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A House Divided

I write a piece for the Durham Herald Sun every first Sunday of the month.  Please consider subscribing and support a local paper in Durham.  Whether you live in Durham, care about politics in the South, or are interested in ways a post-industrial city with a major university functions and flourishes, the Durham Herald Sun is worth a subscription.  Thank you for considering this.  Here is my opinion editorial for this month.

Jesus’ words about a divided household are so well known that a popular North Carolina bumper sticker refers to them in passing. Jesus talks about the ruin of a divided people in the middle of an argument about whether his healing miracles are miraculous or demonic. Jesus is, of course, clear that he is healing people with the power of the Holy Spirit, not through the power of Satan. This is also the passage where Jesus specifies that the only unforgivable sin is speaking against the Holy Spirit. It is a dense and scary passage, in part because the specific parameters of the one absolutely unforgivable sin are unclear. The concept of a divided house is easy to understand, however. That a divided household cannot hold itself together makes logical sense.

When I started teaching Christian ethics in the South sixteen years ago, I had to learn the hard way that I had no idea what I was talking about. I knew six different languages and had written a book about a Danish philosopher, but I knew very little about what it means to talk about race in the South. The first time I stated, as a simple matter of what I thought to be common sense, that “everyone who grows up in the United States grows up learning how to be racist,” I was confused that several students were deeply offended. I learned eventually that some white southerners see racism as a marker of class. As in, those tacky white people over there are racist. We educated white people over here are not. And then a smart, southern friend recommended I read Lillian Smith’s 1949 book on the South: Killers of the Dream. The book shifted a part of my soul.

Smith loved the South enough to dig into the intertwined roots of white masculinity, sexual anxiety, and racist terrorism. She taught me to ask white students to risk talking to one another about whether and when they had received “the talk” about just who they were and who they were not allowed to fall into abiding love with. There are different ways to sort how the Confederate flag came to be padlocked at full-mast in South Carolina, and, in Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith explains that this has to do with what she calls “The Lessons.” The lessons are taught by a “teacher” that you cannot argue with, because she cannot be literally seen: “These ceremonials in honor of white supremacy, performed from babyhood, slip from the conscious mind down deep into muscles and glands and become difficult to tear out.” Because a significant part of the dance regards who is allowed to have sex with whom, and white men with land and money are at the top of that hierarchy, white men without land and money have rituals to reinforce the lie that they have true freedom. To fly the Confederate flag at half-mast would visually signal something that the flag is specifically supposed to conceal. White men without money and power do not have control over their own bodies, and they were sent shamelessly off to the slaughter to protect an evil economic system from which they did not themselves benefit.

That is the truth that shifted my soul. Lillian Smith wrote about “Two Men and a Bargain,” in which she tells the story about how white men who owned land and factories in the South made a bargain with white men who worked on land and in factories in the South:

Once upon a time, down South, Mr. Rich White made a bargain with Mr. Poor White. He studied about it a long time before he made it, for it had to be a bargain Mr. Poor White would want to keep forever. It’s not easy to make a bargain another man will want to keep forever, and Mr. Rich White knew this. So he looked around for something to put in it that Mr. Poor White would never want to take out.

By this arrangement, Mr. Poor White could pretend to have control over schools, churches, libraries – which children could go where, which hymns would be sung, and which books could be read or burned. This semblance of control was conditional. Mr. Poor White must never, ever stop hating and terrorizing African-American men for long enough actually to realize that they are all being exploited, treated as mere cogs in Mr. Rich White’s farms and factories. It was a bargain set up meticulously to keep house divided from house and neighbor from neighbor. The South was set up to be like a house divided. It is the carefully arranged opposite of solidarity. Unlike the one unforgivable sin, we can turn around this arrangement. The bargain must end.

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