“Man on Fire” Documentary: One Man’s Final Atonement for Racism in a Sundown Town

Man on Fireman on fire

Last night was the third time in the past few  weeks I have heard the term “Sundown Town.”

The first time I heard the term was when my mother told me the town in which I grew up, Springdale, Arkansas, used to be referred to in this way. She said when she grew up in the 1950s-60s, there was a sign at the city limits that warned black people to not be caught there after dark. She never quite told me what exactly would happen, but my imagination filled in the rest. Mostly, I mused, it was probably just an urban legend. My mother is known for her storytelling.

Watching “Man on Fire” brought it all back to the forefront of my memory.

When I attended Springdale High School in 1987, it was pretty much an all white school. There may have been some Hispanic students, perhaps, but probably at least 95% of us were white kids. I do remember the day we had a black student enroll. It was all anyone talked about. It’s been a while, you understand, but I do remember one thing clearly: the student didn’t stay. Nobody was really surprised. There were whispers of KKK involvement. I don’t know if this is true or not.

Our nearby rival, Fayetteville High School, had a larger black population. One night, before the Springdale/Fayetteville game, somebody broke into their football stadium and hung a dummy, lynching style. The message was clear. I remember feeling horrified and sickened.

My parents taught by example, by commentary and racist remarks,  that we should be afraid of black people, mistrustful. Otherwise hard-working people who loved Arkansas and their neighbors, racism was their Achilles’ heel. They could not move past their own backgrounds. I grew up hearing racist jokes (black people, Mexican people, Asian people…really anyone who wasn’t white) on a regular basis.  In every joke, the white man was the only smart one, the hero.

Springdale has come a long way. It is now a rich, multicultural town. Thankfully, it has changed enough that other races have moved in and settled, and it has become so diverse. I still follow friends who are teachers at Springdale High School, and they cannot keep from gushing about how much they love their students… all their students. Some of my defining influences are teachers from this school. Being a part of the Springdale High School Band changed my self-image and directly impacted who I am (and who my children are) today. As a result of being a part of the Springdale Band Program, both my daughters are middle school/high school band/choir directors.

Recently, my friend Marjay Hignite, one of those teachers I spoke of, wrote a response to a highly controversial happening (so controversial Buzzfeed picked it up and ran with it) at SHS, and she mentioned the term “Sundown Town.” Just reading those two words brought it all back. The racial tensions posed daily in a small Arkansas town is not something easily forgotten.

The second time I heard the term “Sundown Town” was at the movies last weekend. My husband and I went to see Green Book. I highly recommend it. I may show clips of it to my own students when I introduce the Jim Crow laws during my “Fences” unit next time.

The last time I heard “Sundown Town” was in a brand new documentary that debuted on PBS last night, called “Man on Fire.” 

“Man on Fire”, recently debuting on PBS, chronicles the journey of Reverend Charles Moore, who ended his life by kneeling in a Dollar Store parking lot, dousing himself with gasoline, and setting himself on fire. A complex and deeply religious man, Rev. Moore is portrayed as a bold civil rights advocate in a tiny east Texan town where many couldn’t quite understand the need. Using personal correspondence Rev. Moore left behind, “Man on Fire” explores Buddhist notions of self-immolation as a form of protest. The film alternates between personal interviews from friends and family, local clergy, citizens,  and witnesses to the tragedy and a creative reenactment of Rev. Moore’s last few hours. The camera shots are simultaneously disturbing and bordering on voyeuristic, as well as hauntingly beautiful.

My friend, James Chase Sanchez, PhD., produced the film, and his personal connection to Grand Saline and the events that transpired in the town, is evident with each scene. I met Dr. Sanchez in graduate school where we were both trying to just survive our literature courses and working on our master’s degrees. We drank lukewarm coffee at the Writing Center where we tutored, and I frequently heard him talk about his childhood in Grand Saline, both the joy and the heartache.

His work with cultural rhetorics and race theory is not only fascinating, but could not be more relevant in our current times. Watching “Man on Fire” seemed akin to viewing a close friend’s newborn baby: magical and poignant. I felt privileged to witness this culmination of years of painstaking research combined with naked beauty and authenticity. “Man on Fire” doesn’t tell you what to think, it simply shows you the kaleidoscope of theories and viewpoints the citizens of Grand Saline hold about Reverend Moore’s suicide, and lets you decide. In an era where race dynamics are seen in the daily headlines, this film digs deeply into the fabric of Southern racism, painfully exposing racism at its ugly roots.

If you haven’t seen “Man on Fire,” I urge you to take a look. It truly is a life-changing film. Dr. Sanchez, Chase, I am so proud to know you, and I will always remember you with a frosty mug of beer, bullshitting about rhetoric.

Again, well done, friend!

 

On Remembrance

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There’s so much about that day in my life I remember, or I think I remember.

I was a housewife, living in the country. I was a good person, I guess, and there’s nothing wrong with staying home and raising children. I cleaned the house and baked lasagna–the epitome of white bread south. Looking back now, I realize how naïve I was, like many others– how trusting of the government and our leaders, so willing to be lead as a country into a war I didn’t understand with a cost we could have never calculated.

There was so much I didn’t comprehend–so much of it I probably never will.

I had initially heard the news that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center by seeing the footage on the small television at the University of Arkansas bookstore. The footage repeated, the confusion of what we were seeing, voices over voices…I didn’t understand at first. Nobody did.

Because, at first, it seemed like an accident, a tragic misfortune. Perhaps, I speculated, the captain on board of that 747 had a stroke or heart attack, and this was the fiery result.

I did not hear about the second plane until after my job interview, on the way home in my car. The radio reflected the pandemonium, the sheer panic of the spectators…for once, it seemed, the journalists covering the story did not sound stoic, speaking each word with a measured accuracy. The people being interviewed were breathless, terrified.

That was the moment when I knew this event was no accident. Two planes had been the unwilling weapons of terrorists, essentially bombs with humans as ammunition. It was too horrific for words.

When I returned home, my husband was plastered in front of the television; my dad had called him a few minutes earlier. On TV, people were screaming, sobbing, running through the streets, covered in white dust as if they were victims of a nuclear holocaust. The old women bleeding, leaning on you women, trying to get away from what was now being called “Ground Zero,” they could have been anyone. Images of fire, chaos and terror played over and over. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances were everywhere at once.

I never really knew why they called that place Ground Zero. When I tried to research it, Google comes up with some pretty outrageous stuff. There are so many pages devoted to conspiracy theories–a few of these use “Why do they call it Ground Zero” in their titles. The hypotheses are as numerous as the conspiracies themselves. One guy says that they call it Ground Zero because “they” knew it was an inside demolition job. USA Today has an article about businesses that, before 9/11, were called Ground Zero and the fallout that have occurred since–how they had to change their names, etc. Other articles talk about the workers around the site who helped rescue others from the steaming rubble, and their increased risk of cancer because of it. But as far as anything credible, there’s nothing I could point to.

On that day, my husband and I had not eaten yet, so I went to cook pancakes. Lee worked the night shift at a factory that made diaper wipes, and should have been in bed resting, but of course he couldn’t. My daughters were both at school, and Nathan was playing quietly with some blocks.

On the surface, at least for us, everything seemed eerily normal. At least, for a moment, I could pretend.

I could try to block out what this meant to me personally. There was a comfort there in the center of my kitchen, as I mixed the pancake mix and water with a whisk, as I had done a thousand times before. There was a rhythm to the way I heated the old iron skillet to just the right temperature. The buttery smell of the pancakes filled the kitchen, but it wasn’t enough to work on my worry for long. I began thinking of how, at age 30, the kind of world I was raising my children in. Jordanne was eleven, Sarah was eight, and Nate was two.

I can remember pouring the batter, watching the bubbles build in the center and spread to the edges. Then the panic set in. I pictured my sister’s face, blond and gorgeous, and wondered what pandemonium must have been at play at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska where she was stationed. If I’m honest, I knew everything was not “okay.” Not with our country, and not with me.

“A plane just hit the Pentagon!” Lee shouted from the living room.

So America was at war, but with whom? The words Al Qaeda had been mentioned dozens of times, and the blame was being placed there, at least for the moment .

“There are some planes missing! Flight 93 is one of them!”

The pancake turned a golden brown.

“What do you mean, missing?”

“They know because the planes are not on their assigned paths. hey think one of them is headed toward D.C.–maybe the White House.”

“Oh my God…what will we do?” A chill stole across my arms.

“If they find out the pilot has been killed, they will have to shoot it down.”

“Shoot it down?” I repeated numbly, stupidly. I began sobbing. The pancake burned and smoke-filled the kitchen.

“Tina, your pancake…”Lee said, but I stood there, looking at it curiously, as if I had never seen such a thing. When I didn’t move, Lee shoved in front of me and turned off the burner.

“Where is our president?” It seemed he was being very quiet during this whole thing. Later, I would find out that he had been flown to the very Air Force Base my sister was working.

I had a feeling that she would know all about it, and possibly be a part of the planning it took to get him there.

On TV, the broken wreckage of flight 93 carved a cavernous ditch into the Pennsylvania countryside, looking like burning, torn flesh.

Suddenly I was struck with panic. All I could think of was my kids. I wanted to go to the school and pick them up, hold them close. I began to ramble incoherently.

Lee put his arms around me.

“The girls are o.k. I don’t think the terrorists are planning to attach the schools. They don’t need to be picked up.” He was right, I knew. It was unlikely that the terrorists were interested in small town Arkansas. We were hardly a symbol of American arrogance. If New York City was “Ground Zero” then what did that make us?

The rest of the day, I spent watching TV and trying to call my sister. Not surprisingly, the line to her office stayed busy. Frustrated, I hung the phone up harder than I needed to.

On TV, after President Bush announced that this was in fact an “act of terror and war,” people were even more scared, if that was possible. The news depicted aimless wanderers, shuffling through stacks of paper that littered the ground. Why was there so much paper everywhere? Of course it makes sense; it was a shrine to the “old way of life.” But the images of people wading through that paper still haunts me.

At home, the grocery stores were empty. I learned that many of my friends bought large amounts of ammunition, fearing the worst. Many of my friends who did not own guns bought them for the first time. Such a time of fear and chaos was upon us.

On TV, camera angles showed piles of concrete, several stories high. Fire fighters, covered in ashes and blood, dug out bodies with shovels. The rubble was covered in shredded, barely deliverable human artifacts: bits of clothing, portions of walls,shards of glass–it reminded me of human tokens: an archaeological dig.

I also remember hearing of the beating of Muslims, the political cartoons, the everlasting rhetoric of war. On campus at the University of Arkansas, an announcement was made that we were to be especially sensitive to Muslim students, and any threats made against them would be taken very seriously.

It was around six that evening before I was able to reach my sister.

“Hey,” I said, softly.

“Hey.” The background noise was indescribable. Phones rang and tons of conversations went on at once.

“Are you okay? Are you safe?” I asked her.

“Yes, I’m safe, but I’m going to be deployed, probably tomorrow.”

It seems crazy now that she would already have orders. To the rest of us, it seemed like the government drug its feet, letting the frenzied cry for revenge of American blood rise to its fever pitch.

My sister talked later about the fact that she did not even had time to sew on the stripes demonstrating her newly decorated promotion. Instead, she hurriedly sewed them on by hand, late into the night.

I caught my breath, trying to steady it. She didn’t like it when I freaked out about her deployments–and I had in the past. “I figured,” I whispered, swallowing a lump in my throat, trying to clear it away. She had enough to worry about.

“Oh, happy birthday,” I said.

“Right,” she said, with a sigh.

The fragile link between us, even though she was over 1000 miles away, seemed strong. On TV, the American flag flew high. In town, the flag was everywhere.

Now that I’m a teacher, I see lots of veterans returning to school. Sometimes, I can tell the veterans from civilians without even  checking their paperwork. Sometimes, I can see the haunted look in their eyes. I see their struggle to make sense of civilian life and college classes. Sometimes, it’s almost tangible–the great effort it takes for some of them  to attach importance to something as trivial as English homework when all they can think of is the sense of mission that seems missing and those they left behind. I see them, sitting in the back of the classroom, watching the door. Some of them come to my class physically broken, but most of the scars they bear are nothing less than a symbol of the mutilation of a nation, the castration of a once proud super power.

It’s possible to be patriotic, to support our military, but to still be wary of war. I was a Navy wife for 4 years, and my father and grandfather were also military. I’ve always believed that we should be respectful of those who serve.

Now that Nathan is almost grown, he’s talked once or twice about joining the Air Force or Marines himself. The thought makes my blood run cold. Not because I don’t love my country, but because I’ve seen firsthand the damage done to those who serve.

And I remember.

On Homecoming Dances, Giant Mums and Growing Up

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A couple of months ago, I asked Nate what the plan was for Homecoming. He looked at me blankly and said, “I’m not going to any dance.”

I’m not surprised by this notion, because he has not been on any kind of date since Hannah moved to Seattle last summer.Since Hannah moved, it’s been pretty rough on the both of them. I think it would be pretty rough on anyone! There have been many tearful phone calls, many Skype dates, and many promises made.

“So, you mean you’re not going to go to any dances or events with anyone, not even as friends?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“No, Mom. I’m not going to anything without Hannah.”

Although I fully expected this response, it made me a little sad to think about the two of them missing out on some of the big milestones of high school: the homecoming dance, prom, the band banquet—all rites of passage that we remember all our lives.

“Hannah and I will have our own dance.”

“How so?”

“She’ll buy her dress, and I’ll put on my suit, and we’ll Skype each other.”

The thought of this nearly did me in.

Then this happened.

Here’s a picture of Hannah telling Nate that she had saved up the funds to come see him for Homecoming.

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I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

Neither one of them has celebrated their 16th birthday yet, but in some ways they behave with the maturity of couples who have been married a dozen years.

Seattle is approximately 2,106 miles from Dallas as the crow flies. To make the drive, it takes about 31 or so hours. To fly in, Hannah spent most of the day in airports.

It’s really, really far.

(Here’s a pic of Hannah marking trees, earning money to come back to Texas).

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But last week, they managed it.

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This is a pic of their reunion at the airport. I cried my eyes out–not that they noticed!

When his sisters found out, they spent about 3 days building the most beautiful mum ever. For those of you not familiar, it’s a Texas tradition. The bigger and more extravagant the mum, the better, and every girl going to Homecoming needs one. People spend tons of bucks on them! It’s crazy. When we first moved here we were schooled in the art of needing mums. It’s completely different now that we have a boy going through the process.

Jody and Sarah built Hannah’s mum with her in mind. They also made it with Nate’s marching show in mind. Nate’s solo, “The Peacock and the Sparrow” was one awesome piece.

As sweet as it was to pick her up from the airport, it was ten times more agonizing to take her back. Mum 2 Mum2

Y’all, pray for Mancub and Watergirl, and Mama Bear, will you? We all would so appreciate it.

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War Eagle Women: It’s All About the Secrets

Name a Gothic novel without secrets. You can’t. Secrets are the core of all things Gothic.
I take that back. Secrets that refuse to be kept are the core of all things Gothic. And Southern Gothic? Of course! Even more so.
With perhaps the bloodiest non-war history of any other section of our country. I think the number one reason why the Gothic fits so well here is the history and geography both.

Think of the Old South. What do you see? Plantations in ruin, people starving, many homeless…especially those who had received their freedom from slavery–and very little else. The soil itself cries tears of blood straining to keep its past and present crimes a mystery.

But secrets are funny things. They are stubborn and unruly and don’t like to be kept. Especially in the deep mountains of Arkansas where few people have trod. Especially in the hidden caves next to the wild river. Especially, in the heart of a girl.

War a Eagle Women is now available in print.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/war-eagle-women-tina-coleman-bausinger/1120443907?ean=9781619355873

It’s Southern Gothic–Steel Magnolias, Heaven and Fried Green Tomatoes all rolled into one. How can one secret affect four generations of women? By refusing to be kept.

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On Loving the South and the Southern Gothic

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O magnet-south! O glistening perfumed South! My South! — Walt Whitman

Loving the South doesn’t mean we don’t hold its injustices or secrets in a faraway place of denial.

To be Southern is to identify with its beauty–but at the same time naming our wrongs to others both past and present. Though the South may be indeed mired in the past, we enumerate our sins and attempt to learn from them. This makes us unique from the rest of the country, and indeed, the rest of the world.

It’s even more difficult to explain how it feels to be a Southern woman.

We have all experienced the “good old boys” network. We’ve all scratched and clawed our ways through antiquated ideas of male dominance, whether in the workplace, the family, or in the church. We’ve been taught that to be a lady means to not make a fuss.

Sometimes it’s necessary to make a fuss.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to scream and cry and force others to hear us. In Southern culture, to attempt to move from one’s designated place, either within society, our family and our own demons will always invite opposition.

But we, the New Southern Women, dig in our heels and cry “Bring it.” Because we, of all people, know of the danger that is found within the beauty of this land. The South is not perfect–the events that have happened here in our bloody past refuse to be forgotten or buried.

It’s these past transgressions, horrors and secrets that stamp an indelible tattoo of the gothic on our literature, our poetry, our music and even our very lives. We don’t deny our past–we could not even if we tried. But Southern solidarity and identity renders within us a beauty from the ashes.

Southern women are often the first to label the wrong we see, the ones who say “no more.”

Sister, I hear you. Your voice whispers into the chilly wind of winter, but is heard nonetheless.

For after the winter, the spring blooms anew.

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Living in the South: 5 Southern Expressions-A Translation for my Yankee Friends

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Please enjoy this video as a warmup for the course:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNWt6Wd9gXU

Let’s just get real and lay it all out on the table. I’m not prejudiced against Yankees…some of my best friends are Yankees. Sometimes, this becomes a problem if a Southern-born person speaks in her native dialect–it becomes (as true Yanks will attest) “wicked hahd” to comprehend. Not to worry, not to worry. I’m here to help you learn just a few key phrases to get you by. What? You thought this would be a quick course? YOU WISH. The hang of Southern speech takes years, even decades to completely unravel. We’re just getting started.

I’ll teach you a few things to help you get the hang of it, but no promises. Don’t feel that you are ready to go into the Wild South yet. Slow down there, Speed Racer.

1. Y’all: used instead of its Northern counterpart “all of you” or, as you head further towards Jersey and New York, you may hear “youse guys.”
Example: “All Y’all are gonna have to move that truck ‘fore your Daddy gets home.” Depending on how South you travel, it might sound like “Youns”: as in, “Youns stop jumpin’ on that bed now!”
2. The Ladies’: short for “ladies rest room” or bathroom.

Example: “I’m just gonna go powder my nose in the Ladies’.” A Southern lady will never talk about body functions or even pretend they exist.

3. “Fair-to-middlin'”: Ok, could be better or, as the highly sophisticated might say, “So-so.”

Example: “How are you today, Jedediah?”
“Oh, I’m fair-to-middlin.’

4. “Slower ‘n Christmas”: self-explanatory.

Example: Ol’ Margie’s gotten so old she’s slower ‘n Christmas.”

5. “Lit up” or “Lit up like a Christmas tree”: either highly intoxicated/embarrassed/royally upset

Example: When Daddy found out Julia May and Buster was dating behind his back, he was lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Example 2: After two of them Long Island Iced Teas, Georgia Ann was lit up like a Christmas tree.”

This concludes Lesson 1 on Southern Speak. Please stay tuned to learn more.

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What Southern Expressions do you love/hate/? Post them here in the comments!

5 Reasons Your Kid Should Be In Band

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It’s that time of year again–summer band. It’s bittersweet for Mancub: he loves band BUT he’s also become accustomed to a shall we say more relaxed way of life over the summer. Gone are the days of sleeping until noon, only to surface like a bear from hibernation.

Summer band means school is just around the corner. I have three kids who have all experienced it, and around here it’s kind of a rite of passage. Now I know how Texans feel about their football, and I love it too–but not for the reason you think. I love to watch the band at half-time. I don’t care who wins or loses, as long as I can pick out Mancub from the others in the best horn section ever. There’s something exhilarating about it–the deep red and gray uniforms marching in precision onto the field, the excitement that builds when they turn and bam! That sound that knocks my socks off every. Single. Time.
Like most sports or after school activities, they start ’em young here: most kids are mere babies when they first take the field. I’ve heard tell of some Texas bands that throw kids on the field as young as 4. That could be a tall tale, but even so it’s pretty close.

Here you go: a bit of last year’s awesome show as performed by the REL Band. You’re welcome. I’m so proud that he’s a part of such a great band program.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MywEpL39EU

(video courtesy REL Band)

Here’s 5 reasons your kid should be in marching band.
1. They will be forced to have a bit of discipline. Mancub’s band is no different. He’s a sophomore now, so he’s no longer on the bottom rung of the bandie ladder, but he’d still rather risk personal injury or jail time then be late for band. Because nobody is late for band. I remember being late for marching practice one time, under the magnificent Pat Ellison, and receiving a tongue lashing that would have made Mussolini cry like an infant after his first set of shots. I’ll tell you this: it never happened again. Your teen who is habitually late for school, church, and library books will not be late to band. It’s too embarrassing.
2. Band teaches teamwork. One thing I love about Mancub’s band is that they are taught from day one to be a part of a section that is part of the band. It’s very organized and there’s definitely a hierarchy to it. It’s almost military in the way it works. And it works.
3. Band teaches responsibility. Your teen will, God help him if he doesn’t, learn a bit of responsibility while in band. There’s so much to keep up with: uniform pieces, music, instruments, the list goes on and on. If Mancub forgets his flip folder, only God can help him now. He fails inspection and is in deep crap. If he fails his inspection too many times, doesn’t learn his music, leaves his horn behind somewhere–he risks the very fires of hell. Ok not really but close. He will at the very least be called out in front of the band, lose points, or have to do a superfun chore like cleaning up the band hall after 300 or so of his closest, sweaty friends have been hanging out after practice. If too many slip-ups happen then the unspeakable happens. Ok I’ll speak it.There’s a B-list of band kids that for one reason or another don’t get to march and sit on the sidelines waiting for a spot to open up. Nothing is quite as embarrassing to lose your spot. You still have to come to everything and march on the sidelines but you don’t actually get to perform.
Ouch.
4. You must pass to play. You can’t fail a class while in band. If you do, you are automatically B-listed and you miss out on the fun trips the band takes.And you don’t want to miss out, trust me.
5. Friends for a lifetime. I just checked my Facebook and I am still in contact with a great many of my friends from band. In fact, my closest friends Joy, Amy, and Mac (all in my wedding party) have known me longer that my hubby of 25 years. This photo is of Amy and me. She played flute and was on the flag line, but I didn’t hold that against her.

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I sat next to Joy in concert band and marched beside her on the field. My girls, who loved band so much they are going to school to be band directors, tell everyone that if you are in band, it doesn’t matter where you are, what lunch you have, what classes you take because you will always have band kids–friends–there. It makes all the difference to a terrified freshman to know that the first day of high school he’s not gonna be alone. Band kids stick together. And that makes this mama bear feel a lot better about the late nights and long rehearsals. I know he’s in good hands.

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