Sweet Home Mississippi (Part 1)
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Chapter One: Descent into Hell
Ted Grover peered through the windshield of his aging Volvo down the long straight road ahead. He had been driving the old car since six thirty in the morning and his eyes were growing somewhat weary as he neared the approach to the California desert. It was a long way to Weazleville, Mississippi, which he would reach on the fourth day of his trip and he dreaded the descent into the moist heat, the super steamed cauldron of the bug infested, chemically saturated, Mississippi Delta. Meanwhile he would enjoy the cool, clear, mountain air for the next couple of days until the inevitable steam bath would overtake and drag him under. His lungs would begin to burn before he reached his destination. Better to travel than to arrive the sage said. Thats no shit when it comes to Mississippi. Especially if the destination was the Delta.
The market solves eveything. Sure, even if it put him in the grave, making a living. That would solve everything for him.
It would be his second year of University teaching, having done a one-year haul at the University of South Carolina. Given the market, a man took what he could get, grasping at every straw, and that was what had come his way, after pounding the pavement for teaching jobs since winding up his doctorate in California. It had taken two years to land that first full time job, although it was only a one year instructor position. Meanwhile, he pieced together an income working in the registrar’s office at the university, when there was a need, and teaching a one quarter course in Democratic Theory when the visiting instructor from back east fell ill and cancelled out. Then the break came at the end of the summer. The phone rang in late afternoon and he was offered a one year job.The department in South Carolina had been left in the lurch when one of their staff decided to not return from a leave of absence, late in the summer. He was hired to fill the position, which was his first lucky break. While there were a couple of nibbles from Arizona and other schools, with an interview at a restaurant in LA, this was the only solid offer and he grabbed it straight away. It even put a little strut in his stride thinking he would have a real teaching position and he scrambled to get the courses together. His first real chance of being a professor.
It had been a good year in South Carolina, but not a fun one. He had lived in supreme austerity, neither a radio nor TV in his spartan apartment and spending most of his time preparing lectures and reading exams. Horny as hell, but no time for chasing women. It was difficult, leaving the family in California, but he had no choice. During the year, the position opened as a tenure track job. But his views were too left-wing to land the position in the department in South Carolina and he predictably lost out to a right-winger. That son-of-a-bitch who was chairman of the selection committee had all those Republican Bush stickers plastered all over his door. Not a snow-ball's chance in hell of getting in. During the year he had interviews at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and Ball State, but neither one panned out, even though the first place was full of left-wingers. For one reason or another he came up empty handed every fucking time.
Back in California for the summer, it was like a return to paradise. If he could only stay and there was a job. Nothing doing. The money was running out quickly and he found it difficult to make it through the summer, having split the modest income between two housholds during the previous year. Applying for unemployment pay, extras were being signed up for an HBO film being shot in Santa Barbara. He signed on and worked for four days. That was just petty cash. After that he wrote abstracts of academic articles for an abstracting company. It put some food on the table, bought a little gasoline.
But with the family, he was largely losing touch. He suspected his marriage was going on the rocks. Not possible to keep it together being strung out this way.
At a rest stop just west of Needles, an oasis in the desert, he stopped to stretch his muscles. He needed a cup of coffee but that would have to wait until the next pitt stop, another 40 miles. A van pulled up next to him full of Japanese tourists.
At McDonalds in Needles a bus load of Chinese arrived, crazy for American French fries. Back on the road, the only available radio stations had degenerated to country music and Christian proselytism. Pile on the guilt. Tell the sons of bitches that if they don’t have a job that its their own damned fault. God is punishing you. So send me some bucks and pray and wait for God to work the miracle. That seven times seven business. For every seven bucks you send me, God is going to give you seven times seven. What a racket. If that was the case, that guy on the radio would be sending his bucks off to a preacher instead of bending your ears for cash. He would better entertain himself with his thoughts.
On to Arizona, where the rest stops were hard to find and far between, he made Flagstaff by five. At Williams, he tried for a motel. At the first, two Indian girls were behind the counter. They told him fifty dollars for a single. Too much. The Gujaratis seemed to have a monopoly on the motels near the Grand Canyon and so he headed on to Winslow. Fewer tourists. By seven, he was in the Mayfair Motel, a crummy place also run by Patels, but not a bad deal for twenty bucks. Broken door, par for the course, but he would get by.
He flicked on the tube. At the Republican National Convention a former POW was making a speech. The bastards think they have the corner on patriotism, the flag, family, God and apple pie, he thought, and looked for another channel. No luck. Now Ronald Reagan was reading a speech and flubbed his line. “Facts are stupid things.” The blathering idiot meant to say “Facts are stubborn things,” but, no shit, facts are stupid things for Republicans, for all politicians, as far as that goes. It doesn’t take a fucking political scientist to know that. If they do know it. Most of them don’t have a clue, he thought, poisoning their minds with those shit-eating screeds he was forced to read in graduate school. Nelson Polsby, my ass. All that polling and polling, adding up all those lies that people told them and calling it political science. “Pohleeticle Sighuns,” as the southerner had said when he told him what he taught.
He tried to get the LA times at Needles, but the machine just stole his quarter and refused to open, so he missed the last chance for something to read. Not a big loss. Most of it was not worth reading anyhow.
Out early the next day, he made Gallup by ten in the morning for breakfast at McDonalds on the big strip. It was cheap. Cheap poison and a free pisser. Thats about all one could say. He recalled other times when he had stopped there with his family. Now he was was forced to truck the long distance alone. Albuquerque by one. Gassing up at a dollar a gallon. Gas still dirt cheap by world standards, if one did not include the billions to the military and Haliburton it took to keep stealing the oil from the Arabs. Near Morarty, hitting some heavy rain, he pulled into a truck stop for some rest. The rain looked heavy up ahead. Shit. Opening his brief case, the aroma of Indian incense filled the air, reminding him of California, Delhi bazaars, rickshaws, Punjab. He would rather be in a rickshaw heading for a cold Goden Eagle beer and some Punjabi chicken. He trucked on through spots of heavy rain.
He rested beneath the small pink stone shelters at a rest stop in Eastern New Mexico. The sky had mostly cleared, with white fleecy clouds, the dark rain clouds receeding in the west. He broke out some Indian Jelabi sweets he had brought from California and some Indian hot mix. His mouth burned with hot pepper. He soothed it with a cold Budweiser. Better get wiser, get ready for standing in front of those dummies. By five he made Tucumcari for coffee and a salad at a Mickey D’s. Where else, on his fucking budget? He hated that shit, but slipped in and out. Do what you have to do. He was depressed by the southern accent he picked up from the local customers. One guy talking about his Holly Carburator. “I just put me one a them there hollies six hundreds on there. The motherfucker hauls ass.” The spillover from Texas.
On toward Amarillo. “Foot-long hot dogs”. “Stukeys” His eyes are starting to get tired at seven, but he is still thirty miles from the Texas border. The land is flat now, prarie grassland. No more outcropping rocks or mesas. Texas cattle flatlands, but the still high altitude afforded cool breezes. Tomorow, he would be sinking deeper and deeper into the hot superheated air of the cowshit lowlands. Deeper shit.
At nine, he wound up the long day in the Coach Light Motel in Amarillo. A Gujarati Patel Motel again. Aren’t they all now? Sure as shit. Except for the American ruling class, business class, that gets the big corporate owned plush five-star outfits. The cream for the business class. No classless society for them. But Nigel, the clerk is a nice gentle guy and he gets a room for a twenty. He knew just how his wimpy hand would feel if he shook it, that Indian handshake, warm and limp, and lingering, that always made him feel somewhat uncomfortable. At least no bones would be crushed. He remembered that pipe smoking farmer from Iowa in the Peace Corps office that always crushed your bones with his earnest grip as he grinned and showed you his large teeth. The son of a bitch.
Pat Robertson was speaking at the Republican National Convention in fascistic tones. That shit-eating grin. High whiney voice. How many times had his parents tortured him with that charletan, forcing him to listen to his bible thumping drivel. Deliver me. Keep those sons of bitches away from me. Done enough damage to my mind already. Kills brain cells by the billions. Even worse than student papers, and thats bad, real bad. Still trying to exorcise himself from his early years in Sunday school classes, revival meetings, alter calls, and warnings of hell-fire for all eternity. Jerry Falwell was being interviewed. He felt sick at his stomach as the fat goofy face gushed inanities. J. Danforth Quayle, to be Bush’s Vice Presidential Candidate. The rich spoiled Republican twerp. A Bush Quayle Ticket. A quail in the Bush. The GOP. A bunch of Greedy Old People, so called, greedy men and women. The so-called party of the corporate class. Or the executive committee of the business class. Lenin had it about right.
In the Patel motel, the chain was off the flush handle. The dead toilet would not flush. The door chain had broken some one hundred customers ago. The Jews of India weren't going to spring for maintenance. The wallpaper was peeling off the wall. Looked fine on the outside, but crummy inside. Just as well be in Gujarat. Better, in fact.
The third day, he made Elk City by ten and breakfast with Ronald Muckfucking Donald. Insulting. These corporate games. It was hot at the rest stop after Oklahoma City, heading on to Ft. Smith. Just a slight whiff of refreshing cool air from time to time, mixed with the smell of cowshit, soon to be snuffed out in the steam bath and crop chemicals. Protect the crops and kill the people. Another one of those neat market solutions.
Passed Salisaw a little after three. A blue haze had sprung up across the horizon, clinging to the red ground. He braced himself for the worst. He was descending into hell.
At Ozark over in Arkansas he stoped at a pleasant rest stop on a grassy hill above a lake. The heavy rain had subsided, now a gentle sprinkle. Green fields with parallel ridges. He rested beneath the large pine trees, resting his eyes and body. Contemplating. Here the air was sweet, soft, gentle, mild. Movment made one perspire. Embracing the body. He recalled coming to Arkansas to visit his grandparents when he was a kid. The quaint working class house in the small town of Paris. The cherry trees behind the house. The old outhouse behind. His Irish grandfather. And the funereal when his Grandmother died. Staying in the motel in town. The heavenly small and taste of the cheeseburgers they sent out for. That was back when they made real hamburgers, not the industrial crap they rolled out nowadays in fast food joints. He would come to love travel. Feeling tired after the third day on the road. Need to walk.
Signs with brutal force across the country mirrored the local mindset. He was angered by “Don’t mess with Texas.” In Oklahoma, “Buckle up. Its the law.” “Watch your speed. We are.” Yes, big brother! You fucking fascists! Leave me the fuck alone, you bastards! I am on my way to hell.
Chapter Two: Gentility
Ted made Weazleville by noon, driving the two hundred miles from Little Rock down into the valley and across the Mississippi River. The Day’s Inn was also a family-run Patel Motel. Back in the South, he faced the sloth and institutional racism. Indian clerks at the desk and black maids cleaning the rooms. He had to ask three times for towells for the bathroom and finally go and get them himself.
Crossing the Mississippi, down the old US highway, he remembered the call from the chairman of the Cotton State Social Science Department the year before. It had come before he accepted the position in South Carolina. The second question was “What are your political beliefs?” It was a a shock, and a question which he didn’t know how to answer, and an indication that it was not a place to entertain the notion of working, in any way, shape or form. At the time he had thought that the chairman, asking the question, was probably a southern bigot. It turned out that he was actually a kind and considerate Mississippi liberal who was just tired of hiring people from the north and Nigerians who couldn’t take the sordid place and would leave after just one year. Anyone to the left of Barry Goldwater was not going to stay. That was for sure. Almost all of the staff came from somewhere in the South.
“Welcome to Mississippi. What are your political beliefs?” That could be a good slogan for the place, he thought. Now the wheel had turned and he was actually driving straight into that pit, into the flames of conservative, racist, Weazleville, Mississippi, Delta hell.
And the Goddam Republicans. Winding up their convention. Those bastards. Strident, smug, jejune, haughty, flippant. Mean, just plain mean. Past the badly farmed cotton fields. Old and new cotton pickers rusting beside the road. Rice fields. What the hell, the real crop raised in these fields was not cotton or rice, but dollars from the Federal Government, quickly exchanged for Lincolns, the biggest cars on the market.
Past the Sunflower Market parking lot. Crummy run-down looking stores. He had arrived in Hell.
After carrying the boxes of books to his office on the second floor of Prickley Hall in the afternoon, there was not a dry thread left on his shirt. He needed to find an apartment, but for a few nights, it would be the local motel. He settled into the fourth Gujarati Patel Motel in four days. He had come from Santa Barbara on around 200 dollars. He would need to collect his moving allowance from the University before he could pay the deposit on an apartment. Splitting his income between two households, meant living on a shoestring, year to year. At least he was not stuck in one place all the time, but the money was always short. “Life, liberty, and poverty,” as one student had described liberal democracy. A brilliant concept, he thought, that cut right through to the heart of it. Another one of those market solutions that the economists were so fond of.
The general faculty meeting to open the year was held the next morning. Again an eye opener. It might have been entertaining, had it been a film, but here, he was now a part of it. The meeting began with an invocation by a nursing professor, beginning “Dear Jesus, as we begin a new school year” and continuing in that vein. He tied to shut out the droning mindless drivel. Worse than mindless. Ted soon realized that it was not just an invocation. Schools in Mississippi went out of their way to violate rulings of the Supreme Court against prayers in public schools and universities. They made a point of snubbing their noses at the laws of the land, when it had to do with religion, and racism. There were always ways around that.
Not a bad idea, he thought, if prayers could have helped, but this place needed more than prayer. A little Schumpeterian creative destruction seemed in order, the market having a difficult struggle.
He was shocked by the rampant racism and sexism after coming from California. South Carolina couldn’t compete. The Mississippi Delta was said to be “more genteel” than Alabama. There was so much surface to southern society. So much front and hypocracy. At the faculty meeting, an official joked: “We was goin to have a stag paaty and watch Debbie does Dallas.” Such remarks fell easily from their lips, in their Mississippi Delta drawl. Totally unaware and uncaring how they might come across in a different venue. He saw that it was different from South Carolina. Different accent. Smaller school. More rural. Less sophisticated. More stupidity. If that was possible. It was. One had to know the culture to know reality. Only a few outsiders, who would always be “Yankees,” no matter if they settled and stayed for years. Most could not do it, for the psychological toll it took on their minds was unbearable.
He was thrown back into culture shock. He was forced to ask about a loan to get to his first pay check as he was broke as shit. The friendly little guy who ran the office across the hall in Prickley, told him: “I kin hep ya, but cayn’t lone ya any money, cause my wifes got ahl mine.” This was Albert, a decent local.
Thrown back in culture shock, after California, the rampant sexism and racism assailed one again and again. The meeting droned on until noon. The new faculty were introduced, including the new young women, complete with information about whether they were married or single. That was strange, he thought. Not so strange, actually. Men had a need to know. Everyone had their designated place and status in Delta society. If they did not remain in their place, they would be told where they did belong and sent there.
Back in his office, he noticed the bells in the hallway. What the fuck is this? He thought. Is this a fucking high school?
Looking for an apartment in the afternoon, he kept telling himself, “I am just here for the experience and will be moving on.” Sure. He looked for a place near campus.
After lunch he called up a rental agency, Landlord Realty and Rentals. The voice on the line asked: “Ahh ya a studant.” He was taken back. What the fuck kind of question is that? None of his business. “Why are you asking that?” he reacted, without thinking. “Oh, I’m not tryin to be smaat or anythane.” He realized he would have to play the game, after all. He had to have an apartment. Not so different from his experience the previous year in South Carolina, where the rental agencies had practically told him where he had better live. The black apartments and the white apartments. There were areas for blacks and areas for whites, and the racial divide was even more strict here in Weazleville. They needed to know if you were black, of course, about your social class, whether upscale or “white trash.” Your income. Then they could place you. Put you where you belonged. Keep the place neat and tidy, from a sociological point of view.
“I am a professor,” he confessed. Fuck it. He had to get a place to live.
“Ahh won’t have anythin till the fust of Setember,” the man said. He gave him some other names to call and said “Mention mya name cause we screen each otha’s cahls.”
He called Dan Belly who ran a service station and received some important advice. “I’d advize ya ta stay on the west side of the traks.” That really sank in.
“You mean, don’t get on the wrong side of the tracks?”
“Yes, litly, litly.” That was an indication of how concerned people were to keep the races apart. A socially feudal society, sure as shit, he reflected.
Driving around town, it was clear from the unpainted shacks and grassless yards strewn with broken toys and junk, where the black parts of the town were. They would not even hold out the winter cold.
He went to see the apartment owner who was a professor in the accounting department and had apartments next to the university. The soybean, rice and cotton fields came up to within a few yards of the campus. He lived in a large brick house that joined the land next to the university. A hut in the back housed his viscious dogs that kept up a continuous barking. “A drug store truck driving man,” he thought, “could be a guardian of the white race in South Africa.”
He rented an apartment, but would have to wait a couple of days to get the lights turned on.
Ted spent the evening in his office trying to write a short piece on Pakistan. Zia al Haq, the military President and the American Ambassador had been blown out of the sky in a C-130 a couple of days before. The news came over the radio as he drove across Oklahoma. In the stagnant air, he sweltered, using the old typewriter. Finally he opened a window in the hallway for some fresh air. A fatal mistake. Voracious Delta-bred mosquitoes, bodies enriched and fortified with fuel oil and toxic chemicals, swarmed into the room, ready to eat him alive. New tender meat fresh from California. Spraying the sons of bitches never killed them. Just made them stronger. Spray them ten times a day. They thrived. They rolled over, laughed, and zoomed off to dive bomb for more blood. Like fucking vampires. The chemicals certainly knocked down a swath of local citizens with cancerous lungs, but the bugs were made out of sterner stuff. Ted finished the piece and headed back to the motel nursing what the mosquitos had left of his itching arms and hands. What kind of fucking place is this anyway? he thought.
It seemed bleak. It was bleak. Worse than bleak. It was a challenge. A sure as shit red-blooded American Goddam challenge. He would do it. Fuck n’A. Try to get some research money. Stick it out in the mean time and try to get out of the place in one or two years. Vow to take it easy, be a good citizen, be docile. Keep his nose clean and his fence painted white. In places like this, one could get themselves killed. Literally, literally, he thought. He was not that stupid. Nothing is going to change here. A big thunderstorm with loud lightening had come up. The rain poured down in torrents. The streets flooded as he peered out the small window of his cell in the Gujarati Patel motel. Hell. Hell, period.
Chapter Three: The Plantation
The cotton fields were turning white and the Delta farmers were getting ready to take their pickers into the fields. Tufts of cotton clung to the sides of the highway. Still, the terrible heat lingered. Sloth. Decadance. The South.
Ted went to the bookstore to check on books for his class. The only one on the shelf was terrible. He went to his office. The air conditioning in his building was not working and his office was like a tomb. His shirt soon became drenched with sweat.
He went to the Chairman Paul Benington, and told him that he had decided on his books for the classes. He said he was dropping one text and substituting two others. Bennington was elderly, in the last years of his career, thin and wiry, kind and soft spoken, with a gotee beard. He seemed the most humane person Ted had met in the University. He cared about the well-being of people but despaired of being able to make any significant change at Cotton State University. He viewed many things about the place as wrong, but knew things would stay the same. There was not much one could do except bear with it.
“Well, you better check with the bookstore,” Benington told him. “There is a rule that you have to tell the bookstore two semesters ahead when you are going to drop a book,” the Chairman said, apologetically.
For Ted it was a kick in the head. The guy in his position the previous year was an extreme right-winger and had ordered some books that Ted simply could not stomach. To impose that upon the students would be, in his estimation, some severe violation of the injunction against cruel and unusual punishment and in any event, he couldn’t look at that drivel much less teach it. In spite of being so conservative, the professor had been very unpopular with the students. Like almost all outsiders, he decided to move on.
That is just a little rediculous, Ted thought. A nice way of selling books.
“What happens if you use a book and you don’t like it,”Ted asked.
“Well, you have to use it anyway,” Bennington said, with a little ironic smile.
“How can they tell you that you have to use a book?”
“Its been a rule for twenty-two years,” Bennington said. “You have to tell the students to buy it.” Obviously he too thought it was a pile of shit, but had lived with the policy for years. Docility was clearly the ticket on the plantation.
Ted had always thought that it was the instructor who was supposed to decide what materials to use in a class.
After a few days, Ted went to the bookstore to check on the books again. None of the books he had asked for had come in. He went to the cluttered bookstore office and asked Barney Barker, the bookstore manager, about Aristotle’s Politics.
Barker was standing near a cluttered desk. Ted noticed his swollen gut. His face was ruddy and puffy, with jowls and little piggy eyes burried deep in the fat. He moved slowly and peering suspicially at Ted. Yep. He had spied a Goddamed Yankee. Shore nuff.
“I've writ ta the pubisher but aint heard nothin yit,” he said. Ted thought, shit, I’ll give them a call myself. These policies could work because there was no other bookstore in town to sell books for students. In his gut, Ted was determined to keep the market out of his classroom. He was not going to let the whims of profit dictate what he would use in his classroom. Not if he could help it. The hell with that solution, the economists be damned.
I will use whatever materials I damn well please, he thought, and the hell with them. I don’t market textbooks, and if they want a textbook seller, they will have to get one. That’s not me!
But he would try to cope. It was a nice little rule made for the bookstore that was being forced down the throats of the instructors and students. He tried to think of a way to bypass the bookstore altogether. But it could not be done in a small southern town.
The conversation with Barker happened the same day, while he was still in that sour mood. It had gotten under his skin and he didn’t feel like suffering fools. But being new, he still had not mastered the southern survival technique of keeping ones opinions to ones self, when they might get one butchered. Literally. He could enjoy the conversation, dicker with the feudal asshole’s mind, and watch the son of a bitch turn red and explode, but then there would be hell to pay. The liberal mentality did not exist in such a feudal society. But sometimes enough was enough, and he was beginning to think he might not have very much to lose, in any event.
The whole thing started when Barker asked Ted how he liked Cotton State. The proper answer to that question in Delta society was “Great, Wonderful, friendly people, cosmopolitan” and a bunch of other such lies and a smile with a shit-eating grin to demonstrate conformity to the southern hypocracy which dripped thick as shit from everything and everybody and tiptoe on out into the superheated dripping air, dragon flies and poison chemicals. Bad faith. That was the only way to save ones ass. As an honest person, it was so easy to fall into the trap, get one’s ass in a sling. The trap was sprung, and Barker laid for him. Doctor Grover was dead. Dead fucking meat.
“Well, the system of apartheid here makes me feel uncomfortable.” Ted said, veering dangerously toward a dead-on honest answer. “It really does makes me feel bad,” Ted confessed.
“Weya, don’t think ya gointo see much change aroun heya very soon,” Barker said, barking the obvious. Then began his apology for the way things always have been and always will be.
Ted told him his experience in trying to rent an apartment and how the things one hears are rather shocking when one is not used to it.
“Do you think there is a part of this town where Blacks live, where whites could also live?” Ted asked. “I have wondered about that. Is this town totally segregated?”
In practice, it seemed to be almost one hundred percent complete.
“Weh they is one apahtmint bildin over heya on ya East Side a the trahks nexta K-Mart wheya Blacks and Whites did live in the same pace. A coach at oya college lived there for a whiya. They been seval fiyas over theya. Don’t know why,” he said.
“Ya see, oya blacks heya jist doe wanna mix up with ya whites,” Barker spouted. “They jist wanna be left too theya self. Ya jist can't mix up niggas and whites.”
Fuck n’ A. Ted thought. I’m with them on that one. Neither do I.
“The system would naturally make them want to avoid the white community and enforce the system of apartheid,” Ted said.
The whites are delighted that the Blacks prefer their own because it relieves their guilt about not wanting to associate with them, Ted thought.
“An tha whites is afraid of Blacks,” Barney said.
And the sons of bitches sure as hell should be, Ted thought. The way the whites had fucked them over and still did, the whites had a good reason to think the Blacks could well be getting enough of it by now and might erupt.
“Maybe they should be,” Ted said. “They may be bitter about the way they were treated in the past.”
“Weya, it aint near as as much as a few year ago,” Barker said, brushing it off.
“Now ya north, thas worse than the South,” Barker said.
True, it’s worse for you, Ted thought. They don’t put up with quite as much hypocracy and Mississippians look more stupid up there than they do back on the plantation where they can carry on in their old Dixie ways. Old times there are not forgotton. That logic always irritated Ted. We’re bad but they’re worse, so we are ok. Fuck n’ A! What a fucking lie, Ted thought. This was classical Mississippi.
“If oua Blacks dough like it, then why dough they leeve? Why da they stayuh heya?” Barker clinched his argument.
Thats what they have been doing for several decades, Ted thought. Where did the Blacks in Chicago, New York, and LA come from. From down south, of course. And a bunch of them had fled to Liberia more than a century ago. Why did Mississippi vigilantes have to stop the trains before they got up to Memphis and throw the Blacks off and ship them back home when they tried their best to leave in the l930s? The one’s that don’t leave, don’t because they can’t. The ones that can, leave all the time, so much that the population of the Delta was dwindling. But anyway, why the hell should they leave? Its their Goddam home, after all. Don’t they have a right to stay here? They didn’t ask to come here. It was the whites who had brought them here for slaves. Heavy denial.
“Enyways, I diden do anythin. I diden have anythin to do with it,” Barker continued, “how we keepen em down?”
Read some of your books, Ted was tempted to say. He could have written down a list for him, but what was the use?
“Wy some of oya blacks heya drive a biggah caha than mine,” he said.
Yeah, but yours doesn’t have rust holes in the sides, Ted thought. The Cadilacs and Lincolns were handed down to the blacks when the white Delta farmers went out and bought new ones with their cotton subsidy checks every year. They imitated the tastes of the ruling planter class. The ideology of the ruling class becomes the ruling ideology.
“Well, how do you explain that the Blacks are down, then,” Ted querried, venturing into even more dangerous territory.
“Nevah thot about it,” Barker said dismissively.
Fuck n’ A, Ted thought, wondering if there was anything the son-of-a-bitch had ever thought about seriously.
“How can it be explained?” Ted asked. “It is not an accident.”
“Anyway, in l787, the Constitution of the United States was intentionally designed that way, for the purpose of keeping them down. In 1857, Supreme Court Judge Taney ruled that Blacks were not citizens, whether slave or free, north or south. Did God create the society that way? No. Clearly not. And maybe it can be explained...”
Ted was now starting to enjoy toying with his muddy mind and started to be mischievious. He gave him a straw to grasp, as a sort of litmus test to see just how stupid the son of a bitch really was.
“Some would argue that some are rich and some are poor because of differences in talent,” Ted offered.
The fool swallowed the bait at once.
“Weya, ain't it true?”
“It couldn’t possibly be true,” Ted said. “If it accounted for poverty, then there would be some sort of normal distribution of wealth and poverty across both races, not a poor Black class and a white dominant class. But the historical social, economic and political repression can explain why the Blacks are down.”
“Should Blacks have equal protection under the law, the Fourteenth Amendment?” Ted asked him.
“I dough no if I agree with that,” Barney said, suspicious of smelling something very foul. It was clear that he didn’t. Probably thought it was a communist idea.
“Wy lemee teya nowya. Do ya know how much things of changed since Iyas a boy in the fiftees?” he said. “Then ouya Blacks diden even come ta high schooh.”
“Sure, the schools were not integrated then,” Ted said. “But what else has changed?”
“Oh Blacks coulden come inta white restaurants back then,” he said, as if they were free to do so now.
“Are there any restaurants like that today where Blacks can’t come into?” Ted asked.
“Oh shuya,” he said, “but I ain't seen any Blacks getten thrown out,” he lied. “Abou niney percent of oya resrants nowya are ahl white. They’s one resrant, thas Black. Ah been in theya myself and bought food. But ah didn’t eat it there. Ah took it out. Ah diden sit down and eat it riya theya.”
“Then is it true that then it was about one hundred percent segregated and now it is about 90 percent?”
“No, no, theys been a lotta change,” he said.
“Do you think there should there be more change?” Ted asked.
“Yes, theya should be more change,” he lied. “But should be slow. Not too fast.”
Yes, Ted thought. The asshole wanted to wait until he was dead and gone and then it wouldn’t bother him.
“I just cannot understand how someonie in America could support that,” Ted kept fucking with his stupid mind. “We talk about rights and equal rights and then we tell someone, ok, you stay down there. We’ll help you down there and just let you up a little at a time. How can that be justified? How can these people claim to be so moralistic about prayer in public schools, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and all that, and not even believing in human equality, they pretend to be so religious and moral. It looks to me like they are just big hypocrits.”
“Weh, may be Ah’m a hypacrit,” he said.
“I wasn’t referring to you,” Ted lied, “but there seems to be a lot of people like that around.
“Genaly Ah try to not have these kines of taks. Dough know how ah got inta this one,” he said.
“You got into it by asking me what I thought about Cotton State,” Ted reminded him.
“Yea, weh guess that’s wheya ah went wrong,” he said.
Ted hoped he wouldn’t send the Ku Klux Klan after him. He could well be a member. Who knows. Probably was. That would add up.
“Well, I think it is alright to talk about it,” Ted said. “To try to understand why society is like it is.”
“Don’t you think thats ok? Its difficult for me to understand how people can just go around and never question anything and think that things are just nice the way they are when you have those hovels for Blacks down in one section and the big houses for the white elites.”
“Weh, whenya been raised up in a place like is, then ya jist sahta like it that way,” he said, spilling the truth.
“Well, my experience is not the same because where I grew up in North Missouri, even though there were no Blacks, you had classes and class repression. Certain people were kept down because of their class background and name and where they lived, in the “west end” of the town. I reject that kind of elite and classist repression and would reject it here also, I think, if I had grown up here.”
“It seems to me that there are two types of people,” Ted said, living more dangerously now, “those that have the mentality to take up and support the underdogs and those who support those who are already in control. I don’t understand the psychology of those who always take the side of the elites and the strong against the weak.”
Barker then began to quickly plead his innocence.
“Ah aint done anythin. Ah don’t have anythin to do with it,” he said, as if washing his hands of the whole thing.
Close one’s eyes and the problem will go away, Ted thought. Its not there because I don’t see it.
“Don’t you think that by doing nothing you are actually contributing to the existing situation?” Ted said.
“It is probably so,” he seemed to soften up some.
“In tha sixties when we was forced to integrate the schools, we diden do it on oya own,” he continued. “But they wasen any vilence. The Blacks gathad up in the administration buildin and refused to leave and then the police brought the bus and arrested all of em and took em all to Parchment prison. Kept them ovanight.” That was the state penitentiary.
Of course, the authorities would never use violence, Ted thought cynically.
“They was a black girh who woked at oya bookstore. She saw the bus leavin with the prisners and she asked em to stop the bus so she could go withem. And she did. The leadahs were some baaahd cayactahs.”
It wasn’t surprising to Ted that the leaders would not have a very positive image. They would be lucky to stay alive. A lot of them didn’t.
Ted had a sinking feeling that he had blown it. He was guilty as hell. He could be strung from the highest limb. His floating body fished out of the Tallahatchie River. He knew that Barker would certainly be angry angry and never forget until his dying day . In the South, they ain’t but two kinds of people in the world. Southerners and Yankees and he had put himself squarely in the enemy camp. Worse than that, things like he had said to Barker clearly identified him not only as a Yankee, which was not so bad, as they also had their racist side. They could screw Blacks too. They could even earn their laurrels as honorary southerners, if they screwed enough of them bad enough. Like the Delta Chinese had done. But rooting for true equality, as Ted had done, was a different can of worms altogether. Those were fighting words. A casus belli. Got one labelled as a communist. The South was not so hostile to anything so much as equality. That was the red flag par excellence, a proposition up with which they could not put! When would the shit hit the fan? He groaned inside. He should have kept his fucking mouth shut. Literally. He would feel shivers up his back when darkness fell. Well, fuck it, he thought, if these people were so backward that they could not even discuss something, then that was their problem. If they didn’t want him around, and they clearly didn’t, he had always considered himself fortunate when he moved on to geener pastures anyway. If he was still alive.
Chapter Four: No Phone, No Pool, No Pets
When he got the key to the apartment, he started settling in. He first had to collect the moving allowance. The five hundred bucks was not enough to get him to the first paycheck six months away, so he had to borrow another three hundred dollars from the business office, which would be deducted from his first pay. It was humiliating having to go that route, but he had taken his pay over nine months at South Carolina, and there was no way to stretch the last month’s rent though the whole summer. In California he had earned a little money writing abstracts for an abstracting company and collected a few weeks of unemployment compensation. But when the Employment Development Office found out that he was a teacher and had a job starting in the Fall, they came after him to pay back the few hundred dollars they had paid him in the summer.
He told them that he had filled out the applications honestly and had revealed everything, so if they had paid him mistakenly, it was not his fault. Nevertheless, he was under fire from them and threatened as if he had been a dangerous criminal. There would be a non-judicial hearing. What did that mean? He would not be there, of course, but in Mississippi teaching his classes and trying to support his family and pay his bills. Let them do whatever the hell they wanted. He had done nothing wrong. The next day he moved into the apartment, using the last of his meager funds to get the lights and water turned on. A telephone would have to wait till later. And some spartan furniture. No TV, but he could get a small radio from Walmart with his credit card. He would limp along on his credit card for the month and a half till his first pay came at the first of October. Depressing. And he was not a slackard. He was busting his ass. Still stuck in the pitts after all those years in graduate school. He would use the rest of his cash for food and gas and the bare necessities.
Leaving his family was not as difficult as it had been last year. When he finished his doctorate, his wife, Laxmi enrolled in an undergraduafe program and they could stay in family housing for some additional time. Local apartments were beyond their reach to rent. His older daughter, Angie, was fourteen and entering high school. She had her circle of friends of a California breed. It would be cruel to subject her to the American South. His younger one, Kattie, was four and starting to pre-school. It had torn him up missing her the first year, but it was not so difficult this year. He figured they would be much better off in California, given everything. Still if the family was to hold together, they should probably stay together, but one had to roll with the waves in life. He would be back to California in the semester breaks.
The place of his apartment was not terribly unpleasant as a retreat. Except that the university band practiced in the field behind his apartment. Blasting out their phony enthusiasm, into the putrid stinking chemically satuated air. Stupid, he thought, no getting away from it. He was right next to the university. It put students into his mind to hear that booming and drumming and that was not good. Tanner, a professor in the business department, had planted pine trees around the apartment, making a small woodsy perimeter. It was a two story wooden building with two apartments below and two above. There was a wooden stairway and a small wooden deck in front and a small gravel parking lot. Across the way were more of Tanner's apartments. Purely utilitarian. But it was off the street and quiet most of the time.
Since he hoped he would not be there long, he decided not to sink money into furniture. He would just have to leave it behind. If he could pick up some used things from the Salvation Army, that would suffice. But he found the situation even more bleak than in South Carolina. The nearest thrift store was in Greenville, but there was nothing there. Just a pile of junk. Where people are poor, somehow things get more expensive, at least used furniture is treated as if it is worth its weight in gold. He would have to do without for a while.
What he needed worst was a desk, that could serve for a table as well. He would make it himself. He went down to the lumber yard and had a couple of sheets of plywood cut up. Bought an electric drill and screws, and put it together. He found a book shelf at a yard sale for a ten dollar bill. He would forget about a bed. He actually liked sleeping on the floor. There was a carpet and he was used to it from the year before. Anyway, it was said that it was more healthy to sleep on a hard surface. He went to the grocery store and got some food in his refridgerator. People in the grocery store started giving him stange stares. “Where did you come from,” they were probably thinking. Almost all in the upscale store were white. They looked stupid to him. And the blacks did not want to talk to whites. He bought some chocolate ice cream. Had to have that, and was set for the year to begin. And then cooked up a big pot of hot chili. That was easy and satisfying food. He would walk to class just across that practice field.
Classes started in the last week of August. It was still hot. He spent the weekends busting his ass to get the first Supreme Court cases in his head. He was a novice at that, but would hit the ground running. He would make it through. In the other days of the week, he could prepare for the other classes which he was more familiar with.
At the end of the weekend, tense about the Constitutional Law, which he had to understand on his own, he lay awake Sunday evening till four in the morning. One of those nights when sleep just wouldn’t come. He got up at nine to start writing the syllabus and trying to see how much it would be appropriate to cover. The previous instructor had tried to cover the whole book in a semester. Not possible, he concluded. He would cut it back to a reasonable level. After all, he had to learn it too before he could run with it.
Classes had started with many students not bothering to attend the first classes. They were even more laid back than in South Carolina. There was no pressure to excell in teaching, even though he wished to. No pressure to publish. Most people did not bother. The main thing was to keep one’s nose clean and not to antagonise the students. Keep the farm running along smoothly.
Classes started normally, but then there was no way to really tell what the students were thinking in those early days, indeed, if they were thinking anything at all. He would probe that later. Students generally had very dim ideas.
Keep your nose clean and your fence painted white, as one veteran professor in the place kept saying. That was what it took in Mississippi. That was the ticket.
Chapter Five: Saving America
Clouds moved across the Delta sky slowly filling up the patches of blue between them. The cotton had been picked and baled and taken to market or stacked in ricks. The rains came down in buckets full with warnings of tornados. It turned colder. When the clouds moved away, the mornings were cool and crisp. Ted did his work, taught his classes. But found himself hard up for emotional support and any female companionship. In that respect it was good that the law class and writing kept him so busy, filling up most of his weekends. Otherwise he thought he would have gone nuts.
It was October. The Presidential election campaign was on. Tacky cardboard signs littered the lawns around town. Almost all of them Republican. Mississippi was electing a new senator to replace an aging one. There was to be a campaign rally in the town following the fish fry. The catfish industry had recently emerged as a spark of economic hope for the area. Brent Trott, the Republican candidate, was scheduled to be there and give a speech. Ted thought it was an opportunity to do some local soakin and pokin in Mississippi politics.
He cautiously approached the crowd of locals at the venue on the north edge, the white section, of the town. There were businessmen in ties and coats, prosperous looking landowners and some working class. Cops with heavy guts and guns on their hips. He spotted just a couple blacks. That was all. He got some catfish, and felt silly, eating Brent Trott’s catfish, almost guilty, but he was operating undercover. Just curious. He had to slip around, being one of those Volvo-driving pinkos with a beard. He was not going to be fooled by anything. There was endless smoking which irritated Ted, especially when people blew the smoke right into his face. His eyes began to burn. Lumpen elements, he thought. There was no doubt that Trott was going to be elected, but he would not get a majority in the Delta, with its majority black population. The blacks would vote for Dwayne Dandy, the Democrat. Ted didn’t like either one of them, but Dandy was a little more socially progressive. The state went way beyond being conservative, to absolutely reactionary in Ted’s view.
He joined the crowd in the VFW Hall, sitting well back, to observe the happenings. The affair opened with the pledge of allegiance. He played along. What the hell.
Then a group of young kids, all male, all white, sons of Mississippi, from a local high school, were brought out to sing the national anthem.
This was followed by a prayer, in which celebrating Christopher Columbus was combined with the request that the audience pray for Brent Trott. It would be more appropriate to pray for his victims, Ted thought.
Then there was a singer from the Lawrence Welk Show who assured the audience that Brent Trott would “insure your future” Brent Trott, from Tupelo, for Mississippi.
“He is a good man. Get everybody to go out and vote for him. We should be running him up to Washington.”
“Now everybody clap your hands to this song.”
“I’m from Tupelo and I love Mississippi. He’s the one, Mississippi, He’s the one. He’s the one. He’s the one Mississippi I see. He’s the one. Brent Trott for Senator, He’s the one. We’re worried about tomorrow. The world’s out of hand. There’s nothing we can do. Oh yes there is. Get out and vote often then for Trott. Mississippi deserves a Trott. Brent Trott for Mississippi. Just like the Mississippi carries water to the Gulf of Mexico.”
The driveling shit of the song ended, dying a deserved death. Not only could he not clap to that inane crap, Ted felt a sinking feeling. Ah, Jesus, this shit is a lot worse than I imagined, he thought. A lot worse than the worst heart-burn he had ever felt. He felt quite ill. But he had to go on with it now. Well, it was instructive for a political scientist. This was, after all, politics, American style. Polly means many and ticks are blood sucking animals, as Utah Phillips used to say. Politicians are so crooked, they have to screw theit socks on in the mornin’.
“When Mississippi elects a Senator, they elect one for twenty-five years,” the speaker intoned. And he wasn’t shitting. The imbecile went on. “We need one who is conservative, like Brent Trott is. He was voted one of the six in the House most outstanding in the South. He wrote the budget that the US is operating under right now and a highly respected, great leader.” Enough reason to make one ill, Ted thought. Oh God. This is worse than I thought.
The man himself came to the microphone. Ted was amazed at his size. Like a little shrimp. Short. Jesus, that son of a bitch looks twice as big on TV, he thought. Amazing how the camera can transform the world. That little sawed off greaser. Slick. He could have made a good used car salesman or a lobbyist. Maybe that would be his future, once his lying was honed a little more sharply.
“Just thanks to everybody. There’s nothing sweeter than young boys’ voices till they start dropping off a cliff. I know where the Delta is. In l959, I came to the University of Mississippi in Oxford. What America is all about is friendship, the family, praying together, strong moral values. I want to preserve those things in Mississippi that are so valuable to you. That’s what its all about. To have the opportunity I had. Be able to go college. We ought to think about blessings. America is at peace. No men and women at war. Sustained peace for twelve years, because we have built military strength. I was worrying about strength of the military. We have rebuilt our strength. We need to remember how prosperous Americans are. The economy is growing.” The string of lies rolled off his tongue and out the sides of his lips as his southern drawl filled the room.
“I want to stay close to the people. Call Brent or write a letter. I am going to have an office in Northwest Mississippi, not just for political purposes. Get a message to Congress. Mississippi needs to move forward on the economy, need jobs, good paying jobs, and federal assistance. We are making progress on highways, industrial start ups, airports, and will have a full time economic development assistant in Washington. We have to go for it to get industry. I will be an active spokesman for the state. All people need is more opportunity. We need drug legislation. Must say no to gun control legislation. I am a strong supporter of the Social Security Trust Fund. I’m asking for your vote. It’ll affect our lives for years to come. My father worked in the shipyards in Pascagoula.”
Mercifully, the lies droned to an end. All boiler plate. Right-wing clap trap and empty promises, that meant the opposite of the way it sound. Ted had to get the hell out of that place. What the fuck was he doing in this place anyway. Well, there’s American politics for you, he thought.
A local law firm and some businessmen, the establishment, had erected a large sign on the highway near the junction of the two main highways. It was mounted on an old wagon with Bush signs all around it. At the top was a banner: “Save America, Vote for Bush”
Ted had seen the sign several times and it started to get under his skin. It was sending a not so subtle message to the locals, that any advance of the underclasses of society was a threat to the ruling class. He had heard people referring to Dukakis as that “little Greek.” It was racism and near-fascism, Ted thought. He wanted to expose if for what it was. The instructor who tought criminal justice next door, Bernie Shaw, in his office was calling Dukakis “Zorba the Greek,” “Jimmy the Greek,” and “Jimmy the Beak.” That’s racist, Ted thought. Those idiots need to be exposed. It is so “unamerican” in spirit. Save America? What they really mean is “save racism, save fascism”. In a way, it is true. They are saving it for the rich. The underclasses will never get their share of what they have produced. That is their real hidden agenda and what they intend to ensure.
The Jewish sociologist, Eric Goodman, was amused at Bernie’s fulminations. “Tell me, Bernie,”he said, “why are you going to vote for Bush?
“I am going to vote for him just because he is a nice guy,” Bernie said, sounding as dead serious as he was stupid. Straw for brains, Ted thought. What would one expect? Ted liked him ok, as far as that goes. A good old boy. A retired policeman. But who could trust him? No longer young, relatively harmless, poor guy. Out to pasture.
Bernie had tortured blacks in the civil rights movement as a policeman in Jackson in the sixties. An older black student told how he had arrested a group of blacks on a hot summer day and thrown them in the back of the police van with the heater going full blast.
Ted decided to go for it and wrote a letter to the local town paper. It would be a daring act to actually send it to the paper. But somehow, he couldn’t just let the sons of bitches get by with that without getting whacked from some quarter. Oh God. The temptation was so juicy. Sometimes he went a little too far. Way too far. It was not an open society. There was really no freedom and democracy there. He hated to go on the attack, but clearly somebody needed to do it. He was sure that the blacks felt hostile about that sign. He was going to get himself lynched yet.
To the Burdick Times:
Can anything be done here that does not reek of racism? I am referring to the banner that has been hoisted above the Bush-Trott sign in Weazleville: “Save America, Vote for Bush.” This must mean many things to many people, depending on ones particular prejuduces, such as, “save America from that subversive little Greek immigrant.” Or “keep America in the hands of the whites. Don’t allow a progressive like Dukakis to be elected that would expand opportunities for the underclasses. Vote for someone who will change nothing. Our heads will remain firmly planted in the sand forever. Amen.”
Just what, I would like to know, is so American about that? I have always thought that one ideal in America was equality and opportunity for all, not for one race, class, sex, or ethnic group. We are a nation of immigrants, blacks, whites and everyone else except native American Indians. Only a racist argument could support the inherent rights of one group over those of another. But Bush is seen as a super patriotic “American.” Dukakis is seen as a “Greek,” in Mississippi. Does that not smack of a racist mentality? Obviously both candidates were born and raised in the United States and one is no more “American” than the other.
Our democratic institutions have roots in the political thought of the ancient Greeks and the system of direct democracy that was established in Athens. I hardly think that we need to fear that a “Greek” is somehow a threat to the American system by virtue of the fact that she or he is of Greek ancestry.
Dukakis, it is implied, will somehow lose America. How will Bush save it? Or it might be better to ask who will he save it for? I suggest for “the rich,” that is unless the Japanese buy up the rest of it first!
The best evidence of this is seen in the Reagan-Bush Administration. Clearly the rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer. The national debt has skyrocketed to over three trillion dollars, so that American is now the largest debtor nation. Our trade deficits have grown to 170 billion dollars a year. Educational standards have fallen and the quality of the work force has declined, relative to Western Europe and Japan. Real hourly earnings have dropped more than four percent. There are eighteen nations with lower infant mortality rates than the US.
On the social front, the thrust of the Reagan-Bush Administration has been to steadily erode civil rights and economic opportunities for blacks, which were hard won during the l960s. This has solidly won Bush the white vote in the South. The Republican Party hears the drum beat of those who march beneath a racist banner. But racism will not “save America” any more than it saved the South. Its stench portends the doom of nations and peoples wallowing in this cesspool of hate, whether in Weasleville, Miss. or Pretoria, South Africa. Apartheid, though clad in (red, white, and blue) sheep’s clothing, will be relegated to the scrapheap of history.
Sincerely, Ted Grover
He got a call from the editor asking him if he had written the letter. He confessed to the crime. He waited for it to appear. Waited for the shit to hit the fan. It would hit it somewhere. No shit.
A few days later the letter appeared, just as he had written it. He learned from a student in one of his classes that a group of lawyers were responsible for the sign and that one of them was the student’s father. He said that he gave it to his father to read. Oh shit!
There were progressives within the pores of Mississippi society. A couple of people complimented him on the letter. A middle aged woman who worked in the library had his letter taped to her wall and said that she agreed with every word of it. She told Ted that every time she saw the sign, she just wanted to get out and tear it down. Those God damn Republicans think that the American flag stands for racism and apartheid,” Ted thought. “No one has replied at all to my letter. That shows how bankrupt they are. They are cowards and know that I’m right. They can only defend themselves with violence. That is the only way.”
Huge raindrops were plumeting out of the sky, banging against the metal drain pipe, soaking the wooden railing around his little balcony and drenching the leaves of the little tree whose leaves were now turning yellow, orange and red in the autumn air.
It was a lonely existence. Sweet Home, Mississippi.