Archive | July, 2008

The South and Race – A Study of One Man’s Journey

31 Jul

SNELLVILLE, GA – When  you think of the words “South” and “race” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. almost immediately pops into your mind. He’s forever connected with the on-going struggle to bring equality to the African-American community, a struggle that has seen progress and regress as often as the beach has seen waves.

I have often been asked by others why the South has such a problem with Black people. My standard answer is usually, “Well, most of the normal folks here don’t.” Have a problem, that is. Most Southerners think of race as a problem that is generated by the media, or by outdated perceptions of the region. I’m not here to talk about the current state of the South as a whole. I can’t speak for everyone.

But I can tell you the story of one man. A man whom I love and am close to, a man that has been transformed over the past 15 years into a wiser denizen of this ever-changing landscape.

Hammerin' Hank Aaron

Hammerin' Hank Aaron

Let’s start with the gentleman to my right. His name, for those of you who don’t know, is Henry Aaron, although many of you are more familiar with his popular name, “Hank.” He is the all-time home run king in Major League Baseball (despite the fact that a certain cheater has passed his career record, Hank is still the king) and happens to be one of the classiest and finest citizens the city of Atlanta could ever hope for.

In 1974, he was about to break Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs. Hank had 714. Babe had 714. The tension was thick, not because the record was going to fall, but for the fact that Aaron was receiving death threats on a daily basis. In his autobiography, I Had A Hammer, he recounts the numerous and vicious letters mailed to him. The sentiment boiled down to one simple thing. “Ain’t no nigger gonna break Babe Ruth’s record.”

Anyway, in Atlanta, the race topic in the 70’s was a prime discussion piece. On the one hand you had a city embracing the Black culture. On the other hand, you had hundreds of years of conditioned racism. It was not uncommon for Black people to be derided from the pulpits of white churches as “abominations.” Interracial dating was still taboo. While Jim Crow wasn’t legal, he wasn’t entirely gone either.

And so, in small towns all over Georgia, thanks to the Hammer, plenty of people were talking about race.

I was born in 1976, a couple of years after Hank’s accomplishment. I grew up in a racially neutral home – my parents never used the N-word, and taught me that I was NEVER to use it under any circumstances. My best friend in Kindergarten was Alan Booker, an African-American.

So, that is the foundation.

Here is the confession. My grandfather, on my dad’s side, was not so neutral when it came to race. Growing up, he rarely used a word other than “nigger” to refer to any Black person, and he never referred to Black people in any positive way. To him, they were a corruptive force in the community. If a Black family moved in, “there goes the neighborhood.” They couldn’t be trusted, he said. Lazy and unwilling to work, he said. They steal from the government and take money out of the pockets of hard working white folks, he said. He wasn’t a Klansman, he wasn’t a militant racist; he didn’t burn crosses in yards or participate in menacing Black families.

He was a product of his environment. Period.

The church we grew up going to wasn’t race friendly either. And so we learned that Black people were somehow separate from white folks – some preachers even referring to the “mark of Cain” as God making Cain into a Black man. And it wasn’t a mark of protection, no sir – it was a mark of condemnation, and you’d better live right, or else you’ll get a “black mark” on your soul and be damned to hell. I went to church with my dad’s parents for 18 years. They heard the same sermons I heard. They were taught the same principles of the faith that I was taught. Only I had my dad and mom at home telling me differently, telling me that everyone was equal in the eyes of God.

This was the cauldron that produced a lot of what my grandfather believed about Black people. He had been culturally taught racism as a way of life, but to have it enforced from the pulpit – for someone who came to faith in God late in life, as my grandfather did, the impressions left by preachers were deep and immediate. He wasn’t much of a reader in those days – his limited education while growing up didn’t exactly make reading a favorite past time – so he took what he heard and he lived it by faith. Faith that the men who stood in the name of God were telling him the truth.

And so he had no problem with the word “nigger.” If the preacher said it, why couldn’t he?

As me and my cousins got older, we chided him on the use of the word. “Can’t you just say ‘black’?” we would ask. “Maybe even colored? How about Negro?” He would pat us on the head and laugh. “They all mean the same thing.”

He wasn’t racist in his actions. He would give to anyone who had need, regardless of color. But the ideas, the language, that were pressed into him as a child, a young man, and now as an adult, were still present in his perceptions.

Until he left the church we grew up in. We went through the most common of Southern church activities – a church split – and my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, all ended up leaving the church we grew up in. And we all ended up at another church, this one a long ways from the small community church in Snellville.

This one was in DeKalb county. In Stone Mountain. And for those of you who don’t know, in the late 90’s, Snellville and Gwinnett County were still relatively lily white. Stone Mountain and DeKalb County were almost direct opposite.

The church we started going to was a small white congregation on Panola Road. In many ways, it was almost the same as the church we had grown up in. But the pastor, and the community, was different. Black people, when they chose to attend, were welcomed into the church with hugs, handshakes and warm fellowship. The pastor preached the message of the Gospel – that in Jesus, there is no division – and slowly, my grandfather’s language began to turn. The N-word became less frequent. He went to “colored” or “black” most of the time, although he would still occasionally slip and use the N-word.

After a few years, that church ended up having to close its doors. My family splintered after that. My parents went one way, my grandparents, and the rest of the extended family, went others. I started working for a church in Marietta, which was diverse in its population, and I began seeing my own tendencies toward racial stereotyping or racially divisive language. It didn’t take me long to correct it, and as I noted my own education in this area, I began to see it in my grandfather too. The change was rapid and it was amazing. I mentioned that he was never much of a reader, but when he joined his current church some ten years ago, he was encouraged and taught by his pastor to read the Bible for himself. My grandfather learned that he didn’t have to rely on someone else to tell him what God wanted from him – he learned that he could read the Bible and God would speak to him too.

And one of the things God spoke to him about was his attitude towards African-Americans. My grandfather became convicted and shameful over his past speech and beliefs. He repented of the ways he was taught, and he learned to challenge that pre-supposition in others. The more he read, the more he learned that indeed, “all men are created equal.”

Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

I mentioned Barack Obama to him not too long ago. He wasn’t fond of him. I winced. “Don’t like the fact that he’s so young,” he said. I waited, expecting the follow up, “and he’s black.”

It never came. I asked him, does it bother you that a Black man could be President of the United States?

“Nope. White people have screwed things up enough. He deserves a chance to be President.”

I won’t say I was speechless, but it was one of those stunning moments in life when your perception of the universe seems to shift just so and suddenly things seem brighter and clearer. I was amazed – not at the fact that he had changed; the world and our culture demanded it, so there really was no choice. No, I was amazed at the fact that the lasting change, the hardest part, he had done on his own. That he had transformed his own soul through his relationship with God by searching the Bible and reflecting on his life and times. And in the end he had enough God-given character and strength to say, “I will not be this way anymore.”

Pop Harold is 82 now (or 81 or 83, I can’t remember for some reason) and I don’t get to see him much at all. Usually just holidays or the random time I think about being a good grandson and take my daughter over to see him. He’s stooped, bent from age and a variety of health issues that have sapped the strength right out of his limbs. A little slower, a little more reflective, we normally talk about heaven and what it will be like to die and enter into a different kind of rest.

But occasionally we’ll talk about the news of the day, the latest on the tube, whatever, and I will sit there amazed at the man’s capacity for re-invention. For observation. For someone who went through school (“In the front door and right on through out the back door” as he says) without going all the way through, he’s perceptive and wise in a way that I’ll never know. I am able to articulate much more eloquently what my other grandfather meant to me, but when it comes to Pop Harold, I’ve always found the words short. His value to me has been more in my soul and heart, a deeper connection that has shaped me in ways that I still don’t fully understand, and might never.

But as the nation rockets towards, potentially, a history-altering election I wanted to at least clear one Southerners name from the immediate assumption of racism. Pop, you have worked longer and harder at becoming a better man than anyone else I know. I love you for it.

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Deep Thoughts on Deep Frying

30 Jul
In the South, anything can be fried... and most likely will be.

In the South, anything can be fried... and most likely will be.

POOLER, GA – Local authorities responded to a 911 call in this tiny town today that involved a deep fryer, a turkey, and Richard “The King” Petty. Apparently, Leroy “Greasy” Gaines sustained major injuries when he thrust his hand into a deep fryer.

“I dropped my lucky spit cup into the grease,” he told medical personnel. “I didn’t want it to melt. They don’t make Dixie cups with Richard Petty on ’em anymore.”

“Greasy” Gaines was taken to the county hospital where he was treated for second and third degree burns on his left hand. According to witnesses, the spit cup was retrieved with minor damage – the picture of Petty was slightly singed.

“I sure learnt my lesson,” Gaines told reporters. “Don’t never drop your spit cup into hot grease.”

*     *     *     *     *

A co-worker asked me about the Southern penchant for deep frying the other day, and requested a column dedicated to the phenomenon. Always the humble servant, I thought I would oblige, so today we’re going to focus on the magic of Southern Fried Food.

There are many schools of thought as to why Southerners choose to fry dang near everything. One is that “frying tastes the bestest.” Another is that the average Southerner couldn’t afford some of the fancier devices required for other styles of cooking (i.e. ovens, microwaves, grills) so the pan fry method became the standard. Others just believe the region is occupied by obstinate, tradition-oriented people who refuse to change from what their momma and deaddy did.

Whatever your philosophy on frying (and I personally fall somewhere between number 2 and 3) there is no limit on the variety to be found within this method of cooking. For example, a quick list of things that Southerners fry:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Okra
  • Squash
  • Apple pies
  • Peach pies
  • Banana sandwiches
  • Baloney (the correct Southern spelling)
  • Bacon
  • Sausage
  • Ham
  • Corn
  • Cornbread
  • Green beans
  • Onion rings
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Collard greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Pickles
  • Ice cream
  • Pork chops
  • Chitterlings (pronounced ‘chitlins’)
  • Tongue
  • Brain
  • Cracklins (pig knuckles)
  • Peanut butter sandwiches
  • Salmon (pronounced ‘sal-mun’)
  • Green tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Chopped steak
  • Steak
  • Other assorted items, according to personal or familial tastes

Now, there are many different ways to fry. The gold standard in the South is the following: on your gas stove top, in a 10 to 12 inch cast iron skillet, using melted shortening or lard. The process is simple. Put the skillet (appropriately seasoned – and if you don’t know what that is, head to Food Network for a quick tutorial) on the gas and turn it to medium heat. Add in approximately three and a half pounds of Crisco shortening, or,for more flavor, good old fashioned hog lard (basically, the captured, rendered and cooled fat from a large swine). Let the shortening heat up until it’s melted, then jack the heat to medium-high to high. As soon as the grease starts spattering your hands and leaving small burn marks, you’re ready to do some cookin’!

One of the biggest questions for Southern frying is whether to bread, batter or both. Breading simply means sopping your items in a liquid (the standard is cold buttermilk, but you can substitute whole milk, cream, half and half or any other dairy product that flows slowly downhill) then dredging or dipping the item into a seasoned flour or other dry ingredient – bread crumbs, crumbled biscuit, cornmeal, cornmeal/flour, you get the idea. Battering means you take the flour or other dry ingredient and stir it into the buttermilk or other liquid until you form a loose batter that coats your item like Pepto Bismol does your stomach ulcers. Then of course, you can do both – dredge your item, dip it in batter, and then RE-dredge it, just to get that perfect one-inch thick layer of crust.

Once you’ve done all that, you simply deposit the chicken/turkey/veggie/strange concoction into the nuclear grease. It’s best to do this as though tossing a hand grenade – stand back from the pan and gently toss the chicken/turkey/veggie/concoction into the grease. If you stand directly over the pan and deposit the item, several layers of skin will be burned off by flying grease.

Now that you have your chicken, or whatever, in the pan, you must watch carefully for the signs of browning. Nothing on the planet is worse than something that was burned while fried. So keep a sharp eye on your food. Once you see the first hint of brown, go ahead and count to 15, then flip the item over. Why 15? Because that’s how long it takes from first browning to golden crispy perfection. Any less, you get rubbery crust. Any more, you get soot.

The opposite side of the item will take longer to brown, and should get darker than the other side. That’s fine. Once you’ve determined maximum crustage, remove the item from the grease (and please – use tongs or another type of utensil…) and place it on a raised rack. This will allow the grease on the bottom to drip off while the grease on top soaks into the meat and adds flavor. Not to mention another week closer to your first heart attack.

All that’s left to do now is enjoy! Take that first bite of fried chicken/turkey/veggie/whatever and savor the crisp crust… and the undercooked meat or veggie inside. Another Southern tradition is it usually takes about 3-6 times of attempting to fry something before you get it right. So, you can officially toss aside that flash-fried raw chicken and head to the local KFC, where they do chicken right.

And that, as they say in the cartoons, is all folks.

While He Lay Dying…

23 Jul

He looked pitiful, lying there in a hospital gown, his face colorless and sunken from the removal of his teeth. The room was darkened, the curtain half drawn in an attempt to offer some sense of privacy. But when you’re staring at your grandfather’s body in the middle of a crowded emergency room, hurting from the pain of your heart exploding, you don’t need a curtain to feel alone.

You just are.

His hair was matted and slightly out of place for him, the result of paramedics placing oxygen masks and other assorted life-saving torture devices over his face. His eyes were closed, skin graying by the minute. When I arrived at the emergency room to a seating area full of crying relatives, I braced myself for the worst. It didn’t matter. This man, this titan of my youth, now seemed what he was – a frail and sick man whose heart had been slowly dying for years. The cubbie hole that the doctor’s had stuck him in only added to the illusion that he was fading away before my eyes.

I don’t remember what all I said to him. I just know that I spoke from the heart. There was so much to say, so much to praise him for, to share with him, and in the end that the words fell on unhearing ears didn’t matter. I wasn’t speaking to his ears. I was speaking to his heart – as he had spoken to mine countless times over the course of my life. I leaned over and kissed his forehead, a habit I had developed over the last couple of years as a way of preventing him from trying to stand up and hug me. Standing was too hard for him, so I just leaned over and kissed his forehead. He knew it was to prevent him embarrassment, and so did everyone else in the room, but he didn’t care. He’d tell me he loved me and that I needed come back soon.

Standing there for the four or five minutes I had alone with him I could hear the stories he told me, things that he had passed on to me – not because I was special, but because I was the only one who had loved to listen. Jokes, humorous anecdotes from his childhood, stories about my mom and her brother and sister. Stories about baseball games played, regrets long held and a heart too big to hold the love and pain and years of physical abuse.

He smoked like a freight train for years – started when he was just 12 – and kept on smoking until after the second or third heart attack when the doctor told him, “Quit, or I’m not saving your life anymore. If you don’t care to save yourself, I ain’t wasting my time.” He let go of a 50 year addiction overnight.

So many things about him stood out. Even when he got sick and couldn’t work anymore, he sat on the carport watching cars go by, waiting for an opportunity to get out and into the daily grind. He used to count the cars as they passed, and one of his favorite games was for him to count the red ones and me to count the blue ones. The person who counted the most cars in an hour won. There was no prize, and it took me quite a while to realize that it was a trick to keep me quiet and still for an hour.

He swore he was the only one who could grill chicken correctly. No boneless breasts for him – he liked grilling half chickens, bone-in, slow over coals. He wouldn’t even let anyone else turn the danged things. Only him.

He made his wife sort his daily pill regimen for him. Said he couldn’t keep them straight in his mind. The truth is, he liked being doted on, and she liked doting on him. He had two pill boxes, each with seven compartments, every compartment filled. One was for his morning pills. The other for his evening ones. He used to grumble about taking more pills than a “hippie rock star.” Sometimes, he would pretend that he wasn’t taking them, acting as if he threw them across the room. But he knew that without those pills, he couldn’t survive.

He wore hats. Always wore hats, unless he was going to church or to the doctor. His favorite kind of hats were baseball hats, and he usually rotated between an Atlanta Braves hat and a University of Georgia hat. When it came time to select where I would go to college, there was only one choice in his mind – UGA. I graduated from there with a degree in English, something that he was irrepressibly proud of.

He was a car trader, carpenter, leather worker, farmer, and all-around Jack-of-all-trades. He tried to teach some of his skill and know-how to me, hiring me to be his assistant one summer when he had a lot of carpentry work to do. I went gamely along, eager to spend time with him, learn a little bit, and mainly make some under the table tax-free cash. On the second day, I forget what I was doing but I was sucking at it miserably, and he walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, go to college. Because if you have to do this for a living, you’ll sure as hell starve to death.”

I stood there in that tiny room staring at the shrinking body of what had been one of the most imposing figures in my life. I kissed his forehead. I said my goodbyes. I made my peace with the fact that he was gone, that I’d never hear his voice, or sit with him on the carport, or eat at the kitchen table with him ever again. And two days later, I stood and preached his funeral. I told many of the stories he’d told me, making the hundreds of people in attendance cry and laugh at the same time. And I realized that he had given me a lot of what makes me who I am.

Today, for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about that sweet man, lying there in that hospital room, gone from my life without ever knowing his great-granddaughter, or any of the other wonderful things that have happened in the five years since his passing. I can’t stop thinking about him, and I can’t hold back the tears, but I can’t stop smiling either.

I miss you, Pop. Five years you’ve been gone, but it seems like forever. You would have loved Ella – she is just your style. I’ll stop by and say hello again when I get a chance, but I hope that you liked the flag that Ella and I put on your grave Memorial Day weekend. She stood on your headstone, pointed at it and asked, “Pop?”

I leaned over and kissed her forehead, much the same as I used to do to you, and said, “Yes. Pop.”

She smiled then said, “Bye-bye, Pop.”

And today, for the umpteenth time in the last five years, I say it again – knowing that I am one day closer to seeing you again.

For Pop Emmette.

For Pop Emmette.

Back From Vacation With a New Perspective

21 Jul
Ah, a nice relaxing week at work...

Ah, a nice relaxing week at work...

NORCROSS, GA – I’m sitting in my office after a week of vacation, almost feeling worse than when I left. Tired, a bit cranky, slightly lethargic, you would think that I spent a week at a P.O.W. fantasy camp rather than a week at the beach. But this much is true: when you have a kid, there is no down time. Nada. Zip. Zilch. And when your kid is the apparently the genetic recombination of Houdini, Evel Kenevil, and the Energizer Bunny, there are only two ways to approach life as her parent – Caffeinated or Highly-Caffeinated.

So, my game may be off a bit today.

I had intended to bring back plenty of hilarious pictures from the beach, pictures that would illustrate the beach wear of the South – from tank tops and jean shorts to haute coture, the fashions flaunted along the sands can be quite amusing.

I had intended that. But I got sand in my camera and it went KABLOOIE. So, no pictures.

I had also intended to present some video footage of the preferred beach activities in the South. Bocci, football, volleyball, body surfing, and just plain old laying out on the beach are just a few of the frollicking good times had by all.

I had intended that. But I spent most of my time helping Rachel wrangle our daughter, so the camera never even got out of the bag.

So, what do I present to you, my 13 readers as a gift from my time away? Why a simple, yet elegant, top ten list of things I saw while at the beach! Cheesy, I know. But it’s all I got.

 Not the thong type...

 10. THONG SONG: Not one, but FOUR men wearing thongs, men that shouldn’t even have been allowed out of the house wearing board shorts. For future reference, if you haven’t seen your toes in five years, a thong isn’t going to do much in the way of flattering your body.  

  

 9. FAMILY TRADITION: A father – FATHER! – buying several cases of beer. For him. Then buying his teenaged daughter and her friend beer at the Wal-Mart. Why not just go the whole mile and set them up with smokes, weed, and a get-out-of-jail-free card?

 

 8. MULLETS APLENTY: I even wrote a whole post on this phenomenon. There were more mullets at Myrtle Beach than at an Achy-Breaky Heart reunion concert. If you’ll stare closely at the picture to the left here, you’ll see that absolutely NO ONE can pull off a mullet.

 

7. WIPEOUT: It’s astonishing how difficult body surfing really is. You would think that all you have to do is position yourself in front of a wave and gently ride the crest towards shore. You would think that, but you would be wrong. Body surfing essentially entails getting your face slammed into the ocean floor over and over again for hours on end. Almost everyone looks silly while attempting it, and the number of Necks who face the wrong way while trying it is staggering.

6. SEAGULL DEATHMATCH: Ever tried to eat on the beach? It’s hard. If you take away the constant wind, the smothering heat, and the fact that everything will eventually get sand into it, no matter what you do to protect it, dining al seaside can be a pleasant experience. Not so much, though, when you’re being divebombed by hordes of angry seagulls. These oceanic predators can snatch a sandwich faster than than a Good Old Boy can shotgun a PBR.

5. GEEK SPORTS: Nothing funnier than watching two guys with a combined weight of 120 pounds attempting to throw a football in high-velocity wind. Did you know that the average distance a nerd can toss a football is -15 feet? That’s right – due to the ocean breeze, most nerd tosses end up BEHIND the thrower. Suffice it to say (and I know from experience) you ain’t picking up chicks that way.

4. THE JACKED-UP GRILL: All I can say is that I feel extrememly guilty now for ever forgetting to brush my teeth. I saw some dental disasters on the beach, and I can’t even truly poke fun at them, because I’m sure that not all of them were from neglect or indifference. Some folks genuinely can’t afford to go to the dentist. But to those that smoke, chew and drink their way into bad choppers, I have but one thing to say: please remember it’s impolite to speak with your mouth open.

3. GIRLS NO MORE: As the father of a girl, I have to confess to great dismay at the bathing suit selections for young women. I saw more pre-teen girls in barely-there bikinis than I did men with beer guts. Honestly, it was troubling to think that in a few years my daughter will have lost her innocence not because of her moral choices, but because some ninny fashionista decided that girls under the age of 21 should “shake what their mama gave ’em.” I hate to send Ella to the beach in a gunny sack, but to preserve her modesty, I just might do it.

2. “DON’T TOUCH MY CELLPHONE, OLD MAN!”: You know those annoying people who talk during movies? The ones that scream out directions to the characters on screen? People like that should be escorted from the theater to preserve the experience for the sane viewers. People who weigh 98-lbs., have on a black tank-top, a fake Henna tattoo, and threaten to beat 58 year old men like a rented mule should be taken outside and tased. Friday night, while watching THE DARK KNIGHT (a MUST SEE by the way) some wingnut starts a ruckus in the middle of the stinking movie with an older man. Apparently the old dude tried to take Nerd-boy’s cell phone. What followed was half-annoying/half-hysterical as two guys who were never going to throw a punch threatened to beat each other senseless for 5 solid minutes. How big a poofball were these two? It only took three 16 year-old theater employees to break up the fight.

And, the Number One thing that I saw at the beach last week:

1. ELLA FEARLESS: My daughter, not afraid of wave, nor beast, nor fat guys jogging. It was so much fun to watch her explore, and to see that some people are just born brave. Which migh explain the Thong Guys mentioned at number 10.