As I stood at the checkout counter of a convenience store in South Hill, Va., trying to locate a bookstore, the old white man behind me said: “You ain’t from ‘round heah.”
I explained that I was a vacationing journalist from St. Petersburg, Fla., a book collector and an incurable explorer.
“We don’t git many colored newspaper people ‘round heah,” he said, grabbing the bib of his work-worn overalls. “What’s a colored fella like you doing in South Hill?” His tone was a combination of curiosity and amusement.
“Colored” - when had I last heard that word or seen it in print? Back in St. Petersburg, we refer to ourselves as either black, African, African-American or people of color. Suddenly, I realized that I was going to have a great seven-day vacation, among simple folk in a rural region where life is stripped of smothering pretense.
Here was a place where honest talk is as natural as a sunrise, where eye contact is 20-20.
“I’m just trying to relax and find a few good stories,” I said.
“Well, we got lots of good stories ‘round heah.”
Indeed, after we walked outside, the man told me about several “good colored families” in South Hill and in the neighboring towns of La Crosse, Brodnax, Union Level and Ebony.
When I told him that I also wanted to meet some “good white families,” he said: “They probably won’t talk to you. They ain’t used to talking to coloreds.”
That word again.
I did not press the issue because his unrehearsed candor, emitted between chomps on a plug of Virginia chaw, was persuasive.
In Chase City, a few miles down the road from South Hill, I witnessed marvelous, real-world political incorrectness. An assistant manager of a grocery store, an overweight white woman with a beet-red proboscis, stormed out of a produce cooler, saying, “Men are all alike. They can’t do any darn thing for themselves!” Everyone, including the men, in the closest checkout lane laughed. Attempting to show off among strangers, I said: “That sounds like sexism to me.”
The woman who had made the remark looked me straight in the eye and said: “It is sexism.”
She ended any hopes of clever conversation that I, a big-city writer, had entertained.
Now, I became the object of derision. All eyes seemed to be asking if I, an outsider, was from an alien planet. Amused by my own blunder, I paid for my orange juice and bananas, and walked into the parking lot.
Standing beside my car for a few minutes, I watched dozens of local residents come and go.
Men opened doors for women and tipped their sweat-stained baseball caps. A few older black men greeted white women, but kept a “respectful” distance.
Rifles and shotguns hung from the rear windows of many pickups. White men, young and old, spat tobacco juice on the asphalt.
At “Head’s,” a black-owned barbershop in Chase City, I was honored to be part of a spirited debate about the worsening plight of young black males. For the first time in many years, I saw black men - unfettered by political ideology and the need for popularity - strongly disagreeing without calling one another Uncle Toms, radicals, fools and other epithets. I actually saw them take opposite positions on the issue of self-reliance, all without resorting to knife play and fisticuffs.
Piedmont Mall in Danville, Va., gave me yet another surprise: Smokers were everywhere, puffing away inside the complex itself.
When seeing a security guard, I knew that he would snuff out the cursed weed. To my utter consternation, he, too, was spewing cigarette smoke like a hyperactive Humphrey Bogart.
“What’s going on? How can people smoke inside?” I asked a bookstore clerk.
“This is Virginia - Tobacco Country,” she said incredulously. “Where’re you from, anyway?” An hour away, in South Boston, I went into a local eatery and saw a scene worthy of an unreformed Epicurean. Grossly overweight men and women, hardly worrying about their waistlines, attacked some of the thickest, juiciest steaks I had seen in years. Greasy home fries, magnificently browned biscuits and corn bread, collard greens, okra and tomatoes and macaroni and cheese laced the huge platters in front of the guests.
Because of my diet, this spectacle, replete with wondrous aromas, was overpowering. I bought a cup of coffee and left as quickly as I could.
Why am I on a diet? I asked myself. Why am I not washing down a plate of fried chicken with a few drams of Jim Beam?
On the morning that I prepared to leave southern Virginia, I had an anxiety attack. I had to return to St. Petersburg - to civilization - to a self-conscious workplace where the slightest cultural, racial, ethnic or gender indiscretion could jeopardize a career.
I had to return to a city that is afraid to speak its mind; where candor is a liability; where we wear our sensitivities on our sleeves; where we are scaring ourselves to death with paranoia and pessimism and ignorance and denial.
And if this is the price of “civilization,” I would rather be vacationing.
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