This is a piece I wrote in February, 2006, although I did edit it when I last published it in 2012 and again today. The message is the same. Times may change, but it's not always for the better. Yesterday's Chicago fiasco is a stark and sickening reminder that prejudice still divides us. This is one story, but in reality, it's not limited to one side. Winds blow in all directions.
When I was doing art & design work for a local printer, we had a film stripper who set up our work to make plates for the presses. He was a really good guy and we got along quite well. I was from New Jersey and he was a Florida native. A lot of people from here have a fair amount of resentment towards people from other parts of the country, especially northerners. If you were from Alabamee or Mississippa, you were OK. The northeast? Eh. Not so much.
Ron and I used to tease each other about northern and southern differences - the Civil War, the South Rising Again! That sort of thing, but it was all done in a good natured, friendly manner with no implied intent. Whenever he brought up some Yankee thing to tease me about, I always had a standard reply; one he could not defend, “Well, at least I didn’t have a hangin’ tree in my back yard.”
Ron was, by no means. He lived in Apopka, which is a relatively rural town northwest of Orlando. Plenty of the deep south has areas of racial hatred, including parts of Apopka. I’m not trying to single out any community. They’re everywhere, all across America, and most of the town is not like that, but there’s a long history steeped in racial bias and, yes, hangin’ trees that should have been chopped down a long time ago. Ain’t been no hangins’ around these here parts in a long time, yet there still exists a small faction of folks who believe the old rules of the deeply segregated south should never and shall never change.
When I moved here in 1981, I found a place in Winter Park called Harrigan’s. My sister used to work there. It’s been gone a long time now, but one of the bartenders ended up buying an established business in downtown Orlando on the corner of Orange Avenue and Pine Street called Tanqueray’s. It used to be part of a bank and housed the vault. You walk down a flight of stairs from street level, step inside, and immediately feel the warmth of the friendly crowd.
Many of the regulars from those days were professionals who worked downtown and stopped in for a drink or two to unwind and socialize. It was known as a hangout for attorneys and it always seemed to be a well mannered, intellectual group. That’s where I met John Morgan, but he has nothing to do with this story. I seldom go downtown anymore, but if I do, I try to stop by, since I’ve known Dan a long time and he always has a few good jokes to tell, plus he’s an all-around great guy.
One day, I dropped by for happy hour. I had to go into the city for some reason and, I figured, why not go see Dan. I took a seat at the bar, near the front door, and we exchanged some friendly banter. The place was quite busy, so we didn’t have much time to talk. Moments after I arrived, some guy appeared on my immediate left. Talk about rough around the edges, he didn’t quite fit in with the rest of that crowd. He ordered a draft beer and said to me, “Yup, I was at Whiskey River at 7 o’clock this morning.”
Whiskey River is a liquor store on S. Orange Blossom trail. It’s certainly not in one of the nicest parts of the city. There are a few scattered around and they have a reputation for catering to hardcore drinkers - the labor pool and unemployment collecting types who live off their pay buying cheap booze and cigarettes. That was a perfect description of this particular fellow. I have no idea why he chose me out of the crowd to enlighten, but there we were…
“Whiskey River? At 7 AM? So, tell me, what did you have for breakfast?” I asked.
“I had me a 3 Marlboro omelet,” he responded in his gruff, seasoned and rather pickled sounding voice.
“Hmm. Sounds delicious.”
“Yup. It was.” Suddenly, out of the blue, he blurted, “I’m a card carrying member of the KKK.”
“No. No way.”
I had never met anyone with any sort of affiliation to a white supremacy organization. You know, you always hear stories, but have you ever met anyone like that for real? “OK. Let me see your membership card.”
“Ain’t got one. Don’t need one.”
He didn’t come across as some sort of nasty fellow. He didn’t seem to have gone in there to start trouble. I think he just wanted someone from the “big city” to talk to. Maybe, I looked slick enough. I seem to collect those types, anyway, but I don’t mind. I guess I have a friendly demeanor that people pick up on.
After telling me he lived in the outskirts of Apopka, I thought to myself, why not give the guy a chance to speak his mind. I would try to rationalize everything he says and come back with an appropriate response. I asked him how he could feel this way. How could you harbor so much hatred inside?
“They’re animals. Damn [N-WORD] are monkeys.” I think he really wanted to test me, yet I sensed sincerity in his statement and a certain curiosity on his own part, like he was questioning his own tenets; the ones I'm certain was a huge part of his upbringing.
“Animals? What if you had sex with a monkey, could you get her pregnant?” No need to question his own sexual identity.
“Nah, of course not. That’s stupid.”
“What if you had sex with a black woman, could you get her pregnant?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, what you are accepting is that if black people are animals and you could get that type of animal pregnant, then you are an animal, too; a monkey. We’re ALL monkeys!"
"Uh... uh..." I don't think he knew what to say.
With every racist claim he made, I had a response. At one point, I asked him, “What if you were in a horrible accident and needed a blood transfusion? What if you later find out it was the blood of a black man? A NEGRO. AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN. What would you do? Would you try to bleed yourself out? Would you tell your card carrying KKK members that you are now tainted with the blood of an animal? Would they hang you from the highest tree?”
No responses to my queries made sense, yet he stuck around to hear everything I had to say. He didn’t necessarily agree with me, but I could tell he was grasping, if not absorbing, everything. He really WAS trying to understand the other side. I brought up the “be they yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight” song from Sunday School days of my youth. He knew the song, but many southern racists are born into religious families that adhere to odd and distorted interpretations of the Bible, as if Jesus was lily-white and black folk dangled from fig trees.
I asked him about black heroes who had saved plenty of white hide during our nation's wars throughout the world, like WWll. A lot of us wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for good ol’ blackie, would we?
The conversation had taken on a kind of flow. It was never a heated exchange and we showed each other respect. I couldn’t judge him for his status in life, but I surely did question his morals and prejudices with a vengeance. Our discussion began to wind down without ever really unwinding. The conversation had just taken its natural course. At the end, I had one final thought.
“What if we were on a deserted island — just you, me and a really good looking black woman…” Suddenly, the door opened up and a group of very good looking women sauntered in, one of whom was black. “HER!” I exclaimed. She didn’t see or hear a thing. “What if it was just you, her and me?”
“I’d kill YOU, not HER. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” I knew what he meant. Sex. Ain’t no way this dude was gonna go for me, Deliverance-style.
“You mean to tell me you’d kill a white man to save a black woman? Wait a minute. Doesn’t this go against your entire credo? People you’ve hated all your life? What would the KKK say about that? Kill a WHITE to save a BLACK?”
“You’re confusing me, man, you’re confusing me!” Aha! Gotcha, I thought to myself. “You know, you’re right.” he continued, “Yup, you are, but I’ll never tell my friends about it. I can’t. They’re my friends and they’d kill me.”
I guess I felt some satisfaction in thinking I had gotten through to the guy, but did I really? He had listened to enough, I reckon, and I’ll never know for sure.
“Thanks for the talk. Gotta go.” He gulped what little beer he had left and off he went.
What surprised me the most was that the patrons sitting at the bar had listened intently to our conversation, unbeknownst to me. After the guy walked out and the door closed behind him, they broke into a loud applause. They, too, thought that, maybe, just maybe, I had gotten through to him. Perhaps, I did, but I doubt it.
Occasionally, I think about the KKK man who sucks Marlboros for breakfast — the guy who went home to the hangin’ trees that still stand and sway; returned to the recollections of fiery crosses from yesteryear. I hope and pray those fires will be extinguished from our memories and that warm breezes of kinship will sweep through the minds of people like him. Gone with the wind.