by Nancy Means Wright
Decades ago, my husband and I, newly married, lived and worked at Boys’ Home, deep in the state of Virginia. Freight trains rumbled and snorted behind our shaky cottage, and we had to shut our windows against the smelly, air polluting chemicals from the local pulp and paper mill. But we loved working with the homeless boys–one of my tasks was to teach them to dance (I kept band-aids handy)–and several were students in the English classes I taught at the local high school.
My classes were huge, and a fair percentage of the kids dropped out of school to work in the mill. But there were dedicated students, too, and it was a joy to see young minds open to vibrant language and ideas in poems, plays and essays. Until, that is, I decided to introduce the Gettysburg Address.
“Yankees,” one of them snarled.
“But we’re not fighting a civil war now, are we?” I asked. “Especially one that ended in 1865?”
“Well, my great-great…granddaddy got hisself kilt at Bull Run. My daddy says we can’t forgit that!”
Other voices chimed in. Sally Lou’s ancestor fought the Yanks at Shiloh. Johnny’s was a bugle boy who lost a leg. Johnny was still angry about that. “I aint readin’ no goddam Yankee speech!”
I finally compromised and offered anyone extra credit for writing about the speech “as literature.” Only one girl did. (Her parents were born in Connecticut.)
I’m still amazed at how long people nurture old wounds. I think of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and IRA Irish still bitter over the outcome of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne–Catholics vs Protestants. Or the blood shed by Spartans and Athenians in ancient Greece. Or the 13th-century Italian Capulets who hated the Montagues. Even my own 20th-century mother was at war with “that tribe of Italians down the street. Why, they fought against us in WW2!” (Never mind that couple was young, with a new baby.) Mother complained, as well, about Poles, Russians, and Irish immigrants, although my father’s family had come from Ireland during the Great Famine, and Mother’s own parents took ship in the late 19th-century from Scotland.
I wouldn’t be that way, I told myself. I would respect everyone, regardless of race, gender and attitude. In Vermont I fought for Civil Unions and Marriage Equality. I espoused Death with Dignity and Gunsense. I kept an open mind, didn’t I?
Then this fall, longing to see the ocean, my spouse and I took a Road Scholar trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Out of 24 participants, we were the only New Englanders; most were from the West or the South. The South? A red light flashed on. I loved southern writers and had a beloved editor who was a Georgia native, but the Virginia school experience still rankled in my mind. I had encountered like-minded authors at a mystery writer’s conference in Alabama, but during a side trip to a small town was told to keep my mouth shut about being a northern liberal–and worse still, a Unitarian. “You could get shot for that,” a fellow writer warned.
So I was wary at meals when we sat beside couples from the Deep South. I thought of the novel, The Help, and the Tea Partyers who were obstructing Congress and deadheading important (to me) issues about immigration and climate change. I came to the dinner table with narrowed eyes, fueled by Move On, Bill McKibben, and other activists.
Yet as the week wore on, I found myself in conversation with southerners, including a Mississippi woman who charmed me, in spite of myself, with her warmth and good humor. She loved to read, and we talked about Faulkner and our mutually beloved Eudora Welty who was a native of her town. We discovered that we had a Scots-Irish ancestor in common whose surname we still carried on, and that we had a basic respect for people–although we carefully avoided talk of religion or politics. After the trip was over, I discovered to my great surprise, that her son is a respected politician of my own persuasion. And “certain” she was secretly against all I believed in, I’d never dared ask her outright.
How wrong I was! I’m ashamed now of my narrow prejudgments. I wish that I had met some of those small town Alabama folks who kept their rifles at the ready! I might eschew their politics, but I’d surely find them stimulating as people, wouldn’t I, once I got to know them? Why, we might even have broken bread together. The liberal and the arch-conservative: finding connection–at the very least, in food and family. Not to mention grist for the writing mill….