Thursday, July 31, 2008

Accountability Versus Blame

From SomeECards

Accountability Versus Blame

When I was in my early thirties, my father told me a story which made sense of his entire life for me.

We were traveling together, Daddy, my then-partner and I, driving Daddy's pick-up through Southern Oklahoma looking for traces of our ancestors on his side. He and I were both still mobile, and I was armed with topo maps, land plats, family charts and census records. We knew that his grandparents, Tom Basinger and Sarah Morton, had participated in the 1893 Oklahoma land run into what had previously been "the Cherokee Outlet", receiving 160 acres and farming it for at least 15 years. We hoped to find evidence of this part of their lives.

Tom and Sarah's daughter, Villa Basinger, was my father's mother. She had been mentally ill all her adult life, although because her mania took the form of hyperreligiosity, it was not labeled as crazy. She had made my father's childhood miserable and I had learned to avoid her at all costs when I was still a toddler. She had been dead long enough that both Daddy and I were interested in finding out WTF might have happened to her. Two things we agreed on: She believed that no one, including her parents, had ever really loved her except Jesus, and she had been a raging hypochondriac. Villa was born in 1901 in what was then Chickasaw Territory, now Love County, Oklahoma.

We succeeded in our quest, and then some. In a small cemetery outside Jimtown, we found an extended family plot which held stones for the Basingers, Mortons, and allied family names. They had done well enough to buy markers which had survived, not a certain proposition among dirtfarmer Southerners.

What I had earlier pieced together, through fragments of story and more reliable record, is that Daddy's people came from McNairy County, Tennessee, a county utterly split down the middle by the Civil War. Not just in terms of loyalty, but also physically -- the battle of Shiloh occurred on the edge of this county. After the war, the enmity between factions continued, so in the 1890s, at least forty families related by blood and intermarriage had relocated together to Oklahoma.

Photograph of men waiting to sign up for the Cherokee Strip Run, Oklahoma, made from an original glass plate taken at the west side of the Chilocco Indian Reservation by Thomas Croft on Sept. 16, 1893, just before noon. Click to enlarge.

The Basingers had been small-time slave-owners. One or more of adult brothers of Tom Basinger's father's family are responsible, I believe, for the mixed-race Basingers who appear on the census after the war. Yet one of these brothers fought not for the Confederacy but for the Union, a fact that had not been passed on in family history until I unearthed it.

The Mortons were not prosperous enough to own slaves, and also had no strong history of CSA service. Sarah Morton's mother was mixed race, half white, half Choctaw, although this, too, was a family secret. Her grandfather Elijah Morris was a displaced Alabama Choctaw who had fought for the Union and died at Murfreesboro. Her grandmother did not survive him long, dying of "shame" according to one family story, although it's up for interpretation whether the shame was from poverty, a mixed-race marriage, or Union service. Likely all three.

Sarah Morton herself had skin so pale it was almost blue, with thin features, light brown hair, pale blue eyes, and a tall, lanky build. Her brother Ace looks full-blood Native, black hair and eyes, wide face, massive nose, dark bronze skin, and a short powerful build. It seems impossible, in family photos, that they are full siblings, but they are -- just different expressions of a shared DNA.

Thus, in the cemetery near Jimtown, we found headstones bearing these familiar names, mostly marking the demise of either elders in these forty families who had made the land run or women dying in childbirth. Then we came to a series of small markers, five of them in all, headed with "Child of Thomas and Sarah Basinger": Brothers and sisters of Daddy's mother Villa who had all died before the age of two. Four them had been born (and died) before Villa, one after. Two of them were not even named.

Daddy was shell-shocked. We sat down on the ground to talk it over. He said "She always claimed her parents had not cared about her enough to name her until she was two years old. I never believed her..."

I knew from my research that Tom Basinger's parents Nep and Janey had birthed 12 children, but only six had survived to toddlerhood. I reminded him of this. Even in an era of high child mortality, that's a grim average, hinting of congenital problems, malnutrition, neglect, or frank abuse. From contact with other genealogical researchers in those lines, I had determined this 50% death rate was not repeated in other related families. This made me lean toward a non-congenital explanation.

We realized, almost at the same instant, that Villa's conviction of imminent death and her claims of parental coldness must be manifestations of this tragic record on the markers in front of us. Perhaps her parents waited to see if she survived before naming her or claiming her with affection. It was a theory which made some sense of her, made her human instead of a scripture-quoting monster. We both clung to it.

And I think this shift set the stage for what occurred a couple of hours later. We had driven on westward, to the "Big Pasture" county where Tom and Sarah Basinger moved when Villa was six, setting down final roots. It was here Daddy had been born and raised, within hollerin' distance of the Red River, on an 80-acre cotton farm given to Villa and her young husband Renza by Tom Basinger. Daddy was the first and only grandchild for four years, but it was not a coddled existence. His folks were hardshell Baptists trapped in a loveless marriage.

We went to the land where he had been reared and sat in the pickup because it now belonged to a stranger, though still in cotton cultivation. Daddy said softly "I've never told this story, but..."

When he was about six years old, his younger brother was still a baby and the Depression was underway, though the Dust Bowl had yet to hit that part of Oklahoma. One Saturday, his parents had to drive a load of products for sale into the nearest market town, an hour away. There was room for them and the baby in the front cab, but not Daddy, so he was left at home on his own. According to Daddy, this was common practice, though I'm not sure if it was common to the place and time or simply one of my family's choices.

He knew to stay out of trouble and had chores to do at any rate. He was outside, he said, when a man from a neighboring farm came pounding up at a run, asking for Renza. Daddy told him they were in town. The man pointed to the southwest, the opposite direction from where Renza and Villa had driven: On the horizon was a faint blue line. The man said it was a storm, a bad one, maybe full of hail. He said if Renza didn't get back right away, there'd be no time to save the cotton crop. Then he ran back toward home.

When cotton plants are at a certain tender stage, they can be snapped easily at the stalk by high wind. To prevent this disaster, farmers create a dam of earth on either side of the furrow holding the plants to act as a windbreak. Daddy had the exact terms for this, and the equipment used to do it, but I've forgotten it. The machine used to do this job was already attached to the tractor in the barn -- Renza had intended to perform this task on his return from town.

Daddy knew how to drive a tractor, had been doing it since he was a baby in his father's lap. The problem was, his legs were not long enough to reach the pedals on his own. He went to the woodpile and found a piece of stovewood big enough to bridge the gap between his foot and the pedal. He wired it to his shoe with baling wire and fired up the tractor.

He said he couldn't make sharp turns at the end of a row, so he had to skip every other row with a wide U, which meant at the end of a section he had to go back over what he just covered to pick up the missing rows. He drove with increasing panic, as the sky gradually darkened and the wind picked up. Even so, he said he finished all but a half-field before the rain hit. He raced back to the barn and parked the tractor.

He had just gotten the block of wood unwired from his foot when his parents roared up in their Model T pickup. He walked out into the rain proudly, telling his father what he had done, as Villa sprinted for the porch with the baby. Daddy said Renza gaped down at him. Through the storm came Villa's voice: "Spare the rod and spoil the child. He ain't supposed to drive the tractor on his own."

Renza looked at her resignedly. He led Daddy back into the barn, took a leather strap and beat him until he could hardly stand. For disobedience. Then they went into the house for dinner. Nothing more was ever said about it.

After he told us this, Daddy, now in his 60s, bent over the steering wheel and sobbed. I held his hand, puckered with scars of the countless melanomas they kept removing from him after a lifetime of working outdoors. I remembered that when I was around nine, my mother had told my little brother and I to not argue when Daddy blamed us for something we hadn't done. She said "He has to assign fault, so he can be sure it won't fall on him. It doesn't matter if it's fair or not, just tell him you're sorry and he won't get mean." It was good advice, and we followed it, though not her -- she fought with him nonstop until her early death.

The myth of class mobility in this country, and the denial of how rigid our class stratification is, means that those who are on the lower end of the ladder and remain there are perceived, by others and by themselves, as having deserved their deprivation. It is their fault. Add on the denied but eviscerating effects of racism and sexism, and you have a huge portion of the population -- a majority, I believe -- who will have enormous difficulty accepting rational responsibility for what actually is a result of their decisions and choices.

Thus, we have Dubya's ossified base, a group of people who don't want to believe they made this world-threatening sort of mistake, voting into the Presidency a loser who was meant to prove to them that second chances paid off, that bad sons could turn into great leaders. They would rather die, would rather anyone else die, than accept blame for their vote. And one way to bluff their way through this denial is to vote for Dubya's Mini-Me, McCain.

I believe, as political strategists, we need to hold this understanding of their impaired judgment "in the light", as Quakers say, which is a more active stance than it might sound. We cannot force them to self-revelation or renewal. We cannot appeal to logic, because they operate by "gut", which means in most instances a value which would not (in their minds) subject them to punishment from their dead parents or estranged communities. We must find other language and motivation to persuade them forward.

My father had a brief period of self-examination and honesty following our trip to Oklahoma. However, the last five years of his life he reverted to suspicion and insularity, to the point where his behavior played a role in the early death of my little brother. He did not vote for Dubya, but only because as a former oil company grunt, he loathed Halliburton and never had anything good to say about Cheney. In the last few months of his life, in 2005, he said a couple of times "Is it possible that everything they said was nothing but lies?" But our discussion would end there; he didn't want to pursue it.