Saturday, April 15, 2006

Introducing myself

Allow me to tell a story about my family, in order to illustrate why I have devoted my life to studying Southern history, though it makes me feel like someone who goes to the racetrack in order to see the cars crash. Let's call this essay "How Race Shaped and Warped My Life."

My family background and personal story are pure red state: full of alcoholism, abuse, father abandonment, racism, murder, and mental illness. And that's just Thanksgiving.

My great-great-great-great (actually I understand he was only adequate) grandfather, Desiderio Quina, came to North American as Spanish solder. After earning a landgrant from the Spanish Crown, he became one of the leading lights in Pensacola, Florida. One of his sons, Desiderio Quina II, found prominance as a pharamacist and you can visit his home in the historic quarter in Pensacola, at least until global warming turns the area into a water park.

My great-great-grandfather, Joseph Touart, owned four slaves and ran a big country store in Butler County, Alabama. A highly regarded citizen, Mr. Touart was murdered during a robbery in 1891 by a pair of robbers named Hipp and Kelley. A posse formed, almost lynched an innocent black man (not unusual for the day), but, surprisingly, let him go and much later found two white men they decided were gullty. The mob lynched the pair at the Butler County Courthouse. You can see the picture if you look up "A History of Butler County, Alabama" in the genology section of your library or at the home of your Mormon friends, who probably have a copy.

(Mormons research ancestors because they believe they can be baptized in proxy for dead relatives who died unsaved. It also gives them a hobby in addition to reproduction.)

A neice of my great-great grandmother, Emma Layette, became a novelist in the 1920s and The New York Times described her as another William Faulkner. Her book, "The Gulf Stream," had a typical theme of Southern novels of the day. A mulatto unaware of her racial past rises in society until she discovers the secret of her identity. Her life crumbles into tragic shambles, of course. This distant cousin and fellow author, Marie Stanley, seemed to have a bright future as a writer, but her second novel, also on the theme of racial miscegenation, was rejected by publishers. After that, she went, as they say in Texas, ape shit. She tried to run over a visitor with her car and, I believe, spent the remainder of her days in the Alabama State Home for the Bewildered, as Tom Lehrer might say.

The Phillips chronicles are filled with Faulknerian moments like that. A city of tiny childrens' headstones dot the family plot. at the Catholic cemetary in Mobile. My great-great grandfather is buried near his brother, who lost three children to yellow fever in 1848 and a son and two daugthers during another epidemic in 1857. Then there were the brothers Donnell and Stephen Touart, distant cousins, who attended a baseball game in Mobile on May 27, 1906 when struck by the same fatal bolt of lightening. Three other people died from the act of God. A 19th century cousin kept a "house of ill fame" in Mobile while another toiled as a prizefighter.

Patterson Margoni, another professional writer in my family worked as a reporter, becoming one of the country's first movie reviewers, and wrote a story, "Big-Hearted Jim" that became the basis of the 1928 film called "Brotherly Love," starring, among others, Jean Arthur (later the love interest in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.") Margoni also wrote under the considerably more Anglo name "Will Merton." I'm not aware of anyone who has seen this film, so I can only hope that it's better than 'Showgirls."

My dad's cousin Tommy got to participate in the Bataan Death March. Yet one more distant cousin, Clifford Touart, went crazy and shot his wife to death in 1908 after a marriage of 14 months. Finally a cousin named John Hayden Christie was an infant and in Canada when he and his parents were buried in an avalanche. Rescuers found him alive, nestled in his deceased mother's arms. All of this sounds grim, but if you've ever read Southern fiction, our family's past represents a light romp sprinkled with fairy dust by comparison.

My grandmother Rose, an English teacher, represented the second consecutive family princess to marry beneath her station. Her husband, Alfred Phillips, has been described to me as a hillbilly truck farmer. Alfred and Rose had six children, including my father, Joseph Touart Phillips, who, with his impeccable timing, entered the world in 1928, the year before the Great Depression started. Alfred fled the scene after the birth of his sixth child, my Uncle Lee. He printed a divorce notice in the Alabama newspapers and, like a Biblical patriarch, found another wife and had six more children. That's all I know about that grandfather. We don't even have a picture and none of the aunts and uncles he sired remember much about him or have anything kind to say about him.

Rose did not believe she could raise six children on her own on a school teacher's salary in Depression era Alaabama. Following the old rule of primogeniture, she designated my Uncle Pat, the oldest male child, as the one who would restore the once-slave owning Touarts to their antebellum glory. Uncle Pat got even by taking a vow of poverty and becoming a Jesuit priest.

I remember visiting Uncle Pat with my wife Samantha at the Manressa Retreat House (a spiritual oasis for wealthy Catholics like Harry Connick Sr. and Jr., Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, and the McCaskey family that owns the Chicago Bears) that he ran for the Jesuits. We stood on a veranda at the restored antebellum mansion, within view of the Mississippi River , not far from New Orleans. "I was supposed to run a plantation," Uncle Pat said wrly. "And here I am."

As I understand the family story, my dad (then age three or four) and the other more unfortunate siblings were placed in a Catholic orphanage. My father, reportedly, was so hungry that he was caught eating orange peels out of a garbage can the first night. Traumatized by the experience, he forgot how to talk. A witchy aunt moved in with my grandmother and she decided that she hated my father and would pointedly give Christmas gifts to all the other children in the family, when the abandoned children were allowed to visit Rose's home. Eager to escape his Dickensian home life, my dad tried to lie about his age to get involved in World War II and had his mother sign him up at age 17 in the Coast Guard in 1945, but it was too late for him to see action. Shortly thereafter, he became a Marine, fighting in Korea and Vietnam. My dad received an Agent Orange suana in that later war, after becoming addicted to free cigarettes provided him during the Korean War and died from cancer of everything a couple of days after his 68th birthday in 1996.

I sometimes unfairly joke that my father, after growing up in Alabama, grew up hating everyone separately but equally. Actually, when my father became a postal clerk, he was well beloved by his customers. His co-workers loved him too. My relationship with him was much less congenial. I didn't grow up in an orphanage, a fact he seemed to resent. He also didn't like that my older sister Marie, five years my senior and always a troublemaker, had spent the time he was away in Vietnam turning me on to the Beatles, long hair and round granny glasses. From dad's perspective, he left for Vietnam a father and came home the caretaker of a dwarfen Timothy Leary. I learned anti-Vietnam attitudes from the sister's age group and when I finally spent any time with dad, I was age nine, thinking for myself, and having a hard time taking him seriously when he would seriously argue that Walter Cronkite was a communist.

The same father who apparently smiled a lot at work scowled a great deal at me evern as he, like my mother, brutally assaulted a helpless English language. While my mother would happily note my father had received "radioactive pay" and would mourn tragic events as "castra-phonic," my father gleefully displayed how out of touch he was with pop culture, angrily denouncing my "Bob Dialin' (Dylan) nd Paul McCarthy (McCartney) " posters. A two-for-one malaprop was cause for grand celebration in my socially deprived youth and served to feed my already sanctimonious superiority complex. Of course, I was no better. I was convinced in the early 1980s that an Austrailian band called themselves "Inks" (INXS.)

May dad was by no means a touchy-feely guy. Instead of an inner child, my father had an inner drill sergeant. My dad's idea of a Kodak moment was the boot camp sequence in "Full Metal Jacket," during which he leaned to me and said, "This is making me homesick."

My dad was absolutely convinced that the civil rights and women's movement had arisen just in time to deprive him of everything he deserved in life. Unquestionably, after risking his life in two wars, getting sick from fighting in both of them, sometimes working two or three jobs at a time to supplment what in the 1960s was still the meager income of public servant, he deserved much more of a reward. Certainly more than the unearned comfort and wealth I see horded by George W. Bush and all of the other money-rubbing grandchildren of that late, Nazi-loving Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush.. My dad did everything elites wanted to do, but he received no succor. He obeyed orders unflinchingly as a Marine. He saluted the American flag. He believed in every conservative president (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I) who came and went in his lifetime. (In his mind, Clinton was a darft-dodging fruitcake.)

He always told me the family legend that Joseph Touart's slaves had voluntarily stayed with the family after the Civil War because they had been so well treated. ( Actually. a description of one of my relatives' treament of slaves can be found in "The Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker," a memoir by an abolitionist jailed in Pensacola for exercising the first amendment and condemning the "peculiar Institution." Miss Lola Touart beats the daylights out of a slave women working as a cook while Walker sits in his cell. Walker is released after being branded with the letters "S.S." for "slave stealer.") I can imagine that my great-great grandfather's slaves had nowhere to go and were probably terrfied of nightriders who captured slaves outside of plantations, whipping them and then turning them over to county sheriffs for "vagrancy."

My father believed in the inherent supriority of white people and that women "couldn't lead." (Not suprising after being abandoned by his mother, after first being abandoned by his father. Strangely, he never concluded men couldn't lead, but i supposed he could not follow through to the logical conclusion that we should hand the planet over to the transsexuals.) Until his dying day, dad believed that he had been passed over for promotion by less deserving black men and black and white women. His resentment of blacks even carried over to his anger over getting off Martin Luther King's birthday. I tried to point out that he was already overworked and a vacation was, after all, a vacation. I advised him to consider it George Wallace Day, if it would make him feel better to honor a different person from Alabama.

I remember when my father died I called around to see if I could find a Marine Corps uniform with E6 stripes that would fit my father, so he could be buried in it. My dad in the end, was even more Marine than Southern. I reached someone at the Grand Prairie Naval Base. They put a sergeant on the phone who volunteered his uniform. I drove there from my hometown of Garland. The donor was an African American. As was the funeral director. Dad got exactly what he wanted at his funeral, the full Marine ceremony. It was a dignified regal sendoff for someone who had always been, all said and done, pretty quiet. The ramrod-backed, handsome Marine who handed my mother a folded American flag at the ceremony, by the way, was also black.

Of course, my entire family had always been nurtured by African Americans. The Quinas and Touarts received the uncompensated labor of black slaves. The tragedy of black life had provided my author cousin the material for both her published and unpublished books. The cooking and cleaning staff at my Uncle Pat's retreat house were the descendents of slaves who had worked at Manressa when it was a plantation. I remember an African American pharmacy delivery man who constantly came to our house because I was frequnetly ill, and seeing a woman whose husband was in Vietnam alone with two children, one of whom was always sick, took care to always deliver me a big bundle of DC comics and to drive my family when they needed to get to medical appointments. He later burned to death in a car accident. I asked my mother for his name and she couldn't remember the name of the "colored boy." One more anonymous black person acting with undemanding compassion towards undeserving whites who can't reward the good deeds witth recognition of individual identity. Of course, for virtually every success a member of my family had, there were a score of unthanked, if not despised black people, who made it possible. Reverse discrimination indeed.

In the South, white people like to blame black people, and now Mexican Americans, for our social backwardness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is in ourselves, our negligent fathers, our racist churches, our heartless state governments, and our mysognist culture. Our governments see workers as burdens rather than assets, too many of our fathers see their wives and their children as obstacles, too many whites see blacks and browns as social problems, too many leaders see the past as unpleasantness to be forgotten. My ancestors saw the exploitation of African Americans as a means to greater welath for themselves, not seeing that low-wage and no wage workers represent, in large part , an asset only to the wealthy, but a drag on the middle class and the struggling poor. My fathers and mothers created a legacy of nuerosis and neglect, barely leavened by fits of creative brilliance. My Southern forebears have not created a liveable society. Katrina only violently exposed what lie underneath the tourist trappings of the old Confederacy.

I feel a peculiar burden to speak truth to Southern power. I consdier my work as an historian of Texas, and the South, as a form of reparations for the generations of African Americans my family ripped off and for the smug sense of righteousness that I have caught myself feeling those times Dixie demons haunt my soul. While I don't feel responsible for racial injustice that came before me, I do feel compelled to resist the toxic racial hatred I see swelling like the Gulf during Katrina, whether it's deflected towards poor whites, African Americans of Mexican immigrants. That's my mission and I'm sticking to it.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.

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