September 2013

R. Clifton Spargo

features

An Interview with Tim Parrish

Tim Parrish's new memoir Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist is all about fear -- specifically, the many unfounded fears that perpetuate racism and xenophobia in American politics. It's also one of the bravest books you'll read this year. Of course, one person's "That's brave of you" is another person's "You'd never catch me taking such a stupid risk." In the seven years it took Parrish to conceive and compose this memoir, more than a few people (count me among them) have admired his guts, determination, chutzpah, whatever you want to call it, because there aren't many writers out there willing to speak this honestly -- and with such refreshing humility -- about their past selves.

This is a memoir detailing a white Southern teenager's struggle, from the age of thirteen through seventeen, with his own "heart of darkness." A young Parrish finds himself attracted to racism as the answer to the trials of a vulnerable youth. Parrish's father (whom he tenderly calls "Daddy" throughout the memoir) is a hard-nosed Christian, a local plant worker who worships his wife and tries to lift his family of three boys up in the world. Daddy makes distinctions between black people and "niggers," but never once doubts (as far as young Timmy can see) the racial codes of segregation. Timmy's mother falls ill with a disease eventually diagnosed as lupus; he himself has to have a chest operation that leaves him wide open to injury during a brutal fistfight with a local white thug who pulls a knife on him. And through it all, Timmy tries to lives up to his father's code of manliness and the stiff-lipped, lead-with-your-fist toughness of two older brothers, one of whom serves in Vietnam and comes back a troubled man who will eventually be diagnosed with PTSD.

Through a variety of teenage trials -- including anecdotes about athletic misfortunes at the hands of bullying coaches that provide an antidote to the tiresome triumph-through-athletics take on the Horatio Alger formula of most sports storytelling -- Parrish becomes gradually obsessed with the fact that blacks are encroaching on his neighborhood. He soon comes under the guidance of a charismatic fear-mongering, race-baiting mentor named Dyer, and thereafter pursues his own road to ruin. Fear and What Follows features race riots at football games and at school, one of which Parrish helps incite.

This memoir is partly the story of an era and a culture. It's about growing up a white Southern Baptist in the era of Civil Rights activism, about the extreme responses to desegregation by whites who felt the ground on which they stood to be receding beneath them. As the young Parrish gives in to and alternately pulls back from his impulses toward racism, he often accuses himself "for not having acted like what some call a man." In that sense, this story of the making and unmaking of a racist self also serves as a universal tale about how codes of masculinity are intimately linked to aggression and violence. Even years later, Parrish seems at something of a loss to understand what exactly it was that kept him from plunging all the way inside the cycle of retaliatory white-on-black and black-on-white violence he witnessed all around him.

Exactly how does one begin to write a memoir such as Fear and What Follows, so dauntless in its exploration of personal history? Not many people have the guts to stand up and confess, "I used to be a racist, used to hang with brutal young racists." What made you realize you had to write this story, that it was a story others needed to hear?

I really don't think of myself as having "the guts to stand up and confess," even though I appreciate your saying it and a lot of people have said similar things. I felt compelled, both personally and artistically, actually compelled, to tell my story, and I feel a certain relief at having wrestled with my racist and fearful experience, despite the anxiety I feel about the reactions I'm going to get. I know I'm a little off track, but I also wouldn't say that I was a racist, as if it can be cured, but would say instead that I'm a struggling, self-aware person still wired for racism. The deep indoctrination will always be in me, and I have to routinely deconstruct it.

It's not just your struggle, though, is it? You conclude the memoir's prologue by saying that when the Bush administration exploited the nation's post-9/11 fear to lead us into the Iraq War, all the issues of your youth came rushing to the surface, demanding to be spoken. Were you hoping that your own soul searching might help readers search their souls to understand the ways in which we're hardwired as a nation for racism?

At some level, I hope the book will cause readers to soul search, but I'm not optimistic that will happen. I believe that most white people who read this book will have already done some self-examination or will believe they don't need to because they don't consider themselves to have any racist wiring or reactions. American culture, for the most part, discourages true investigation because racism is presented as, pardon me, a black-or-white issue rather than an issue that exists along a spectrum. It's convenient to think of racists as people who go around spouting hate and wearing white hoods, rather than as complicated, flawed people. It's also easier to condemn and ostracize people with a sort of purity test, rather than recognize that lots of whites -- of my generation, at least -- were raised with some degree of racist indoctrination and then examine how that indoctrination still influences us and most of our institutions. So, I guess two things work against honest conversation: one, if people admit to having racist thoughts, they're generally condemned or forgiven after an apology and we move on; and two, examining and deconstructing how deeply-instilled racism affects one's thinking at many levels is hard work.

Which brings to mind the 2012 shooting of the unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and the summer 2013 acquittal of his assailant George Zimmerman on the rationale of "Stand Your Ground" laws. Talk about fear and what follows. As someone who deeply examined his own fears in a manner George Zimmerman seemingly failed to do, how did you respond to the case? Does your memoir offer us ways to process what happened on the day of the shooting or at the trial itself?

First, people should read about another Florida case that my friend Paul Solotaroff wrote for Rolling Stone. It's equally horrifying. Frankly, I wasn't surprised at all by the verdict, and, to state what a lot of people have already said, I thought the unfolding coverage of the case was a vivid template of how many people think about black men. I mean, if that'd been a white kid, would anyone have brought up his "criminal" past and the fact that he was wearing a hoodie? The closest thing I can think of was when the Columbine murderers' Goth clothes received attention, but those clothes would have never been an issue had one of the murderers been a victim. I had a really interesting thing happen with a friend who is African-American, a longtime activist, and a lawyer, and who has personally been the target of lots of racial bullshit. He and I were talking about the case, and he told how when the first reports of Martin's clothes and his past came out, he himself started wondering if Martin had somehow been to blame. He was mortified when he caught himself. It just shows how deeply programmed we are by our culture to be suspicious of black men.

As for my memoir, it certainly shows how deeply set fears in me and most of the white people around me led to racism, and even how the actions incited by those fears led to the outcomes we were most afraid of. But I don't think my book can specifically show people how to trace the trajectory of their own racism. I think you just have to investigate what generalizations and assumptions form a particular belief. Doing that requires careful logic, focus, and an openness to understanding the specific rather than the general, as well as separating actual danger from paranoia based on prejudice. I've found that trying to encourage people to do that is often entering the realm of the non sequitur. For instance, just the other day, my plumber and I started talking about the Martin case. I brought up how the problem began when Zimmerman assumed this kid was dangerous and started following him under that assumption. My plumber just shifted and said, "What I want to know is why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton only open their mouths when something happens to black people." For him it was the end of a long, hot day in people's basements dealing with their pipes. What incentive and energy did he have to dissect his psyche or enter such a complex discussion?

Yes, often the incentives work the other way, don't they? One of the things so compelling to me about your memoir is its portrait of a young male adolescent psyche before anything is definitively formed. You show us a boy, Timmy, who can raise his hand to vote for integrating his all-white Baptist church when practically no one else in the congregation does; then you stage the drama of a slowly hardening, fearful teen who comes under the sway of a charismatic young racist mentor if only to protect himself against his own vulnerabilities. When a young Tim gets caught up in a series of fights, he's drawn gradually into escalating violence against his will. Remembering that ever-present threat of new violence, you speak for your young self, in a beautiful phrase, saying, "I faced it over and over without facing it." That could almost be a definition of fear. Would you go so far as to define male adolescence -- at least in a certain context, in a certain era, say, white Baton Rouge in the early 1970s -- as a rite of fear?

"Rite of fear" is very smart and definitely resonates with me, mostly in the sense that I constantly felt off balance in my belief that I was failing at being a man or masculine (the original title of the book was Southern Man), a "defender of my culture" (whatever that was), and a Christian. So, everything I did and thought was underpinned with fear of failing, of being ostracized or of losing both materially and spiritually. And of course my understanding of what constituted the things I list above made them mutually exclusive and, as a result, impossible to reconcile.

That original title, Southern Man, is presumably after Neil Young's 1970 song in which he denounces the racism of white Southern Christians. What role did Christianity play in your descent into fearful bigotry -- was it pulling you back from or leading you to the gates of racism? 

I think Christ's teachings about tolerance and forgiveness had a deep, positive effect on me, and stay with me today, even though I'm no longer a Christian. So Christianity, at its best, led me toward my better self. Religion, though, and my churches in particular -- despite a lot of loving, good people who attended -- were toxic and confusing. In addition to the overt racism of voting to exclude blacks from our services, there was the constant focus on the threat of the ever increasing other and the need for war to protect Christian, uh, values. Yeah, the crusades! Even as a kid, I couldn't reconcile Jesus's teachings about love and turning the other cheek with what seemed an almost fetishistic embrace of the Book of Revelation and the insistent condemnation of just about every other religion (except for Methodists, who evidently were too tepid to attack, and I'm not making this up). I just felt pulled in two, and my desire to have some inner peace through fitting in with the worst impulses of the church while at the same time wanting to reject those impulses and be a "true Christian" made me, ironically, a violent and violently conflicted person.

So in your own eyes at the time, were you a "good Christian" following, as Young puts it, "what your good book says"?

No. I was always torn. The line about the "good book" is a big reason I was interested in using Young's song as the title. But I also liked the title itself because the book's main focus when I began was what it means to be masculine in the culture I grew up in, and what I still see as the predominant American male culture. That's still a large part of what my book is about. I have to add, though, that originally I wanted to use both Young's verse and a verse from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" ("I hope Neil Young will remember / a Southern Man don't need him around") as epigraphs to show the defiance we had toward anyone judging us. My experience was, turn the other cheek all you want, but duality is going to slap you repeatedly on both sides.

Fear and What Follows is all about the difficulty of changing patterns of thought, and I could refer in closing to Augustine's Confessions -- there are affinities with that greatest of all memoirs -- but instead turn to The Inferno because, just like Dante, you have the counsel of a friend named Virgil, in this case a talented black basketball player with whom Tim remains friendly during his most bigoted days. Was that the kid's real name?

I'm blushing from just the mention of those writers so close to my name. As for Virgil, no, that's not his real name. I invented Virgil Birch as a play on an actual name and didn't realize the implications of using "Virgil" until I was well in, so I'll give my subconscious some unearned credit.

Was your Virgil a guide through your own personal hell? And if so, I can't help asking in closing: Can you be a racist and have a genuine friendship with a black man?

I suppose the answer about genuine friendship with Virgil is yes and no, with the "genuine" aspect being the catch. I loved Virgil and saw him as a guide with his good humor, his easy insight, his loyalty and forgiveness as a friend, and his patience in helping me get better as a basketball player. However, I was always trying to hide a part of myself, and I was constantly distancing myself at some level because I was afraid of the ramifications having a black friend would have. I think, in some ways, and this is not really news, that fear has always been an issue in black-white relationships in America, meaning that people often tamp down or deny their real affection in order to fit into a code of social behavior and sometimes to literally stay safe. And for a racist there's the dissonance between the dehumanizing generalization and the fact of an actual person of color whom one respects, admires, and trusts. But back to Virgil: I'll always be indebted to him because in his gentle way, he called me out for following my worst self and implied what I already knew but wasn't willing to accept -- that I was acting like an asshole and stripping the wings of my better angels.