Instilling White Guilt In Innocent Children
Sweet Southern Boys"Ainsley, are you coming?" Erin McGhee planted her fists on her hips and gave Ainsley an exasperated stare.
Legacy of Fortitude -- Book Twoby Connie Chastain
"I'm finished." Seated at a wooden table under a primitive pavilion on the quadrangle of Silver Pines Day Camp, Ainsley snapped the lid on a plastic tub that held her craft projects. In no hurry, she slid the tub under the table.
"You don't want to go on the canoe picnic, do you?"
Ainsley shrugged. "Not really."
"Me, neither. Nobody does, but we can't back out now."
"I wish we could. I would."
"Me, too. I'm glad this is the last day of camp. This has been the worse camp ever. I'm not coming back next year."
"I won't, either. At least, not if--"
Erin looked at her knowingly "Not if Counselor Nora comes back."
Ainsley nodded solemnly.
The two girls rambled across the grassy quadrangle, past the rustic administration buildings, headed for Juniper Creek, which meandered through the campground and the fields and woodlands that surrounded it. Stifling August heat suffused the air and the girls broke out in a sheen of sweat.
This was Ainsley's fourth year as a Silver Pines camper. Her first session had occurred a year to the month after the dog mauling that had left her traumatized for so long and she hadn't really wanted to go. But her mama had said, "Just go the first day, and if you don't like it, you don't have to go back."
She had loved it from that first day, and looked forward to it every summer. She didn't care for sports and opted out of most, though she enjoyed hiking the nature trails. She much preferred the petting zoo, skits and most of all, crafts.
This year, she had made a mirror with a seashell frame for her mother, a ceramic paperweight for her father's desk at work, and for Shelby a computer diskette storage box decoupaged with bits of construction paper. They sat in her storage tub under the craft table, awaiting the trip home. While she was proud of her creations, she had not enjoyed camp this year. Erin was right; camp had been terrible this summer and the reason was the presence of a new counselor, Nora Weir.
Few if any campers actually liked Counselor Nora, as she preferred to be called.
"Do NOT call me Miss Nora," she'd told the campers on the first day. "Or Miss Weir or Miss Anything. That is a pretentious, saccharine Southernism I will not have applied to me."
She was forever criticizing Southerners as backward hayseeds, though she was careful not to apply those terms to the campers, their families, or anyone they knew. She complained of the heat, the bugs, the critters, and said she'd never had to worry about such things growing up in New England. Almost nothing of Southern culture and tradition, from its prominent religiosity, to family, to food and music, escaped her criticism, although she was very subtle about it.
"She hates our lizards," Ainsley had told Shelby shortly after camp began. "Even the little green ones with the red throats. She says she'd have all the bushes around her apartment cut down if her landlord would let her, cause they're full of 'em'
"Well, that's silly," Shelby replied. "Carolina anoles are some of the purtiest little lizards on the planet."
If the counselor's constant fault-finding wasn't offputting enough, there was the way she looked and acted. Tall and gaunt, with light skin and pale gray eyes, she had wispy, ash-blond hair that she pulled into a pony tail most of the time. One day in the latrine, Ainsley had overheard one of the older campers describe her as cadaverous. Her thin, grating voice, owl-like stare, her stalking gait and general creepiness had caused the campers to nickname her Counselor Weird.
"The canoe picnic wouldn't be so bad," Erin said, "if Miss Jackie or Miss Barbara was in charge. But it's Counselor Nora's project and Lindsey Duncan says she picked all seven of special."
For some reason, that information ratcheted up Ainsley's discomfort and her steps slowed. "I wonder why us..."
"Who cares," Erin said, suddenly impatient. "Look, let's just go and get it over with. It's not that far to the picnic place in the woods. We'll go, eat, come back and then it will be over."
***The four canoes glided single file through the still water. The lead canoe, occupied by Counselor Nora and her buddy for the trip, Joanie Wilson, whom nobody envied, carried a backpack and hard-sided cooler full of picnic items.
On the aft seat of the last canoe, Ainsley glanced over her shoulder as the buildings of Silver Pines disappeared and the forest of ubiquitous slash pines closed in around the creek. Sudden and strong foreboding took Ainsley in its grip and she struggled to suppress it with rationality. Everything would be all right. It was just a canoe trip and picnic. She had done this at least once every year she'd been a camper.
But the notion that everything would be all right gave way to a greater feeling of abnormality when Counselor Nora called, "Everybody stop rowing."
The canoes came to a slow halt and the campers looked at each other curiously. Ainsley heard Erin's low mutter, "We're paddling, not rowing, you stupid woman."
Counselor Nora maneuvered the lead canoe around and paddled back toward the other boats. She stopped at the first one. "I'm going to tether the canoes together in a line, so nobody gets lost."
"No counselor's ever done that," said one of the girls, but Counselor Nora ignored her. As the campers watched with curiosity and a hint of suspicion, she threaded a rope through metal rings at the bow and stern of the canoes and tied them with complicated knots that looked impossible to untie.
"There will be about ten feet of rope separating each canoe, so you don't have to worry about collisions." A corner of her mouth quirked up as if she'd said something cute, but nobody laughed. Her characteristic lack of humor returned immediately and she added, "Everybody still has to paddle. You can't just sit back and let the boats in front pull you along."
With that, she and Joanie paddled back to the lead and the now solemn flotilla got underway again.
The second upset occurred when they approached the Picnic Place in the Woods, as it was known -- which comprised a grassy clearing next to the creek and four wooden picnic tables under shelters like the pavilions on the quadrangle.
Counselor Nora called out to them, "We're not going to have the picnic here. We're going to a special place, so everyone keep rowing."
For a few moments, silence met her announcement, but soon, the plaintiff voice of the youngest camper on the trip, first grader Cindy Jeffcoat, said, "I want to go back to camp now."
The lead canoe rocked slightly as Counselor Nora twisted to look behind her, her face like thunder. "We'll go back after the picnic."
Again, the campers looked at each other in perplexity and their touch of suspicion rose a several notches.
They paddled and paddled. The creek narrowed and widened, curved and straightened. The woods on each side changed character several times, from slash pines shading sawgrass, to palmetto forests beneath live oak canopies. Underbrush of wax myrtles and yaupon holly thickened as the campers paddled deeper into the woods.
The heat was stifling, and not the barest breeze touched the campers. Once, somebody said, "I'm thirsty. I want some water," but Counselor Nora knocked on the lid of a rigid cooler strapped into the lead canoe and said, "There will be plenty of cold water at the picnic."
None of the girls had worn a watch and they lost track of time but it seemed like they'd been gone a long time, and still, Nora pressed them on. Eventually, though, they stopped, simply because they could go no further. A concrete barrier across the creek blocked their progress. A bridge, it looked like. It was too low to paddle under, the bottom edge barely a foot above the water's surface. The canoes drifted as the counselor seemed to consider her options.
"Okay, right back there is where we'll have the picnic," she said. "The clearing beyond that grassy patch of bank we passed a few minutes ago."
Somebody muttered, "I thought we was going to some special place..." but the counselor ignored her. It didn't take long before they reached the grassy bank, and pulled the canoes ashore.
"Everybody find a place to sit," Counselor Nora ordered.
The grass ended a few feet from the creek and the clearing was hot and dusty. A fallen tree provided seating for most, but Ainsley didn't join them. Beside her, Lindsey Duncan, the oldest at fourteen, muttered, "Looks snaky to me," and Ainsley whispered, "Me, too."
"Let's sit here," Lindsey said, sotto voce, and they sat on the seats of the nearest canoe as Counselor Nora lugged the cooler, backpack and a camp stool, to the middle of the clearing. She saw them as she set the cooler down and ordered sharply, "Get out of the boat."
"There's no other place to sit," Lindsey said defiantly. She and Ainsley remained where they were as the counselor passed out bottles of water. There evidently wasn't much ice in the cooler, because the water was not cold. It was cool, however, and wet, and the thirsty campers guzzled it down.
"Before I hand out the food, I want to tell you all something." She opened the stool and sat down to face them. "I brought you out here for a lesson. A history lesson about the place and the people where you live."
The campers exchanged perplexed looks.
"You probably don't know it," the counselor droned in her grating voice, "because this place strives assiduously, and successfully, to distance itself from its evil past, but before the Civil War, Yancy County was plantation country. Cotton plantations. Where the masters owned slaves who worked the fields. You think it's hot here, today, in the woods? You should try being a slave and picking cotton by hand, in the merciless sun, no shade, no rest, no water... And if you don't do it fast enough to suit the master... you get whipped to within an inch of your life."
The campers had gone stock still, their eyes wide. Little Cindy quavered, "I wanna go back now."
"Me too," somebody whispered, Ainsley wasn't sure who, and someone else muttered, "What kinda picnic is this?"
"I told you," Counselor Nora said, her pale eyes gleaming with malice. "A history picnic. You're going to learn about slavery, because your vaunted Southern white privilege system won't teach you about it." She paused to reach into the cooler and pulled out small take-out boxes of white cardboard and handed them out. "Don't open them until everybody has one."
When they were all distributed, she said, "Okay, open your food."
Ainsley opened her box. Inside was a small square of moldy, crumbling cornbread and a half-pint carton of buttermilk. She didn't say anything but the "Gross!" and "Oh, yuck!" and similar outbursts from the other campers echoed her feelings.
"This is slave food, and you have to eat it so you'll get just a tiny taste of the miserable lives they lived. Oh, you don't have to eat it all. Just one bite and one sip."
The campers stared at her, dumbstruck. "Where's our sandwiches and chips and cokes?" Erin demanded.
"You don't get it, do you, McGhee? That is your picnic lunch and we're not going back until every last one of you takes at least one bite and one sip. You don't have to eat it right now, because I still have lots of history to tell you. But you will eat it before we leave."
A few of the campers took tentative nibbles of the cornbread. Others sipped the lukewarm buttermilk. Gagging and gurgling punctuated the heat-filled air. Little Cindy threw up.
Incredibly, Counselor Nora gazed at Cindy with a touch of satisfaction in her cadaverous eyes, and swept them across her charges with annoyance while she waited for them to quiet down.
Then, in great detail, she told them lurid tales of whippings and rapes during slavery times in Yancey County, and of lynchings and murders after emancipation. She spent most of the time relating the details of a particularly horrible lynching spree in the 1920s -- a dreadful episode that included the hanging a pregnant woman and the grisly murder of her unborn child.
"All because evil white Southerners were so full of hatred," Nora finished. "And you still are. Every one of you girls had ancestors in Verona back then. You are as responsible for the lynchings and murder as they were, because their blood is in you, there hatred is in you. It's time you all learned about the evil history your culture keeps from you. It's time for you to get in touch with your inner race-hater."
She stood and strolled to a nearby slash pine more than a foot in diameter and slapped the bark.
"Imagine that this tree is your plantation whipping post. And imagine that one of your trouble-making slaves, stripped to the waist, is tied to it."
She stepped to the backpack, reached inside and brought out at coil of leather. The campers stared at it, aghast.
"Who wants to volunteer to whip the slave? I know you're scared at the idea right now -- or you're pretending to be. But once you start, you'll really get into it. Antebellum Southerners enjoyed beating their slaves the way northerners enjoyed a Shakespeare play at the theater. So it'll come to you. Who wants to go first?"
Horror descended on Nora's captive audience as she paced in front of them, and they began to sob softly.
An ominous feeling such as she'd never known overcame Ainsley and filled her with paralyzing dread. This was not the terror of attack by an animal ruled by instinct, but the terror of sheer human malevolence. She tried to block out the macabre images Counselor Nora's words put in her mind, but they were impossible to escape. Nausea from the cornbread and buttermilk she had choked down compounded her distress.
Nora stopped her talking and pacing in front of the canoe where Ainsley and Lindsey sat.
"Kincaid, here. You lead off."
Ainsley recoiled and let out a soft, anguished wail.
"Weak as well as wicked," Nora grated. "Get up!"
She grabbed Ainsley's upper arm, pulled her to her feet and shoved her toward the tree. She thrust the whip toward her.
"Show us how your ancestors did it. Show us how they whipped slave mothers and lynched the babies of freedmen...for no reason except hatred of their black skin. Take the whip, Kincaid. You know it's in you to do it. Now show us."
Staring at the whip, Ainsley took a step back, wiping her hands on her shorts. She raised her panicked eyes to the malevolent entity Nora had become and swept them across the other campers, who stared back at her in terror.
"No!" Ainsley screamed. She took off into the woods, blinded by tears, running as fast as her legs would carry her.
She was vaguely aware of Counselor Nora and the other campers calling her name, begging her to come back, but their voices grew fainter as she ran deeper into the dusty woods, and finally faded away into the stifling air.