This is a letter about funny things. A random collection perhaps, but some readers may discern a veritable fountain of flummery, deep and wide, that flows through them all.
Funny thing about that young bigot slaughtering all those people away yonder in a Charleston church just a few weeks ago. Suddenly there’s a surge of patriotism right here in Hot Springs. Grown men and women are waving flags, honking horns, and revving engines. Loud and proud they are once a week, driving by an 80-year old statue dedicated to the memory of a 150-year old war.
Funny thing about that war. Lots of Americans were butchered on the altar of states’ rights. Seems like the most important state right was to keep right on allowing human beings to be bought and sold like cattle and farm implements.
Funny thing about that statue, too. The Confederate battle flag is carved on its northern side, presumably to taunt visiting Yankees. Another is hoisted high above where it flutters only when passing winds, well, pass. Mostly it just hangs there, limp and forlorn. (Note to readers: since this was first written, a bright new flag has replaced the old one.)
Another funny thing is where the statue is located. It’s just north of where the Como Hotel used to be, on a patch of land once called Como Triangle. And it was right there in 1922, about twelve years before the statue was erected in loving memory by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that 28 year-old “negro” Gilbert Harris was politely escorted from the city jail and hanged by a mob of 500 “very orderly” men. Nice of them, it was, to be so very orderly. You can still read all about it at the public library, in the archives of the Hot Springs New Era.
Funny thing about that newspaper. The word “negro” got mentioned an awful lot that day. Maybe, just maybe, being a “negro” was what helped that very orderly mob decide to forgo all those fussy things like a court trial. Something to think about the next time you see grown men and women waving flags, honking horns, and revving their engines.
Another funny thing about that newspaper. The next day all was forgotten. There was no mention of the previous day’s violence. At the top of page one, there was a large ad by the Hot Springs National Park Klan No. 7, bragging about their $50 donation to the Boy’s Work Fund. “The Ku Klux Klan stands for better homes and a better nation and anything for the betterment of the boys will make our homes and our nation a better place in which to live.”
Funny thing about being a “negro” in America. That heritage we’re all so proud about right now is all because we used to think somebody else’s pedigree wasn’t near as good as ours. Some of us still think that way. Once upon a time, having the word “negro” show up in your pedigree could get you sent back to your Southern slave masters. In 1922 it got a man lynched. For the last century and a half, it has kept people from voting, and relegated them to second-class schools and second-class jobs and second-class justice.
Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
PS – Funny thing about human pedigrees. They’re mostly just made up. There’s a fascist impulse that still rages in far too many of us. It whispers that my race, my ethnicity, my religion, my skin color, my civilization, my heritage – they’re all superior to yours. Surrender to that impulse has invented pedigrees that justified centuries of slavery and cleansed the American landscape of its first peoples. The Germans used theirs as an excuse to exterminate millions of Jews. Funny thing is, now even Israel peddles imaginary pedigrees to perpetuate its brutal occupation of Palestine. Several years ago, at a Jerusalem rally simulcast here in Hot Springs (organized by our local tea party), I saw Glenn Beck weep crocodile tears as Israel’s frothy prime minister, always itching for Armageddon, revealed an ancient artifact inscribed with “Netanyahu.” The message was hardly subtle. Here was unimpeachable evidence of an anointed pedigree reaching all the way back to the bloody Old Testament’s glory days.
Funny thing about facts, though. Bibi’s daddy was one Benzion Mileikowsky. From Warsaw. His “chosen people” pedigree points to Poland, not the Promised Land. Old Benzion lived most of his life right here in the USA. His father Nathan was born in what is today known as Belarus. Awkward facts all, and yet our obeisant Congress still fawns over Netanyahu so much it’s just plain embarrassing. For them, “Bomb Iran” Bibi is their latter-day Joshua, their long-lost machismo reborn in the nick of time to smite today’s philistines. Huzzah, huzzah! Facts be damned, preach our hyperbolic, gilded evangelists and purchased politicians, we must forever stand with Israel even if it is an illegal colonial outpost and the Middle East’s schoolyard bully, a fascist, racist, apartheid blot on the blood-soaked Holy Land (as it is called by ignorant fundamentalists who have turned the place into a false idol and who lust after an ultimate clash of civilizations).
So stand with Israel if you must, and wave your flags if you must. These, too, are funny things. Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.