I had the great privilege of being born in a rural part of one of the poorest parts of the poorest state in the United States of America, during a period one might legitimately call reconstruction. Some might not call that a privilege. I can understand that. It was not a particularly good time for folks of any color in Mississippi, especially rural folks.
I had the privilege of going to public schools during integration in the 70s here in Mississippi. I had the privilege of seeing that the riotous bedlam that other parts of the nation experienced mostly did not occur here in East Mississippi, such as the schools in Boston experienced. I was glad I had the privilege of living in a place that was not so inhospitably cold as Boston, but more hospitably warm like Lauderdale County, Mississippi, where the whole integration process seemed to me to come with but few difficulties. I’m sure there were more than a few, but I was privileged to be too young to be cognizant of them.
I enjoyed privileges of social status some of my peers did not have, if one can call them that. Divorces weren’t so common then, but my brother and I were raised by our single mother, who actually had a second husband who turned out to be an alcoholic abuser, which enabled me the privilege of seeing what happens to a family when the father figure turns out to be filled with so many demons that he was not much of a role model or guide to anyone growing up, much less a pre-teen given to books and music, and not inclined to deer hunting, stock car racing, and Alabama football. I was privileged to learn that if one is of no use to an ego-centric alcoholic that one would be ignored even to the point of not so much as a hello. I was privileged to witness the destructiveness of philandery and alcohol in a family, and to watch my mother struggle, successfully, to maintain her dignity and raise her sons right in a very small community that sometimes knew more about her business than she did.
There were others far more privileged than me. They drove late model cars that others had purchased for them. They went to private schools so as not to have to fraternize with those who were not similar. They wore nicer clothes purchased from all the right places, and sometimes I got their hand-me-downs, but not too often, since they sometimes thought their hand-me-downs were too fine for me and my brother to wear. We were kept at a safe distance: close enough to be enticed to a slight envy, but far enough away to be unrecognizable, like an addled elderly aunt kept out of public view in a William Faulkner novel. We didn’t really mind all that much. We just noted that others had things that we didn’t have, yet we had the privilege of believing that we never lacked for anything we really needed. We seemed to always have enough. We were privileged like that.
No one bought me or my brother a car. We bought such as we could ourselves. They weren’t much, but we were fiercely proud of them and the independence they gave us when we could keep them running. We worked odd jobs to pay for them and their upkeep: in hay fields, tending to cows, building fences, mending fences, helping to clear new pasture land, and helping granddaddy tend to his garden, or hand mixing concrete in a mortar box for some foundation for some project only Granddaddy could envision. I was privileged to be able to work in the woods on a logging equipment maintenance crew on the weekends. We’d grease skidders and bull dozers, change the oil, fix truck tires, and steam clean equipment so nasty that I’d come home looking like a coal miner, the whites of my eyes the only thing visible beneath a layer of grime. Muddy grease was my covering instead of coal dust. Mother would make me undress on the back porch, refusing to let me enter the house in my filthiness. I was privileged that we had an old wringer washer that you could fill with boiling water and let it run continuously until the clothes were clean, or as clean as they would get, being nearly waterproof, impervious to moisture with all the oil and the grease.
I was privileged to get stitches more than a few times, and even learned what happens when one drops a running steam cleaner nozzle down one’s boot, suffering 3rd degree burns from the boiling water, and privileged to be able to keep my foot after a malevolent infection and a couple of rebellious skin grafts gone bad. I am privileged to still have that foot today.
I was privileged to be able to occasionally ask Mr. Thomas Miller at Miller’s Grocery in Lauderdale to allow me to buy some gasoline on credit, and privileged to learn from him the urgency of paying back promptly what one has borrowed, for Mr. Thomas did not like slackers. You were going to pay him on time whether you could afford to or not. It was a great privilege he extended to me by giving me this lesson. I think he did it on purpose. I am still thankful for that. It was a privilege, really.
I used to run out of gas on a regular basis and was privileged to have Luther Ray Cobb as a neighbor. Luther Ray was in the construction business and lived about four miles from us, but four miles to country-folk makes for close neighbors. Out of gas on the side of the road, or road-sided because of a blown out slick tire, Luther Ray would be coming along directly. He’d have some gas, or a working jack, perhaps even a tire that would fit, but if nothing else, he always had a ride home. Every time I hear of someone running out of gas, I have the privilege of recalling the late Luther Ray, and how many, many times he assisted this poor boy, who had no idea that he was poor. I really wasn’t poor, you see, since the whole world was mine. Though many of the things in it might not be mine, still the world belonged to me.
If our cars broke down, we had the privilege of fixing them ourselves. We had the privilege of helping each other, sometimes, too. We had the privilege of finding and paying for our own repair parts. Mother helped us by paying for our liability insurance. “You may not think this is much now, but one day you’ll better understand what I did to help you,” she told us. She was right: it didn’t seem like much then, but I was grateful for it nevertheless. Now I do understand exactly what she did to help us, having had teenage drivers on my own auto insurance. What a fine privilege she blessed us with!
I had the great privilege of learning that things belonging to others were not mine to help myself to without asking. Some of my friends never got that privilege. Some of them helped themselves to the things that belonged to others,which might be called stealing by some. Mama would have whipped me with a singletree if I had done so. I was privileged to have a mother that would discipline me in whatever manner she thought would get her point across in a permanent way. Some of my friends never had that privilege. From her I had the privilege of learning that while I may not know exactly who another item belonged to, I could instantly and adamantly assure myself that it did not belong to me.
I remember a couple of incidents at school where some of my peers got into trouble with the school administrators. I remember their parents coming to the school to raise a stink about how their children were being treated unfairly, that their children never did anything wrong, that their children were not capable of stealing, cheating on a test, smoking cigarettes in the restroom, or skipping school: that the school officials must all be wrong and their angelic Johnny or cherubic Susie were right, and damn them all for thinking otherwise. Those kids were tragically underprivileged to have parents like that. On the other hand, my brother and I were privileged to have a mother was so staid and old-fashioned that she would not for a moment entertain the idea that the school principal had taken time out of his busy day just to call her on the phone to report lies about her sons. Mother would have yanked us out to the car by our ears, believing, solely on their word, that everything said about us was true.
When she got us home, she would demand, “Now you tell me exactly what happened. And I want every word of the truth.” We were privileged like that, knowing that we’d better give her the straight-up story, and not prevaricate or otherwise favorably place the slightest sheen of oily varnish on the truth, else we’d be seen through. Mama could catch a lie before it hardly got moving. If I could have caught fish like Mama could catch a lie, we’d have had fried catfish nearly every night rather than canned salmon or tins of corned beef. We were privileged to learn to like the taste of canned salmon and tins of corned beef. We were privileged to learn to like the taste of anything that was set before us, though I could hardly abide rutabagas, and still to this day don’t like them. I will eat them if someone cooks them for me. Fortunately, no one invites you over to their house and then serves rutabagas. It is a great privilege that rutabagas are not served often.
Granddaddy always had a job for us, but there was August sweat and wearying labor involved. I had the privilege of learning to work hard, and the invaluable privilege of working alongside my granddaddy, for he never simply sent us to work…he went with us and worked alongside us. He was very demanding in the pace of the work and how he wanted it done….exactly how he wanted it done, down to the minutest detail which sometimes seemed ridiculous to me in all my limited experience….but it was a great privilege to learn to work for a demanding boss, since in the everyday world we sometimes have demanding bosses we must satisfy or we’ll soon be unemployed. Unless we have a nice, cushy federal government job, working instead in the private sector, we must be productive for the company we work for and suffer demanding bosses all our working lives. Only governments seem to offer the privilege of combining ineffectiveness and incompetence with tenure, promotions, raises, bonuses and paid administrative leave. Granddaddy offered no such thing. It was produce or go home. It was a great privilege to learn that at an early age. It has not been forgotten.
I had the great privilege of being mentored and challenged by several wonderful teachers who had the duty to teach me. It was not their privilege, but mine. They were demanding. They made me respect them, and later, after having earned my respect, it was my privilege and duty to extend it freely to them. They taught me critical thinking and the ability to express myself through a love of words that brightens life every day. The privilege of public schools brought me this, but some, I fear, did not fare as well as me. I was privileged with an inquisitive mind and a thirst for knowledge. Others seemed more privileged to get the hell out of there as quick as possible, with as little effort as possible. I still know some of them,today. They seem to enjoy the same privileges.
It has always been my privilege to enjoy wherever I happened to be, to be able to see the good side of nearly any experience, though some are far darker than others. The dark ones were my privilege to experience because they taught me something about myself that I otherwise would not have learned, persistence being one of those things.
I had the unsurpassed privilege to know and love Lela Miller and her husband, Charlie Bell. Lela was my grandmother’s maid. It was certainly a privilege to have a maid, but it was not an uncommon one in the 1950s and 60s South. One of Lela’s chores was to keep up with and look after a five year old boy while doing her other duties. Lela would tan my bottom if I did not mind her; she did not have to wait for my mother to do so, though mother was apt to reinforce Lela’s discipline. I loved Lela. She loved me. She loved us all. I would have had the great privilege of loosening a couple of teeth of anyone who had dared to use a racial slur around Lela while in my presence.
Lela seemed to enjoy the privilege of being employed. She never missed work except the time that Charlie Bell had had a major stroke. I remember all of us going down to the hospital and holding hands with Charlie Bell and each other and praying for the Lord to heal and restore him. He was one of the kindest and most gentle men I have ever known. It was a great privilege to learn the strength and dignity of humility from Charlie Bell Miller, perhaps the best, most vivid example of a true Christian I have ever known.
When Charlie Bell passed away, there were no dry eyes. Everyone who had had any contact with him considered it a great privilege to have known him. I remember being seated at the rear of the “Colored” funeral home, which was what we called it at the time. I remember being treated with courtesy there. I never expected to sit on the front row, though Lela sat on the front row as many a member of my family was buried. I don’t know if she considered that a privilege, but we considered it our privilege and duty to have her there, and our privilege that she accepted. I was privileged to eat Lela’s Collard greens and cornbread. I’ve never had any that tasted better since.
Lela taught me to be a performer and to play the guitar. She taught me to sing with all my heart. She built me shoe box guitars with which one could make music. She’d sing harmony with me, Tube Rose snuff dripping from the corners of her mouth. It was my privilege to see this. It was also my privilege to be taught by Lela how to write my name, and at nap time to lay my head on the handmade dark green velvet pillow she made just for me, with my name embroidered in orange thread. How I miss that pillow. I have often wondered what happened to it, though so vivid it is in my memory it seems like it’s still here.
It was also my privilege that one of my teachers was Mary Chaney Taylor, who taught biology. Mrs. Taylor was the sister of James Chaney, of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. Mrs. Taylor also taught my best friend, Jetson Neal, who was the stepson of Lawrence Rainey, the sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, during the Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney incident. I was privileged to have been too young when all that happened, but everyone loved Mrs. Taylor, and Jetson was everyone’s best friend. I was privileged to know Lawrence Rainey, but only as a youngster knows a friend of the family. Mr. Rainey was always kind to me, always tolerant of me, which is about all any child expects from an adult. The other things, the bad things, I was privileged not to learn about until I became much older, though in hindsight is was a privilege to see how gracefully everyone handled this…how courteously. What they thought about all of it in their heart of hearts was likely much different than their faces revealed, but I was too young to know anything more than I did. Now that I am older, I have my own, more realistic ideas, but am privileged not to have to share them beyond what I have already shared. I will share this, though: We all harbor unspeakable things in our hearts…but we can govern our actions so that we can triumph over the worst of our human failings. The Lord warned Cain and told him he could triumph over the darkness in his heart. Cain chose otherwise. It was his privilege to choose. He chose poorly, as I recall.
I was privileged to be born who I am. It’s just as well as I am completely incapable of doing anything about it. Some are born one way, into one family, in one nation, in one place, and some are born another. That I was not born into the Royal Windsors is not a cause for mourning for me. At times, it seems a pox on them. Some are born to privileges I cannot imagine. I do not envy them. What purpose would it serve?
And unabashedly, I was privileged to be born in The United States of America, which I think is an exceptional nation. Apparently others think so, too, in that they risk life and limb to come here and enjoy the freedoms we know as rights in America, which are not privileges, but rights we hold by virtue of being human beings and not by the benevolence of government. Immigrants come here by the millions, not because they think their lives will be worse, but because they think they can make their lives better. What a privilege it is to be a part of this great nation.
As for me, I admit my Southern, white, evangelical Christian, conservative maleness. Some of that I am by culture, some by inheritance, some by biological necessity, and some by choice, or reinforced by choice. If you expect me to apologize for that, then that is a privilege you can have no expectation of achieving.
If you expect me to check it at the door, like an overcoat not needed in a room in which someone else has furnished the heat, then you are expecting me to be something different than what I am. If you expect me to be victimized by those things with which I have been privileged, then you are expecting a victim where there is none, for I am no one’s victim, though some seem to claim victimhood as a privilege, and wear it as a badge. I do not envy them. I wish they’d check their victim status and get on with their life. Granted, it is easier for some than others, but those who would prefer keeping victims enslaved to victimhood to enhance their own privilege are a nefarious lot in my opinion, and spreading like crabgrass in a neglected lawn.
Privilege? It is my privilege to share this with you in this manner. It is likely your vexation to read it. By this point, you are on board, or you are furious. If you are furious, you can check your fury. If you are outraged, you can check your outrage. If you feel victimized by my apathy of another’s desire to have me prune my privilege, you mistake gratefulness for apathy, for my gratefulness extends to those things I comprehend, and another’s anger over their perception of my privilege is not among them.
I have more than the privilege: I have the right to say this, and say it here in this wonderful nation where men can still forge their own path if they are determined enough. It is that very thing that keeps the world beating a path to our borders and our shores, hoping for the privilege of becoming part of something which is truly their privilege and not their right. The entire world does not have the right to expect to become Americans, but some obtain the privilege and work it like a rented mule.
I have the duty to treat you with the common courtesy and respect due to every human being. It is your right to receive that from me, and my privilege to extend it to you, unless you think it means that I must leave my essence behind and adapt some falsity concocted by those I think are smart enough to not really believe what it is they claim to believe. If that is true, then who are they serving? Me? You? Or themselves? I will serve the absolute truth wherever I can find it, and I will use every privilege available to me to find it, then cling fast once found.
Absolute truth? Oh, Yes. It is out there, and I will not rest until I have apprehended its un-relative essence, or better, until its un-relative essence has apprehended me.
“He’s unmalleable,” said one.
“Immoveable,” said another, pointing his finger at me as I passed by, whispering to the members of his party, perhaps afraid I’d hear. But I heard anyway.
Unmalleable? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s likely that you’re gonna need a bigger hammer.
Immoveable? Not at all, but a fulcrum floating like a cork on the surface of troubled water anchors no lever. It is likely you’ll need stronger foundation, and then a longer lever for maximum mechanical advantage.
“But, can he be persuaded?” asked someone to the observers.
“Those types can never be persuaded,” said the group leader.
“It helps if you are persuasive,” someone in the back of the group volunteered, dropping further back in a flurry of hisses and opprobrium from his own group.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit since I first heard the phrase, “Check your privilege.” I’ve checked my privilege, and it is still there. I check it like I check my oil in my car engine. It is critical to my vision of myself, and serving me as well as it did when it helped me to grasp the idea of who I am. I think, rather, that those who demand I check my privilege should check their premise. I am thankful for my privilege. I acknowledge my privilege. I refuse, however, to apologize for it.
I’d just as soon apologize for breathing air.
©2015 Mississippi Chris Sharp