher with a grudge against the federal government and an antebellum point of view is grateful to a dopey Jewish billionaire NBA team owner for knocking him out of the news cycle over questions of prejudice, either ours is a hemisphere coming unhinged or we're not nearly as far down the road to pigmentary harmony as we'd thought, or even hoped.
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At least Donald Sterling is getting what amounts to speedy justice. Only days after the release of a (illegal, but nevermind) recording in which — among other crude observations — the 81-year-old admonishes his ex-girlfriend for having black friends and publicizing this apparent act of line-crossing via social media, Sterling was banned for life from the National Basketball Association and fined the maximum, $2.5 million, by Commissioner Adam Silver. It is one thing to fancy yourself one of the Tarleton twins at the last barbecue at Twelve Oaks plantation, apparently, and quite another to provide hard evidence.
This hardly renders Cliven Bundy's absurdly inarticulate take on the human condition any more tolerable, of course. Even if he is correct that people require a clear purpose to thrive, and that government policies often interfere with that natural human yearning, the notion America's black slaves led purpose-driven lives and were better off for the experience is nuttery unworthy even of Margaret Mitchell, from whose pen flowed Tara's heroic Big Sam, indomitable Mammy, scheming Prissy and loyal, if ineffectual, Pork — caricatures all.
This sudden outbreak of dunderheaded thinking having achieved newsworthiness suggests we have work left to accomplish. On the other hand, the broad condemnation — both proper and swift — indicates the fair and encouraging distance we have come. The grade-school-aged boy who spent parts of each summer during the early 1960s on the west Tennessee farm where his mother grew up would be glad, especially, about the latter.
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Immediately east of our family's three-story farmhouse, separated by two stretched-wire fences confining a garden for vegetables and cut flowers, was an unpainted shotgun shack squatting uncertainly atop blocks on a patch of dirt. A black family — sharecroppers, as I recall — lived there, creating a hive of purpose-driven activity.
My particular interest was in a lad about my age — Leroy, his last name lost to memory — with whom I fished the nearby ponds, played endless hours of catch and once hammered together a crude toy sailboat that drifted away from us on its maiden voyage.
I remember that to note this: Only once was I able to convince Leroy to come have a catch in my Granny's front yard, where there was grass and shade. Later, I came to understand Leroy's reluctance was rooted in knowing he was crossing a line, one I didn't even know existed. That afternoon, in dwellings flanking a garden for vegetables and cut flowers, both of us endured stern lectures about the geographical boundaries of our seasonal friendship. (Mine, I am happy to report, was not administered by either of my parents.) In Donald Sterling's complaint to his ex-girlfriend, there were echoes of that talking-to I got 50 years ago. She couldn't bring black friends to Clippers games. I couldn't bring my black friend onto my Granny's front yard. Both edicts were stupid, but I count the fact that Sterling's was newsworthy, utterly denounced and punishable as evidence of welcome progress.