"The past is never dead; it's not even past." -- William Faulkner
WATERTOWN, Tennessee â€“ The 20th century was well into its seventh decade, but he still came to the back door every time he needed to see "Mister Edsel" about some business or other. No amount of cajoling would induce him to knock on the front door. Finally, one day, in exasperation, my father told him: "Jim, if you don't come around to the front next time, I'm not going to talk to you. This just won't do." Jim shook his head, perplexed; it seemed a concept too radical to grasp or accept: knocking on a white man's front door.
The past lives longer in the South, as Faulkner, that great bard of race and sex, knew well. Habits of subservience from the days of slavery more than a century before were still lingering here and there, as I could see on my own back porch that day, watching Jim and my father.
It was like a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird; and indeed, "Mister Edsel" had come to play the role of Atticus Finch in the town: an advocate and mediator for people like Jim â€“ a black man from the country, deprived of education, shunted into stoop labor, living in the margins, forever under arbitrary threat from an uncaring officialdom or from sudden outbursts of the deeply-ingrained racial enmity that lurked beneath the placid surface of the white faces all around him.
It was an unsought role that came to my father simply because he was one of the few white men who treated black people like they were ordinary, fully-fledged human beings, not lepers or clowns or dangerous trash. It was a rare attribute in those days â€“ and it is still much rarer than most would care to admit, even in the "New South," where Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. stands within reach of becoming the first African-American senator from the old Confederacy since Reconstruction (or as some still like to call it, "the Yankee Occupation").
Ford's surprisingly strong campaign has exposed fault lines long buried beneath Tennessee's creeping â€“ or rather, galloping â€“ suburbanization, where old ways, both good and bad, are rapidly being submerged in the undifferentiated glop of modern American franchise culture. But when money and power are on the line, atavism is the order of the day: ancient fears and hatreds re-emerge â€“ or are mightily encouraged to re-emerge, with all the subtle and not-so-subtle arts of high-tech mass persuasion stoking the flames.
For the stakes in the battle for Tennessee's Senate seat â€“ once considered a lock for the Republicans â€“ have suddenly grown exceedingly high. A Ford win could wrest control of the chamber away from the GOP, putting a serious crimp in the party's bacchanal of greed and graft. What's more, it opens up the possibility of investigations, subpoenas â€“ and worse â€“ for an Administration that is not only suppurating with massive corruption, incompetence, extremism and deceit, but has also openly acknowledged several criminal actions, including torture and warrantless surveillance. The Bush Faction simply cannot afford to face accountability for its monumental failures and misdeeds.
And so in late October, with Ford rising rapidly in the polls, even overtaking his opponent â€“ Bob Corker, a typical tycoon-politician with a bland manner masking sharp practice in his murky business dealings â€“ the Bush Party got serious and whipped out a barn-burning theme from days of yore: the "hot black buck with nothing but white women on his mind."
(more after the jump; plus an MP3 on a related theme at the end.)