A white boy’s me­mories of Vir­ginia

The Southern Gazette - - EDITORIAL - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com.

As the lat­est ugly, dis­turb­ing chap­ter in the shame­ful, em­bar­rass­ing term of the re­al­ity show host-turned-pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, was un­fold­ing in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia re­cently, I found my­self recol­lect­ing when I briefly resided in that south­ern state, a time of naivety and youth­ful ig­no­rance that greatly af­fected my view of life there.

Vir­ginia was the first state in the U.S. in which the Wake­ham clan — Dad, Mom and their five off­spring — took up roots after the out-mi­gra­tion of air­line em­ploy­ees forced us to de­part Gan­der.

And, de­spite some pro­found lone­li­ness and a des­per­ate long­ing to be back in New­found­land (es­pe­cially for me), Vir­ginia — a state I had min­i­mal knowl­edge of, most of it ac­quired su­per­fi­cially through West­ern movies I had seen at the Cres­cent Theatre in Gan­der — had a rel­a­tively sub­dued and easy­go­ing cul­ture (at least on the sur­face) that eased, some­what, our ini­tial ad­just­ment to life in Amer­ica.

That first day of school in Falls Church, Va., was trau­matic, though, giv­ing rise to a story that has taken a prom­i­nent place in Wake­ham fam­ily lore:

My Grade 7 teacher, a nun, or­dered me in her south­ern drawl: “Come on up here, now, and tell us all a lit­tle bit ‘bout your­self.”

I, the clas­si­cally shy Newf, awk­wardly made my way to the front of the class, and be­gan to mum­ble some­thing, ap­par­ently un­in­tel­li­gi­ble, be­cause the teacher in­ter­rupted: “I do not know,” she said em­phat­i­cally, al­most an­grily, “whether it’s ’cause ya got your head down, or ’cause of that thick Ir­ish brogue, but we can­not un­der­stand one sin­gle word you all are sayin’.”

Red-faced, I could only re­spond in rapid-fire words, and suc­cinctly: “That’s the way we talks, S’ster.”

Later, at re­cess, I was sur­rounded by a bunch of tall Yanks, one of whom won­dered: “How’d ya all learn to speak English so well?”

But, de­spite that hellish morn­ing, I did learn to em­brace Vir­ginia, obliv­i­ous to its darker side.

We lived there, quite hap­pily for a year and a half; Mom joined a bridge club, she and Dad had an ac­tive so­cial life. We road horses, swam a lot, en­joyed all kinds of out­door sports dur­ing the long, warm sum­mer months. Other than miss­ing New­found­land, it was near idyl­lic.

I heard the “n” word used quite lib­er­ally, in a mat­ter-of­fact fash­ion, in idle con­ver­sa­tion, but had nei­ther the knowl­edge and ma­tu­rity nor back­ground and con­text to re­al­ize just how aw­ful and loaded a term it was. I was barely 13 years old, had lived my life in a place where I had only seen one black per­son, Clob­bie Collins, an “import” player brought over from the main­land to play in the New­found­land Se­nior League. I knew noth­ing of racism.

St. James was an all-white Catholic school; iron­i­cally, I did know a bit about seg­re­ga­tion, but it was re­li­gious seg­re­ga­tion in Gan­der. Catholics and Protes­tants (the non-Catholics, as de­scribed to us by our nar­row­minded teach­ers), were ed­u­cated separately, an op­por­tu­nity for the RC ed­u­ca­tors and priests to tell us, among other de­light­ful pieces of in­struc­tion, that Protes­tants were off-lim­its in terms of fu­ture re­la­tion­ships, that get­ting in­volved with that crowd was a recipe for mat­ri­mo­nial dis­as­ter, the ul­ti­mate “mixed mar­riage.”

Any­way, we were a long ways from Gan­der in 1963, in a place where Con­fed­er­ate flags flew every­where, a great source of pride to the lo­cals; my knowl­edge of the Con­fed­er­acy had been ac­cu­mu­lated, again, mostly from movies at the Cres­cent Theatre, in which for­mer south­ern rebels (John Wayne’s char­ac­ter in “The Searchers”) were viewed some­what ro­man­ti­cally and sym­pa­thet­i­cally, hav­ing been un­der­dogs in the fight, the Civil War, with that nasty fed­eral gov­ern­ment which was at­tempt­ing to al­ter “states’ rights.”

What I didn’t know back then, of course, was that the most im­por­tant “right” the South­ern­ers wished to main­tain was to keep slaves, an abom­i­na­tion of hu­man de­prav­ity for which the United States still has not apol­o­gized to the de­scen­dants of slaves, a cen­tury and a half later.

I once saw a chain gang of all black prison­ers clean­ing out ditches in our area of ru­ral North­ern Vir­ginia, but, again, I was too young, and to­tally lack­ing in any sort of his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, to grasp the im­pact of what I was see­ing.

I was also un­aware that only three or four years be­fore we ar­rived in Vir­ginia, it was il­le­gal for blacks and whites to marry (a cou­ple ar­rested and charged for such a crime had their true story de­picted in last year’s Academy Award-nom­i­nated movie, “Lov­ing.”)

We’re told, we’re led to be­lieve, that Vir­ginia (and other south­ern states) have pro­gressed since the days when we lived in Falls Church (every­thing’s rel­a­tive, I guess), and I was in­clined the other day to con­clude those neo-Nazis march­ing in Char­lottesville were an aber­ra­tion.

But then Trump opened his big­oted mouth, and it struck me that half of the Amer­i­cans who voted last fall chose this racist, sex­ist pig to be their pres­i­dent.

If ever the world needed fur­ther ev­i­dence that racism thrives in so many parts of the United States, it is pro­vided al­most daily by its dis­grace­ful pres­i­dent.

Vir­ginia, the Vir­ginia I knew briefly 55 years ago, was pure fan­tasy, a world of fic­tion.

It was, in­deed, a grand place to live. As long as you were white.

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