Fred Mills is an acclaimed music critic, writer, and editor who grew up in North Carolina.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It’s a weekend afternoon during the pre-Beatles ’60s, in Smallville, USA (technically, a tiny cotton mill town [name redacted] located on the North Carolina side of the NC-SC border). A young white boy, still a number of years away from teendom, is clowning around in his front yard with his father, a local peach farmer and an aspiring politician, when a lengthy cars-and-trucks motorcade, various flags decorating the vehicles’ aerials, comes rumbling down the city street that runs in front of the house.
“Daddy! Let’s go join the parade!” the boy shouts excitedly, having no inkling that the “parade” will take those vehicles a few miles out past the city limits and conclude in a large field in the county. There, barbecue and beer will be consumed in great quantities; pontification will be aired over amateur-designed bullhorns; and – come dusk and nightfall – crosses will be burned as stand-in effigies for what no one in attendance at the “social gathering” would routinely describe, in “polite” company of couse, as an affirmation of racial oppression. By that time, your garden variety white supremacist terrorism and lynching in the South wasn’t totally extinct. But it definitely was on a subtler, possibly more insidious, trajectory in the long-tailed historical sense.
Aside from the fact that the town and county schools were routinely all-white (there was one all-black school, located in – surprise – the “Negro section” of my town), and that with the euphemistic “freedom of choice” followed by court-enforced desegregation, progressive notions of public education in the US were still a number of years away. I suppose the implications remained murky in my young Ward/June/Wally/Beaver mind. Soon enough my parents and a handful of relatively young educators would transform such “implications” into historically documented evidence for me, at which time I would actually get a clue or two as regards what had gone down in my neck of the Southern fields and forests over the past couple of milleniums. But that’s another personal narrative to be examined at another time.
For some reason this sense memory recurred several times as I read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s “Dewey Defeats Critical Race Theory,” in the July 12 issue of National Review. Yes, this is a topic that absolutely must be discussed among Americans. To state for the record: I am personally offended and appalled by the efforts nowadays of certain individuals, legislators, and institutions strategizing over how to turn this leftist (yup!) critical race theory topic into a USA-toxic, bogeyman-baiting cultural evil, 2021-style. It’s like some contemporary moral/social analogue to my own childhood’s whitewashed (pun intended) era of textbooks and school assemblies or even avoiding altogether, say, the Thomas Jefferson approved slavery and its legacy – like the troll has crept out from under the bridge with promises of “I’m coming to gobble you up!” Welcome to the South, y’all. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
I can’t remember how long it’s been since I heard the term “The War of Northern Aggression.” Bless her soul: my great-grandmother on my mother’s side of the family uttered that more than a few times while I was growing up. Time-and-place stuff, I suppose. But still…
In an above paragraph, I noted my earlier self’s animated reaction to the Klansmen’s “parade.” I’m pretty sure that there were a least a few classmates and fellow sandlot kids stationed in the pickup beds or waving from the windows as their parents drove by. And it would be awhile before I understood what the letters KKK stood for – and that many of these youngsters, at my age or somewhat older, were as clueless as I was.
One thing I think I somehow instinctively understood, however, is that my father was deeply serious that afternoon in the front yard when he turned his head towards me, peered at me through his thick horn-rimmed glasses, and stated, plainly and simply, and without elaboration, “Son, that’s not the kind of parade we want to join.”
In 2021 I’m fortunate to have a son who, very early on, intuited what Daddy was trying to teach me – and, by extension, what I’ve spent much of my life trying to teach him, now 20, about thinking for oneself and critically examining things that present themselves unfiltered to him. I sense that, whether by design or by chance, I have helped pick up the baton and handed off along my father’s values to another generation. (My mom’s values, too; she didn’t take any bullshit from the rednecks and racists who tended to use up all the oxygen in our town.)
If the term “critical race theory” has become such a buzz-term that reactionary conservatives adopt it as a bogeyman, well, that’s on them. We all own our personal bullshit, and Lord knows, I’ve shoveled my share. Dougherty’s lengthy National Review essay, while subtly veering into jingoism in a couple of spots, is a welcome respite from the un-critical conservative stereotyping that the US is currently having to endure at the hands of opportunistic conservatives. I can only pray that today’s generation of young parents, and the generations coming on the heels of those folks, will grasp that loaded term’s positive nuances which go well beyond mere “theory” and into the realm of self-examination. This is real life, folks, not a thought experiment.
Plus, you can’t carve a lasting bogeyman out of a pile of imaginary shit, not even if Tucker Carlson keeps telling everyone that now’s the time to invest in the cow dung stocks. Pun intended. Brer Rabbit already had to weather that a little while ago when he tackled the Tar Baby, so we can consider that a warning. (Fun fact: a distant relative of mine was the voice reading/narrating the, uh, “classic” Uncle Remus stories about the apocryphal South, and he didn’t scrimp on his style of regional white/black dialect. Somewhere in my attic I still have a small cache of those battered, fragile, 78-rpm shellac records. Jeez, why did Mom hang on to them?)
Yes, learning new funny tricks is tough. And not just for pitbulls, collies, retrievers, and dachshunds. But you don’t have to jump over a cord of wood for a treat to understand – as late poet John Trudell might put it – how you can live passionately while still understanding how “every word has power.” If you don’t get that notion, then I have some tasty barbecue, random pontification, and a pallet of crosses (suitable for burning, natch), that I’ll be glad to sell ya.
Goddamnit, I wish my mama and daddy were still around to witness what we’ve wrought. In their dotage there’s probably not much they could do about reactionary right-wingers. But neither one of them sure as hell would remain silent. So as hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy proposed to their own generation some three decades ago: “Don’t give up the fight.”