For progressive folks in North Carolina, it was best not to let Jesse Helms get under your skin if you could help it. The alternative could be too much. This is a man, after all, affectionately known as “Uncle Jesse,” which was almost always said with a shrug and a smile. Some voters actually believed in his brand of base instinct politics. Many more disagreed with some of his views, yet voted him back into office time and time again anyway, with that same shrug and smile. It was tradition, after all. For those of us who cared enough to vote against Jesse, or to work for the opposition, or to protest his existence on this planet, much less in North Carolina, the sight of those casual shrugs from otherwise reasonable voters was blood-boiling. After all, how could anyone be casual about a man who proudly drawled, "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights"? Worse, how could anyone think that man deserved to be a Senator?
So no, Jesse wasn’t casual to me. The backside of my car was a testament to that. So was my inability to do the Jesse Shrug and Smile, a trait that persists to this day. Politics aren't light enough for me to laugh about at dinner parties, although it'd be easier if I could. I blame Jesse for that. The festering sore of Jesse Helms persisted well after I left NC. I was a girl from a state I loved despite its public face, a girl with politics squarely opposite those of the only NC politician everyone knew, the one who had to answer for Jesse about three sentences in after someone heard where she was from, every single time. So no, no Jesse Shrug and Smile for me. That festering sore smarted even when it wasn't personal, too – like during AIDS funding debates, federal arts funding debates, or pretty much any discussion related to Martin Luther King, Jr. Those civil rights heroes, after all, were “moral degenerates.” Or didn’t you hear?
What comes up for me throughout the fanfare of Jesse’s death is what great lengths people will go to excuse away evil in the name of charm or nostalgia. As if being a good conversationalist makes it okay to truly believe that African-Americans are lesser human beings than white folks. I want to counter every colorful story told about Jesse this week and present another one instead. Like when he sang “Dixie” to African-American Senator Carol Mosely Braun after bragging to Orrin Hatch that he could make her cry. Is that what they mean by colorful? I'd like to counter his drippy sentences about good barbecue with the finer points of his 1990 “White Hands” ad, the one that suggested whites were losing jobs to “lesser qualified minorities." To Jesse's credit, though, I suppose that ad was a step forward from one of his first productions, which simply stated, “White people, wake up before it is too late.”
Worse than the lauding of Jesse’s charm though, for me, is the suggestion that he was simply a product of his time, and therefore should also be given a pass. Jesse Helms was not and never would have stood for simply being a product of the times. He led his times with a lightening bolt of fear-mongering hatred, and his story is in fact the story of the Republican Party, post-desegregation through this very moment. That historic shift was explicitly racial, and Jesse led that charge to fight equality and justice for everyone but himself. He spewed hate. So did his party. He thought nothing of interfering in foreign democracies all in the name of “freedom.” So did his party. He appealed to the worst instincts a human can have. So did his party. He was rewarded for it, time and time again. So was his party. So let’s go ahead and give him credit for leading the way, shall we?
I spent some quiet moments this Fourth of July feeling, for the first time in as long as I can remember, vaguely optimistic about the state of things to come. Along with many of you, I’m readying myself for Obama’s move to center, as much as I hope it doesn’t come. Yet the bigger picture we’re confronted with right now is a hopeful one. It’s a humbling one, an awe-inspiring one. We are on the verge of being able to vote as a country, in record numbers, for a black man to be our president. For a black woman to be our First Lady. For two little black girls to grow up in the White House. We’re on the verge of presenting a new face to the world, literally and figuratively, one that’s respectful and apologetic and less narcissistic than the face we've worn. We’re stepping away from the bowels of fear and hate, where Jesse lived, and into the light that we can all share together. All of us.
We’re a better country now that Jesse Helms isn’t with us anymore. And we’re about to be even better.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008