[Continued from a previous post]
I was rolling down country roads in an old Neon with my country cousin Preston Taylor. We had issued from the loins of the same great-great-grandfather, John H. Groves, of Duck Creek back in the 1800s, and were acting like friends. I guess we were friends. At the very least, we shared some blood in common, driving past farms, fields, prairie, and every so often, a lonely tree.
A renegade thought went through my head.
Does he know that I’m half Mexican?
My DNA, you see, represents a clash of civilizations. On one side is the English line stretching back to Henry VIII, if you believe my genealogical arboretum. On the other side is the Mexican line that came over the border in 1915, when Pancho Villa chased them off their wealthy rancho in Leon, leaving their children in California picking fruit in the fields at age 8 rather than attending school. Whites and Mexicans, that’s who I come from. I’ve always been a kind of Hispanic Obama.
In my twenties, I would often ask people what nationality I looked like. The answers were varied: Greek, Russian, Jewish, Italian. Never 50% Mexican, 25% English, and 25% German. And obviously, this Taylor fellow didn’t know, either. I wondered if he would ask. I wondered if I should ask him about his racial politics. And furthermore, how does one ask about that?
Do you hate Mexicans?
No, you can’t ask things like that. Nobody ever answers yes to that.
City boy, I don’t hate nobody. Hate the sin, love the Mexican, that’s what I say, although I don’t cotton to the word love, sounds kinda queer.
Or maybe I was being too hard on him. Maybe he’d react with acceptance and open arms.
My wife was born in Juarez, so that makes me half Mexican myself, don’t it?
It was definitely too touchy of a subject, so we talked about other things, like his significant other.
“No, I don’t have a wife,” Preston confessed. “I have a girlfriend that I’ve lived with for 21 years.”
“Well, maybe it runs in the genes. I’ve lived with mine for 12.”
“Mine is 14 years older than me.”
“I had one of those when I was 22.”
I didn’t ask his girlfriend’s ethnic heritage. I quickly did the math, and realized that she must be 71 years old. I recalled that Raymond Chandler had married a much older woman, too. When he got famous at age 48, he was tempted to stray, but didn’t, not because he didn’t have offers, but mostly because he was so socially inept.
I looked around at the wheatfields speeding past us and wondered, as I sometimes do, what this place looked like back in 1854, when the federal government passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, opening up Kansas to settlement. At the time, it was already occupied by the Sac and Fox, a proud native American nation that stretched from Nebraska to Oklahoma, and whose name meant People Arising from Water (and really, aren’t we all?). The Sac and Fox were excellent athletes, the best example being Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox man who won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics and played professional baseball, football, and basketball.
In 1857, the first white man moved to this area, to a location he called Duck Creek. His name was Phillips. Two years later, so the story goes, Phillips was notified that he had settled on Indian land. I smiled when I read the word notified. I wondered how the Indians had notified him, perhaps with a well-placed arrow? The Phillipses promptly moved to the present site of Reading, but the Indians still sometimes bothered them, walking into their home as if they owned it, taking whatever food and items they liked, and leaving.
Once, the Indians entered the Phillips home when Mrs. Phillips was sick, a white cloth wrapped around her head. They began searching for items to expropriate when Mrs. Phillips confronted them.
“I hope you like smallpox, because that’s what I have, and you’re going to get it,” she said.
They understood smallpox, and immediately skedaddled.
My great-great-grandfather John H. Groves settled in Duck Creek, too. He grew up in Sullivan County, Missouri, and when he was 25 years old, joined the Missouri Volunteers (23rd regiment) and fought on the Union side. In 1878, he drove his young family in a covered wagon from Missouri to Kansas, settling in Duck Creek.
Preston and I weren’t in a covered wagon, for sure, but in a Neon speeding along at 40 mph. And as we were driving towards the Reading Cemetery, Preston dropped a bombshell that clarified things considerably.
“After the Civil War, John Groves walked from Missouri to Kansas,” he said. “That’s what my Uncle John told me.”
I wondered why anyone would walk to Kansas. Well, the walking part was easy, I guess: because he didn’t have a car. But with regard to leaving Missouri, perhaps it was because Missouri itself was such a boiling roux of Confederate racists and Union abolitionists. He didn’t want to live in boiling water. In fact, the Missouri Compromise had been all about slavery: Congress had allowed the slave state of Missouri into the Union only if it was balanced by the free state of Kansas. When the Civil War broke out, Missouri had its own internal civil war, while Kansas had been established from the outset as a free state. So perhaps John Groves’ move had to do with his own moral convictions.
I liked the sound of that: moral convictions. It was ironic, though, given all the ugliness that happened to later generations. John’s great-grandson Donald married a Mexican woman in 1951, and endured a lot of flak from the family. Don’s father ridiculed her for eating beans and cooking “oochiladas.”
In 1957, Don and his wife Sally drove to Oklahoma to show their new 2-year-old to the remaining grandparent, Dora. But Grandma Dora refused to allow her into the house.
“You think I’d allow a dirty Mexican into the house?” Dora said. “Over my dead body.”
“But they’ve driven all this way,” her son Earl said.
“I’ll see the baby, but not her.”
Appalled by the insult, Sally and Don refused Dora’s kind offer. They visited with Earl for a while and then left.
That mixed-race 2-year-old was me.
On the way back, we all stopped at a diner for some lunch. They served Don, but not Sally. Oklahoma, it seems, didn’t want their kind. They left insulted and hurt.
Over on the western side of the state, they didn’t want darkies, either. That’s where my girlfriend Claire grew up, in a tiny town just outside of Hayes, Kansas.
“They used to say that the sun never sets on a black man in Hayes,” Claire once told me.
Strangely, though, Kansas had pockets of racial friendliness. In my research, I discovered a couple negro boys in the 1922 yearbook of Sherman Junior High School, 120 miles southwest of Reading (see photo). It can’t have been easy, but they managed it.
In fact, my own great-uncle Earl graduated from that same school system in 1917 (see the photo below), the same great-uncle who took in his mother, Dora, when she was widowed in 1950.
As you can see, there was a lot going through my mind during that 20-minute drive.
When Preston and I finally reached the Reading Cemetery, I got out and took a deep breath. Looked around. It was sobering. This, I thought, is the grassy plot of land where they took my dead relatives. This was the setting of their final act.
“I haven’t been here in about 20 years,” Preston said, “but I think the graves are somewhere on the east side over there.”
We finally found them on the west side.
“It’s been a long time,” Preston said.
I stood for a long time in front of those headstones.
There was Daisy V. Groves, who was born in 1880, turned out to be mentally impaired, but lived to the ripe old age of 86, when she died a curious death.
There was Orlando and Frank Groves, who never married and made their living on the farm, “true mechanical geniuses,” as Preston put it. They died curious deaths, too.
And there they were, the patriarchs.
John H. Groves, who walked 230 miles to create a new life for himself in a state with less prejudice.
And Caroline Hayward, who took care of her mentally impaired girl for 3 1/2 decades, and whose nephew Cy took care her for three more.
At one point in that graveyard, I stood face to face with Preston Taylor and just asked straight out.
“Being out here in the country, I’m guessing you’re a conservative,” I said.
“Yes, I surely am,” Preston said.
“I’m guessing you listen to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.”
“Yes, I do listen to both of those. It all started in the 1980s when I started listening to this man in Florida, I forget his name.”
I thought about who I listened to–Rachel Maddow, Randi Rhodes, Thom Hartmann, Chris Matthews, and Lawrence O’Donnell–and realized we could start a new civil war with just these combatants. Luckily, the cemetery would be nearby.
All the way on the drive over, I had been tuning into the conservative stations to see what Sean and Rush had to say about the government shutdown, and I was appalled at their ignorance. It was like listening to an infant scream, “But I want to touch the stove!” It was easy to think of them as stupid, ignorant, victims of Fox News, and identifiers with the aggressor, as some blacks are these days when they vote Republican.
But here standing in front of me was one of them, and he was me. I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to argue with him. I just wanted to talk about family.
“Well then,” I finally said, “we probably shouldn’t talk politics, because I’m on the other side.”
In death, I mused, there is no more Civil War. There are no more waitresses who insult you because of your race. There are no more grandmothers who refuse to see their “dirty Mexican” daughter-in-laws. There are no more ranting talk-show hosts. All is quiet, all is past, all is done.
[To be continued]