Two weeks ago I returned from visiting my family in the Mississippi Delta. My youngest son and I went to my uncle‘s funeral. His ashes were to be buried in the cemetery that contains the graves of my family going back to my great-great-grandmother (or was it three ‘greats’?) who was born in the first half of the 19th century. I dug the hole that would serve as my uncle’s grave close to my grandparents’ graves, and I led the prayer for the nine of us who came to the burial. Nine people attending a funeral in a cemetery bordered by a church and corn and soybean fields, in the Delta’s summer heat and humidity, the musical accompaniment courtesy of the cicadas rubbing their legs together. Not bad, not bad at all.
After the funeral we all came back to the house, and I barbecued some pork and beef ribs for those who came with us. My youngest son listened as my older brother and I talked with one of the attendees, a woman who was a distant cousin, and who, along with her husband, is a community leader. My youngest son later asked me why we were all talking about corn and other crops with such enthusiasm; after all, he’s a young scion of what I refer to as the Age of Wonders, the days of the Internet, cell phones, stem cells, practical applications of quantum physics, and miracle drugs. As I listened to my son (who thought the whole discussion was silly; pointless in the modern world), I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in the movie, Deliverance, in which Burt Reynolds and his sole surviving friend are at a dinner table with some locals, and two old women are discussing just how big their cucumbers and squash were in the past season. I told my son that just as grown folks in industrial areas will often talk about what they see as the finer points of industry, those who make their livelihoods in farming communities will talk about the fruits of the soil.
But while the woman and my brother and I were talking, I could see the conversation going in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with, so I told my son that if he wanted he could go play on the Playstation, and he happily complied. I did so because the woman was starting to talk about her opinions of blacks, and while I wasn’t afraid of her influencing my son in any way, I was certainly concerned that he might speak up against her. After all, a dinner after a funeral was no place for a political discussion. My brother watched me as I politely listened and struggled to keep a sincere smile on my face. He knows my political leanings and my opinion of racism, and he had to be laughing to himself about it.
This was – is — the Delta. Things are much the same as before: poverty, lack of education, racism simmering but never quite coming to a rolling boil, but I’m happy to report that there are some reasons for hope.
As I’ve said before, I’m a contrarian – how else can I refer to myself? I am a white man, strong Christian, retired military, raised virtually next door to ground zero for white racism, yet I am quite liberal. That fact doesn’t sit well with my family, and we’ve never had a visit where there wasn’t a lively discussion of politics. My brother is as strong a libertarian politically as I am a liberal: every day after work he’s got to have his hour with Bill O’Reilly, but at least he agrees that Limbaugh and Hannity are idiots. During the requisite political debate, my brother said how little we "really know" about Obama, how the media was so much kinder to Obama than to McCain, how the media paid "every bit as much attention" to McCain’s allegiance with Reverends Hagee and Parsley as to Obama’s relationship with Reverend Wright, and quite a bit more. There’s no need to argue these points again, these horses are dead, but I stood my ground, of course; all the while wondering how it could be that my highly intelligent brother could have been so easily drawn in by these false Republican talking points.