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Well ConsideredA NOVEL
By Richard Morris
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Richard Morris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRed taillights flashed in the pre-dawn glow. Ron jammed on the brakes of his white, four-door Ford Taurus, glanced at the rearview mirror to see if the car behind would hit him, and then looked ahead again. Shit. I almost rammed him. But why did he stop? What is it? A wreck? A pedestrian?
Cars were stopping at the traffic light even on green, drivers staring across the four-lane highway toward the new subdivision of town homes, straining for a better look, pulling onto the shoulder, jumping out, grabbing cell phones. He stopped too and climbed out. On the shoulder a young black woman was talking on her phone. He saw her scanning him as he approached and imagined what she saw-a tall, slender man, medium brown skin, handsome, very short hair, fortyish, dressed for the office.
"Excuse me. Can you tell me why everyone is stopping? Is it a fire or something?"
"Hold on," she said, pressing the phone against her chest. "Can't you see it?"
She pointed across the road. "That wall over there. By those houses." He turned, focused, and saw it-racist graffiti in huge white letters spray-painted on the sound barrier by the Big Oak subdivision, facing the highway.
"No problem," she said, returning to her call.
A man in his mid-thirties with dark brown skin wearing business attire jumped out of a black Mercedes sedan. Frozen, he gazed with his mouth wide open for half a minute before returning to his car with his lips curled into a snarl. Next to him on the shoulder, a white man with graying hair, in similar professional dress, stared from a cream-colored Buick LeSabre, reading the wall and slowly shaking his head.
Ron pulled out his cell phone and speed-dialed Wilma. "Listen, don't bring the kids on the highway today. Take the back way."
"Oh, they don't need to see this. It's really obscene." He told her about the graffiti, not before looking around to see if anyone could hear him. "The wall says, I Hate and then they use the n-word, and then it says White Power, KKK, I Hate Koons, and Hitler is Back. Whoever did this must be neo-Nazis. I'm not kidding. And then it says Die the n-word, and then FUCK the n-word. And there are two swastikas. I've never seen anything like it. I'd like to grab the sons of bitches who did it and ram their heads down a toilet."
"They must have been up on ladders to do this. And it was right out there for everyone to see. I don't know how they did it without being seen from the road."
Wilma was quiet for a moment and then agreed to keep the children away. Ron hung around for a few minutes gaping with the others in an angry demonstration of solidarity before climbing back in his car. He turned on the light jazz station and resumed his commute.
Shit, he thought, shaking his head and recalling the advice his mother Mildred had given him two months earlier, before he and his family had moved from California into the Washington DC area. Maybe she was right.
* * *
He remembered her sitting at the head of the table in her dining room in Oakland, white curly hair framing her tan face, her blouse a brown-and-white African print. Ron was beside her, his hands folded on the lace tablecloth, Wilma in the kitchen, and the children nearby in the family room.
"Things are different back east-you'll have to be more careful there," she said. "Those were slave states, you know-Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and-"
"Yes, yes, I know, Mother-Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were slaves in Maryland-"
"-and they keep building those suburbs out in the farmland, Ronnie, where the rednecks and racists live."
"Racists are everywhere, Mother. You haven't forgotten about the cops beating up Rodney King."
"I remember. And him saying, 'Can't we all just get along?'" "Yeah."
The sounds of cartoon villains from the family-room TV intruded, mixing with the clinking of dishes from the kitchen. Aromas of leftover ham and sweet potatoes lingered in the air. A basket of cold white rolls, a tray with butter, salt, and pepper, a few plates, and two stray glasses littered the table.
Mildred put her hands on the edge of the table and looked straight at her son. "But listen, Ronnie, I never told you this before, but I think I should now. The reason our family moved to the West Coast was something really ugly that happened back east."
Ron sat up straight and looked at her quizzically. "What?"
"I hate to even think about it. That's probably why I've never told you."
His brows furrowed. "Told me about what, Mother?"
She spoke hesitantly. "Well, the thing is that my grandfather-your great-grandfather-was lynched back there."
Ron sat back. "Lynched? My God! That doesn't happen to people you know."
"It did to us."
"Where did it happen?"
"East of Washington somewhere-we don't know exactly where-in a farming area. He was a farmer."
"Great. That's near where we're moving."
"I know it is."
"When did they do it?"
"In 1907. That's when the family moved."
"But why did they lynch him?" he asked, raising his hands in supplication. "What did he do that led to it?"
"We don't know why they did it. It was a long time ago. I never even heard about it till I was sixteen. I guess my mother and father didn't want to lay that load on me until I was old enough to carry it."
Ron's eyes narrowed. "Load?"
"Oh, you know-people assuming he was lynched for some supposed good reason-like he raped or murdered someone-and us having to explain it if anyone found out."
"But that was generations ago. Who would care now?"
"You never know who. And you never know what people whisper to each other."
Ron nodded. "So when did you find out?"
Her eyes gazed away into the past. "My father told me in 1956, not long after California integrated the schools and public places and repealed those laws against mixed marriages and interracial sex."
She said her father had spoken to her as she got ready to go out on a date. He wanted her to know how dangerous some white racists could be, and where she shouldn't go in the city. Then he told her about the lynching. It had happened when he wasn't much more than a baby, so he didn't remember anything except going to live with his grandparents afterward and not having a daddy. Not much later, his mother had moved the family to Chicago, where they lived with relatives for a few years, and then to California, where she cleaned houses. She remarried when Ron's grandfather was ten or eleven.
Ron slowly shook his head, his eyes never leaving Mildred's. "Sounds like she wanted to get as far away as she could."
Mildred spoke in a bitter tone, her eyes squinting, shoulders tense. "Uh-huh. And what my father remembered most was his mother's rage. How she never stopped hating white people and never ever trusted any of them. She told him how the white people back there treated his family like they were animals and strung up his father even though he never did anything wrong."
He took a pen out of his pocket and picked up a paper napkin from the table. "What was his name?"
"My grandfather was named Thomas Phillips."
"Thomas Phillips. He was the one who was lynched?"
"Most likely." She waited for him to finish writing. "And your grandfather's name was Benjamin Phillips."
"Anyway, Ronnie, I know things have changed a lot since then. But my father had enough hate in him for a thousand men because of what happened. I want you to promise me that you'll be careful back there. There are still bad, bad people out there."
"I will, Mother. You convinced me." He grinned and relaxed his body. "I'm going out to buy some guns today."
"Ronnie. My handsome boy. It's nothing to joke about ..."
He left his mother sitting in the dining room and carried the remaining dishes to Wilma in the kitchen.
Marty appeared from the family room. "Hey, Dad. Who got lynched?" Marty was four-and-a-half feet tall and slim, with his dad's color, good looks, and short hairstyle.
Ron threw Wilma a helpless glance as she looked up from loading the dishwasher. Her medium build was clothed in black slacks and a short-sleeved white blouse, her hair a shoulder-length curly shag, her skin a shade darker than Ron's. Ron looked down, shook his head, and said, "No one you know, Mr. Big Ears." He took Marty by the shoulders and pulled him into a hug.
Not satisfied, Marty pushed away and looked up at him. "Come on, Dad, who?"
His first diversion failed, Ron said, "Nine years old-do you even know what that word means?"
"Sure," said Marty with authority. "Means they hang someone in a tree."
Ron laughed humorlessly, and then told his son that sometimes lynch mobs didn't hang their victims-sometimes they murdered them in different ways.
Marty asked, "Like shooting him or drowning him?"
Ron explained that there were two other requirements for a lynching: a mob of people did it, and they did it before a court could prove the victim's guilt or innocence.
"Yeah, but who got lynched?" Marty asked, not giving up.
Ron tried again. "Lots of people, a long time ago. But not anymore."
He put his hands back on Marty's shoulders. "Because, my man, if people tried to lynch someone today, they'd get arrested and sent to jail."
"But then the police might let them go like they did those guys that killed Emmett Till," Marty said.
"Emmett Till?" Ron frowned as Till's name welled up from his childhood memories.
Wilma stood up straight and stared at Marty. "Where'd you hear about Emmett Till?"
"On TV. Some white men shot him and threw him in the river."
"Yeah," Ron said. "But that was a long time ago too. I read about him when I was growing up."
"His face was all bashed in."
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Marty," Wilma said, shaking her head.
"It's okay, Mom. I've seen lots worse on TV. But there's one thing I don't understand."
"What's that?" Ron asked.
"I don't get what he did."
"That boy-Emmett. What did he do that was so bad they killed him?"
Ron hesitated. "He didn't do anything," he said, shaking his head and glancing at Wilma.
Marty's eyes widened. "You mean they killed him for nothing?"
"Well ... they said he whistled at a white woman," Ron explained.
Marty frowned. "And they didn't even put the murderers in jail?"
"Nope. They were evil murderers, but the courts let them go."
Ron looked at Wilma, still shaking his head. She responded with the same gesture.
What did he do that was so bad they killed him? Ron thought. Some day Marty's going to ask the same question about his great-great-grandfather Thomas. Then Rosy will ask it. Shit! I asked just about the same thing myself when Mother first told me about the lynching. People are always assuming that the victim is guilty of some crime. But I can't let my children grow up thinking that their great-great-grandfather was some kind of criminal. And I don't want to have to rely on what Mother said about Thomas's innocence-I want hard evidence to show the children when they find out about it ...
* * *
Neo-Nazi racist graffiti, Ron thought as he ended his commute. That's all we need.
He turned down the ramp into the garage below the Internal Revenue Service building, grabbed his suit coat, took the elevator, put on a smile, and greeted his administrative assistant. "Good morning, Jennifer."
"Good morning, Mr. Watkins. I scheduled the conference room for ten for your meeting and put a packet with the new tax forms on your desk."
"Well, great! Glad you're so efficient, and so early in the morning." He went into his office, sat down, and began to prepare for the meeting. The graffiti coiled around his mind like a snake as the lynching and Emmett Till stood by watching, but he concentrated and shook them away, and his meeting went well.
* * *
On the way home, he thought about how he had applied for the job, and after long talks with Wilma, had accepted the promotion. Now, after seeing the graffiti, he wondered if they had made a mistake. They could always return to California, but he had to take the DC job if he wanted to keep moving up.
He remembered the house-hunting trip he and Wilma had taken several months ago. The residential area that had attracted them most was outside the Beltway, east of Washington. From what they'd learned, the county was rapidly changing from white to black, increasingly affluent, and growing fast. As they drove through the neighborhoods, it had seemed that developments of large homes were sprouting up everywhere, on every abandoned tobacco farm. He'd heard from people at work that the buyers here were mostly upper-middle-class black professional couples long trapped in older housing in the city and inner suburbs. Houses had seemed to be rising like new grass-fertilized by double incomes, low interest rates, low land costs, and immigrant labor-two-story Colonials dubbed McMansions by critics, homes that made normal lots look small and the historic mansions they passed shrink in comparison. Friends and acquaintances had told Ron that Patuxent County was the place to live for rising black families-an area of intense pride, ambition, and power. Enormous new African-American churches they passed further attested to the wealth of thousands of families. When Ron and Wilma had stopped at a new mall, they had found it filled with mostly black shoppers. In the neighborhood where they eventually bought, however, they did notice some white children.
"Some of our neighbors will be white," he remarked to Wilma in the car.
"That's fine," she said. "You know I don't want our family to be part of the problem. We don't need to contribute to racial separation."
"Yeah. Like DuBois said a hundred years ago: 'shut out from their world by a vast veil.'" He steered around a traffic circle and drove to the end of the street.
"Residential segregation-it's like he said," and she modulated her voice to a deep, authoritative tone, "'The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.'"
"The twentieth century? How 'bout the twenty-first? Segregation's still one of the last great divides. Most whites still don't want to live with us. They want their purity."
He stopped at a light and looked at the other cars. In this neighborhood, most cars were late models, with lots of SUVs and pricey foreign makes. Most of the drivers were black.
"I think white people are even afraid to talk to us and afraid of us physically-like we'll bite them or something," Wilma said.
Ron chuckled. "They run like hell when they see us coming. What did that guy at work tell me? The county has eight hundred thousand residents overall, and since the schools here were integrated in about 1970 and that housing act in the late sixties eliminated the deed restrictions that kept blacks out, it's lost almost a third of a million white people."
"That's some serious white flight." She pulled the Washington newspaper out of her bag and opened it to an article she'd skimmed earlier on the populations of cities. "Let's see. That's like having all the people in Pittsburgh sell out and leave town. Or Bakersfield, New Orleans, Corpus Christi, Anchorage, St. Paul, Toledo, or Buffalo. And only a few people would remain in St. Louis, Anaheim, or Tampa. A whole lot of white people sold their homes and moved out of this county."
"I believe it. They're afraid black people will rob them or do them in. Or reduce their property values. Or beat up their kids at school. Or beat them out of the first teams in sports. But frankly, I don't care if they stay on their side of the line and we stay on ours. Then they can't fuck with us."
"Ron," she scolded.
He laughed. "We black folk can do fine on our own."
"We can if we will. Hey, listen to this! This county has more people in it than the cities of San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, and-what do you know-Baltimore and Washington DC."
"Put that thing down before you became a mad statistician, with two fingers on the light bulb over your head and two fingers in the wall socket ... and your hair sticking straight out in all directions."
* * *
Three months later, in the summer of 2005, and a couple of months after Mildred's warning, the family was moved in but far from settled. Closed doors hid piles of boxes and stacks of unhung pictures. Marty and Rosalie's rooms were finished, and the computers, stereo, and big-screen high-definition TV were up and running. Wilma's African-American figurines were displayed in the glass cabinet in the entry, and she'd had an interview for a teaching position at a high school. It was July, and she hoped to hear soon.
Excerpted from Well Considered by Richard Morris Copyright © 2010 by Richard Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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