Tag Archives: racism

Home, Sorrow, and the Million Ways We Make It Through the World

Photograph by Jose Padua
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.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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Self-Portrait in the Form of Comments by White Supremacists on Me and My Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
The colossal ego of this “Jose Padua” cockroach is astounding.
He could go to some third world country, where he could walk
around and look like an unkempt, brooding asshole and no one
would pay any attention to him. A whiny attention whore. His
hurt feelings, his discomfort belies his own racism. The problem
I am afraid is that this butt-hurt breeder, who managed to take
a dump in the genetic punch bowl by impregnating some poor
delusional white woman with his discount-human sperm, knows
that he has the entire system behind him. He knows that he can
count on the system to publish his butt-hurt anti-white ramblings.
Stay out of my country, Jose Padua. Nobody owes you anything.
His wife’s a race traitor and he’s a wannabe white who’s pissy
because he knows he’ll never be accepted by whites. This seething,
jealous, angry anti-white non-white, Jose Padua. Fuck this garbage
and his sense of self-entitlement. What’s the matter, Jose? Weren’t
your own people good enough for you? I no longer smile at illegals.
I look them in the eye, and I’m not smiling—oh, they hate that. Though
my gut tells me you are correct. I doubt “Jose Padua” exists at all.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

To the White Supremacist Who Referred to Me as Taco Boy

Photograph by Jose Padua
It’s been said that what makes life
so precious is how it can all suddenly
end, but why should I believe the
scoundrel who tells me this? Why
should I trust him more than the man
who sells the snake oil and says you
can live forever or the woman telling
fortunes behind the blue glass storefront
in the sort of old downtown that’s vanishing
before our eyes? Not everything that is
precious becomes a snake once the doors
are closed. Not all fortunes collapse
or explode just because the woman
telling it has an intense way of expressing
her dark opinions. There are times
when a dog on its four legs senses
disaster more accurately than a reading
of highly calibrated instruments, days
when aching bones say more
than thick reports in heavy black binders.
I confess that I’ve only started asking
for extra, for more than what you think
is my fair share, and I’m about to stop
saying ‘Sir’ and asking ‘May I?”
We breathe the same air, drink
the same water, but the planets
still revolve around the sun and
reflect its light, and even the universe
as wide and heavy as it already is,
will continue to amaze us in
its ceaseless efforts to expand.

-Jose Padua

Photograph, “The Sky As Organized Over the Fast Food Restaurant,” by Jose Padua

Just a Country White Girl

It’s more than embarrassing but I have to admit that I’ve had a long-time obsession with that icon of squeaky-clean Hollywood-style Appalachia, John Boy Walton. Growing up in my large, sometimes poverty-stricken family, I latched onto John Boy like a sinner in need of a saint, making sure in my pre-teens to never miss an episode. In John and Olivia, I saw my hard-working parents and in John Boy, the oldest son and a writer, I saw myself, leader of the pack, typing late into the night in that modest room. Both John Boy and I knew that someday we’d leave “the mountain” for the wider world.

Somehow I got sucked into every melodramatic and ridiculously wholesome episode. The Waltons were the good kind of mountain people—salt of the earth, honest, thoughtful, and compassionate. The Confederate flag never darkened their porch, nor did they turn away people who were different. Somehow they always tried to do the right thing. In their grittiness, they reminded me of my mother’s extended family, farm folk in south Jersey.

Little did I know I’d end up living in Front Royal, only two hours from the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, VA. When I found out, I almost peed my pants. Oh my gosh, I thought when I realized we could actually go see the place where Hamner/John Boy lived and wrote—we need to pack our bags—let’s go!

But we’ve been in Front Royal for almost three years now and haven’t yet made the journey to Walton’s Mountain. The truth is I’m afraid to drag all of us there. What if the museum and Mr. Hamner’s house don’t measure up? What if seeing the real home of the real John Boy destroys my childhood fantasy? What if the thrill is gone? It’s not like I’ve read Hamner’s actual writing. Maybe John Boy was nothing more than a piece of Tinsel Town fluff.

Living in Front Royal, I really need to hold onto my country-writer-boy dream as long as possible. It makes me believe that living in the rural south means living around simple, decent people like the Waltons. In fact, it makes me think every now and then about just how much country I carry inside of me, how in the very center of my being and despite my love of the big nasty city, I am—please don’t tell anyone—just a country white girl at heart.

I certainly can’t deny that my roots on both my mother’s and father’s sides stretch deeply into rural culture. I can remember visiting my Great Aunt E.’s turkey farm in New Jersey and sitting in her 1940s-style kitchen. She and her husband ran the place along with their two sons, growing tomatoes, as well as raising turkeys and hogs. I can still see the boys in their denim overalls lumbering about the place, layers and layers of dirt under their nails.

Several of my maternal grandmother’s six siblings farmed, although she married a factory worker, my Pop-Pop R., who spent most of his working life at the big Dupont chemical plant in Deepwater, NJ. When she was growing up, my Mom-Mom R. lived every summer at the beach—literally just squatting in tents on the Jersey shore. The family loved it, living cheaply with only the bare necessities during those months.

On my Dad’s side, my Pop-Pop Davis grew up on a farm in Michigan only to run away when he was 15. He rode the rails around the country doing odd jobs and working as a farm hand until he earned an electrician’s license and began working at that same Dupont plant in Deepwater. He was a tough guy with a quick temper who later owned his own small farm in southwestern Virginia. There’s a photo of me when I was a year old sitting on the back of a pony at his farm.
Some of my fondest memories are of visiting places like the Cowtown Rodeo in rural Salem County, NJ, where dust swirls in every direction and cowboy boots are haute couture. Later I spent many Fridays at the Green Dragon Farmer’s Market in Ephrata, PA, a massive collection of merchants selling everything from cold cuts to handmade furniture. Pop-Pop R. ran a stall there selling his duck carvings and various odds and ends right next to some Amish folks.

None of my grandparents attended college. They were working class people, not writers, not artists, or people with degrees. They were creative though, always making something beautiful and functional—cabinets, quilts, houses, clothes.

Being with the older generations of my family, I always had this sense of their ability to survive and thrive with whatever was at hand. They knew how to do things like fish and camp and hunt. They went visiting for entertainment, sat on porches, gathered at church picnics. They cherished old houses, weathered furniture, and being outdoors.

My mother spent a substantial amount of time as a teen pulling the guts out of turkeys and eating fresh pork cracklins and scrapple. She also contracted hepatitis from a possum someone shot and brought home for dinner.

So sometimes, when I look around Front Royal, I feel a certain familiarity. The town is not unlike Quinton, NJ, where my mother grew up and where we stayed with Mom-Mom while my mother worked as a nurse. When I open my front door for the nearly toothless old farmer who comes and mows our lawn and whose accent is almost impossible to understand, I feel like he could be my Great Uncle T. When I see the pastel ladies with their Bibles shuffling to the local diner on Sunday afternoon, I know one of them could be my Aunt B. The skinny blonde guy in the dirty pick-up hauling god knows what from this yard to that sure looks like my cousin C.

My city-boy husband has no idea just how much redneck I’ve got in me. Not that he hasn’t met my more colorful country relatives, but I don’t think he knows what a huge impact Salem, NJ had on me as a child. I just don’t feel as immediately repulsed by the seeming ignorance of rural folks as he is. The funny thing is that Jose’s own 94-year old father lived his youth farming not with a tractor but with a carabao and an old-fashioned wooden plow in the Philippines. A carabao is a kind of water buffalo—it’s the national animal of the Philippines and still used today for all kinds of tasks. Lolo went from leading that animal around the fields outside Manila to managing the maintenance of the Philippine Embassy in DC and serving dignitaries during his night job as a waiter for several DC caterers. There is a photo of Lolo with General Carlos P. Romulo—a famous Filipino diplomat, politician, soldier, journalist and author—and a photo of Ferdinand Marcos with Lolo in the background.

Lolo worked the land the same way his family had been doing for hundreds of years and now his middle son has no idea how to grow even a tomato. In fact, if the flowers on our front porch need to be watered or the hedges need to be clipped, you won’t catch Jose out there. It’s me and Maggie every time. Of course, I like to work in the yard and wish I had more time to learn about gardening. I do what I can but I really don’t know a forsythia from a frog. Jose’s horrific seasonal allergies probably also have something to do with his lack of interest in foliage but sometimes I just want him to be a little more hardy, to get his hands in the dirt.

Of course, when I examine my redneck heritage more carefully, I can’t ignore the less pretty side. My Pop-Pop R. suffered from that strange variety of prejudice that allowed him to treat an individual of color well while complaining about “those people” as a whole. Then again, he was none too happy when his youngest daughter dated a Hispanic guy—that one didn’t last long. And I hate to say it but I’ve heard one of the most beloved elders in my family complain about the Blacks and Hispanics who’ve moved into the neighborhood where she grew up. I know she doesn’t mean to imply that the decline of that area has anything to do with race but that’s how it comes out—“Ever since ‘they’ moved in, the place is in shambles.” And there are a few young members of my extended family (on the more conservative side) who never have seemed to warm up to Jose and who won’t really look him in the eye. You get the feeling they don’t quite know what to make of him and that they listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh a little too often.

With this kind of history in my own family, how can I be surprised at Jose’s discomfort with a lot of public spaces in Front Royal. I can feel at home almost anywhere and have never been made self-conscious because of my skin color. The flea market, a campground, the county fair, the town pool—I can blend in and chat comfortably with almost anyone. I just reach back to my country white girl roots and play the part. It also seems that women can always find something to talk about with each other across all kind of dividing lines—race, class, age, religion, etc.

For Jose, the public pool is a horror show. Maybe it’s all those almost naked, mole-rat pale tattooed bodies, the literal and psychic nakedness of the rabble. Maybe it’s the experience of being barred from a white beach on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake as a child, or the fact that he never learned to swim. Whatever the cause, he performs his fatherly duty in taking Maggie to swimming lessons and coming with us when she and I want to take a dip, but he does not enjoy it. When the three of us are alone in a hotel pool, it’s a different story—Jose can relax a bit. Except for when some snooty mother refuses to let her family in the water with us as happened at a hotel in Rehoboth Beach this summer.
Moving to Front Royal has brought into sharp relief how radically different Jose’s background, experiences, and coping mechanisms are from mine. The city may have brought us together but we come from galaxies light years apart. I know it drives him crazy when I play down the nasty looks he sometimes gets around here. I always have a hard time accepting that anyone can treat another person with suspicion because of his/her race. It’s my natural inclination to say, “But wait, are you sure—maybe that person is just having a bad day, maybe it has nothing to do with you.”

Or maybe I am just naïve. Still, I am usually looking to make connections and build bridges where Jose is always on guard, not wanting but expecting positive attitudes about him to disintegrate at any moment. I didn’t really understand this dynamic when we lived in the city because Jose is much more accepted there, so much more at ease. In DC we were just another couple of struggling poet-types. In three-quarters of “chocolate city,” the areas where tourists seldom stray, being white isn’t necessarily an asset and being brown is not a liability.

Of course there are urban people who are bigots and northern people and educated people who harbor prejudice (and usually hide it very well), but there tend to be many fewer racists in these categories than in insular places where folks don’t get exposed to “the other.” So life for both of us was a little less bumpy in the city. And when Jose encounters some negative shit in the Shenandoah Valley, that nasty stuff rubs off on me too. I’ll never really know what it’s like to live in his skin and see through his eyes but what happens to him and how he feels about it have a huge impact on both Maggie and me. If he bumps up against ignorant attitudes, so do we. If he carries around a certain amount of rage, we feel that heat too.

It’s truly exhausting sometimes. But I can always retreat into my country white girl self and my John Boy delusions. On Walton’s Mountain, every conflict is worked out amicably and small town bigots can be won over with reason and compassion. The family’s harmony always uplifts the troubled drifters and strangers who wander into its midst—that’s why so many people watched the show. It wasn’t about real poverty in rural Appalachia or about the huge political and social changes of the era. Like the faux southern Cracker Barrel restaurants that sell DVDs of selected Walton’s episodes, the show existed to create a non-threatening romanticized American past full of homey goodness like a soft old quilt. No wonder Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition has held exclusive syndication rights for the series since 1991.

Having just learned that last factoid from the Internet, I feel a bit closer to letting go of my John Boy fantasy. How can I love anything owned by Pat Robertson? Or maybe there’s a redeeming lost episode where John Boy drives in a blinding rage to Richmond, drinks himself silly, and pukes all over the dance floor of a strip joint? No…not possible. That sounds more like some of Front Royal’s less upstanding residents—throw in a little crystal meth or oxycontin and you’ve captured them brilliantly.

I think I do need a visit to that museum in Schuyler after all.

-Heather Davis