That weekend was one of those that reminded us of what we love about living in the northern Shenandoah Valley—namely, events like the performance in Castleton, Virginia, some twenty-five miles south of Front Royal, by the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater. An event that brought together some of the eccentric and creative persons who live out here, and placed them prominently on the landscape of open green spaces that lay in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The following Monday, though, brought us back to the other side of life here when, on returning to her car in the Front Royal park-and-ride lot after spending the day at her office in Arlington, my wife Heather found a flyer underneath her windshield wipers bearing the heading “Join the Ku Klux Klan.”
The “klan,” the flyer noted, was an organization that was, among other things, “standing up for whites,” “upholding the 2nd amendment of the constitution,” “was Christian based and upholds the bible.” It ended with the line “Please join before it’s too late.” At the bottom of the flyer was a phone number and addresses for two different websites, as well as an illustration of a hooded klan figure surrounded by the words “The KKK wants you!”
Seeing this flyer here wasn’t exactly surprising. Time and again people had told us how Front Royal is one of the more backwards towns in the Shenandoah Valley. Not that we don’t have any of the sort of people who participated in the 1,000 Faces Mask Theater living here, as well as others who may not be eccentric but who are simply “woke” to one degree or another. Still, any real sort of power, here, is held by folks who are definitely on the other side of “woke.”
One case in point is the lawsuit a man in our neighborhood was involved in a number of years ago. Sam, one of two African-Americans employed by the Front Royal Department of Public Works, was continually passed over for promotions to positions he was well qualified for. What’s more, Sam was also subjected to verbal abuse from his bosses, who had no reservations about using the “N” word in reference to him and other African-Americans. Sam, in his lawsuit, contended that his immediate boss claimed to be a member of the KKK and that the director of the Front Royal office of Public Works was, in fact, the local head of the KKK.
In 2001, the Town of Front Royal reached a settlement with Sam and the other plaintiff, with the town having to pay their legal fees, provide compensation, and issue a formal apology. As for the director of the town Department of Public Works, he retired from that position, after which he was elected mayor of Front Royal. He’d already been on the town council for several terms and the lawsuit, apparently, did little to damage him politically.
A few years ago, Sam was able to retire from his position with the town. He’s one of the nicest, friendliest people in my neighborhood. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to work with the people he had to work with. Of course he had no choice—you make a living however you can. I also can’t imagine how he manages to keep up that smile after all the shit he had to deal with, but he does it, and Sam, to me, is one of the heroes in this town.
The day after Heather found the KKK flyer on her car, Johnny came over to the house. Johnny runs a lawn service in town, and he did our lawn that day. He’d just started working on our yard when our neighbor came over to yell at him. She was furious. Johnny, she said, had sent some grass clippings flying from our yard over into hers. I was out picking up Maggie and Julien from school, but Heather was home and phoned me to tell me what was going on. Our neighbor, Heather said, then started calling Johnny the “N” word over and over. Then our neighbor said, “I’m gonna call the KKK on you” and used the “N” word several more times. Heather tried to calm our neighbor down, but our neighbor kept on yelling. After a while, though, Johnny started working on our lawn again, and our neighbor went back into her house, slamming the door behind her.
Heather had to go out on an errand, and when I got home with Maggie and Julien, Johnny had just finished doing the lawn. I told him sorry. What could I tell him that he didn’t already know? I certainly wasn’t going to tell him how I, as an Asian-American or whatever the racist goons here think I am, experience some of this shit, too. Not to the degree he does, of course, and not in the same way, but I do. I could try to tell him what helps me deal with it, but what may diminish the sadness and rage for me won’t necessarily diminish it for him. It’s one of those things—you experience being the object of hate in your own way and the sadness and rage that goes with it is all yours. Like Sam and Johnny, you learn to live with it, and you learn to survive. And no matter where you are or who’s with you, you basically have to learn it on your own.
So that’s what I said to Johnny—“sorry”—and I looked him in the eyes as well and as real as I could and shook his hand. “Sorry.” It’s better than so much of the other shit that gets said at times like this. It’s like sorry, there’s love in the world, but there’s this too. The hate, it seems, isn’t going anywhere, and sometimes neither are we. So I went inside our house with Maggie and Julien, my legs slightly unsteady, and waited for Heather to come home.
Photograph by Jose Padua