I loved my papaw. My papaw was a racist.
That first sentence was easy to write. The second one was incredibly difficult. Even now, looking at those black words on the white screen, I’m tempted to back space over them. To erase them. But like a lot of Americans in general and Southerners in particular right now, I am learning that you can’t just keep the truths you like and erase the ones you don’t.
But first things first. I loved my papaw. I still think about him almost every day, and he has been dead, unbelievably, for almost thirty years. Papaw was a small man, which came with some advantages in the coal fields of Appalachia. Like a boy in a Dickens novel, he started working at the age of twelve, but instead of finding Dickensian employment as a chimney sweep or a boot blacker, he climbed on a cart and took a ride into the blackest of places, a coal mine. Because he never grew much after his twelfth birthday, he became a useful miner who could dig out the coal in tight spaces bigger men couldn’t squeeze into. Well liked by his coworkers and known for his work ethic, he was eventually promoted to foreman. After the mines closed in the 1950’s, he struggled to find a way to support his family. For a while, he worked a low-paying job in a gas station. Then, he and his wife and daughter (my mom) moved to Ohio so he could get a better paying job in a tannery. This foray to the flatlands didn’t last. My nana was too homesick for the mountains. They moved back home, and eventually Papaw found work in the produce department of a local grocery store. However, he still spoke with pride of his years as a miner, and he was a lifelong member of the United Mine Workers of America.
One of the main reasons I love my papaw is that he helped make my childhood magical. He was one of those special people who had a genuine gift for relating to children on their level without condescension or sentimentality. Like a lot of budding fiction writers, I was an imaginative child who lived inside the stories I made up, read, or saw. If my imaginary worlds were less real to Papaw than they were to me, he never let me know it. He spoke to the bevy of dolls I called my “children” as if I had given birth to each of them, and if he was making me a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, he made tiny sandwiches for them, too. When I was living in the Land of Oz, he always called me Dorothy. And when I was obsessed with the old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies that played on the Early Show, he called me Jane, and I called him Tarzan…a fact that caused lots of amusement among his coworkers at the grocery store, many of whom started calling him Tarzan, too.
On Christmas or my birthday, I could tell that Papaw took genuine pleasure in seeing my excitement and watching me tear into my presents. But he was there for the small difficulties of childhood, too. If I skinned my knee playing, he cleaned the wound with soap and water and painted it with the dreaded iodine-based “red medicine” that mountain people of his generation swore by. On days I was home sick with a cold or virus, he would come over, sit on the edge of my bed, and play board games with me. Whatever the game, he played by the rules and never let me win on purpose. He said if he made it too easy for me, I’d never learn to be a good player.
But Papaw played by the rules in other ways, too—the rules of the society in which he had been raised. The flip side of his pride in being a miner was that he never acknowledged the personal and environmental exploitation of the coal industry. Even when he was dying from chronic lung disease caused by his years of mining, he said that if he had had the knowledge that it would eventually lead to a slow and painful death, he would still have chosen to be a miner. His views of gender were also typical of his upbringing and environment. While he was always very supportive of all my ambitions, he still believed there were some jobs women couldn’t/shouldn’t do, and while he was a big fan of FDR, he hated Eleanor because she had once visited the inside of a coal mine, which was “no place for a woman.”
Papaw was a believer in every existing ethnic stereotype, and if there wasn’t an existing one, he’d be happy to make one up based on his limited experience. He told a story about how when he was working at the gas station, he dropped a five-dollar bill on the ground in front of the Jewish department store owner who was there buying gas. He said, “And of course, when the Jew saw that money, his mouth took to watering.” He had worked with some Italian immigrants in the mines and observed that “they left chickens out to rot before they’d eat ‘em,” “worshipped Mary,” and “was bad to drink.” When the watermelons came into the produce department at the grocery store where he worked…well, you can guess what ethnic group he said would be “busting through the doors to get at ‘em.” This confused me as a child: didn’t just about everybody like watermelon?
The thing about how my papaw relayed these stereotypes is that there was never a tone of anger or bitterness. His observations about Jews or Eye-talians or, his preferred racist slur, “jigs” were delivered as humorous anecdotes, the same way he’d tell you a funny story he heard from one of the fellers at the barber shop.
Since I grew up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, a lot of the shows I watched on TV with my papaw and nana featured black characters and spotlighted social issues. Nana and Papaw laughed at Archie Bunker on All in the Family, not because he was a bigoted buffoon but because he was telling the “truth” that other people were too weak or scared to say (Maybe Archie Bunker was the Donald Trump of the 1970’s in that respect, but he had the distinct advantage of being a fictional character). Nana and Papaw also enjoyed Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons, but the way they laughed at Fred and George was different than they way they laughed at Archie; they laughed at the black characters, not with them. In the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, there was a strange fad of sit coms about wealthy white people adopting adorable, diminutive black children. Probably because he loved children, Papaw especially enjoyed these shows, but the way he talked about them probably wasn’t what the show’s producers had in mind. On the days when Diff’rent Strokes aired, Papaw would inevitably ask, “Does that little n****r come on tonight?” I winced at that word, but later, Nana and Papaw and I would laugh together when Gary Coleman’s Arnold uttered his catch phrase, “Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Willis?”
Papaw thought Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, who starred in the other popular “let’s-adopt-a-precocious-black-child” sit com, Webster, were cute and endearing, and he felt the same way about black children he encountered in real life. Only a few black families lived in our little mountain town, but one of them lived just up the street from my grandparents. The two youngest children, Lisa, a girl who was barely school age and Michael, her preschooler brother, would often walk up to Nana and Papaw’s house to “visit,” where they would be rewarded with Little Debbie snack cakes from the kitchen breadbox. These visits always made me uncomfortable because while both of my grandparents were outwardly very nice to the kids, I was also aware that their tone with them was different than it was with me or the other white kids in the neighborhood. It was a tone of the sort of kindness you extend to someone or something that is worse off or lesser than you. Though Lisa and Michael were well cared for children, Nana and Papaw still fed them Little Debbies the same way they would feed table scraps to the stray dogs that showed up in the back yard. Though Nana and Papaw certainly were no one’s definition of nobility, their behavior toward Lisa and Michael still smacked of noblesse oblige.
There is a spectrum of racism, and my grandparents’ prejudice was much less blatant than some other white adults I knew. There was the substitute teacher who asked me why I was jumping rope with the one black girl in my class. When I said “because we’re friends,” she asked, “Does your mother and daddy know you play with her?” There was the old man who used to live across the street from Nana and Papaw who got so angry when a young black man walked across his yard without permission that he went into a screaming rage, had a heart attack, and died. While my grandparents were far from progressive in their racial views, they were not in danger of actually dying from the intensity of their bigotry and hatred.
It’s no mystery why I’m reflecting on these things. With the murder of George Floyd set against the backdrop of a pandemic and a divisive government, our country is showing both the fresh wounds and the old scars of our racial—and racist—history. While no particular part of the country has a copyright on racism, I feel like those of us in the South have a lot to reckon with. Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” Only a Southern writer could’ve come up with this line. Here, we are surrounded by our past, right down to statues of Confederate soldiers who died for a (thankfully) Lost Cause. As those statues topple, so should the lies white Southerners have often told themselves about our region’s history.
But it’s hard. Because when we white Southerners acknowledge the history of racism in our region, we also have to acknowledge the racism of people whom we love(d) who also love(d) us. Mamaws or nanas or grannies who made us chicken and dumplings and taught us how to crochet hats for our dolls. Papaws or Pawpaws or Grandads who taught us how to play checkers and made us cups of warm milk tanned with a splash of coffee. Cousins we swam with in the summer and had snowball fights with in the winter. My own parents were antiracist, but many parents of my peers were not. And so when white Southerners unconvincingly argue that racism was not one of the primary tenets of the Confederacy, maybe they’re not saying this because they feel the need to defend Nathan Bedford Forrest or Jeb Stuart or any other long-dead white Southern “gentlemen.” Maybe it’s because they’re telling themselves that racism isn’t a component of the beliefs of people who have held them, laughed with them, cried with them, raised them, or grown up with them. It’s hard to reconcile that kind of love with that kind of hate.
My papaw died when I was in my early twenties. He and I talked about many things during my childhood, teen years, and young adulthood. But never once did I start a conversation with him about race, about why he held the views he did. That was on me. Because we should have had that conversation. And as a region, we need to have that conversation, not just in the streets but with the people we love.