Once upon a time in the Deep South
October 7, 2008 · Updated 4:02 PM
A cousin of Sally Robison’s recently visited her on Bainbridge Island from Montgomery, Ala.
When the inevitable discussion of race and politics ensued, this cousin, whom she termed a “rabid conservative,” called Robison on some point or another.
“You can’t understand any of that because you live in la-la land,” the cousin admonished.
Score one for the cousin; Robison had to concede.
Because while she spent the first 30 years of her life smack dab in the middle of the Deep South and feels her Southern identity to the core, she also cannot entirely set herself apart from a syndrome she has identified as “abstract liberalism.” It’s that sense of believing that social justice is an imperative, but not quite stepping fully into the mire to help effect change.
Still, up here, Robison’s history – recounted periodically in her column for the Bainbridge Review, and in her rapid, soft-spoken drawl – makes her an exotic creature.
And an ideal participant for Kitsap Regional Library’s upcoming program, “Cotton, Southern Comfort, and Jim Crow: The Culture of Harper Lee’s South.”
The informal panel – less panel and more informal, said organizer Kathleen Thorne – is one of KRL’s many One Book, One Community events, all of which revolve around Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“What I’m hoping to emerge will be a discussion on the way that the South of that era creates a ‘sense of place’ in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – a concept that is quite a thrill for an old literature major to pull out!” Thorne said, in an email. “The way it was drummed into me, a sense of place means that the story or novel or drama couldn’t have been written in any other setting – such as, for example, a small town in the Northwest or New England.”
Robison, who will join a group of other Southern expats for tea and a “visit” this Saturday, was born in 1932 in the antebellum town of Aberdeen, Miss.
As a Works Progress Administration social worker during the Depression, Robison’s mother traveled throughout the northeast portion of the state, taking young Sally along her case-working route.
Robison remembers paper-thin shacks, lethargic children, and disease: tuberculosis, pellagra, impetigo. Her mother kept cases of evaporated milk in the car to give to starving families.
“Those were very charged images for me, the poverty,” she said.
Robison’s family moved in 1941 to Birmingham, Ala., and then in 1946 to Montgomery. She attended the University of Mississippi for her undergraduate degree and the University of Florida for her master’s degree in fine art. She even taught art to Harper Lee’s niece in Alabama.
She eventually relocated to the Northwest in 1964 when her first husband, a professor, took a position at the University of Washington.
In Robison’s estimation, it wasn’t until Martin Luther King, Jr. came on the scene that her home state, or any rural portions of the Deep South for that matter, ever had a hope of evolving.
Still, even as monumental as the Civil Rights Movement was, and as far as it helped propel Southern blacks socially, economically and politically, it by no means left all or even most Southern whites with a view that blacks were equals.
“It was this idea that we loved our maids, but not the black race,” she said.
What’s left now, at least what Robison observes from this distance, is a sometimes OK, sometimes deeply uneasy co-existence still abhorred by plenty of white conservatives. On the one hand, the latest U.S. Census data available for Aberdeen says its population is over 60 percent African American. African Americans also hold significant positions in its city government.
On the other hand, Robison’s oldest, dearest friend, who still lives there, told Robison she keeps a gun in her purse at all times and has a dog at home who is attack-ready.
Ready to attack whom, or what? The actual statistical risk of her white friend’s victimization by a black man is immaterial; her friend believes the threat is real. Robison points to a sort of Deep South perversity.
“They’re not reasonable people,” Robison said. “They’re just Southern Baptists.”
Not too long ago, Robison stayed with a wealthy cousin in Montgomery. At a party thrown by her host, she recognized the black man tending bar as a former waiter at the country club her family attended when she was growing up.
With her adult, Northwest perspective in hand, she asked the man how he could have stood doing all that work for so little money, all those years ago.
“He said, ‘Well, it paid $12 a night, and that paid for my children to go to Catholic school,’” she said.
They all went to college; he was still in Montgomery, behind the bar at a white people’s affair.
Robison isn’t quite sure where that leaves the modern South. Of course, it’s complicated. She isn’t there to be an activist, and she’s not sure whether she would be, even if she were still in residence there. She’s also not certain how to reconcile the progress engendered by the Civil Rights Movement against what she hears of crime rates among African American youth in the South.
But she can speak about what she knows, and write about the possibilities. Here, to close, is an excerpt from a journal she began after taking a trip South.
“Years ago when I first married my second husband, he introduced me to his assistant, a young African American woman who had to use crutches. After mutual interviewing, we discovered we were both from Montgomery.
We had to have lunch and it was a memorable one.
She was the daughter of a professor at Alabama State enrolled in their nursery school when I was being paraded in a jeweled cape across the civic auditorium.
Our views of each other, she the black intellect and me, the debutante, revewaled itself as two experiences of two different worlds.
We never came to any time table as to when these worlds might join in any meaningful way, but we both misjudged each other’s culture.
One of my reporters, a maverick in 1950 and a maverick in 1999, told of being invited to a roast of a retiring respected black professor. He accepted, only to find on entering that he was the only white man in the audience and he was the lead roaster.
He said he was terrified, but he rose to speak…he is a funny man, and he said, ‘Now I know how it feels to be the only pregnant woman in a nunnery.’
Everyone laughed and laughed and laughed not at his whiteness but at his joke.
There is hope.”
– Reprinted with permission from the author.