Explosive Matters

Harry T. Moore celebrated Christmas and his wedding anniversary on the same day in 1951. Retiring to bed at 10:30, he and his family had their sleep interrupted by a bomb that shattered the house and ultimately killed Harry and his wife Harriette. What was Harry’s offense? Had he whistled at a white woman? Did he have the temerity to work on his own account rather than toiling in the orange groves? Was he just at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Apparently, Harry’s death came because he had angered the wrong people by insisting on justice for Florida’s African-American citizens. Probably the most aggressive thing the man did was write letters to the governor as the state head of the NAACP.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King, and this morning’s installment involved the events described above. In fact, I haven’t even gotten as far as Harriette’s death but felt compelled to write these things.

As a child of the 1960s, someone who has lived through any number of After-School Specials, documentaries, and dramas about the Civil Rights Movement, I know a lot of these stories. I’ve heard about Rosa Parks and the 16th Street Baptist Church girls. I’ve seen the events portrayed in newsreel footage and dramatized.

So why is this book making me feel so much more strongly? Why am I more outraged at this account of 70-year-old injustices than I have, I think, ever been before? At least once a year, I teach Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” the first chapter in Invisible Man, and I am struck by the masterful way that Ellison presents the complexities of segregated life and his psychological response to it. I think that’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but, despite its power, I’ve never had it bother me as much as King’s book. Why?

Something has changed, and it clearly isn’t the events. Although the “Groveland Boys” case is not one I knew previously, it’s not remarkably different from many others I do know. So what has changed? There are perhaps two reasons for my different response.

First, the writer might have changed. Gilbert King might just be that good of a writer. He did win a Pulitzer Prize after all. Maybe he  has just reached into my mind and touched all the right synapses to stir my heart like these things never have. (Should I be bothered that it took a white man’s account to stir me, a white man?) Frankly, I don’t think that’s the explanation.

Second, the reader has changed. I’d like to think that I have been a caring and empathetic person for all of my adult life. I’d like to think that I never would have taken the ordeals faced by people like Moore lightly. In reality, I’m pretty sure that I can think those things, but I’m not sure that I’ve always felt them as deeply as I should.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to expand his hearers’ vision of who their neighbors were. Like that expert in the Law, I might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps my neighbor is simply the person whose suffering I cannot witness without being moved. Perhaps my neighbor is Harry T. Moore.

Calling all White Hats

In a recent visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, I did not meet America’s most famous farmer, but I did meet a four-year-old who provided a marvelous tour of the grounds. “Do you want to see the hay that I climb on?” he asked my wife and I.

What could we say in response? He led us to a hay barn, pausing once with a quick “shhh!” when he thought we might see deer across the pasture.  As he clambered onto a mountain of square bales, his mouth kept up a stream of explanations and comments, a few of which we actually understood.

Apparently at some point, he was launching into a story that was playing in his imagination. “And that’s when we got the bad guys!”

“Who got the bad guys?” I asked.

“I did,” he explained, his face relaying his seriousness. “With my good guys!”

What must it be like to be four years old and inhabiting a world of good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats, a world more straight-forward in its allegiances than the plots of Gunsmoke or Bonanza that my mother watches each afternoon?

Those stories and the cut-and-dry characters that populate them seem quaint and simplistic to contemporary sensibilities. We prefer far more nuance and complexity in our fictional characters. The white and black hats have been abandoned for a series of greys. We embrace Don Draper and Walter White, Tony Soprano and Olivia Pope. Even someone as close to the old-school Western hero as Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS carries along some fairly disturbing baggage. The simple character seems as passe as the family of Father Knows Best. We’re just a bit too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

After leaving Polyface Farm, we drove back into nearby Staunton, Virginia. Along the roads of that fascinating small city, we saw a number of campaign-style signs that read “Save the Name.” Investigating this plea, we discovered that a movement is afoot to change the name of Staunton’s Robert E. Lee High School. The opposing side wants to preserve the tradition of that name. In the wake of last year’s chaos in nearby Charlottesville, the urgency of this matter seems to have only increased.

While I understand the feelings of those who think a Confederate general to be an inappropriate namesake for a public high school, I can’t help thinking that those who dismiss Lee out of hand are separating the world into good guys and bad guys just as surely as  my four-year-old tour guide had.

Was Lee a perfect paragon of moral rectitude? No. An absolute devil? Of course not. He was a man, generally honorable but with serious flaws.

In that same Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president has his name placed on various local landmarks. Was Wilson a saint? No. Did he segregate the Federal offices in his administration? Yes.

But I wouldn’t argue for his name to be struck from the public view. After all, once we start that sort of action, the only names that can remain are those of people who did nothing. In my own home town of Independence, Missouri, the three high schools are named for Harry Truman (who dropped two atomic bombs), William Chrisman (who owned and traded slaves), and Robert T. Van Horn (who was a lawyer, politician, tax collector, and journalist, thereby almost guaranteeing at least some less-than-stellar doings).

People who do things of consequence almost invariably take some faulty steps. And when various people, from various parts of the moral and social compass, bring their ideas of what constitutes a faulty step, there’s very little hope that anyone’s name could remain on a high school or a street.

Humanity has very few absolute “good guys” and many people who can be partly tarred with some “bad guy” accusations. Perhaps we should be as open to complexity and conflict in our real people as we are in our fictional characters. Let’s leave the simplistic stuff for the pre-schoolers.

Poor, Minority, and HIV-Positive

Bad ExampleA recent study among homosexual men attempts to explain why some of them become infected with HIV while others do not.

For the new study, the researchers analyzed patterns of new HIV infections among 594 young men who have sex with men.

Participants were recruited from the New York City area between 2009 and 2011 and were 18 or 19 when they entered the study. At that point they were all HIV-negative.

Over the next three years, 43 participants became infected with HIV.

About a third of black, Hispanic and mixed or other race participants became HIV-positive during the study, compared to about 7 percent of white participants.

The researchers apparently studied such details as number of partners and particular practices–things that I don’t think I would want to spend my working hours studying for 3 years–and concluded that despite basically the same behaviors, the poor and non-white men in the study became infected at a much higher rate. The problem here is that while the researchers did study current behaviors–and we’ll assume here that the study participants told the truth–they did not study past behaviors.

If older members of a community behaved more recklessly, they would, predictably, have a higher infection rate. If the population of potential partners is more infected, then it is not terribly surprising that these young men would become infected at a higher rate. And since they have become infected, they will, barring a change in behavior, contribute to a higher rate of infection for young men over the next 3 years.

The researchers’ solution to this problem? Comprehensive sexual health education. Honestly, is the education necessary here really all that complicated? My city educates food handlers, people engaged in a far more complicated field, in a couple of hours, test included.

Comprehensive sexual health education can be very simple:

  1. Here is how you can expose yourself to bad bugs.
  2. Don’t expose yourself to bad bugs.

I’m not being simplistic here, nor am I being unsympathetic. Far too often, our society places young people in dangerous situations and then seeks to concoct some complicated solution. That’s what has created our epidemic of campus sexual assaults and it is what has a tiny sliver of our population of young men experiencing a ridiculously large helping of this still-dreadful virus.

While I don’t buy the whole “born that way” argument, I don’t doubt that these men have real desires. It’s not PC to say, “Just don’t engage in that behavior,” but I would urge them, “Just don’t engage in that behavior.”

While poor people, people who have for generations been disproportionately people of racial minorities, typically do not have a lot of worldly wealth to pass on to the next generation, there is no reason why they need to pass on this infection, which, undoubtedly is paralleled by other serious infections.