White and Black by Jim Krosschell
Followed by Q&A
The primary colors of the woods in mid-winter are white and black, the one all colors and the other no color. It’s very cold today and everything is clear and sharp: thick snow on the ground; branches and stumps; oak trunks and scrub twigs dark and rough; blotched and piebald birch bark. Species and emotions are starkly delineated. Other colors are secondary, the scattered evergreens, and the blue sky if I look up, and the image of red and orange winterberries if I look back into November. I hurry my walk today, un-poetical, closed to nuance, anxious, my goal the travesty at the corner of Ash Point Drive and Crockett’s Beach Road.
My wife told me what she saw there yesterday, Inauguration Day, the day a black man took the Presidential oath of office, and I won’t believe it until I see it myself, and maybe not even then. We had such hope at the DNC in Denver, such anxiety during the campaign, and such joy in November. Everything was going to flower on January 20. It did. We sat entranced for hours by the TV, watching history being made. Barack Obama is our President, no matter that he’s half-white, Michelle Obama is our First Lady–these are clear, sharp facts. It has made the harsh winter of storms and recession tolerable. We believe history has changed courses and colors.
Yet for all this hope, most Americans’ experience of race is slight, held at a distance, like mine. I am a white man, educated, middle-class, traveled, tolerant. When I was a kid, I lived in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan; there was a “ghetto” downtown that we never saw. My family had a summer cabin in Baldwin, Michigan, just a couple of miles from the famous black resort Idlewild. Not once in seven years did we even drive through. In Baldwin, in my teen-aged summers, I did work closely with a black man in a grocery store where he managed the produce and I helped. He didn’t tell, I didn’t ask. During college I worked in a hospital, washing windows with black men, taking care of black patients in the E.R., living in apartments in the ghetto. Nothing stuck. The industry I’ve worked in, publishing, is lily-white. My town has a small section traditionally black but is divided more by wealth than by race. I know hardly any African-Americans personally.
Now I spend half my time in Maine, the whitest of places. I walk in the woods and contemplate the ocean and write essays and read Maine authors: I’m an apostle for the state. But my walk today is different. I’ve got the dog, yes, taking her to Crockett’s Beach for a romp and clam-hole digs on the low-tide sand; I’m in the place I love; the air is sea-fresh; spirits should be sky-high. But there it is. On an electrical switching box at the corner of Ash Point and Crockett’s Beach, large letters have been painted, in black on white, “KKK.”
Hate too is clear and sharp, arising from our deepest fears and bursting into flower. We think it breeds only in masses, in excesses of poverty and shame, in jackboots and desert robes, in churches and mosques, in the bowels of group mania, but it breeds also in isolation, even in a place of such beauty. The ocean, clean and powerful, should wash it out; the woods should purify it, or at the very least, make it irrelevant. Yet there it is, in plain sight, unashamed.
Coming back, I meet our neighbor and ask, shakily, almost incoherent, if she had seen the letters. She had. There’s another sign painted “KKK” just down the road, she adds, and a store in some benighted town in central Maine is holding a lottery for the day on which Obama will be assassinated. “Are you shocked?” she asks.
“Yes, I guess I am,” I answer but think at the same time I shouldn’t be, a Boomer like me shouldn’t shock easily, not after tornado alerts in the Midwest, H-bomb drills in school, the 60s, Selma and Birmingham, the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, economic melt-downs, unconscionable poverty around the globe, the constant barrage of news on radio, TV, newspaper, Internet, phone, all of it bad. And then again I am shocked–I refuse to believe that the place I love could also harbor the KKK.
The slightest bit of research tells me I’m wrong. Maine was infamous in the early part of the 20th century for its bigotry. For one thing, the Klan had some 20,000 members here by the 1920s, more than most Southern states, and had the distinction of holding the Klan’s first daytime march anywhere. They didn’t persecute the blacks (there weren’t enough here to bother with) but fed on hate of French Canadian Catholics, who had emigrated in large numbers from Quebec, stealing jobs from white Protestant males.
Then there was the shameful case of Malaga Island, formerly known as Negro Island. (As many as nine islands off the Maine coast have been named Negro, most now whitewashed to Anglo-Saxon names like Curtis, just off tourist-conscious Camden.) Blacks had lived in the Casco Bay area for most of the 19th century, and one of their “settlements” in the mid-part of the century was a tiny island just a hundred yards off the Phippsburg peninsula. Soon enough, in the view of the whites, Malaga became “degenerate” and an eyesore (what with colorful mixed marriages, disregard of churches and schools, and the flagrant use of alcohol and tea, never mind that except for race, it resembled any number of poor white fishing communities) and not suitable for tourism, which by the turn of the century was in full pursuit of rich New Yorkers and Bostonians. The hubbub grew. Neither nearest town, Phippsburg to the east nor Harpswell to the west, wanted to take responsibility, so the Malaga-ites became wards of the state in 1905. Some white do-gooders started a school. Yet, in 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted (a Democrat!) visited and took public offense (or was he up for re-election?); by 1912 all buildings were razed, the bodies in the cemetery (and a few living people as well) transported to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, and the island deserted and desolate. It still is, for it is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with a Cabot and a Rockefeller on its Board, to “preserve its unique history.”
So the Gilded Age came shamefully apart in Maine. All that citified money had floated just out of reach of most Mainers, and then the Frenchies and the Negroes wanted to take jobs and lobsters as well?
Is this the motivation for hatred a hundred years later? The divisions between rich and poor are just as great, if not greater. The job losses are severe. The robber barons have merely changed industries.
But for most of the 19th century Maine could be proud of its accomplishments on race. John Brown Russwurm, the founder in 1827 of the country’s first black newspaper, New York’s Freedom Journal, was a Bowdoin College graduate (and the third black college graduate in the country). Bates College was founded in 1855 by abolitionists. There were some 70 stations on the Underground Railway in the state. A co-founder of Howard University was Oliver Otis Howard, Bowdoin Class of 1850. People say that the Civil War actually started in Brunswick, for Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote most of Uncle Tom’s Cabin there. And in the War itself, Maine sent more men to fight (as a percentage of population) than any other state but Massachusetts.
I’m not proud now. It appears that our strangulated white Anglo-Saxon suspicion has always been there. The public KKK quickly died out in the 1920s, but its private avatars fester, emerging in times of stress. We get even fiercer about retreating from the world and protecting our turf. We still fight the old revolution: Church and State shall not interfere in the business of our own acreage. The right to possess land is Biblical, and genetic.
No wonder division into simple black and white has such appeal. We can hate at a distance; we can believe that a black President will solve all of our problems. But the space between all colors and no color is where we live. Is hate a natural condition? Is hope? Is the 21st century any less contradictory than the 19th? Do I love Maine because of its beauty, or the need for reclusive peace, or plain escape from the troubles everywhere else? Yes, to all of the above, and more: I love the natural world’s color, so brilliantly on display in the skies and trees and flowers and waters, so simple in appearance, so complex in structure and interrelated, and so precious, and the warm and colorful humanity of the people who live in it and love it too, and I must find a way to confront, if not forgive, the black-and-white failings of those humans, which is mostly ignorance, I believe, not hate.
There’s a long way to go before this winter is over. Frozen white snow suffocates and oppresses. January offers no sign of spring save the piercing blues and reds and yellows that clothe Michelle Obama and her children. And that is enough, for now, to keep me looking up.
Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing for 30 years, starting as a 29-year-old production assistant, avoiding the real world until then by grad school, Peace Corps, travel and TESOL teaching. He has mostly retired now, writing essays and a blog http://onesmansmaine.blogspot.com, and dividing his time between Newton, MA and Owls Head, ME. His essays have been published, or are forthcoming, in Saranac Review, Louisville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Southeast Review, Contrary, Hobble Creek Review, and others.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: Maine always inspires me, even on a cold, white/black day of winter woods, even in the cold, white/black ignorance of racism. Put that together with the thrilling walk of Michelle and Barack Obama down Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2009 and I’ve got joy enough to last the bad times.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Piano, definitely, and not only because I play. It's pretty much the only instrument that can produce plots and subplots. Feeling and hearing those connections is like the best moments of writing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a book about Maine, a social geography for tourists-in-residence (like me) who don't get to spend full-time in heaven.