The making of a Southern liberal

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
If a Southern white boy with a strict Methodist upbringing can become a liberal man, anyone can.

Submitted: March 30, 2017

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Submitted: March 30, 2017



The making of a Southern liberal

By Cal Massey


I am 60 years old, and like everyone else who has opinions and votes, I have contributed to the polarization of America. We've been here before, but never quite like this. Every unhappy democracy is unhappy in its own way.

Maybe the story of one person's journey will add some understanding to the mix. I'd like to read a story from the other side too.

I am on the left, about halfway between Jimmy Carter and Malcolm X, and I escaped a conservative white Methodist upbringing to get here. I never went hungry as a child, went to college right after high school, never worked in a factory that closed, never struggled to put food on the table. These advantages, both given and gained, gave me the luxury of time and mind to expand my world. Also the impetus: White conservatism is incredibly dull, and often produces an opposite and equal reaction in the young (see punk rock).

My conversion from right to left started early and hinged on race and religion, humanity's heart and soul since the dawn of time.

I was born in Atlanta in 1956, a prosperous time for white Americans. Not so much for black Americans, but I only realized that in retrospect. As a young child I knew about Amos 'N Andy and Aunt Jemima but never saw a black person in my white suburban life except for the elementary school janitors, the garbage men and the black maid/nanny my mother hired. We were middle class and apparently needed a black maid/nanny. We were, as the products like to say, a product of our times. My dad has 16mm home movies of this woman changing my diapers. Mom is laughing, smiling, her pride and joy. The black woman cleaning my bottom is gracious on camera but really just doing her job, tolerating white people to provide for her own family the best she could.

Racism did not consume my immediate world. My parents never spewed bigotry. They had the polite version so common to their generation in the South. Separatism (or nationalism) might be a better word. They defined themselves and everyone else by race first, by differences, and by the lesser status of anyone who was not white and the same as them. "We were always polite to colored people." "You know he's Jewish." "Oriental people aren't really like us." "Your father and I wouldn't want to know if you were gay." "Your ancestors fought for the Confederate and they were good, decent people." This matter-of-fact prejudice informed my childhood. Like many Tea Party adherents who were never active politically until a black man became president, my parents would not admit and did not believe that racial differences anchored their belief system. But it moved through their perception like blood.

We never talked in my family about the wider world, aside from the grumbles of my father as he read the newspaper. An odd scenario, looking back, considering the country was essentially exploding at the time. Cloistered white folk are bigotry waiting to happen. Television taught me about Vietnam, hippies, polluted air and Black Power. Then experience taught me what television could not. Fortunately I lived in the city of Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Martin Luther King and a black community of growing influence. Middle class black families started moving to the suburbs and into my high school. I played basketball with an all-white team in my junior year but with a half dozen black kids in my senior year. After practice we smoked pot and listened to Led Zeppelin, (a great formula for getting to know someone). History books and classroom discussions changed. Hosea Williams staged a sit-in at our school. I dated a black girl in secret. (Forty years later my sister told me that my mother knew. She never said a word.)

And so one pillar of my past -- racial arrogance and distrust -- began to crumble. My black friends thought "Houses of the Holy" was a great album too. And today you won't see me voting for someone who invents voter fraud as a cover to keep black people away from the polls.

I questioned the Bible from an early age because it didn't make sense. I was already becoming a pragmatist who needed proof. At 8 or 9, I learned in school that most whales ate plankton and had tiny throats. So one day coming home from Sunday School, I asked mom why we never see miracles today like Jonah living inside a whale. She actually had an excellent response: that many of the stories in the Old Testament are symbolic. Still, my skepticism only grew through high school and college, and I would end up treasuring the values of Christianity -- goodness, generosity, compassion -- without the symbolic myths. I grew fascinated instead by the science and philosophy of more recent centuries. And yet 300 years after The Enlightenment, science still can't win the day. We have a vice president who does not believe in evolution, a governor who denies climate change and school boards still debating whether children should be taught that the world was created in a little under a week.

And so Pillar No. 2 -- unquestioned Christianity -- toppled like the temple columns pushed by Samson. The conservative Christian candidate should not count on my vote.

With religion and racial separation pretty much down for the count, I had two choices as I moved into adulthood and married working life: Reverse course and embrace the prosperous white status quo I had known in childhood, or keep rocking and rolling and see what there is to see, read what there is to read, find a more interesting world.

I chose the latter, obviously, and I'm still looking and learning. My parents and millions of others stopped looking early on. Watching a documentary once with mom and dad, I was struck by the absurdity that certain people use this water fountain and certain people use the other water fountain when all of the above are just thirsty people. I always knew it to be wrong, but it had never washed over me before as surreal and unfathomable. I talked about this and my parents said nothing, looking rather sheepish. I was surprised by that, but later understood. They did not see it as surreal and unfathomable. They were in their 70s in the 21st century but their outlook hadn't really changed from the 1950s.

I can never understand people who sit still or go backward rather than move forward. My wife made a good point: Most people are afraid of change. But life is change. I worked 22 years in the newspaper industry, marked by massive layoffs in the last decade. Many reporters I used to work with are moving into media relations for government agencies, nonprofits and companies. If I was younger, I would have probably shifted to a new field, too. Shouldn't people who work in factories that will inevitably shrink or close have a Plan B, too? Industries and factories don't magically return to their former prominence because a reality television star says "I alone can fix it." And no one can keep the world out anymore, even if they yell "Get out of my country!" and kill someone they don't know in a bar. Adapting to change is the only way we can hope to make it moving forward in our own families and as a nation. Isn't it?

Much of this sounds like a bashing of my parents and those like them, but it's not intended to be that alone. Failure to keep growing as you grow older is what deserves the bashing. My parents dedicated their lives to their children's material and moral needs as they believed them to be. They passed along wonderful gifts: a love of animals and nature, a deep sense of responsibility, thoroughness in work, the value of kindness, a love of reading and knowledge and birds and Southern cooking.

In my deepest beliefs, though, I am their opposite. At the top of the list, I did not keep their embedded distrust and disrespect for those who don't look or think or act like they do. And I do not wish for those people to be separate from me.

I always thought that's how generational progress worked. The new generation retains the best of the previous and moves the ball forward to the next level of understanding and knowledge and morality. But that's not what's happening in 2017. Somehow tens of millions of people chose to sequester themselves as the world changed around them. Like my parents, they slipped under the radar of the Sixties, civil rights, environmental protections and all of the other changes that made America great, not again, but finally. And in doing so, they kept their 1950s status quo dream alive, long past its shelf life, and then passed it on to their sons and daughters, and last November millions voted for an impossible return to those times of white cultural, religious and economic dominance, or as our president puts it: Great Again.

No thanks. I'll stay on the left and keep moving forward.  

© Copyright 2018 Cal Massey. All rights reserved.

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