Originally published at NA Confidential on 21 August 2020. I thought about this essay earlier today, after reading a post by a friend at Facebook about getting to be one’s own person.
“A man will talk about how he’d like to escape from living folks. But it’s the dead folks that do him the damage. It’s the dead ones that lay quiet in one place and don’t try to hold him, that he can’t escape from.”
— William Faulkner, from Light in August
This is a story about dead folks, or more accurately a dead era, although it might be said that anything this dead has no damn business being so very much alive, right now, in the year 2020. The retelling itself has proven difficult, and a definitive rendering eludes me.
I’ve read all about humankind’s past pandemics and those famous plagues of old, and assumed these lessons were clear to me, but the part they don’t teach you is the way seismic public health crises peel back the layers of your soul – or, in my case, what passes for one. Atheist with souls? Nah, surely not.
To begin this beguine, let’s go back to the beginning.
These many years later, the way I remember it is that much of my father’s self-worth revolved around good, old-fashioned hard work.
In another place at another time, he might have been an enthusiastic Stakhanovite, a term originating in the Soviet Union to describe “workers who modeled themselves after (the heroic miner) Alexey Stakhanov. These workers took pride in their ability to produce more than was required, by working harder and more efficiently, thus strengthening the Communist state.”
We’re Americans, of course, or so we are told by the grifters, and it’s all bound up into a different set of precepts. Unraveling these many motivations decades after the fact wouldn’t be easy in the best of times—and as you may have noticed, these aren’t.
It remains that my father was ideally suited to socialism. He just never realized it. As military veteran, working man, salt of the earth, the common folk and Joe Six Pack, my father was eternally suspicious of concentrated wealth and hoity-toity, over-educated elites.
By his own admission, my father was drawn to the underdog and did not cheer for the New York Yankees or US Steel. He died in 2001, and yet I can imagine him turning the air blue upon learning that Greg Fischer proposed to award Amazon half the city of Louisville (and a state park to boot) in order to lure the company’s headquarters to Louisville.
Conversely, and the hard part for me to accept, is that my father quite likely would have been enamored of Donald Trump’s bait ‘n’ switch brand of cynical populism. That’s because he always was drawn to charlatans, like a moth to the light fixture.
Ross Perot was great, in spite of his wealth, at least until he proved to be an utter flake. Ronald Reagan? A godlike figure, except when those two presidential terms concluded, my father was disillusioned when he realized the rich had gotten far richer; not trickle down, but treasure up.
Before them, there was another recipient of my father’s political affections, a passionate straight talker who spoke to the people, not the snobs, and understood what needed to be done to make the nation great again.
He was George Corley Wallace (1919-1998), seeker of the presidency from 1964 through 1976, although most convincingly in 1968 and 1972.
My unanticipated recent journey through childhood days began innocently enough with a book, the title of which aptly conveys the essence of its content: Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (James Shapiro; 2020).
A second prompting came during a chat with a friend, who mentioned a 1968 television appearance by Wallace, prior to becoming a presidential candidate as an independent: “Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr.: The Wallace Crusade” (1968).
I watched the episode, and was strangely disquieted. Something had begun to stir. Concurrently, I started reading another book called Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America (George Yancy; 2018).
At this point, little things began nagging at me. Something was troubling, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps it was the culmination of six months spent largely at home, contemplating humanity, pandemics, racism and presidential politics – numerous strange disturbances coming together at the crossroads amid tumultuous news cycles.
Soon it was clear that the specific internal flash point came with the introduction of Wallace into the narrative; moreover, it flared after watching the Alabamian in peak crusading form on “Firing Line.” Watching it made me physically uncomfortable, something uncharacteristic for a history buff with a customarily strong stomach.
It became apparent that I needed a more comprehensive refresher course on Wallace and his epoch, which came courtesy of a PBS “American Experience” documentary film titled “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire” (2000).
The film took far longer to absorb than its three-hour running time because at the start, I couldn’t endure more than five minutes at a sitting. I studied the bathroom mirror. Could someone please explain why I was having such a visceral reaction to this man and his milieu?
George C. Wallace was a four-time Alabama governor whose failed presidential candidacies in 1968 and 1972 functioned as grandiose overtures to the ensuing civil rights flip-flop of America’s two main political parties.
Wallace, who began as a New Deal “liberal” in relative terms, became etched in the minds of Americans as a racist bogeyman; his presidential platforms were swallowed whole by Richard Nixon and co-opted into the emerging “Southern strategy.” Black America subsequently deserted the erstwhile Party of Lincoln for the Democrats, now the presumed defenders of social justice, while Republicans scooped up the South’s (shall we say “conservative”) electoral votes.
The ambitious Wallace’s political career played like an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. He told his children only two things mattered in life: money and power, and he didn’t care about money. Friends remarked that Wallace’s muse was the thrill of the campaign chase, and he became bored quickly when relegated to the day-to-day grind of actual governance.
And yet in 1958, when Wallace mounted his first Alabama gubernatorial campaign, he did so as a populist champion of all poor and working class residents, black or white, only to be badly beaten in the Democratic primary (the race that mattered, for at the time in the state a Republican was lucky to get 35% of the vote in the fall).
A humiliated Wallace had an epiphany in 1958, and it brings us full circle, back to the opening exchange from the “Firing Line” of 1968.
Buckley … highlighted Wallace’s 1958 gubernatorial campaign against John Patterson, a race which Wallace lost and which led the young politician to claim that he would never again be outmaneuvered on the issue of segregation. Moderator C. Dickerson Williams had his hands full as Wallace attacked numerous peripheral details of Buckley’s comments, such as whether he really uttered terms like “out-segged” or whether he picked his teeth with a dirty toothpick, as the New York Times supposedly claimed.
Hearing these words on a 1968 broadcast that I’m sure I didn’t watch as an 8-year old nonetheless struck me like a baseball bat to the cranium. On the face of it, they’re perfectly accurate words in the context of the discussion, but upon hearing them, I immediately guessed that something important was missing.
Wallace denied Buckley’s attribution, openly sneering: “There’s no such expression as ‘segged’ in the vocabulary of southerners. I have never heard of the word ‘seg’ or ‘segged.’”
Duh. Of course he hadn’t.
Wallace was telling the whole truth; as you may already have guessed, and as the documentary film corrects the normally accurate Buckley, what the failed candidate actually said was this: “I was out-niggered, and I will never be out-niggered again.”
This may seem like a minor point given the slur’s gravity. However, Wallace had already mastered the sort of coded language and dog whistles that have remained a valued component of the right wing’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge vocabulary to the present day. Buckley afforded Wallace a cloaking euphemism, but should he have done so?
Consequently, and to my point, this had the effect of reminding me that the “N” word was explicitly forbidden in our household during the days of my habitation there.
As an ex-Marine, my father was a walking encyclopedia of creative profanity, but he doubled as family censor. THIS obscenity was okay to use in front of your mother, albeit sparingly, but never THAT one.
And the “N” word? Not at all; never. Soap, meet mouth.
Here’s the pivot: Have I mentioned that my father was a strident, outspoken, sign-planting supporter of George C. Wallace in 1968 and 1972?
Ding, ding … ding.
Clearly this accounts for the dissonance in my Swiss cheese of a soul. Now, what’s to be done with it?
I was born in a New Albany, Indiana hospital and spent the first 25 years of my life in or near the presumably anodyne settlement of Georgetown, less than ten miles away from the city, situated a few hundred feet above the Ohio River flood plain.
My guess is townies at the time would have denied Georgetown was a “sundown town,” just a placid and law-abiding Mayberry clone utterly devoid of diversity even before white flight suddenly animated dozens of new subdivisions to sprout like noxious weeds, filling the former pastures of area farms, all of it exploding into existence in the wake of Louisville’s 1975 desegregation order.
By then Wallace was in a wheelchair, crippled by the assassination attempt, with his national political career over and my father pragmatically decamped to an adoration of Reagan. After all, the GOP had effectively cribbed all the disabled southern governor’s notes.
But this isn’t to say that my father was racist in any overt sense. He preached equality in matters like work and war, but especially in sports, although the realities of life off the basketball court or baseball diamond wee conveniently overlooked.
Dig deeper, and naturally it gets more complicated. My father was, in fact, an ordinary white guy in America. He was a muddled, contradictory mixture of the admirable and indefensible, usually meaning well, sometimes revealing more than he’d intended, as when he would deny opposing biracial marriage—but shouldn’t they be thinking about the indignities those poor children will have to endure?
These indignities arose from my father’s and his coterie’s misplaced insistence that a biracial child was any of their business in the first place, all of which is to say that yes, my father was racist; he had to be a racist because I am, too, and this, to me, is an inescapable fact, part and parcel of hegemonic structural racism in America, hence the necessity of reading Yancy’s book.
“Racism, in short, is a way of being — exhibited by all white people, progressive and otherwise — that grants more freedom and benefits to whites at the expense of blacks and other people of color.”
Am I deferring my own responsibility to listen and learn by somehow blaming my father for my upbringing? I don’t think so.
I’m just trying to come to grips with it. Racism is society-wide. It’s endemic, shared and historical. On the surface, my father was better than some, and not as good as others. Bizarrely, there’s not a lot to SEE here, such is the annoying and regrettable commonness of the topic.
To reiterate, my father doubtless would have explained his attraction to a populist demagogue like Wallace in non-racial language; obviously, they’re dog whistles for being suggestive and implied, not overt.
He’d have said Wallace was a truth-teller who’d make American great again (half-century symmetry, anyone?) and would fight for the underdog. But my father and his buddies, well, they weren’t really underdogs, were they?
How could they be, given the eternal certainty, and those coded-language promises, that Blacks always would remain conveniently beneath them? To be blunt, that white Americans would always have a cushion between themselves and rock bottom: Black America, kept right where it belonged.
I’m angry with my father now, all these years later, not because he was a racist; as I’ve noted, it seems entirely reasonable to me that all whites are racist. Rather, it’s the one point of his that I always previously admired, and find now to be lamentably misplaced, this being his perception of the supposed underdog’s struggle.
Precisely because Wallace was no underdog. He wasn’t really shielding the common white folks from mistreatment at the claws of evil central government, or the coming decades-long cancerous neoliberal pillage. Rather, Wallace was reassuring them they’d always stay a step ahead of Blacks, and so what if most of society’s wealth still somehow found its way straight to the 1%?
Maybe the poor would hit the lottery, and move up to the shining city on a hill where the accumulators of capital reside. But they wouldn’t move down THERE, below the (wink wink) invisible and therefore fully visible color line.
If the true underdogs are society’s most vulnerable, did the likes of Wallace really care for them at all? And while my father may have cared, he still supported Wallace and accepted the latter’s shell game. How do we explain this contradiction?
Later, when we both were older, I’d suggest to my father that he should take a closer look at the failure of exploitative robber baron capitalism as the root cause of certain of these maladies. Occasionally, it seemed that I was making headway against the headwinds, although in the end, he may have decided it was easier to humor me by listening, and then enlisting with the next diversionary populist to appear.
I can’t entirely account for the rise of this crushing angst, and it might well be the case that there’s nothing noteworthy about any of it, at least in the sense of these attitudes being common to a generation now passed.
And yet, as I’ve noted, a quick scroll of your social media feed will reveal the passing of the generational cohort, but not the diseased attitudes. They’re very much still with us.
In 2016, dozens of commentators mentioned George Wallace’s racist and white nationalist legacies in the context of Donald Trump’s narcissistic theatrics, and as a well-read and informed individual, I shrugged and looked away. Of course, I recall thinking, but doesn’t everyone know THIS, and aren’t we past THAT?
Actually, no. Approaching the conclusion of Season Four of Aryan Nation: Trump Remixes the Racist Classics, we remain mired up to our chins in it.
My father’s been dead for a while now. Our relationship was extremely complicated. We were very different people in many ways, and all too much alike in others. Most of the time it’s nothing to dwell on, and I think we parted in 2001 with considerable mutual respect. We both gave ground. We both came around.
I’d use the word “love” if I could, but it isn’t something he’d have ever said, so the notion seems superfluous. We were far tighter at the end than the beginning, and for this much I’m genuinely grateful.
Perhaps what I have learned the past few days while struggling to finish this demented jigsaw puzzle, all the while wearing a self-imposed blindfold, is that evidently I tried to bury quite a lot about those Wallace years as they pertained to my father – and to me. I buried it as deep as I could for as long as the memories would stay put, safely subterranean.
Maybe my boxing up of these memories and feelings, to be hidden in a dusty corner of the noggin, was a form of self-protection, with George Wallace merely a peripheral indicator. That’s because at the tender age of eight, I was an eager co-conspirator of my father’s Wallace fetish, if for no other reason than the hope, so often forlorn, of this enthusiasm somehow making my dad happy.
My father was capable of a strange, mercurial, unpredictable bad temper. He kept it inside the house, to our trepidation, and his contemporaries probably wouldn’t have known it existed. When I was a kid, I’d try to figure out what was eating him, and couldn’t, so it became my childhood habit to conclude that it was directed at me.
The problem? My father erupted, then just as quickly erased the memory of his distemper. However, I didn’t dispose of it quite as easily.
Once ensconced in university, and intent on becoming the sort of intellectual calculated to irritate my father, it belatedly occurred to me that his anger likely stemmed from undiagnosed PTSD, a by-product of World War II, seeing as three years during your late teens on a leaky boat lobbing shells at people you couldn’t see, until they came your way in kamikaze planes, is the sort of trauma calculated to stay with you a very long time.
Then, deciding the war was to blame, it compelled me to try to protect my father from his ghosts. It seemed terrible to me that one would go to war at 17, and be afflicted by the experience for decades afterward. Maybe he’d been shaped by these factors to be receptive to Wallace and his ilk.
52 years later, with the idiocy of racism and white privilege flaring all around us amid a deadly pandemic, tanking economy and global climate crisis, there remains sufficient depth of feeling—some level of feeling—about my father that out of nowhere, previously suppressed anger about the bill of goods my father peddled with regard to Wallace, as opposed to what Wallace really was about, was exposed, leaving me to ponder what part of all this involved me, or didn’t.
What’s the answer? I don’t know.
It is well documented that during Wallace’s twilight years, in a dogged pursuit as vigorous as any of his campaigns for public office, he made an apparently sincere effort to atone for his mistakes. If his purported religious awakening was genuine, then the word “sins” might be more fitting.
According to Wallace’s friends, he finally understood that what he had done in order to possess political power caused great suffering to others, with his own accumulating illnesses and pain abetting this revelation. Wallace asked for forgiveness, and remarkably, Alabama’s Black voters supported his final runs for the governor’s office in the early 1980s.
A Black attorney who had figured in Wallace’s early period as judge during the 1950s responded to these entreaties by saying yes, he could forgive Wallace, but no, he could not FORGET what he’d done.
In another striking convergence, the late John Lewis, who’d been beaten by Wallace’s state troopers on Bloody Sunday in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a 19th-century Confederate general, politician and Klansman, also forgave the governor.
Forgiveness from Wallace’s victims in the play’s final act alone attests to the seemingly distant role of William Shakespeare in all this, although I think the Bard of Avon is twice applicable.
I’m not the first to see familiarly dramatic Shakespearean aspects of tragedy as pertaining to Wallace’s story: a lust for power, deals with the devil, the ironic cruelty of an assassination attempt leaving him crippled and in agony (but not killing him), and of course those later efforts to achieve forgiveness and redemption as intended to snatch his tattered soul back from Satan’s grasp.
Also, like Oedipus in ancient Greece, Wallace’s ambition and arrogance carried both the seeds of success, and of his own destruction.
My personal nod to Shakespeare in this perhaps irreconcilable tale comes with an early 1970s recollection that somehow has stayed fresh in my memory, perhaps as the perfect summary of how tense the relationship with my father was at the time.
I’d taken to checking out LPs of Shakespearean plays from the library, and trying to follow along, reading them while listening. My father came into my room one day, projected his finest facially contorted dismay, and ordered me to get ready for baseball practice by turning off “that shit.”
It’s very strange what you remember, and what you don’t. At times, it can be downright debilitating.
The ghosts wobble, but they don’t fall down. They linger, and nip at your heels.