I lived in Lexington, Ky, for seven years. And yes, I loved it. It's beautiful and the people are polite and well-spoken and I for one find something softly seductive in the uniquely upper-class Kentucky accent.
But there was also the friend and her fiance who saw a glow in the woods outside Lexington and saw a cross burning in a clearing. And that's where someone said they liked Obama and it was a shame that he was black.
In all the years I lived there, no one was racist towards me, but I do know of an affluent African-American businessman (in town for work) who decided to go for a drive and stopped at a little country store to buy a soda. The owner pointed a shotgun at him and told he didn't know where he came from, "but boy if you wanna leave in one piece you betta turn around now."
I consider Lexington to be my U.S. hometown because it is where I arrived, young and fresh-faced from India. It was my portal to the U.S., the America I grew to love despite its problems. And the University of Kentucky (UK), especially my department (Communications) always seemed like a bastion of liberal tolerance.For the most part. Because of course, I had undergrad African-American students who were harrassed on campus late at night and inter-racial couples who were threatened.
And now this, where two young UK students (actually one of them from the community college) were arrested for hanging an effigy of Obama in retaliation for the California woman who in tremendous bad taste had Halloween decorations that involved Palin in a noose and McCain bursting into flames.
But this is the south. Hanging the effigy of a black man from a tree brings to the surface all the hatreds and prejudices not so deeply buried. It confirms the image of the racist South to the rest of the country. And there are other incidents across the country. A lynched Obama effigy at a small Christian college in Oregon, another with a noose and a knife in Redondo Beach, California.
This news on the heels of the Obama assasination plot which was foiled earlier makes you wonder. Forget about voting for a black candidate (who is half white anyway), there are people who actually want him dead because of the color of his skin. It's scary.
We're four days away from a new president (and I hope it is Obama) but with deep-seated hatreds like these among college students of all people, makes me pause. Whoever wins, with racist imagery like this, it's clear that racism still exists and when push comes to shove, we drag out the age-old symbols, especially in places not too long ago where strange fruit did indeed swing on the trees where they now hang effigies. When will it end? Will it ever end? Here are the lyrics to Strange Fruit, one of my most favorite (and heart-wrenching) poems.
And no one sang it better than Billy Holiday though Nina Simone came close.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
(Abel Meerspol, writing as Lewis Allan in 1937, upon seeing a photograph of two black men who were lynched in 1930)