The crowd at George Floyd Square hears the verdict … pic.twitter.com/XmjdRR8njl
— Nick Ferraro (@NFerraroPiPress) April 20, 2021
We stopped Tuesday in the middle of my class on writing memoir to listen to the verdict in Minneapolis that will send the policeman who murdered George Floyd to jail on all three counts. It was a moment of celebration for all of us, perhaps especially for the participants from Lexington, Kentucky, a city that has always seemed to me to be more southern than it has any right to be from its geographical position.
It’s impossible now to write a memoir about growing up in Kentucky or anywhere else without considering Black Lives Matter and the intoxicating and productive protests that have followed each of the seven or eight police murders that have occurred during the year past, and that continue to occur. We are a militarized country, guns are everywhere, and we have never outgrown the preoccupation with revenge and retaliation that spurred the revolts in the coal mines in the 1930’s and the mountain revenge stories Mark Twain managed to turn into humor in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck encounters two families at war in the Appalachian mountains.
But, as always, there are other sides to the stories. One of my students—not from the South—sent us an excerpt from the memoir he is writing. It begins, memorably, with a scene in his mother’s kitchen—this would have been in the 1940’s—when she gives their African-American housekeeper a plate of leftovers from the family’s dinner, including “some leftover beef stew.”
Ruth, the housekeeper, seemed to the seven-year-old boy to be “overwhelmed with gratitude, claiming it to be so delicious and wonderful, “jest lahk a Sundey dinah.” The little boy wondered, “How some ordinary two-day-old leftovers from the family table could mean so much to another person.”
Using dialect in a piece of writing now offends almost all readers and has become impossible, even when the writer is trying to convey the tone of a particular voice. We all began to discuss the pros and cons of “Political Correctness”—that now dreaded phrase—agreeing that as white people we have no right to assume anything about African-Americans—and also that the discussion would have been difficult if not impossible if the group had included a dark-skinned person.
Trying to dig a little deeper, I asked each student to write a sentence describing the thoughts the housekeeper might have kept to herself while accepting with gratitude the leftover food. As they read their sentences aloud, their soft Kentucky voices added particular poignancy, for me, to their statements. All expressed various versions of the same gratitude the writer had assumed.
My sentences instead expressed the buried resentment and anger which, it seemed to me, might lie underneath and contradict Ruth’s expression of gratitude.
But then I wondered… Several of my students are from Appalachia where the accents, and the choice of words, often seem to correlate with African-American speech. One woman had grown up as the daughter of a small storeowner outside Lexington where she remembered friendly everyday exchanges between white and black customers. This experience does not pretend to negate the hideous results of racism in our country, exemplified by police murders of black people. And yet it is always worth remembering, in writing as in life, that there are subtle and varying interpretations to everything we see and do.
As a sequel, I was gratified to read in this morning’s New York Times a statement I’ve been waiting for for years:
“What opinion polls have not captured well is whether white liberals will change the behaviors—like opting for segregated schools and neighborhoods—that reinforce racial inequality.”
As a white liberal who has always lived in segregated neighborhoods—they are so much prettier!—and also opted to send my children and now my grandchildren to private schools—they are so much better!—with only two disastrous attempts to do otherwise (disastrous for those two sons), I cannot excuse myself.
And yet, and yet—as those soft Southern voices might express it, “This is the way it has always been and always will be.”
Can I be comfortable with that?
Can any of us?