Not A Black Face in the House: An Evening with Writer Rick Bragg.
Jacksonville, AL. Original reporting, opinion, commentary, and even some facts... by Will Bevis.
I am not the kind of person who would cross the street to see a famous person. The last writer I went to see was Truman Capote, and he bored me to death and I walked out, leaving him still reading from "Breakfeast at Tiffany's."
But when I read the other Friday morning that Rick Bragg of "It's all over but the Shouting'" fame was going to be in a nearby town, I decided I would go listen to him, for one reason only. The blurb in my local big paper said that Bragg had worked for that paper for "about a week," and - since I have been blacklisted from that paper for eight years - I wanted to ask him why his time there had been so short. Had he had a problem with them as well.
So I made a mental note to go and promptly forgot about it, until my daughter reminded me, one hour before it was to start. Still I didn't jump out of bed, where I was laying with a dvd player on my chest, watching Brutus betray Caesar... on an HBO movie. I called myself "recovering" from mowing the lawn.
Only when I knew Caesar was "really'" dead... did I jump up, hop in my beat up old truck, and speed down toward Jacksonville, Alabama, which is where Rick Bragg had his very humble beginnings.
But first, even if I was going to be late, I had to grab two chilli burgers with mustard, and five dollars worth of gas from someone I couldn't understand a word of... or I might not get home again.
I hit seventy going South and turned off onto the two lane road that would take me to where Bragg was probably getting ready to speak. I passed Cooter Brown's Rib Shack and it was packed. Evidently, they were not going. They were too busy eating and living the South, to hear about it from an author who has captured part of it so well in the printed word.
And yes, I love Rick Bragg. I broke down and cried like a baby when I read his first book, and swore I would never read another one. But still you know, he's just a man. He will tell you that himself. He's no God writer. And I found, he does NOT evidently, appeal to everyone. He makes his mistakes.
I pulled into a no parking place at exactly one minute til seven and went in. I was surprised. The place was full. More people there, than I remember being there for Capote all those years ago, at a different university.
I went around the left side looking for a place to sit, just as an announcer said, that if there was an empty seat beside you please raise your hand, as there are many people still standing. Hands went up in the front and I immediatelty went fast and hard to get one before someone less agile did so.
I turned the corner too fast at the front, around a tall light stand, and almost ran smack into Rick Bragg, who was standing there with a suit and tie guy. I apologized and did a double take before I realized it was him, and I apologized and he smiled and there was no harm done.
It seems I had almost k.o.'d the guest of honor.
People in the front still had there hands up and I made for a seat between a sharp dressed guy and an overweight woman, telling them, "You'll be sorry you raised your hands, I just had two chilli burgers." The woman said, "If we are, we'll throw you out," and I had no doubt she could do it.
Then came the introduction and the woman hints that Rick Bragg may be coming home to "stay," that the college administration is "working on it." Reading between the lines I deduce that they are trying to get him to leave the University of Alabama where he is a "professor" of writing. He would have to be crazy to do that, but the old saying is, "Your home is your home, even if it is a swamp."
I am NOT saying that Jacksonville, Alabama is a swamp. In fact, it's no worse than where I live, in Gadsden.
Let's just say both places are not the center of the cultural world.
This is homecoming for Rick Bragg. He is the biggest thing that ever happened to this small college, along with, or right beside of, or slightly ahead of some singer for the band Alabama, who also went to this school.
He is being honored even though he apparently only went there one semester, and also apparently, didn't make too good of grades. The whole thing could be construed as a crazy form of reverse advertising: Meaning, hey, Rick Bragg came to our school, didn't stay long and became successful. Why don't you come for at least a semester, and do the same?
From all appearances, after his "er," difficulties with the New York Times, Rick Bragg has landed on his feet. He's got a job and though I don't know how things are at the University of Alabama with him, Jacksonville State Univeristy wants him if they don't.
And they want him bad. I didn't understand why... until the evening was over. He is more like Jacksonville... than Tuscaloosa.
The woman who introduces him says there's so much more to him than just a "wonderful writer."
She's right. He comes out, and he is just an ordinary, humble guy, a little more than a little hefty, who is friendly and funny without it appearing too canned. You can almost believe he hasn't said any of the things he is about to say, before.
Before this, I am watching him watch a video about his own life. Everyone else is watching the screen.
He is wearing an expensive blue shirt, maybe silk, and black pants. I am wearing my old Jiu-jitsu shirt and black jeans, the same clothes I just cut my backyard in, less than two hours ago. I just realize that, and wonder if the fat lady really will throw me out.
I am fidgiting and nervous, and my knee won't stop bouncing up and down, realizing that I am in the presence of a good - if not great writer - while wearing a shoe that is coming apart at the seams. You can see my redneck white sock through the crack.
I am just totally unprepared to be in the presence of Southern writing "royalty" - unlike a woman several seats down from me who is wearing her best bright orange high heel shoes.
I am hoping Rick won't notice that I am just a poor slob wannabee writer. The intro film over, he comes on the stage.
He is from Frogtown. And in a not unkind way, he is kind of like the kindly, kingly frog who gained his crown, by telling about growing up to overcome his mucky swamp heritage, and kiss the Princess. Whom he evidently married. But through some stroke of luck, he did not change into a handsome prince, but remains physically, a frog.
A frog who can tell a hell of a great story.
The guy is brilliant at this. Talks about how he has never owned a new car, but how he did buy new car mats for the new used one he bought... and how he looked down and saw that they were red from the dirt of his shoes, and realized that red is the red clay of this area and is his roots - and he will never escape it and them and doesn't want to.
People laugh so hard at his humor one man near me actually starts snorting. Behind me I hear a woman sigh like she is talking about her lover and says out loud, "I luvvvvvvvv him." I turn around when I get a chance and look at her. She is in her sixties. Portly. Grey hair blown up like a hot air balloon.
Rick tell's us he has probably failed in his writing - and hits directly to every person in the room including myself who is a failed writer - but that he loves the people he writes about - some of whom are in the room - even if they do have some rough edges. The rough edges being that they may like to drink and fight and leave their wives and kids. But they are still the best people on the planet - the spiritual heart and soul of what he rights about. They ARE his books.
He talks about the local people who "fought the depression with two hands and WON" and he turns beautiful verbal prose with seeming no effort at all. Much better than I give justice to in this report. And better than I could ever do in my once wildest drug induced dreams.
He tells the story of his dad running over the head of "Clem Ritter" when Clem walks in front of their car, and just throwing old Clem into the weeds and keeping on going... because supper was waiting, before getting to the punchline that the audience loves, that Clem was just a dog, and later came wandering back up in their yard, ok, although a little ""whomper-sided."
He tells about the salad days of his childhood when he and the other boys would go down to a creek and dream of doing wonderful things... like "killing Mexican Bandits fourteen at a time." And wondering if they would all die in Viet Nam.
As they say, you had to be there. And everybody there was put in a wonderful mood - a longing for the good old days. And it was all done without the strains of "Dixie playing in the background, and no literal verbal reference to the "old Confederacy. It was all just about being poor and surviving it.
It was like he was a magician making people happy, without ever mentioning anything that might be making them unhappy now. Some of which might be their ancestors own fault.
The whole thing was almost totally "politically" correct. Almost. I imagine it is a thing he doesn't have to practice, as he seems to have a great big, sensitive, loving heart.
Though by his own admission, one part of never being able to forgive, is added.
And somewhere in all this I suddenly I realized something I had not realized before: There was not a black face in the house. I remember I had not seen one black person when I came in. And then, when there was applause, I turned around and looked all through the audience. I saw not one person of color.
I turned back around, and realized as well, that I wanted to ask two questions this evening, at question and answer time. My original question, and then... why do you think your work does not appeal to black people, as there is not one here?
Then I got scared. Would I have the courage to ask that?
Then came a part where he was talking about his stepson, who was a little bit of a casper milky toast and who played on a church basketball team, where all the members cried and boo-hooed when they got bumped or pushed around a little bit. But it was ok, because the other church team members did the same kind of whining.
The buildup to the story took a while, but eventually Bragg told that, then came the day when they went to play a Memphis Inner City School. At these words the whole crowd went "Ooooh!" as if they understood some big secret was being shared with them and knew what was coming. And I guess they did, as "Memphis Inner City School" could easily be seen as code words for "poor rough black kids."
He built it up even more, when he said that two of the players on the "code word" team, were even GIRLS - which seemed to be code that even black girls were rougher than Christian White boys. There were more "oohhhs!" from the crowd.
The plot was thickening. Then he said, one of the girls was coming down the court and - Ooooooh! elbowed his stepson in the mouth. The boy walked to the sidelines - while the other kids continued playing, not even a time out called.
Rick said he told the boy in gestures to go back, to go back and continue playing. But the boy came over, and not crying, spit out two parts of two broken front teeth. Then the boy went back in and continued playing, and at this Rick Bragg pounded on his chest with the microphone and told the audience how proud he was of that boy... and the audience listening to him went wild with joy.
Now the basic facts of the story could be boiled down simply as follows: white boy stands up to black girl. Hooray! goes the crowd in Jacksonville, Alabama on May 11, 2009.
You could almost feel Pickett going up that hill in Gettysburg, against all odds, and General Rick Bragg Lee, saying "You can do it boys, keep going, don't turn back."And this time, in this story... they don't turn back. And they are going to keep going against all odds. One child at a time.
Now if this had been a story about Rick Bragg's stepson going back in and playing against a white team who had just broken his teeth, I would have been proud as well. I would have said, well done, kid.
But because the code words "Memphis Inner City School" was used, to me, it became a good story tainted by veiled racism.
It's tainted because I know for a fact that some white teams play just as violently as some black teams do, so color is not really relevant here. My nephew, who is a white person, played at Wilson High School in Lauderdale County in Alabama, against another white team. He went up to block a shot and he came down with every single tooth in his mouth knocked out. He was taken to an emergency room immediately. And now as an adult, he walks around with all false teeth.
I have never heard him tell a story about how those "white" guys knocked his own white teeth out. It was just two tough teams playing. He took it like a young man, and got over it. Oh, and by the way, Rick, my nephew's dad wasn't proud of him... cause he wasn't there, and never knew about it. He was gone, like your dad.
I am sure Rick Bragg edits his books carefully, and then other people do so as well. Nothing is in the books that isn't ok'd by Rick.
And I have to believe that nothing is in the stories he tells, that he doesn't want to be there. The "Memphis Inner City School" part of the story is there... because he wants it to be.
Too bad, Rick. Too bad.
I can't say I lost total respect for Rick Bragg at the moment of that story telling, but to someone who appears to be so sensitive to other people, he fell short. Maybe he is just sensitive to his own "white" people. And the other people are "invisible" or only described in code words. I don't know.
He said in some of his comments, "No writer tells the whole truth." I believe that. I know I don't always.
And when my turn to ask him a question came, I tell you the truth, I didn't have the nerve to ask him the question about why there were no black people in his audience. I didn't want to get booed at the least, and lynched at the most, and besides, I was beginning to realize why, without asking.
Rick Bragg's writing appeals to poor white people, and those who know - such as I do - that they have come from those people. He writes about the white experience of being poor. Not the black experience. He has found his niche. And it is coming naturally. He is writing what he knows about. And it has paid him big money.
And it makes me wonder, can anyone write across the color line? Can a white author write anything a black audience will love? And vice versa?
I think about this as they give him a standing ovation at the end. Before that I asked why he had worked at my town's local paper for only a week, and he said it wasn't even a week, it was only about 45 minutes. And that there were some places he had worked at less than that. Looking directly at me, he said, As you well know, when you work in an Editorial room at a paper... they will put you right to work when you walk in the door. But that he had just gotten married and decided another place was best to work at. That was all there was to it. No intrigue, no problems, no drama. Just a snap judgement/decision on his part.
But is there really such a thing as a snap judgement? Something told him the Gadsden Times was not the place he needed to be at. And he didn't stay. He felt something there, that he could not put his finger on, even now, years later.
As for me, I was stunned that I was actually assumed by him to be a daily newspaper writer. Afterwards people came up to me and asked me if I worked for the local newspaper, and I said, No, that I work for the REPORTER, a Black Newspaper in Gadsden. After that, they seemed to very quickly lose interest.
And outside going home another couple, two young college students in apparent love, asked me the same question, and I answered No, I write for the internet, where everyone can write. Including them. They smiled and I tried to find my truck, hoping it had not been towed.
Before I left though, I leaned on a fake Roman Column watching Rick Bragg sign autographs. There was a policeman in line, and the line was about ninety long, and I estimate three hundred heard him speak this night. And they heard and were made happy that a man, a great writer, has told them it is ok to be from poor white people.
And I believe that as well. If we can forever once and for all... give up the need and desire for code words.
If we can get color and race and religion and even class... out of the picture.
And it is hard. In the beginning of this story I wrote about buying gas from someone I couldn't understand a word of. Is that racist? Do I need to be more careful? Was it necessary to the story? Did it make the story more interesting... or just increase the hostility between whites and people whose language and accents are different from we caucasians.
Tonight, Rick pleased the crowds and sold some more books... and so still does not have to get as he says, a real job.
He is a success.
I would be lying if I said I did not want to be a success someday. But it appears it is not going to happen. Because I don't know when to keep my mouth shut. When I hear code words, it makes me sick to my stomache. And I want to call people on it.
Even if the person is a writer I admire: Rick Bragg.
And even if it is myself.
And if somehow I were to become famous, and looked out at the audience that came to see me, and didn't see one person of color ... I would in my own eyes be a failure.
Finally, this evening I only saw one person I knew from Gadsden in the audience: a scumbag lawyer. He saw me. I saw him. And I wondered, why did he come tonight? He is standing in line to get a book autographed, and I wonder if he will ask Rick to inscribe it, "To an honest lawyer" and I wonder if Rick would write in it anything he asks.
After all, success is all about the money, isn't it? Book selling, autograph signing. Or is the goal of it, like one writer said, "To tell the truth."
I wonder if that "attorney" came from a hardscrabble Southern family, and would his dad be proud of what he's become.
As for me, I tell my daughter, be anything you want to be and I will try to help you - as long as it is not a train wreck lawyer.
And, be fair... to everyone.
And now I will tell her to do this so that when she dies, and people come to see her, her funeral won't look as white... as an evening with Rick Bragg.
I take my last look at the door at Rick. He is glad-handing a book buyer, a young college student, maybe a wild-haired emerging writer. He gives the man a blank card and the boy writes down something, maybe an email address. Maybe he will be the kid's mentor, his friend. Maybe he will throw the card away. Maybe he will teach him more code words.
In a physical way, Rick looks bad and sad sitting there. And these are not sour grapes writing, as I know I look sad and bad where I am standing. Much worse than him, as I am older, have let myself comnpletely go, and have no aura of success about me to make up for it.
He's famous, that's his excuse for looking bad. He's been shot at in three countries and chased by Muslims saying death to the Infidel, he says. And now as payback, people clamour and stand in line to tell him how wonderful he is. He's at the top of his game.
Whereas his dad was the "Prince" of Frogtown, Rick is now indisputably the King. And with the green that frogs conjure up, and his almost purple shirt, and the orange of his admirer's shoes, there is almost a New Orleans Mardis Gras Carnival atmosphere in the air. Only more dead, as if it is after the parade is over, and the street cleaners are coming through while everybody is leaving.
The cameraman is rolling up his cords, they are taking away the water glass Rick never drank from and the seat he never sat in,
And Rick is sweeping in the money, one autographed bought book at a time.
As for me, I have no excuse. I am at the pit of my "game." I have no game. I am making no money. I am saying and say things no one wants to hear, or will believe, things like "Memphis Inner City Schools are code words." And I back down sometimes when it comes to asking the hard questions, like I did tonight.
But when I die, I believe my funeral will look like black and white. Not just white.
At least, I hope I will be worthy of that.
I don't want to be put on a carnival throne.
Cause I know there are good black people out there. And good black kids who play basketball hard but fair.
Kids that were born into bad situations just like Rick Bragg was. Black kids who would have loved ot have fathers, but didn't. Just as he didn't really.
Black Kids that are doing their best anyway, just as Rick Bragg is trying to do.
Black kids that fail occaisionally, just as white kids do.
Kids that, who know fault of their own, have become code words.
And I ask you, Rick Bragg, if you ever read this, what would be the harm in telling your story this way: "Then my stepson faced a very tough team, got his two teeth broken, and kept on playing. And I was proud of him."
But telling the story that way wouldn't be your way would it?
It wouldn't say what deep in your heart you seem to want to say, would it?
Tonight, you yourself said more than once, "No writer ever tells the whole truth."
What does it matter what color the other team was?
What it does matter is that you paint every single black kid with the same brush. Violent.
What would happen if you told the truth - that not every inner city kid is violent and to be feared.
So you might lose your audience, and your book deals and your fans if you left out code words. So what?
The worst that could happen would be you would have to get a real job.
And take it from me, you get used to it.
I leave Rick Bragg and the happy code word crew behind and head home.
I pass Cooter Brown's Rib Shack again.
It is still full.
Southern life goes on.
And words are passed on generation to generation.
Rick Bragg's words among them.
Sprinkled with code.
And I leave the gas station remark in my writing,
so that you will know that I know,
I am not perfect either. And I know it.
We all still have work to do.
Not just to be politically correct -
but just to be basiclly fair to one another.
Because there are remnants of racism,
and sometimes much more than remnants...
left in all of us to deal with the best we each can.
Even in otherwise wonderful, famous writers.
May 11, 2009.