Obama's Inauguration: As Seen Down There By Someone From Up Here
Here's another translated Pierre Foglia column, originally published in La Presse's Saturday Edition, January 17th 2009.
Sad, Sad Song
(Greensboro)Winter is a little bit here as well. They are not used to it. You should see the lady of the Bed and Breakfast, wrapped like an Eskimo when she went to open her hardware store – she owns a hardware store in the neighbouring town. You’re going seal hunting, Anne?
We left at the same time, but I was heading towards the countryside, I was going to Annie Lee’s, who is Anne’s housemaid. Black, obviously. It’s written in Obama’s book, in Dreams from My Father, page 45: “...black women come to white people houses to wash their laundry or clean their houses. Blacks are there without being there, indistinct presences, silent.” Indistinct and silent, that’s exactly Annie Lee.
Housemaids are not people that give great interviews. I know them well: my mother has been a housemaid all her life and, thinking about it, she was a little Nigger too, my mom, more than Obama’s mom anyways.
So, I was going to Annie Lee’s, a few miles from the Bed, by the countryside that used to be cotton-filled, now dug with aquaculture lakes where catfish are raised. We are in the Catfish Capital of the World.
Annie Lee, I started to wheedle her one morning while she was working at Anne’s. Beautiful floor! You’re doing it on your knees? Then, another time: you have kids? Seven, she said. Then I saw her hesitate, recount mentally. Huh, eight she corrected. I don’t know if this explain that but, when she got married at 17 years old, she already had two, one when she was 14 and one at 15. Curiously, the man with whom she lives, Dayton – they don’t have kids together – hesitated as well over the same question: six? Huh, seven. No, wait: eight, I have eight!
This detail says that this is not the same Blacks as usual. No Black reporters, no Black artists, no Black cabbies, no Black Presidents of the United States. Southern Blacks, like there is not even in Obama’s books. In Obama’s books, Blacks are all urban. Here, they are still in the cotton fields, even if there are no more cotton fields. I’ll say something terrible: they are still slaves even if there are no more slaves. Sad, sad song.
They are on long broken country roads, many in trailers. Not Annie Lee, who lives in a big 18-rooms house on three or four acres of wooden land, a horse in a pen, walnut trees behind. Told like that, it sounds like a “Country farm for sale in a charming setting”. Not at all. A tinkered hovel, not a dump, but not far, with car carcasses and old tools lying on the ground here and there.
Dayton wasn’t there. He was hunting, at the end of the property. Come for dinner tonight, invited Annie Lee, Dayton will be there, and there will also be Jasmin, my grand-daughter.
When I returned during the evening, Dayton proudly showed the deer he killed that morning, hung by its legs to a tree. Half was already missing, given to friends. His first deer of the year. There was a lot of firsts, that day. I was the first White invited to their table, but it wasn’t race that made the biggest difference. You won’t believe it: It was religion.
I had questions prepared, one about religion that I asked first, to get rid of it: You’re a Baptist?
Huh, me? Huh... I’m nothing. Oh I shouldn’t have. He came back to that all night long. Nothing? How is it possible? You’re the first one I meet. He even said at one moment: I really am in shock.
Well, you didn’t go out much!
But he did. He worked for 15 years in Detroit for GM. He used heroin long enough to see terrible things, but apparently never as terrible as an atheist. He wouldn’t let it go all night. We were talking about something else, he would bring it back suddenly:
Who makes the day? Huh? Huh? Who makes the night? Why are you getting up in the morning?
Would you believe it, old man, I get up in the morning to go interview creationist Niggers. I just thought it. In terms of civilities, it went rather well. Dinner was decent, chicken with beans, the sweet potatoes mash pie was amusing, we drank tea. The grand-daughter, Jasmin, who is huge, didn’t say a word. Annie Lee, not much either. It was between Dayton and me. A messy interview. Anyways, I would have done my column with everything else, as I always do. Still, I was really destabilized by two...what shall we say? Two holes in the conversation, two abysses that opened abruptly below my feet.
First abyss: Italy. He asked where I was from. I said Italy. I saw to his face that neither he nor Annie had the slightest idea of what I was talking about. Italy? I could have said Moldavia or Tatarstan.
The second abyss was when Dayton cell phone rang. Instead of a ringtone or a little tune, we heard the voice of a TV announcer on the election night: The next President of the United States...Then it cuts, and on a rap rythm, Ho-Ho-Ho-Bama, bam-bam-bama...
I jumped on that one. I said: It’s an incredible victory.
For once, Blacks voted together, said Dayton.
And a few Whites too, I added.
We don’t care about Whites. We just needed Blacks to hold together.
Oops friend! We have a little number problem. You are just 12%.
How come 12%? We (the Blacks) are in majority in this country.
I was flabbergasted. I didn’t imagine this misinformed, disconnected misery to be that culturally, socially disorganised. Sad, sad song.
Like many Whites, I knew of racism only its folklore, not its real effects. All night, by my fault, we never got out of the folkore. My booklet was full of folk notes. How was it when you were a kid? Tell me, Nigger. Tell the white reporter, tell, so that he could make a little Erskine Caldwell, maybe a Steinbeck of himself.
And the Nigger to tell: can’t drink at the same fountain as Whites. Can’t go out with a White woman. Can’t go to the same school. Can’t sit in the front of the bus. Can’t pass by the front door when we would deliver something at the White’s houses, or to be paid for a job.
And the Ku Klux Klan? Tell, Nigger. Tell to the white reporter a few horror stories about the Ku Klux Klan.
No said Dayton, I didn’t witness horror stories with the KKK. There was a KKK chapter here, we knew them, it was just like another social club, ordinary racists.
Whites don’t know anything about Southern ordinary racism that holds the Southern Blacks to the bottom and keeps them there. Marching for rights doesn’t matter. Tell me, Dayton, what did change in your relations with Whites between now and then?
He never heard about Italy, he doesn’t know how many Blacks there is in the United States, but on this, he has encyclopaedic knowledge.
What changed? Everything. And nothing. What changed is that they don’t treat us like shit. What didn’t change is that they think exactly like before that we are shit. What didn’t change is that everything is organized exactly like before so we remain shit.
You think Obama can change that?
I don’t know. You know what you should do? Greensboro’s largest employer is a fish factory, Heartland Catfish, where every aquaculture farm in the region delivers their catfish. You should visit it.
And what would I see?
Fishes are transported by tank trucks to the factory, a chute dumps them on a conveyor where they go, open mouths, towards mechanical knives that will thread them alive one by one, to finish, at the end of the chain, in bins filled with ice. All along the path, workers sort, remove the slag, cut with frightening speed fins that were missed by mechanic knives. You know, the theatre of Japanese cooks? This, but eight hours a day. Workers often cut their fingers. Straight cuts.
There is 150 of them on the chain. Apart from a few Latinos, all of them are Black. The factory is a freezer, below the freezing point. Water everywhere. Earning $6.25 an hour, 40 hours, $250 gross at the end of the week.
The few Whites in the factory are foremen, accountants, shipping managers. The same work structure than in the cotton fields before the abolition of slavery.