That dinner table discussion has radically impacted the way I reflect on the political process. My father is a rare breed. He possesses the ability to look past the race of a man, and to find those good qualities that we all have locked deep inside. He was able to look past Wallace’s hatred toward African Americans, and supported him for one reason-he was honest.
My father wasn’t able to convince me to vote for Wallace, but he taught me an important lesson regarding how to measure the content of a person’s character. He taught me to admire those who say what they mean and mean what they say. He taught me to look past the cant of slick politicians to discern how they feel when reporters go home.
The words of my father helped me appreciate Jesse Helms. He stood for what he believed in, even when I despised him for taking those positions. When others demonized him, I saw beauty in the man. He fought against the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, funding for the arts and stirred hostility against gays and lesbians.
The dude stood against everything I believe in. He epitomized the Old South mindset that had me concerned when I moved from Missouri to North Carolina. I assumed North Carolinians must all be like Helms. They voted him into office, and I feared rearing my children in an environment hostile to African Americans.
I wanted a diverse community that celebrated the worth of different cultures, not a closed minded community trapped in the days of Dixie. I feared racial slurs and cross burnings. I soon discovered the beauty of living in a community that had struggled to redefine what it means to be community after such a hostile history.
It took extensive dialogue to move communities past many of its assumptions. I soon realized the emotions behind Southern symbols. I listened as old, proud Southerners talked about the Confederate flag. I watched them fight through the assumptions of their upbringing to embrace the worth of those of another race. This took hard work.
I’ve witnessed African Americans hindered by the memory of oppression. As white Southerners fight to overcome old assumptions, many African Americans are unreceptive to the efforts of those who are doing the best they can to embrace the new South. This is hard work that takes time and persistence, but it is work worth engaging.
It is what I love about the South. It is what I celebrate about Jesse Helms. Southerners don’t hide how they feel. They tell you what they think. I love that in your face approach. It is what drives my column writing and the work I do on this blog. Time isn’t wasted on sifting through well chosen words. I’d rather a person tell me how they feel than to waste time in an effort to uncover the truth.
It reminds me of a conversation I had at a local coffee house. An older gentleman was sitting at the counter next to me. “You know, I just don’t like Niggers,” he said. “I’m trying to do better, but I just don’t like them.”
His comments startled me. Not because he said it, but because he said it to me. In that moment I realized that he was working through his issue. He saw in me a person willing to discuss the matter. I was honored that he trusted me. His eyes weren’t filled with hostility toward me, but rather sadness rooted in his upbringing. He feared being too old to change. I could see it in his eyes.
“Come on old man,” I said. “You don’t hate all Niggers. Otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
He laughed. We talked. I walked away overwhelmed by it all. I refused to allow that word-Nigger-to hinder our conversation. Transformation came in that moment. His truth met my truth, and we were better served due to the conversation.
That’s the South of Jesse Helms. When people speak their truth honestly, change can emerge from the ashes of our past.
Rest in peace Jesse