Monday, April 16, 2007

Tales of Life in a Border Town

Lovettsville, my home, is the northernmost town of any significant size in Virginia. It was settled by Pennsylvania Dutch émigrés whose religion and culture abhorred slavery, and their orientation was always northward toward Philadelphia. During the run-up to the Civil War, in the statewide referendum on secession in the spring of 1861, the town voted in a ratio of 90% against it.

Some eight miles to the south, the town of Hillsboro voted in almost exactly the same proportion in favor.

The only military unit raised in Virginia to fight for the Union, the Loudoun Rangers, was mainly manned by men from Lovettsville and from Waterford, a nearby town founded by Quakers.

Their loyalty to the Union caused them great distress during the Recent Unpleasantness; seen as traitors by their neighbors, they were raided and hounded by John Mosby and his cohort. There are few barns older than 1864, because most of them were immolated during that year's Burning Raid.

All of this is by way of setting the scene for a couple of things that happened this weekend.

At my son's soccer game Saturday, I noticed a girl wearing a warmup jacket emblazoned on the back with a large soccer ball and the legend "The Lovettsville Freedom." Notwithstanding my distaste for sports teams named after singular nouns (the Utah Jazz being the most ludicrous example), I couldn't help wondering if the Lovettsville Freedom didn't perhaps have a fierce cross-county rivalry with their neighbors to the south, the Purcellville Slavery.

The other incident was more troubling. I helped out at a local event at which a raffle was held. As the winning tickets were picked at the end of the event, when many of the ticketholders had packed up and gone home, I volunteered to call the winners, who'd left phone numbers on their tickets. One of the folks I called wasn't home, and I left a message on her machine. Not long thereafter, her sister came and picked up the item.

An hour or so later, my cell phone rang. The voice at the other end had a Southern accent so thick and so quickly spoken that I couldn't understand her. She was quite agitated about something, but it took me a good long while to make out exactly what. After several requests for repetition and silences on my end while I tried to think, it became apparent that she'd been given an item that she hadn't actually bought a ticket for.

Now, why this would upset someone quite this much I don't know -- it seemed to me that winning a raffle item you didn't bid on would be something of a windfall, an unexpected gift; and if you don't like it, well, that's why God made trash cans.

I offered to come pick up the item -- I still don't know what the hell it was -- but she then demurred and allowed that she thought she'd keep it after all.

Then she became a little sheepish and apologetic, and regretted making the call in the first place. (I'm not prepared to swear that Demon Rum was a thousand miles away from this conversation.) Then she dropped the bomb:

"I swear, I bet when you hang up you're gonna call me everything but a white woman."




I mean, what the fuck!?

I suppose in these waning days of the Imus Incident it's just terribly naive of me to be shocked by someone's casual racism. That's always something that happens elsewhere, and not in my sheltered, bourgeois life. But it's abundantly clear that we are eons away from coming to terms with the ugliness of slavery. Having lived in other countries in my youth, I also know that other people are just as awful as we are: Some of the ugliest, most hateful language I've ever heard came out of the mouth of a lifelong resident of Stockholm. Then, of course, there was that whole Hitler thing.

But I think the thing that most shocked me was this woman's clear implication that I wouldn't be offended by something as casually ugly as that. She had no idea who was on the other end of the line -- I do have a Tragically White voice, it's true, but I could have been anybody.

See, this is why I don't like people, why I'm such a hermit, why I live in a clearing in a forest on the side of a mountain. You think you're prepared to deal with just about anything, and then suddenly bam! Somebody drops this shit on you, and you get depressed and angry and want to go hide under the bed.

Go away. I'm not home.


Kevin Wolf said...

No, you see, racism is okay so long as it's casual.

Alright, no, my real reaction was: OUCH.

Neddie said...

Hah! I've always wondered what formal sex looked like. Tux and patent-leather shoes?

Anonymous said...

Well, you know what they say about Ginger Rogers: she did everything that Fred did, only backwards and in high heels.

Myles said...

When I lived in Brooklyn a while back, I had an 80 year old woman follow me down Flatbush ave. one evening screaming obscenities at me. Saying things like, "You can't run away from me you white devil mother fucker!" I mean, really, what can you do in a situation like that? I could only imagine what she must have gone through in her life to exhibit such rage at that age. Or, she could simply have been batshit insane. So it goes.

Anonymous said...

As a 60-year old white Southerner, I've long been treated to the festering racist blather of people with whom I share epidermal melanin content, a trace of an accent, and not much more. And I can see it coming, heralded by a slight drop in conversational volume or telltale, slightly furtive glances right and left. The language doesn't have to be overt; they may just refer to them with a pointed conspiratorial look.
What's so personally galling is the assumption that I'm receptive to this drivel. Frequently it's one of my patients at the hospital, so my reactions may sometimes be constrained.
But I also take encouragement when I see patients of different races acting congenial with each other, and when rural white patients talk with their black or Indian or Muslim doctors, just as though the differences weren't there at all. These sights would have been rare 20 years ago; now they are commonplace. Small victories should be savored when they present themselves.

Anonymous said...

I'm living in a country that's now using anti-racism laws selectively, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

Sure, the government can deport a muslim cleric for promoting violence against white christians, but what about a rich, white, ignorant radio announcer who makes a lucrative living out of saying how hard it is to be rich and white in our country because of [insert scapegoat], (even though he would seem to be an obvious exception to his own rhetoric), and promotes violence against the lebanese on his radio show, leading up to the January Riots in Sydney? Why then the Prime Minister has to offer him a show of support and says he's just a 'good bloke'.

I swear i've almost completely lost my fear of death. Leaving all of this behind would be a blessing at times. Finally, some peace and quiet.

Anonymous said...

Although she grew up in flyover country like me, my sister lives a ways down I-81 from you, Neddie, and I tell you it's always a kick in the gut when she says something like "That's right white of you" with no irony intended.

XTCfan said...

See, this is why I don't like people, why I'm such a hermit, why I live in a clearing in a forest on the side of a mountain.

See, this is why I won't even help out at local raffles and other such things. I've become so enraged at the Willfully Ignorant that, if I'm forced to interact with them at my kids' schools, etc., I have to make myself ignore all the blatant lifestyle choices they make, much less the latent racism, homophobia, fear and loathing of the lower classes, Republicanism (I know, I repeat myself).

Dem, I had to chuckle when I read "I can see it coming, heralded by a slight drop in conversational volume or telltale, slightly furtive glances right and left," because instead of racist remarks, that's typically how I meet Democrats. Strange, innit. I do try to celebrate the small victories, and do see them myself, but like Simon I mostly despair for our race and sometimes wonder if it's worth it at all...

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget old Pauline Hanson, a racist politician hiding behind the old 'i'm just saying what everyone is thinking' rhetoric, who was vilified in my country and eventually fell out of politics, but seemingly forgiven because she competed on 'Dancing With The Stars' and everyone admired her for 'having a go'.

Am I the only one who's worried that our foreign policy on immigration and political future of the country, (painted by Hanson as those violent muslims, ghetto-happy asians, and 'diseased' africans), can really be shaped by 'Dancing With The Stars?'

She's turned this into a recent autobiography, and now is running for Federal Parliament in 2007.

Holy shit, is my country stupid.