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….


19 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    Like my own mother used to say, you can’t judge people as a “group” but learn to know people as individuals. There is so much prejudice in our world, so much hating for no good reason. What you have said makes much good sense.

    • Thanks, Jacquie. I know all this “intellectually,” but sometimes emotions interfere and I find myself making judgments before even walking into a room (so to speak). Writers, in particular, should always be “open” before entering that proverbial room.

  2. I found this such a delightful piece, Nancy 🙂 I can’t always make it to blogs (so many on my loops) but, I’m glad I stopped by this morning 🙂 Sometimes, the person right next to you is of similar persuasions and you never know. Of course, I adhere to the rule for social situations, just as you. I’ve found, overall, it works best. Finding our own misconceptions inaccurate is always such a delightful surprise, isn’t it? 🙂

    • Oh, thank you, Loretta, for your kind words! I was thinking of you after I wrote this, hoping you wouldn’t take my “worry words” about the South in a personal way.You are obviously one of the enlightened ones wherever you go!

  3. Nice comment (Loretta) to a great blog — it is a delightful surprise when a negative judgement proves inaccurate. On Wednesday, the day after 9/11, I got into a cab (in California) with a driver who was wearing a turban. I’m still embarrassed that I was worried; we had a pleasant conversation about the traffic and that was it.

    • Oh, yes, Camille. I would have had the same reaction as you did to the turbaned driver. And so sad, really, to have a negative response. Or should I call it “instinct” or fear? I suppose some of this fear stems from our ancient forbears, meeting a stranger of any kind in the woods. I imagine the driver intuited your worry, too. It took courage to even wear that turban as a cab driver.

  4. You should write that experience into one of your books, Camille.

  5. We all harbor so many unconscious assumptions about other people, don’t we? Some of them are right, of course, but it’s so hard to know which ones they’ll be. I mean, when you read something by someone who double spaces after a sentence, you’re probably right to think she’s old. But you won’t know which of my opinions fit with your own mindset of old women. Insights likes yours really inform good fiction!

    • Oh, my! I do double space after a sentence! But want to think my mind is still young-ish and not old-old. And no, I can’t know your thoughts or the thoughts of others. This is both good and not-so-good. Not knowing protects your privacy but frustrates me. I want to see inside people, but can only invent–and can be so very wrong….

  6. True, Nancy.
    Well, by now you’ve heard about Ferguson and the MIchael Brown incident. Believe it or not, it’s a lovely community with older home, with many great people of all races and ages. These folks are so ashamed of the fuss the national press and the out-of-town rabble-rousers have caused. The key to understanding seems to be looking for the humanity and what you have in common with others first.
    A new novel out htis week, FAIL, by Rick Skwiot, deals with this very situation in ST. Louis. You can read about it on my blog at http://www.peterhgreen.com
    Best regards, Peter

    • Thanks, Peter. And I do feel badly for the people of Ferguson, not to mention Michael Brown’s family and friends. I admire honest and hardworking reporters, but the media does often get carried away with their own words…. I’ll look for FAIL and check out your blog.
      We must discover what we have “in common with others” (strangers), yes. Well said!

  7. Your words were so true on so many levels. Thanks for a delightful piece.

    • I appreciate your coming by, Betty. And I’m trying to reform on many levels… Thanks for your kind words…

  8. You nailed one major theme I always work with here in SW VA where hard-felt, long-held feelings battle with modern ideas. As I am from NORTHERN VA, I am considered a Yankee invader, but I carry on unabashedly as a progressive liberal–even started a local group with that ideology and we now have over 100 members–all pretty much crawled out of the woodwork. Makes a great ideal pool for a writer! Thanks for a post that resonated BIG TIME, Nancy!

    • So Virginia is divided–though I can imagine it so, with the northern part so close to Wash. DC. Interesting, though, that you were considered a Yankee invader. Good for you, Susan, in the SW Va, sparking a progressive contingent! Some liberals are afraid to speak up in an arch-conservative area. Yet as Peter, (above), noted,we have to look for what we all have in common: family, making a livelihood, et al. Thank you for your great comment!

  9. Nancy, thanks for a very thoughtful post. It’s painful to think how divided we still are as a country–north/south, red/blue, etc. As you point out, facing our own prejudices is crucial in breaking down those barriers.

    • You have it “in a nutshell,” Anita. We have to face our prejudices–not an easy task. We’ll meet a few “nuts” along the way. (Forgive my impoverished metaphor.) I appreciate your reading this!

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