Crusing Through Georgia
On the Road Riding the Big Dog
Further reflections from my Journey through the New South
It was a strange sensation cruising through Georgia early in the morning on the day the eagle files, reversing General Sherman’s route from Atlanta to the sea, while listening to a conversation about lynching on “Democracy Now!,” hosted by Amy Goodman on Pacifica Radio. It was recorded from an earlier show and I was listening on my Walkman as NYU Sociologist Troy Duster, and Princeton historian Nell Painter discussed the history of lynching in the US. The discussion had been occasioned by the apology issued by the United States Senate atoning for the failure of that body to pass a federal anti-lynching law during a century in which black Americans were publicly crucified for the slightest offense to the prerogatives of white power, real or imagined.
As both of these scholars pointed out, the real significance of the formal apology from the Senate was that it acknowledged a period when crimes against black humanity were either codified in law, or tacitly accepted in custom. And both of them believed that Senate’s acknowledgement of this practice provided and opportunity to commence a national dialogue about the consequences of America’s racial caste system on the status of whites and blacks in America today. A conversation that is long overdue, because we cannot progress beyond where we are in race relations until this question has been honestly examined.
Riding through sleepy little Georgia towns like Hinesville and Richmond Hill on my way from the lovely coastal city of Brunswick, where I had said goodbye to my senior daughter Sandra and boarded a 6:30 am bus for the seven hour ride to Atlanta, I experienced many scenes that conjured up images of the old south I remembered from the bad old days when “white supremacy” was the unambiguous governing philosophy of the south, and its institutional arrangements were rigorously enforced by ritual murder. In order to service the small towns that used to be whistle stops back in the golden age of passenger trains, the big dog prowled the back roads, affording me a glimpse of what’s left of the old south that is enshrined in memory and legend, and preserved in history and literature.
As I looked at the thick woods whose trees were draped with gray Spanish moss, the open fields with occasional flocks of grazing cows, the grand houses and humble abodes announcing the inhabitant’s station in society, I was reminded what life was like for black folk during most of this state’s history, the centuries old injustices that white Americans are trying their best to forget or deny. In the cinema of my mind I could envision gangs of black folks in tattered rags toiling from first light to deep dusk, wresting earth’s bounty from the red clay soil. And I could imagine the whips, and chains, and rapes, and all the forms of coercion and violence that were a normal part of the life of African Americans in a society where they were defined as three quarters of a man at the birth of the nation. And some seventy years later, in 1857, the Supreme Court would announce in the Dred Scott Decision: “The Negro has no rights that a white man is bound to respect!”
A Land Watered with African Blood, Sweat and Tears
Slave labor tilling these fields was the economic foundation of the south
The countless crimes against the humanity of African people are a subject that now embarrasses America’s claims as a land that has always stood for freedom and justice, a claim that the US elite has used to justify their invasion of countries like Iraq. Thus African Americans are implored to forgive and forget. But to ask a victim to forget and forgive a crime that the perpetrator has never admitted committing, nor formally apologized for, or attempted to redress, is an outrage against the very notion of justice. I however would argue, like Frederick Douglass almost a hundred and fifty years ago, “Now is not the time for the gentle shower but the whirlwind!”
Thus rather than forget the bloody history of Georgia which, like Surinam, began as a prison colony where the dregs of British society were settled, we need to remember this history. One of the most pleasurable ways of doing this is turn to the writings of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois in his 1903 revelations of our spiritual strivings in The Souls of Black Folk, and Jean Toomer’s path breaking Harlem Renaissance novel Cane. It would be quite enlightening to compare the portraits they painted of rural and urban life in the peach state with life in the region today.
While there remains little of the poetic beauty in Georgia’s countryside that Toomer portrays in Blood Burning Moon, the tendency towards the worship of dollars that DuBois saw developing and warns against in his essay On the Wings of Atalanta, has fully come to pass. Atlanta is the ultimate consumer society, where vulgar materialism runs amuck and most people’s dreams rarely extend beyond the next trinket they wish to acquire. And, in one of the many perversions of Jesus Christ’s teachings that has been the hall mark of Christianity in the American South; they justify their lust for material things – a kind of modern idolatry – with biblical references. It is called “The Prosperity gospel.” Here the connections are clear between the values of Protestantism and capitalism that the great German sociologist, Max Weber, described in his classic text Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic. And, of paramount importance to us today, as historians of the holocaust have shown: It was also evangelical protestants – much like those who put Bush in the White House – that was the backbone of the Nazi movement in Germany that put Hitler in power.
The city of Savanna, which was famed for its wealth and cultural life in Ante-Bellum times, offers a revealing look at life in a contemporary southern city. Perhaps the most impressive symbol of progress and modernity is the magnificent suspension bridge that spans the bay. Like the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, this bridge is a work of art. And although I advance this as a suspicion only, I’d bet the family jewels that the structural engineer who designed it was inspired by Colonel Robeling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, who sought not simply to solve the problem of spanning a roadway across the Hudson Bay, but to create “a work of art in steel.” But since the triumph of the cost accountants, those calculator totin philistines who dictate the aesthetics of large structures by ruthlessly controlling its cost – as if a price can be placed upon beauty – art has been abandoned in favor of economics.
But not so in Savanna; here esthetics was not sacrificed to the imperatives of cost accounting. This bridge, like the Brooklyn Bridge, is not only a work of art but the also state of the art in design engineering. Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge, or the more functional and efficiently constructed George Washington and Verrazano bridges, the cables do not run all the way to the piers on each side of the bay, instead they rise like the steeple of a grand temple to human ingenuity cast in stainless steel, towering over the landscape like a modern Colossus of Rhodes. However, when this imposing edifice is viewed from certain perspectives it reveals a harrowing portrait of the stratification of life in Savanna.
A Tale of Two Cities
In Black Savanna
The opulence and progress symbolized by the bridge sharply contrasts with the unemployed and impoverished young men, who are mostly black, who dwell in public projects – government subsidized hovels – and the homeless shelter near the bus station. When I peeped them hovering around the river banks I thought of Katrina’s victims and reflected on the fact that should a massive hurricane smash into Savanna they would fare no better. These dramatic cleavages in wealth and opportunity are, alas, the true face of the New South. They no longer lynch young black men down here; they simply starve them into crime or homelessness if they belong to the working class. But for the well educated bourgeois blacks, the sweet smell of the bitch goddess of success is everywhere. Hence Afro-Americans live in a schizoid Dickensian era: “The Best of Times and the worst of times.”
The Homeless Shelter Across From Bus Station
A place of refuge for the down and out
Let me hasten to add that I mention this fact only as a statement of reality; it is not intended as an indictment of the success of the newly minted black middle class. For most of these people have arrived at their station in life through hard work and serious study, which required personal discipline and the ability to defer gratification – the ability to forego the party now so that they can later party for life. Thus, unlike the progeny of the plutocrats, they didn’t inheriet wealth and thus deserve what they have acquired. If I have any serious criticism of this new black bourgeoisie, it is that far too many of them spend far too little time strategizing and struggling to plan and implement policies and programs that would uplift those left behind and cast upon the scrapheap of society by the impersonal forces of unregulated free market capitalism. Too many of them have gleefully joined the orgy of vulgar materialism that is the hall mark of the ultimate consumer society.
Yet for Dr. Dubois, who first called for the creation of a highly educated black middle class in his 1903 essay “Of the Talented Tenth”- which was written while he lived in Atlanta – this kind of leadership was their reason for being. And he made this abundantly clear a half century later in his 1958 book In Battle for Peace, written a year after Dr. E. Franklin Frazier published his revealing book Black Bourgeoisie. Yet I hasten to add, in spite of the shortcomings of many members of the new Afro-American middle class, the fact remains that it is from the “Talented Tenth,” which has grown into the “Talented Third,” that that most of the positive ideas and actions that are presently guiding black Americans to higher around and greater aspirations come from this class.
Furthermore, the disparagement of their success – which they achieved against tremendous odds in a society where, despite the civil rights laws passed in the 1960’s, institutional racism lives on in custom if not in law – is to risk celebrating failure the way some of us radicals did in the sixties. This misguided strategy led to what I now recognize as the romance of the lumpen element, most notably by the Black Panthers, an ideology that has now come back to plague us in Gangta rap. These ideas were clearly at the root of the antisocial bravado that led to the demise of Tupuc Shakur, a gifted artist who could not adjust to his success and thus was destroyed in a tragedy of his own making. Tupac’s story reminds me of the tale of a six foot man who drowned in three feet of water; all he had to do was recognize the reality of his situation and stand up!
However, while celebrating their achievements, we must also be wary of how the success of the black bourgeoisie is often employed to camouflage the true condition of the black working class by right-wing apologists for the glaring inequities in contemporary American society. And down in Georgia, such apologists come in all colors, just check out Uncle Clarence Thomas, who hails from a little country town in these parts.
When I inquired about the state of race relations in Brunswick Georgia, my daughter Sandra – a smart and godly woman – simply told me that the white folks were a lot nicer than they used to be but it was still hard for young black men to land good paying blue collar jobs at the mills. She said the white women in Brunswick were crazy about black men but white men were not happy to have them as competitors – in the marketplace or the bedroom. In fact, my grandson Kelvin, Sandra’s only child, who is the same age as my son Samori – his uncle- is experiencing problems that arise directly from this racial competition.
Married to a southern white woman and working with her as a team in managing a motel situated on a notorious vice ridden strip in Brunswick, where he is known as “Big Kel,” Kelvin is acutely aware of the residual cultural and institutional racism in the “new south.” Unable to even imagine what my generation endured under the southern caste system, most of what bugs him would have been considered light-weight action in my day, Kelvin is well aware that everything ain’t kosher down here in the “dirty south,” dispite what appears to be monumental changes in race relations since I left the south four decades ago. In fact, he is so aware of the residual racism and closet neo- Nazi white supremacist that he has written some brilliant comic skits based on such characters.
The young black working class males I met while moving around town with him were quite candid in discussing their desperate economic plight. One young man in his early twenties told me how he went out daily in a futile effort to find employment at a living wage, supporting himself by cutting hair in his apartment – an illegal activity without a license. Although I think the arguments of right-wing economists, like Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, that the solution to the problems of the unemployed and underemployed is to scrap all government regulation of private enterprise are ludicrous, I think it equally absurd that this young man could have problems with the law for providing a constructive service that people want. Another twenty-something male, who was struggling to make ends meet laboring in a fast food joint, discerned in the course of our conversation that I was not religious, picked up his Bible and announced with heart rending passion, “Yo Old School, this is the only thing that’s keeping a lotta dudes I know from going off and hurtin somebody; cause it’s rough tryna make it out here.”
The Illusion of tranquility in Brunswick Georgia
These pristine streets disguise the perculating race and class conflicts
And so does these elegant Victorians
A blast from the past conjuring up a genteel life
Although he was a friendly young man who appeared to be of fine character, he had been forced by economic necessity to become a vendor of wisdom weed – another economic crime. And because I believe the anti-marijuana laws represent the “Tyranny of the majority” that Alexis de Touqville warned us about as a danger to democracy – as well as my commitment to supporting local entrepreneurs, especially when they offer high quality merchandise at fair prices, I patronized the young entrepreneur’s parlor in the spirit of defending democracy and promoting community enterprise. As I sat and sampled his wares, mellow as a cello, the door was suddenly kicked in and we were confronted with a masked robber wielding a Glock!
Although he was talking loud gangsta talk and ordering us around while holding the Roscoe in that sideways style that has been popularized in New Jack flicks and gangsta rap videos, it was clear that he was as scared as we were. Since I was no stranger to gun totin desperadoes – having lived on the edge of Washington Heights during the Crack wars of the 80’s – I maintained my cool. Furthermore, aside from my training in the use of weapons by the Strategic Air Command, including knife fighting – and I had my razor on me – I’ve been steeled in the fires of struggle and trained for trouble! So when it became clear to me that murder was not on the gunman’s mind, that he only intended to fleece my host of his weed and coin, I really chilled out and considered the irony of a New York sharpie getting taken off by a Georgia boy in a one horse town. I would have never lived it down.
All of this, however, brings us back to the central point that Professor Troy Duster was making. As one of the authors of the critically important study White Washing Race, Prof. Duster is concerned with how racial discrimination operates today, after the collapse of the legal racial caste system. And he argues that the prison /industrial complex is used as a major form of socio/political controls which limits Afro-American competition with whites for the economic goods of this affluent society. When one considers that a prison record restricts the ex-con’s access to the job market and often denies them the right to vote, the veracity of Dusters argument is undeniable. When we observe the problems that young black men with clean records are having finding gainful employment – studies show that white men with criminal records routinely fare better – one does not have to be a seer in order to imagine what they will face when seeking honest employment. And this, needless to say, is the main reason why prisons have had a revolving door for so many young black males.
Down here in the south on can also clearly see how economic hardship –along with a hyper-patriotic mindset born of a bizarre mixture of guns, God and football – leads young black and white males into the military services, where they wind up in places like Iraq fighting the imperialist wars of the plutocrats. Even as I write, the story of Sergeant Ricky Stanley is featured on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Titled “A Soldiers Fear and Faith,” it tells us how this humble family man from the small hamlet of Dublin Georgia struggles to make sense of the war in Iraq where his National Guard unit was dispatched. I was just in Dublin the day before, and I can imagine what the horrors of life must be like in Iraq when I read how badly he yearns to return to this boring Hick town, which Sgt. Stanley makes sound like paradise.
Although he had a job working in a factory, like many week end soldiers Stanley probably joined the National Guard to defend the homeland and make a few extra dollars on the side. And like almost everybody down here in Georgia he believes God is watching over him in spite of the fact that he is part of an invading army, stationed in a desert thousands of miles from home, in constant danger of being blown to bits over a criminal policy concocted by lying scoundrels! For to my mind “Dirty Dick” Chaney, George II, Carl Rove, “Scooter” Libby, Condoslezza and the rest of the Bushmen look just like what I’d imagine the devil and his minions would look like in twenty-first century America.
Yet Sgt. Stanley doesn’t even suspect that the Devil may have had a hand in what looks to me like a god-forsaken position that he now finds himself in. Instead he recounts an incident where he was very nearly killed by a circle of bombs rigged by the insurgents, and concludes “Only by the grace of God are we alive. Even though we’ve got .50 caliber machine guns, I’ll take God and his word any day.” His response was typical of the type of fundamentalist Christian that I have repeatedly encountered all over the south. Perhaps nothing demonstrates his faith that God is personally watching over him more than his mantra before going out on a combat mission: “Oh Lord, dispatch your angels to watch over me tonight.”
From all indications, Sergeant Stanley doesn’t have a clue why he is in Iraq, and although he complains about being sent out on so many dangerous missions when other soldiers are not even being trained to undertake such missions, he does not appear to believe that his race has anything to do with it. However when I showed a friend a picture of Stanley leading a prayer meeting in Iraq, he thought it was being held in a black church down here in Georgia. That’s how segregated black and white Christians are when they pray, even when they face death together on a daily basis!
Yet, like all of America’s wars since Korea, black youths make up a disproportionate percentage of infantry forces, which is the most dangerous place to be in a war. That’s why so many of our young people are returning home from the hellish experience of combat broken of body and spirit…if they return at all. Hence there is a bitter irony in the fact that the Christian revivalist movement sweeping the nation – in which beaucoup black folks are stalwart Christian soldiers – is a major reason why Bush is in the White House wreaking havoc on the black community and the Third World.
The other-worldly, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific approach encouraged by this fundamentalist dogma is a large part of the reason why the electorate, Boobus Americanus, is so shamefully ignorant of the facts they need to know in order to make intelligent decisions about whom to put in power. Hence Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that the claims of religionist should be subjected to the rigorous test of reason remains good advice not taken. And his prediction that an ignorant electorate will elect the worst people to office has come true. No one bears more guilt for this tragic state of affairs than the Evangelical Christians of the “dirty South!”