Sunday, October 11, 2009

Letting go of the binding grip of secrets...

I just watched a History Channel program entitled “The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan”. I’m sill recovering.

I was feeling so overwhelmed by the horrific tales of violence and politic power wielded by these people for over a century that I called a friend in California in hopes that she could calm me down. Her first advice? “Turn it off!!”

But I couldn’t. I have secret of my own that I only tell people occasionally, and when I trust they won’t judge me when they find out. The town and county in which I grew up is the hotbed of Klan territory in Indiana. I’ve been both repelled by the Klan stories I’ve heard throughout my life and morbidly curious about their history…I’ve wanted to know why they are the way they are.

Whenever I hear about the Klan, I immediately feel guilty by association. It’s been a source of shame for me since I first heard about the meetings in the woods outside of town when I was a very young child. So when I told my friend this, she recommended—strongly—that if I felt compelled to watch it, I find a way to cleanse myself of its impact on me.

So this is my attempt at cleansing my soul from this terrible legacy that’s been foisted on me against my will. The Klan kept our town all white for decades.

First, let me say that no one in my immediate family or close circle of friends had sympathies for the Klan or their ideals. When my parents were in college, they participated in sit-ins at a local diner who wouldn’t serve Blacks at the counter. And my friends shared my own horror disgust that our hometown had a reputation for bigotry and the violence and hatred that always accompanies such attitudes. It was part of our collective feelings of inferiority.

There was a story that haunted me when I was growing up. It was about a murder in the county seat that took place in the 60’s. A young Black woman was selling encyclopedias door to door and she mysteriously disappeared. Her body was eventually found just outside of town. I don’t remember how she was killed, whether she was beaten or shot, but the case has never been solved. I suspect it’s a shared secret that some folks have taken to the grave and others continue to grasp tightly.

In my own hometown there is a popular cafeteria-style restaurant. There weren’t very many people of color going through the line, but on the occasions when one dared to, the server who took the entree orders would step back and cross his arms over his hest. It was a showy gesture that made it clear to everyone around him that he was refusing to serve anyone who wasn’t white. The server died several years ago. But why it was tolerated by the owners and managers of the restaurant for so many years is unfathomable.

When I meet an African-American from anywhere in Indiana, I’m hesitant to name the specific name of the town and county where I grew up. Once I reveal it to them, with an apology for the sins of my community, they say, “Oh yeah, we were always warned not to go there alone—especially at night!” They are always good-natured about it, almost like they have experienced that same attitude in other parts of the state and country.

But it’s not anywhere else; it’s my hometown. It’s personal. It’s shameful. And it makes me furious that they think they speak for all of us. In case I haven’t been clear, let me assure you--they don’t speak for me.

I haven’t mentioned the specific name of my home county or town here in this entry. It’s part of my profile here on my blog ad on Facebook. You can look it up if you want. But I withhold the names for a number of reasons.

1. It’s to protect the people I grew up with who are no guiltier of prejudice than I am. They may not want it revealed, and I want to respect their privacy.

2. I recognize that ours is not a unique story. There are lots of towns and areas of the country where the Klan is active. More’s the pity.

3. While this is a undeniable legacy of my hometown, it is not what defines its character. There is much more to the community that raised me than the Klan—a loving and spirited people, generous churches and other organizations, and compassionate individuals to name a few.

There’s a saying in 12-step groups—“You’re as sick as the secrets you keep.” In revealing my secret publicly, I wanted to cleanse myself of the darker side of my hometown. While I wasn’t wholly successful, it’s a start.

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