James Ryer: Essay


Southern Legitimacy Statement: The South is comprised of mesmerizing layers of contradiction: What people believe is true or not true. Who you choose to believe. And, what is actually true. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter. You find that in searching for the truth that nothing is intrinsically black or white. Like the color of a person’s skin. Even right and wrong becomes murky when seen through the lens of history or through the tangled syntax of memory. I have stood on Civil War battlefields and wondered where they buried the pack mules inadvertently killed in the bloody skirmishes. Sometimes, I simply wonder if I will see justice overtake history here in the South.

Everyone Dies Unhealed

David Geffen, who had been an eminently successful figure in the entertainment industry, at nearly 70 years of age, seems to have sought refuge in a few poignant words that came near the end of the 2012 PBS documentary on his life: “I believe everyone dies unhealed.”

I sense that people who live in a generationally fragile economic state of affairs don’t spend a lot of time thinking too much about their future, about dreams and aspirations.  They are overly involved in the granular details of survival, of paying the most necessary bills on time, of keeping their job or trying to find a better one, raising their kids with a modest amount of available free time of their own and few outside resources, such as affordable childcare, on which they can draw.  Sometimes this pressure creates domestic tensions which further burden and often scar the participants.  Life in the poverty lane, in a word, is hard, stressful, or exhausting – and, it is oftentimes more arduous than words can relate.

Still, if only subliminally, there almost always exists a flickering hope for the future and dreams of a better life for their kids while frequently striving with no other goal in hand than to find a wisp of dignity in their work-life.  To be seen as a person of value. Sometimes the bonds of love forged in these difficult times create the strength, the vision, and the grit to propel the offspring out of poverty to a higher, more secure rung on the economic ladder.  Sometimes, the offspring fall back due to personal failures or simply due to bad luck, but more often they are destined to fail as a result of the pressures of societal inequities.  And, not to create too fine a point, but these families often start their quest as first generation immigrant families, tend to be people of color, often people who lacked adequate education opportunities, or people who simply lost a job and couldn’t recover quickly enough not to drop below the lowest rungs of a fragile level of economic stability defined by even the most generous standard.  

Your neighborhood’s zip code also impacts your chances to have a reasonable shot at upward mobility by becoming a resource indicator of the quality of your schools, a limited range of job opportunities, minimal access to routine medical services, having grocery stores that provide healthy food choices at affordable prices, fostering crime rates that precipitate heavy-handed policing, and other such social and economic inequity driven outcomes.  Too often, these causations can badly damage not only an individual’s will to strive for greater success, but they can also become contributing factors in tearing families apart.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the middle and upper income levels also face challenges in their lives albeit with stronger financial and societal safety nets in place.  Clearly though, in some if not several respects, a predominantly white middle to upper income group’s neighborhood typically offers what have been long ingrained societal benefits – i.e. better schools, broader and more numerous job opportunities, more access to routine and specialized medical resources, neighborhoods with more resources in general, something as simple as being able to afford childcare and college tuition, but also a visible and palpable sense that success is attainable, that, by birth alone, there is a launchpad already in place.

In the United States today, given the expansive political and cultural fissures and conflict, the most enduring and deeply dividing aspect of our coexistence is that of inequality – racial, wealth, education, housing, access to healthcare, congressional representation marginalized due to political gerrymandering, voting rights, and the simple fact, still, of ‘difference’ or a glaring lack of inclusivity.  A person’s measure or how society as a whole values them should not be a matter of their degree of wealth, level of education or their skin color, but rather their strength of character and abiding courage, their willingness to stitch up their own wounds and those of others not like them, and a natural and frequently used sense of empathy.  A democracy, a system of governance whose guiding principle is that it gives all it’s citizens equal opportunities to flourish, is much fairer and more equitable than one where a blinding focus on keeping power, wealth and political control creates a societal structure that benefits the few rather than the many.

I list the following four thought inserts below to purposefully interject ideas, whether you agree with them or not, to challenge your perception of the American concept of democracy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks to the question of values that support our democracy in a  historically contextual way: “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothings to learn from them is not just.”

Carl Sagan is eerily prescient in this quote: “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” 

In a 1974 album, the Lynyrd Skynyrd band had this to say in the lyrics of their song “Sweet Home Alabama”:

In Birmingham they love the Governor 

Boo, boo, boo

Now we all did what we could do

Now Watergate does not bother me

Does your conscience bother you

Tell the truth

Maya Angelo: “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”  

To push the argument forward, let’s choose the South as an arbitrary starting point.  Having done so, it therefore falls on each of us, Southerners of all creeds and colors, those who were born here and those who have chosen to live amongst us and our racially conflicted history past and present, to reconcile our personal, community and governing values and create a shared sense of fairness in how we see and value each other.  This doesn’t mean we have to become homogeneous, but it does require us to be respectful of our differences.  It requires courage and commitment.  No one, given the necessary sacrifices required, will escape their life without being, in an apostolic sense, unhealed.  

It requires us to stitch up each other’s wounds. To be uncompromisingly merciful and brutally honest.  We have a choice laid out before us.  To fail is to lack the courage to be truthful with ourselves and, consequently, to be consumed by our unwillingness to break from the past and stand for the cornerstone of any democracy – a humanely envisioned standard of equality.