A Burning Cross
Late one night, when I was nine, my family was returning home to Jackson from Spartanburg. As we drove through a little town, we came upon the glaring light of a large wooden cross. The cross must have been soaked in some kind of fuel because the flames roared and lit up the space around it in the otherwise total darkness.
My brothers and I had been asleep in the back seat. When Dad slowed down, we woke thinking we must be home. Our parents whispered in voices full of fear and panic. Mother said, “Keep going! Don’t slow down!” As we watched, something white flashed in the bushes and ran away. Our three little heads peered forward and little hands held on to the front seat. “What was that?” I asked. Nobody answered.
Grampa was a Baptist minister. We went to church twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night all of my life. The cross was the foundation of everything there was to know about our religion. This symbol was on the song books, the Bibles, the church steeple. People wore crosses on necklaces. It was understood that in spite of all the hellfire and damnation the cross was about suffering, redemption, forgiveness and, ultimately, love. How could the cross be used for hate? Who would do this?
The reactions of my parents, the sound of their voices, the power of this thing dug into my being, lodged there. It made a mark on me that was more threatening, dangerous and foreboding than anything I had ever seen. I cannot describe in words how powerfully demonic that vision still is. How could this symbol of love, sacrifice and righteousness be displayed for the purpose of hatred for one group of human beings by another? If I felt this way, what terror must the targets of this hateful act have felt?
I came to learn that many of the people who participated in this hate were part of our everyday lives. We just didn’t know who they were. Little remarks were dropped that could be taken one way or another. When I asked for clarity, there was a smile, or “John knows what I’m talking about, don’t you John?” A wink or a shrug followed.
Recently I have come to face my need to reason it out: tie up the loose ends of “Yes buts ...” I have a love for the rolling landscape that sits at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When I go back, the Broad, Saluda and the Congaree rivers bring back memories of my South Carolina childhood.
Growing up, I sang “Dixie,” saw the flag as part of the natural landscape and was often caught up in the pride of being a Southerner. But something felt amiss. I bought into the nostalgia of the plantations until I could no longer deny that they were built and maintained with slave labor. Some say, “My family had slaves but they were good to them.” I usually say, “To be a slave is still to be a slave.” I wonder how those slave mothers were comforted when their children were sold.
I am tired of being a Southerner if it means buying into false pride. The greatness of a society built on slave labor is not a thing to feel great about. The very idea of birthright is repugnant to me. Who had the power to be born in one country or another? Who by their own choice or responsibility was born to anything? If we truly believe that all are created equal then why does that belief stop at borders?
This has taken a lifetime to process and I have reached some conclusions. I am a human being who came into this world neither by choice nor self-determination. Had I been born with different skin, eyes or hair I would still be a human being.
Being born in this country has given me advantages that allow comforts of home, food and security that are foreign to great masses of the world’s population. I feel fortunate to have been born here, but I neither deserve more than anyone else nor do I have the right to think that I am better than those who were not.
It’s been 65 years since I saw that cross burning one night returning home from Spartanburg. I’ll never forget it and I hope to never see one again.
Originally Published in the Self Narrate Column in the Gainesville Sun
Photo Credit: Dominic Alves, modified from original, provided under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.