“YOU won’t be lynched”: Harrison, Arkansas, Pt. I
George and I cracked stupid, nervous jokes about the likelihood we’d get in bad trouble on our way across the Ozarks in Arkansas. “You won’t be lynched,” George told me. “You have special white-skin immunity.”
“I think it wears off when I’m seen around a black guy,” I said. “Anyway, I might get lynched just for having Yankee license plates.”
We hid our uneasiness by playing up these ignorant Northern stereotypes about Ozark country. Never mind that local folks were cordial. Never mind that the autumn hills were drop-dead gorgeous, rolling through an outdoor-recreation mecca. Ever since I heard that Harrison, our small, isolated destination, had a notorious racial history I wanted to visit and see for myself.
George would later challenge how I dragged him into dubious or even dangerous situations. He was right about my impetuousness. I could always wear my white skin like a calling card while he wore a black one like a target.
That was no joke. Because nearly all of Harrison’s black community was chased out of town during racial turmoil in 1905 and 1909, the town had a terrible reputation in the region. On Halloween, Harrison kids in ghost costumes were accused of wearing Klan sheets. Even for racial reconciliation events, out of town students of color had to be coaxed to visit. Despite assurances and warm welcomes, minority visitors thought they’d need protection to survive their stay.
Inflicting one more gash in the town’s tarnished reputation, a Ku Klux Klan activist rented a Harrison Post Office box. Even though the Klansman lived in another town, he wanted that special Harrison address for his mailings. On our way to meet with town’s racial relations task force, George and I spotted a huge new billboard near our meeting place: Anti-Racism is A Code Word for Anti-White.
Huh? Maybe the weak motel coffee couldn’t wake our brains, but after a glance George and I didn’t really get the message. Then it dawned on us the billboard was accusing racial harmony advocates of attacking white people. Weird in a virtually all-white town.
In fact, the billboard had just recently attracted more unwanted attention to Harrison. Wikipedia had already posted that with the town’s “negative image…racial attitudes remain in question, as attested by a recent billboard sign on the eastern edge of town.” News media from as far away as Europe poised to pounce on Harrison’s need for “attitude” adjustment. The UK’s Guardian was already devoting ink to the town’s agony.
In town for only a day, I didn’t know what the hell to think. We arrived at our morning meeting with the task force unable to guess what would greet us behind the door—defensiveness, bitterness, suspiciousness of our motives for visiting? George looked grim. I figured he was loaded for bear.
But he would soon be disarmed, and so would I.
Having now spent a week or so in Montgomery AL (first time there, and I can’t imagine why I’ll ever go back–this was a professional conference that drew me there, and now I know better) I realize that my antipathy to the South is very simple: these people, who claim a complex and troubled history, are stubbornly refusing to accept that their ancestors owned slaves and fought a war to defend slave-owning. Period. This makes their ancestors more “primitive” to me than “evil,” though I’ll buy “evil” if you’re selling it. Maybe “unevolved,” maybe “uncivilized,” but not any adjective that doesn’t have a powerful pejorative attached to it–and rather than accept that somewhat simple truth, these people have found ways to obfuscate, dodge, nitpick around that very simple statement (“I’m descended from some really bad people”), a tack that rots away most attempts to discuss contemporary political solutions to contemporary problems–I don’t want to have a discussion with some idiot who displays a Confederate flag proudly, who insists on calling the Civil War “The War of Northern Aggression,” who insists that not all slaves were brutalized (as if that statement, even if true, could begin to mitigate slavery’s horror) and so on. Your ancestors sucked. We beat the hell out of them in the Civil War. Southerners have been telling themselves soothing bullshit stories for going on two centuries now. Join the human race, and enter the 21st century, please.