But long before that humid, tick-infested day at the cemetery, things had changed. The drive up the hollow had taken us past countless front-yard Trump signs; they were a regular part of the landscape, like the aging mobile homes and junked cars. It was during that trip that it finally dawned on me that maybe the old Confederate soldier I had just risked Lyme disease and a heart attack to honor might be partly to blame for this sorry state of affairs—at least in my own family. Becoming a farmer and later a coal miner after the Civil War ended, my great-great-grandfather evidently passed down the myth of The Lost Cause and the expectation of white supremacy to his descendants. I suspect the old family rumor that his son was a member of the Ku Klux Klan is true.
My grandmother grew up with the old Confederate soldier living with her family. A staunch Fundamentalist Evangelical Dominionist who bore sixteen children, she used to bring me and my cousins into the bedroom after Sunday dinner to read us Bible stories, most of which dealt with white horses, sounding trumpets, rivers of blood, and unquenchable fire. It could all happen, she reminded us, before the day was over. Her stories used to scare the hell out of me. They also confused me, because no matter how terrible it all sounded, my grandmother seemed so satisfied with the gnashing-of-teeth scenario. Then there was her opinion of black people, for whom she used a different term. The term. She didn’t believe they actually had souls like the rest of us. Even my six-year-old self, eager to get story time over with so that I could play in the barn, found something dubious about the whole thing. But maybe some of my cousins did not, and still don’t.
West Virginia’s population is only 3.6 percent black and 1.6 percent Latino. Yet, to a populace trodden down by generations of corporate exploitation, being told one is superior to someone else is a powerful motivator. LBJ said it best. After seeing racial epithets scrawled on signs in Tennessee, he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” After LBJ’s support for civil rights and Nixon’s willingness to exploit white fear, the Solid South began its slow transition from monolithically Democratic to even more monolithically Republican. West Virginia took longer than some states to come into the fold, but it’s firmly there now. Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win the state.
Grandma was a Democrat. Her final vote was cast for Jimmy Carter in 1980, and she was a reliable supporter of Democratic presidential candidates in all but two elections, her first in 1928, and again in 1960. That was because Al Smith and John Kennedy were Catholics—lost souls. No JFK memorial portrait in her house. I think a mini-conspiracy in the family kept her from finding out that I eventually became a Catholic myself.
On the morning of November 9, 2016, I fielded tearful calls from my two Millennial daughters. “I can’t believe it. How could this happen?” I told them it would be bad, but that surely there would be reasonable people around Trump who would keep him from sending the country off the rails. They told me my assurances reminded them too much of the time I said their goldfish Leonard had gone away to live with his family.
The most poignant conversation I had that morning was with my mother, then eighty-five years old, the daughter of the woman who thought black people had no souls. Whenever someone says, “Oh, that’s just how she was raised,” as an excuse for someone’s racism, I refer them to my mother. “I can’t believe it,” she told me the morning after the election. “Working people will find out what they’ve done, and be sorry. They’ve spent all these years hating President Obama because he’s a black man, and told all those lies about Hillary, and now look what we have. And the preachers support it! Support that nasty man Trump and the things he says. That’s the part I can’t understand.” It was very sad, what she told me, but it was also true; and I found that somehow comforting. Now, whenever Trump visits my home state to drum up more politically convenient anger, I give my mother a call. Hearing her anger gives me hope.