An excerpt from
A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South
By Mark Kemp
University of Georgia Press
All right, then, I'll go to hell.
-- Huck Finn
On a brisk fall morning, the first day of the 1968 school year, some two hundred students of Lindley Park, one of five elementary schools in the small mill town of Asheboro, North Carolina, filed into the auditorium for what would be a historic announcement. From that day forward, the classes would be racially integrated. It had been a long time coming. In the previous four years, in accordance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, several other schools in this predominantly white, middle-class town nestled into the rolling hills halfway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks had begun the process of desegregation. For the first time in history, black children were sitting alongside white children in classrooms all across the town and region, studying from the same books, learning from the same teachers, taking recess on the same playgrounds, eating from the same plates and utensils, sharing the same restrooms.
For a towheaded boy from a large extended family, many of whom called blacks "niggers" just as casually as they'd refer to the Reverend Charles White as a preacher, this news came as a shock. How do I know this? I was that towheaded boy -- eight years old and entering my third year of public education.
I'd attended an all-white nursery school, an all-white kindergarten, an all-white church, and an all-white elementary school for the first two years of my formal education. I hardly knew what the words integration or desegregation meant. I'd heard them on TV and in conversations among my parents and their friends. But before that day, the only blacks I'd known worked for my family. There was Dot, the woman who helped my grandmother with the housework; Sandy, Dot's tiny, rail-thin husband, who mowed my grandmother's lawn; Dorothy, the young woman who took care of me, loved me, and held me while my mama worked as a bookkeeper at the Asheboro Drug Store; and Emory, the gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair and a biting sense of humor who worked with my mama as a delivery man and often took me on his rounds in his sky-blue VW bug, carrying prescriptions to elderly white folks.
I genuinely loved Dot and Sandy and Dorothy and Emory, but the love I felt for them was confusing. At family reunions my aunts, uncles, and cousins spoke fondly of Dot and Sandy, but it was as though they were speaking of children. "Sandy," one of my aunts would say in her patronizing southern drawl, "he's that nice little nigger who cuts Mama Carlton's yard." I remember one night when that same aunt went with my mama and me to the Laundromat because it was raining and they couldn't hang their clothes on the line to dry. "I hate to come into this place," she told Mama, "'cause, you know, niggers use these dryers." I don't recall my mama's response, but to my aunt, and to most members of my extended family, the following truths were held as self-evident: "Niggers" were inferior to whites; they were dirty, smelly, violent, unintelligent, and absolutely not to be trusted. My family wasn't unique: it was a microcosm of the rest of our town and region.
When we returned home from family gatherings, my mother and father would tell my sister and me that our relatives were wrong to use the "N" word. "Colored people," they told us, just weren't as fortunate as we were. Today I assume my parents' philosophical deviation from the viewpoints of the extended family was due, in part, to the fact that my father had risen from a tool-belt-wearing factory worker to a management position that involved world travel, and that this gave him an expanded view of different cultures. Also, his family members, who were Quakers, had always been more racially tolerant than my mother's family. Whatever the reasons for my parents' more progressive beliefs, and however seriously they took those beliefs, my sister and I were told not to judge or question the elders of our extended family. That would be disrespectful. To further complicate matters, at night, when my sister and I would turn on the TV, we'd get even more conflicting images: on one news station, the grim-faced governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was telling the nation that under no circumstances would southerners allow Negroes to mingle with whites; on another was the peaceful yet determined face of a saintly looking black man who had a powerful, musical voice that trembled with conviction, compassion, and not just a little rage. It was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke of a future where Negro children would one day play with white children in peace, forever freed from the bondage of bigotry.
It was all very difficult to grasp at eight years old. Was this Dr. King one of those "nice niggers" -- like Sandy? Did he smell bad? Was he to be mistrusted? I loved my family, but when Dr. King spoke, he seemed far more sophisticated than my aunts, uncles, cousins, and Governor Wallace. His unconditional love seemed genuine; his intelligence and sage demeanor allowed me to believe in him more than I could believe in anyone from my own bloodline. My family's racism baffled me, and Governor Wallace's speeches scared me. But Dr. King -- his words and the cadence of his voice -- held me in pure rapture. It reminded me of the way Dorothy would hold me in her arms as though I were her own son. And yet, even my own mother and father would tell us that Dr. King's actions were wrong; that one shouldn't break the law under any circumstance. To my young mind, that left only two choices: either blacks couldn't be trusted or laws couldn't be trusted. If I accepted the former, it validated every other prejudice that my extended family and community had programmed me to believe.
By age eleven, I had rejected the collective bigotry, and so had my older sister and a handful of our friends. It was 1971, and at school we'd been integrated with blacks for several years and had by now concluded that our elders had brought us up on lies. I had befriended the first black boy I'd met during my third year at Lindley Park. Martin Nicholson lived near my neighborhood, in an area of town across the proverbial tracks that white bigots referred to as "the Hill." Martin was a sensitive boy who smashed at least one stereotype that I had always heard from friends and family members: that the main thing blacks were good for was playing sports. Martin was as bad at playing sports as I was.
Even by 1971, racial mixing outside the classroom or organized sporting events was not considered proper in my hometown. And that meant that there were precious few places where my friends and I could find validation for our unpopular behavior. At first, we turned to music. Hippie music. Music that embraced alternative lifestyles. Then we discovered marijuana. The combination of music and drugs took us far away from our dreary mill town lives. My favorite band was British -- the Rolling Stones. I had no idea at the time that the Stones had been influenced by such southern American artists as black blues and rock & roll pioneers Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Chuck Berry, and the white rockabilly and country musicians Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and George Jones. Those artists had made their careers in the very region that my friends and I found so suffocating. I completely missed the connection. Mick Jagger came from a land so far away that it didn't seem real. Jagger himself didn't seem real. He wore eyeliner and sequined jumpsuits, and strutted about the stage with effeminate gestures. In Asheboro, North Carolina, boys played football, chewed tobacco, graduated from high school to enter college or go into business, or quit school at sixteen to work for one of the local textile mills or furniture factories. I adored Mick Jagger, but to emulate him was to expose myself to ridicule. Besides, I couldn't really relate to him. He was so much larger than life.
Then I discovered the Allman Brothers Band, a mixed-race, blues-influenced rock group based in Macon, Georgia. The Allmans dressed in flannels and jeans, like I did. The singer, Gregg Allman, crooned with a melancholy I'd never before heard from someone who shared my reality. It was as though he were speaking directly to me. In the band's 1969 psychedelic-gospel dirge "Dreams," Allman moaned the words "I went up on the mountain / To see what I could see / The whole world was falling / Right down in front of me." I was only eleven years old the first time I heard that song, but I felt I knew what Gregg Allman was talking about. In the years following desegregation, the mood of the South was chaotic. Times were changing. Wrong seemed right and right seemed wrong. The Allmans embraced that chaos, combining country, blues, jazz, and gospel into an otherworldly musical stew that allowed me to feel conflicting emotions: sadness, joy, sorrow, pride. Between 1969 and 1973, the Allmans sang of what it felt like to be saddled with pain ("Dreams," "It's Not My Cross to Bear"); they sang of redemption ("Revival"); and they sang of falling in love with (and within) the awesome beauty of the rural South ("Blue Sky," "Southbound").
In those days, which side of the racial divide one stood on seemed just a matter of a coin toss. Some of my peers mimicked the feelings of their forefathers, while others welcomed the monumental changes taking place. For my part, I loved the land that surrounded me but hated the history that haunted that land. And that history had a huge impact on the attitudes of the people around me. It was confusing. The Allman Brothers -- and followers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Charlie Daniels, Wet Willie, and the Marshall Tucker Band -- created a safe space within that confusion. Suddenly, we white southerners who were born between 1955 and 1965, and who questioned the status quo, didn't have to feel so alone during this traumatic transitional period of American history. While we fantasized about glamorous bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Led Zeppelin, we could directly relate to the Allman Brothers. They talked like us, they looked like us, they sang about issues and landscapes that we could feel and see, and they performed often enough in cities close to us that we could drive to their shows. For me and many kids like me, the Allman Brothers and the southern rock movement that they spawned in the early 1970s changed our lives and gave us a sense of community and purpose. We had southern rock, and therefore we had each other. We may have felt like freaks, but now we knew we weren't the only freaks.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the feeling of community that southern rock engendered during the early 1970s was the beginning of a healing process -- in me and in many southerners of my generation -- that continues to this day. That truth hit me like the rush of my first rock concert one evening, in 1998, when I was backstage at a Manhattan nightclub, talking with Mike Farris, the lead singer of the Tennessee band Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies. I had been living and working in New York City or Los Angeles for more than a decade, and as I spoke with Farris, I looked around the room. Standing nearby was Warren Haynes, the North Carolina-born guitarist for Gov't Mule and a sometime member of the Allman Brothers Band. Haynes was chatting with the Allmans' longtime road manager, Kirk West, who had come up from Georgia and decided to check out the Wheelies show. The vibe in that musty, beer-strewn dressing room felt as familiar as a family reunion, and at some point I noticed that my own North Carolina drawl had resurfaced.
Apparently, this bizarre behavioral reflex happens when southern transplants feel safe. Back in 1958, just four years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision stating that segregation of public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, another expatriate from Dixie, the historian C. Vann Woodward, posed an ominous question: "Has the southern heritage become an old hunting jacket that one slips on comfortably while at home but discards when he ventures abroad in favor of some more conventional or modish garb?" Sadly, in 1998, the answer to that question still seemed to be yes. When I moved to New York in the mid-1980s, I made a conscious effort to purge the southern vernacular from my speech. By then, the Allman Brothers Band had helped me feel the pain of my region's history, Lynyrd Skynyrd had articulated for me the anger of being branded a racist by nonsoutherners, and R.E.M.'s blurred musical paintings of southern landscapes and characters allowed me to take an intellectual step away from the pain and anger. But the healing was not yet complete.
What I realized in that nightclub was that while rock & roll may have saved my life, southern rock had made it worth living. This is not just melodramatic regional cheerleading. For white southerners like me, who began grade school in the wake of desegregation and came to embrace the rock counterculture as an alternative lifestyle, any declaration of ancestral pride carries a subtext of tremendous emotional weight. If rock & roll had initially provided refuge from the South's legacy of violence and bigotry, the music of the southern rock family tree -- from the Allmans to Skynyrd, R.E.M. to Drive-By Truckers -- offered an emotional process by which my generation could leave behind the burdens of guilt and disgrace and go home again. Step by step, the music has taken us down a path to self-awareness and forgiveness. Today, I am not compelled to suppress my identity, and for that I can thank not only the increasing predominance of southerners in American politics and culture but also bands like the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies.
I was so excited by my epiphany that I wrote about it in The New York Times. Based on the feedback I received from that article, I learned that other white southerners had experienced similar feelings. What's more, many northerners told me they had no idea of the depth of the burden that southerners of my generation carry. A number of African-Americans called or wrote to me, congratulating me on my honesty. One prominent black music writer told me he was relieved to read a piece by a white writer that did not attempt to analyze the black experience. That call bolstered my determination to write this book.
My experience of suppressing my cultural identity in order to fit in is not unique. But in an era of lingering political correctness, it occurred to me that many white writers are wary of treading the turbulent waters of this subject. After all, to some people the notion that young southern whites might have suffered emotional trauma as a result of the changes brought about by civil rights legislation might seem offensive -- even vulgar. But to me, one man's suffering does not preclude the suffering of another, and any psychotherapist will tell you that wholesale healing requires treatment of all the affected parties. I feel it is time that someone addresses these issues head on. For me, the process of accepting who I am and where I came from has been powerfully liberating and has strengthened my resolve to try and accept others unconditionally.
The most important thing that I hope this book affords is understanding. In 1941, the southern journalist W. J. Cash wrote an important book that continues to color people's opinions about white southerners. Interestingly, it is the brilliance of Cash's The Mind of the South that led to the preconceptions and misperceptions that have become part of the mythology of southern small-mindedness and intolerance. Cash was an intellectual from a small southern mill town, much like my own. He was reclusive, depressive, lacked self-esteem, and preferred more heady endeavors, such as reading and studying, to the ordinary small-town activities of his time. All of this made him an outcast in his community, and he developed a resentment toward his fellows that cast a cloud of pessimism over his ideas. "The pursuit of knowledge, the writing of books, the painting of pictures, the life of the mind," he wrote of his southern peers' attitudes, "seemed an anemic and despicable business, fit only for eunuchs." This resentment -- some might say paranoia -- distorts Cash's otherwise keen cultural observations, and in the years since has made an indelible imprint on outside perceptions of the South. Almost everything written about the region cites Cash's work.
I feel a great kinship with Cash. I preferred listening to music in my bedroom to playing sports or hunting, and I felt my behavior was rejected by the community. But I moved away from the South, and for the past decade have cultivated friendships with people all over the country who share my aesthetic sensibilities. I'm no longer angry with those hometown bullies who made me feel like a freak. Moreover, I've found that most people, no matter where they were born or currently live, feel similar resentment toward their hometowns. That leads me to believe that Cash's resentment toward his fellow southerners -- resentment that has been repeated time and again over the years -- had less to do with his birthplace or culture than with his own feelings of both inferiority as a southern man and superiority as an intellectual. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown wrote of Cash in 1991, "Indeed, although Cash struggled to achieve objectivity, he could not shake off a deeply embedded sense of unworthiness." Still, Wyatt-Brown allows for validation of Cash's dilemma: "Intellectuals who felt alienated from themselves projected their inner feelings upon the culture at large, but not without some justice. Southern custom did not welcome the solitariness of the thinker. Mistrust, not admiration, greeted those who preferred seclusion and time for reading and creation."
Ever so slowly, I have developed a sympathetic understanding of the region that I now lovingly consider my home, and of the music that has kept me on a journey of self-discovery. Thomas Wolfe, another North Carolina homeboy, may have been right when he determined that you can't go home again, but my journey has taught me that you can learn to embrace it.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Kemp