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A Confused Southern White Boy Becoming What He Oughtn’t

December 13, 2011
michael johnson
Body paragraph

Brookhaven, Savannah, Griffin, Amarillo, 2008, and Obama 2011


My father, born in 1908, grew up in Brookhaven, MS, a small town of 8,000 or so, on a block with 44 first cousins. Since my mother was an immigrant from poverty in Ireland, this was the family I identified as my ‘ancestors.’ Every summer in my childhood we went from our home in Amarillo, TX “back home” to Brookhaven for two or three weeks. Once, when I was 8 that would be about 1950 several years before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, I was walking down a street in the downtown with my deep Southern aunt and uncle. At one point I got into staring at 3 or 4 ‘Negroes’ walking down the sidewalk toward us. As they neared they veered, stepped off the sidewalk, and passed us walking in the gutter. In my innocent shock, I turned after they passed and saw them step back up on the sidewalk and continue on their way. My aunt was pulling on my arm, saying, “Michael, don’t be looking back, now, you hear.”

Don’t see things as if they are odd; you might think things you oughtn’t.


A few years later, as the Civil Rights Movement was underway in the late ‘50s, our trips “back home” had an added feature. My parents were liberal Democrats while our kinfolk back home weren’t like that at all. Some, like my aunt who told me not to look back, were passionate members of the local White Citizens Council. So, as our family—mother, father, four boys—neared the Mississippi River on our way from Amarillo, Texas and through Louisiana, my parents began talking about how ‘we’ were different, how ‘they’ disagreed with and couldn’t understand ‘us’, so ‘we’ don’t want to get into discussions with ‘them’ about ‘civil rights’ and ‘negroes’. That’s just going to upset them, and make things messy.

Hmmm. Talking amongst ourselves about not talking with others. My parents opening up all those things I thought I/we oughtn’t. A deep divide of otherness within the family. Which family? Just ‘us’ Johnsons and McGraths? Just us ‘whites’? Or some bigger family, like “all God’s children”? Confusing questions for such a young mind.


I was radicalized by civil rights, King, Vietnam, Dylan, Beatles, etc. Not only thinking and doing what I oughtn’t, but becoming what I oughtn’t. Nothing, however, pierced me as deeply and as intimately as John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. I knew of all those people and all those scenes from in the tissues of my flesh, in the recesses of my heart. From there I knew he was telling it like it was, out there and deep inside me. The water hoses and dogs and swamp murders were horrifying, bone chilling. But Griffin cut to my marrow because he went and actually did, lived out what he/we shouldn’t even ever have talked about, or thought about. His action busted my confusion at the deepest levels. This wasn’t stuff we should dare just to think about or talk about, or even get riled up about. This was about how I/we decide how I/we want to live our lives.

Griffin was living where I/we divide up life where there is no division because we are so divided within and against ourselves.


Around 2006, I visited Savannah, GA, seeing a good friend Sue Patrice, my son Dan, and his fiancé Chrissy. On my first day I walked about and ended up standing alone on what use to be, before all the suburban sprawl had developed, Savannah’s main street. I just looked up and down for a while. Gradually, eerily, I began seeing through to its past, back 50+ years, getting images so like what I remember of Brookhaven in those days.

A few days later I was in awe.

It began with sitting in the garden of a coffee house with Dan and Chrissy, surrounded by the backs of buildings. Quiet, gently cool, darkening slightly. Then this musical roar broke into the scene with a booming base. As if someone nearby and above had opened their windows and turned their sound system up full volume. After 5 or 10 minutes we decided this was enough and left. Outside across the street was one end of Savannah’s equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. We were headed to the other end. The music was much louder but clearer, less noisy. “Oh, there’s an outside concert,” I realized. I wasn’t feeling bombarded now.

I started to circle out toward the street to get outside and beyond the crowd that was building up. Dan and Chrissy kept going inward, into the crowd and the scene, so I joined. Finally, we were able to see the front of the stage. Good lord! It was James Brown and his group wailing away with all they had. One hour of great music followed in the midst of a fully integrated black and white crowd bumping and grinding, hugging and dancing the whole time.

At one point a young, quite drunk white woman was dancing and whooping it up. She lost her balance and fell backwards into a picnic laid out by a black family. They all struggled from their sitting positions to catch her before she hit the ground. Then they were up helping her and fussing over her.

Oh my god! Unfucking believable! This was a scene nobody, and I mean nobody, from anywhere 50 years ago could have imagined happening in a Savannah, Georgia. And there I was surrounded and penetrated by all of this in this park in the heart of Savannah with James Brown wailing, in this different world that had emerged over the past 50+ years, realizing, so joyfully, that indeed we had done some remarkable, really remarkable things to get here. But get here we did.

Or did we?


The election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to say, “Yes, we did!” I remember walking home from the Staten Island ferry just before the election. Wonderful autumn day. It was the first time I let it dawn on me that, yes, Obama was going to win. How awesome. This triggered memories of Pearl, the black woman who cleaned our upper middle-class house once a week as long I can remember. I remembered driving her home in our big DeSoto shortly after I got my driver’s license, seeing where she lived for the first time, and feeling so uncomfortable because it was impossible to escape realizing there was just something so wrong about this.

Then I was in a fantasy of driving that same car to pick her up at her house to drive her to the polls so she could vote for Obama. It was a means to bridge that great racial divide that is so deeply embedded in my nervous system. And I wept right there in the middle of the street. And I wept seeing Jesse Jackson weep in that park in Chicago when Obama was declared the winner.

Now it is 2011, three years after the election. Three years of bank bailouts, Timothy Gathers, Chris Dodds, catering to the pharmaceutical industry, caving to the no-no Republicans, etc., etc. etc. Clearly, presidents are part and parcel of a system that is owned by the banks and the wealthy. Black (Obama) or white (Clinton, once known as the first “black” president) a presidential has to decide to identify with the elite class and possibly get elected, or to stand against it and not get elected. Obama, Cain, Thomas, etc. demonstrate how being black and citing Martin Luther King doesn’t limit one’s capacity for going along with the systemic exploitation King condemned and targeted. The same is true of women, gays, and other genders.

There is a fundamental choice about being human that only a few of us know how to grasp hold of in a way that can transform them personally. Griffin was one of them. Maybe we can go so far as to claim that until we learn how many of us can achieve this kind of personal transformation, then our patriarchal, top-down cultures will continue to prevail.

Maybe we are still too far away from the deep inner divide out of which we keep dividing ourselves against “the other”. That “other” that—not who—resides so deeply in all of us. That sense of ‘self’ we are so deeply, terribly afraid just isn’t ‘good enough’ in and of itself in any way. Eternally damned no matter what I/we do. If we can heal so much of our racial divide, if, maybe, we can heal the ‘more than enough just ain’t enough’ divide, then maybe, some day, we can, as humans and as a society of humans, get to that horrible fear that we are just rotten to the core no matter how we look, what we have between our legs, or what we have.

But then, maybe it works in reverse. That is, maybe we need to heal that deep gut divide that pits me against me and you against you before we can really heal any of our collective divides.

But then again, maybe we can’t do that without each other.

Fifty plus years later, confusing questions for a mind struggling with what he oughtn’t.

John Howard, thank you so much for your brave, heartfull gift that made clear how crucial it is to look at what one oughtn’t and allow oneself to be disturbed by it.

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