I am a child of children of the south. My parents were both raised in Arkansas, my mother in Little Rock, my father in Crawfordsville, close to the Tennessee border, and not far from Memphis. It seemed to be a bit of destiny that I would experience some life lessons and undeniable transformation of spirit, belief, and experience in this region. It’s as if my marrow and blood cried out for it, even if seemingly against my will.
I need to talk about the blood knot, the entanglement and enmeshment that exists between black and white in the south to this day, although in the modern south the knot has unwound significantly with the advent of black economic, social, and political power. The blood knot is many things. It is genetic, in the sense that there are very few African Americans that do not have some white blood in them. We American Black people are largely of some mix of “races”, Primarily Caucasian and Native American. The blood knot is spiritual, in the sense that the strong religious sensibility that is manifest in the region is pervasive, and cuts across the races, and was, up until recent times, one of the few areas in which spiritual, physical and emotional cohabitation between the races could occur. The blood knot is also symbolic of a history of dependency, not interdependency, of white on black in the south. The south was built with black blood, sweat, muscle and tissue. The south was maintained by the same. Myriad white babies were nursed at the breasts of black women, and raised into young adulthood by the same. Black music snaked its way into white church music, into rock and roll, and this happened first in the south, in the region in which black and white share primary experience, and proximity, and to varying degrees shared spiritual values. It was inevitable, if not always peaceful, fluid and conscious.
Southern whites have struggled for generations with internally conflicting views of blacks; seeing them at once as inferior, subservient, feral, and primitive, as well as capable, spiritual, physically and emotionally indomitable, wise, creative and long-suffering. This dependence and admiration, coupled with exploitation and domination, created a profound cultural confusion concerning the role of both black and white in social arrangements as well as individual relationships. The blood knot is the image of that confusion and enmeshment.
I say all this because I came to experience it at Harding. I remember the first time another student actually used the word nigger in my presence and I took exception to it by provoking a physical confrontation. I’ll never forget the surprise in his eyes that had twofold meaning; first, “I did not mean anything by it” and secondly, “why is he reacting this way?” I was from another planet. I did not understand. I remember being called to one of the Dean’s offices so that he could discuss with me the fact that my spending time (dating) white females was “leading my other Christian brothers astray”, because I was provoking a response in these young men that was difficult for them to manage. Again, I was coloring outside of the lines, ignoring the explicit and tacit agreements, and heading deep into the territory of taboo.
Which brings me to the issue of “jungle fever”. In 1979 at Harding University there were less than 80 Women of color. If it had been my value that I would only date within my race ( and it was not), the potential pool of romantic partners at HU was decidedly limited. The choices would have been to date amongst who was there, or focus that part of myself on women that did not attend HU. Being too lazy and too in love with women in general, the latter choice did not appeal to me, so I did what I wanted. There was no shortage of truly refined, genteel and curious, honest and transparent, or horny and rebellious white women that were willing to head with me toward the white swings. In my first year alone I received several notes from curious white women from small and not so small towns all over the south looking for an experience, on the prowl, looking for strange, literally the strange dark distillation of black, foreign yankee flesh, and I was in some cases all too willing to accommodate the prurient desires of some of the latter, but not as often as one might think. This writing exercise is serving as a confessional to this fact. I did not speak of it then. I only spoke of my public relationships, the ones that were, as much as possible in that environment, above board, wholesome… adapted. There was surprisingly little public push back from white male students to my public behavior, as again, I was an alien, and alien beings cannot be expected to understand the social mores, customs, or behavior of the planet on which they have unexpectedly landed. We were also all Christians, and therefore, expected to struggle without rancor, violence, or aggression regarding these difficult issues.
On the last point, I must give the traditions of the church of Christ kudos. While not always tolerant of differences, aggression and violence in the name of God is never tolerated. Gentility must rule in the end. Guilt, shame, social pressure, and manipulation were more the weapons of choice to effect personal, moral, or social change. The most overtly aggressive thing that happened to me due to my dating miscegenation was that I once received a rather clever drawing in my mailbox depicting me as a spear-carrying savage replete with a big ass nose bone. To the credit of the artist, the caricature really did look a lot like me. He obviously spent a lot of time studying my physique and face. Probably the twisted explication of some homoerotic fantasy gone bad…dunno.
The blood knot can bring out some very bad behavior. My immaturity, anger, and sense of outrage at times led me to abuse some relationships that never should have been abused. Led me to doubt the intentions of some very beautiful souls, and put them in perilous situations with their own families that I never would have had I been more conscious, patient, and possessive of loving-kindness. All these women know who they are, and I beg their forgiveness.
Being a stranger in a strange land can sometimes be a catalyst for things happening that never would otherwise. I remember when I became a “beau”. I spell it beau, maybe there is an x as well? I don’t know. At any rate, at HU a beau is a male that becomes in effect a “big brother” to a women’s sorority, or as they are known at Harding, clubs, because sororities and fraternities are banned. So, you have these “clubs” which are also indicated by Greek letters, and operate under much the same rules of social stratification and caste orientation that normal sororities and fraternities do…except there is no drinking, sex, or carousing in general, at least not on campus. At any rate, I’m sitting in the library around 9:00 one evening my Sophomore or Junior year, and all the sudden I hear wafting up to the window, 30 or so female voices singing “We love you Percy, o yes we do, we love you Percy and we’ll be true, etc, etc.” and I was made a “beau”. You coach their intramural sports teams, they make you cookies, etc. It was all actually pretty freaking cool….not a bad thing to happen to a blackalienfromlongisland.
Why did I stay all four years? Simply put, due to some transformative, amazing, loyal, and life-long relationships that could not have formed in any other context. I will speak of these next.