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The Illuminated Cross
By Leah Mueller
*Editor's Note: Originally appeared in the anthology What Does it Mean to be White in America? by 2Leaf Press.
Summer in New Orleans lasts a very long time, especially when you're nineteen and far from home. I lived alone, in a sparsely furnished apartment that was located in the posh Garden District. The view from my bay window was breathtaking. I could see banana trees through the ornate metal porch grating while I lay on my nineteen dollar foam rubber mattress in front of the window and listened to music on my rented stereo. This gave my life a feeling of gentility that it sorely lacked in all other respects.
In the mornings, I took the streetcar to Tulane University. I couldn't afford tuition, but I worked in the cafeteria, filling the salad bar and bussing tables for privileged Southern kids. Often, they screamed at me when a particular vegetable was gone from the salad bar, as though their lives would be ruined due to lack of tomatoes. I raced about the cafeteria in my polyester uniform, carrying plastic tubs filled with condiments, swiping my dirty rag across the surfaces of recently vacated tables, dumping half-eaten trays of food into the enormous trash bins. I was perpetually exhausted, and hungry as well.
In 1978, the population of New Orleans was seventy-five percent African-American, which, for the first time in my life, transformed me into a minority. I'd grown up in a liberal household, and my mother had taught me to be tolerant towards people of other races. Since most of my adolescence was spent in downstate Illinois, I had little contact with non-white folks, and my tolerance was mostly theoretical in nature. I was familiar with the legacies of powerful black women like Rosa Parks and Angela Davis. When I was twelve, I gave a dollar to the “Free Angela” campaign, in exchange for a black and white pin that bore her visage. For several years, I wore the pin on my favorite denim hat, much to the derision of my all-white classmates in downstate Illinois. These kids hailed from solidly Republican farming families, and most of them were virulent racists. I sure as hell wasn't going to be like THEM.
The African-Americans that I saw on the streets of New Orleans bore little resemblance to the heroes of my youth, and this discovery disturbed me greatly. Black women either ignored me or treated me with derision. Black men paid a great deal of attention to me, but it wasn't the sort of attention that I wanted. One afternoon, an exceptionally persistent fellow offered me thirty dollars so he could masturbate while he looked at my ankles. I was terrified by the prospect of such a thing, and he gradually upped his offer to seventy five bucks. Seventy five dollars was a nice little chunk of cash for a few minutes of work, especially in 1978, but I still said no.
White men also hit on me all the time, but black guys were especially persistent, and their efforts to attract my attention were peculiarly aggressive and frightening. I was deeply saddened by this revelation, but that didn't stop them from pestering me. I wanted to say, “But I'm on your side!”, but they wouldn't have cared. All they wanted was the chance to have sex with a white woman.
Life in New Orleans was both depressing and expensive. I couldn't afford my rent, and I contracted a stubborn urinary tract infection. Finally, after several days of cramping, I hauled myself from my mattress and took a bus to Charity Hospital. For nine hours, I filled out forms in front of the prostrate bodies of gunshot victims. I finally emerged from the building, clutching a jumbo-sized bottle of penicillin tablets. The pills cost me nothing, but the label on the bottle read “This patient is a resident of New Orleans Parish, and has proven that she does not have the funds to pay for medical treatment.”
Charity Hospital had a psych ward on its top floor, and I certainly didn't want to end up there. I moved through my days like a person in the throes of walking pneumonia. I suffered from a sort of walking depression—I was miserable to the point of numbness, but still capable of minimal functioning. I had always been a voracious reader, and this helped a little. If I lay on my mattress with a library book or a free alternative newspaper, I could get lost in somebody else's reality for a few hours.
One evening after work, I stretched out in my bed with a new copy of Figaro, and opened the pages eagerly. Figaro was an award-winning weekly newspaper with a decidedly liberal bent, and I always read the articles carefully, savoring the clever sentences. Its current cover featured a color photograph of David Duke, who had been recently appointed Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke was a classic Aryan man, with pale skin, piercing blue eyes and expertly feathered blonde hair. His face wore a deceptively ingenious expression, as if he had no idea why so many people considered him to be loathsome.
The writer of the cover article was puzzled by Duke. He was the poster boy for racism, yet he held an advanced degree, and his IQ was rumored to be off the charts. It was convenient for liberals to believe that all racists were mouth breathers, but David did not adhere to the stereotype. The writer described the bookstore that Duke ran in nearby Metairie-a dark, cavernous establishment known only to insiders. Amongst other accoutrements, it contained an enormous cross that was bedecked with electric lights. Apparently, the cross was breathtaking in its immensity, especially when illuminated in an otherwise darkened room.
I was both repulsed and intrigued. I placed the newspaper on my mattress and stared thoughtfully at the banana trees. Obviously, David was a walking contradiction-a brilliant, charismatic fellow who held views that most sane people considered abhorrent. Perhaps if I spoke to him, he would say something that would resolve my own conundrum. I wondered whether he was in the telephone directory. He was secretive for reasons of personal safety, and most likely had an unlisted number.
I flipped open the phone book and ran my eyes through the column of names. In the midst of a slew of other Dukes, I managed to locate one person named David. It was hard for me to believe that he would be foolish enough to have his number in a public directory. Still, it was worth a try. If there was another man in the New Orleans metro area who bore the unfortunate name of David Duke, I could simply apologize to him and terminate the call.
I reached over to my phone and lifted the receiver. With one trembling finger, I dialed the number. A man answered on the second ring. “Hello” I said, in as nonchalant a tone as I could muster. “May I please speak to David Duke?”
There was a pause. “David's not here right now” the man replied. “If you give me your name and phone number, I'll make certain that he calls you back.”
I felt a stab of disappointment, followed by an odd intuition that the fellow was lying, and that he actually was Duke. I persisted, “Oh, I'm sorry to hear that he isn't there. I wanted to congratulate him for the interview in Figaro. I thought that the columnist wrote a very even-handed, unbiased article. I'd like to talk to David about the Klan. I have some questions about it.”
There was another pause. “Actually, this is David” the man said apologetically. “I have to be very careful to whom I reveal my identity, even on the phone. I'm sure you understand.”
“Of course I do” I assured him. “I imagine there are a lot of people who might harm you, but I'm not one of them. I'm curious about your bookstore, and would like to see it. I'd also enjoy meeting you, if you have some time in your schedule.”
“Oh certainly!” Duke exclaimed. He sounded eager, as though he relished the idea of discussing white supremacy with an attentive young woman. “When would you like to come to the bookstore? I can put you in my schedule as early as next week.”
“Next week's fine” I assured him. “I'm free in the afternoons after 2:00.”
“Perfect” Duke said. “How about Tuesday?” He gave me his address in Metairie, emphasizing the importance of secrecy. “It's a plain white storefront with no windows” he explained. “Ring the doorbell, and I'll buzz you in. I'm sure you realize that I have to be very cautious.”
As the days passed, I thought about my upcoming visit with Duke as little as possible. I went to my cafeteria job, and wandered around in a sort of focused daze, running my rag across the tables, dumping sliced cucumbers into gleaming steel pans. When Tuesday afternoon arrived, I hauled my weary body to the St Charles streetcar. I rode downtown, disembarked on Canal Street, and wandered over to the nearby bus stop with my paper transfer.
Duke's bookstore was located near the boundary of Metairie and Kenner. Kenner existed as a hub for the nearby airport, but Metairie was a working-class suburb, populated by an uneasy mix of blue-collar Republican white folks and African-Americans. The bus ride was hot and interminable. I stared vacantly through the dirty window glass as the elegant buildings of the city gave way to mini-marts and gas stations. The bus rumbled and lurched through the streets, stopping every two blocks to disgorge passengers and pick up new ones. Everyone appeared to be sullen and exhausted.
As my stop neared, I grew anxious. What if I missed it? There was no way in hell that I was going to ask any of my fellow passengers for directions. Finally, tired of waiting, I pulled the cord, and disembarked from the bus. I stood for a moment on the sidewalk, blinking like a mole in the harsh mid-afternoon light. Then I squared my shoulders and strode down the street with a feigned sense of purpose, as if I was heading to a place where I really wanted to go.
Fortunately, my timing was perfect, and I was only two blocks from the bookstore. A grimy, two-story windowless building suddenly loomed in front of me. It looked exactly as David had described it, but I checked the address in my wallet to be sure. I wondered whether I should just hop on the next bus back to New Orleans. After a brief internal debate, I decided that I had come too far to change my mind.
Feeling slightly ill, I rang the doorbell, then stood on the threshold, fidgeting nervously. The door flew open, and Duke loomed above me. He was even taller than I had imagined, with a lean frame and long, gangling legs. His handsome face wore a friendly expression, as if he was sincerely glad to have the chance to meet me. Duke reached forward, grasped my hand, and gave it a firm shake. “Welcome to my store” he said expansively. “Are you thirsty? I can offer you a Pepsi.”
I realized, for the first time, that I was extremely thirsty. Duke fished in one of his pockets, and finally located a key. He held the key aloft, squinted at it for a moment, and smiled. The two of us wandered into his shop, and he closed the door firmly. A commercial pop machine stood in one corner, next to the cash register. Duke strode briskly to the machine, unlocked it, and removed a bottle. “No charge, of course” he said. “That should quench your thirst. Let me know if you need another one.” He fixed me with a beatific grin and watched approvingly as I took an appreciative gulp from the bottle. “How was your bus ride?” he asked. “Did you have any trouble finding my place?”
“None whatsoever” I assured him. The Pepsi had calmed my stomach somewhat, and I was finally able to focus on my surroundings. All of the walls were lined with pamphlets that bore such ominous titles as “The Negro Problem” and “Taking Back Our Heritage.” A glass shelf stood beside the cash register, filled to overflowing with souvenir coffee cups and glow-in-the-dark Klansman figurines. In its center stood a cheap plastic frame that contained a faded comic strip. The cartoon depicted a drooling black man with flabby lips and oversized feet. Its caption read, “He may be YOUR equal, but he sure as hell isn't mine!”
Feeling sick, I backed away from the counter. “What do you think of our inventory?” Duke asked. “Pretty impressive, huh?”
“Well, there certainly is a lot of it” I said politely. “But really, what is the point of this bookstore? What are you trying to do here, exactly?”
For a moment, Duke appeared surprised, but he recovered quickly. “I started this bookstore with a mission” he explained. “I don't hate black people. They have their own heritage, and I respect that. You and I are white, however, and we have a different heritage. I'm proud of our heritage, and I want to preserve it.”
Duke paused for a moment to allow his words to sink into my head. I stared at him, speechless. Convinced that he had a captive audience, Duke plunged on. “Now, one way that we ensure the continuance of our race is for white people to breed exclusively with other white people. If a person of Caucasian descent breeds with a person of African descent, this erodes the purity of our bloodline. Then, slowly but surely, our race begins to break down, to transform into something different and less pure.”
It was obvious that Duke was convinced of the irrefutable truth of his words, that he deeply believed in the urgency of his mission and felt compelled to defend it at all costs. He stared into my eyes like a trained hypnotist, while his long hands gestured in front of my face. I returned his gaze, nodded slowly, and found myself sinking into a kind of spell. Then I shook my head, as if I had returned to land after spending some time underwater, and opened my mouth to speak.
Undaunted, Duke continued his spiel. “Of course, the purity of the black race is also corrupted when the races mix, and they aren't happy about it either. So it would obviously be better for everyone concerned if they just stuck to breeding with people of their own kind.”
I suddenly regained the power of speech. “What if a black person and a white person really want to start a family together?” I demanded. Would you seek legislation that would make this impossible?”
Though my question struck me as one that any reasonable person might ask, Duke appeared surprised. After a long moment of consideration, he replied, “Well, probably not right away. I'd suggest my theory at first, and perhaps stricter measures would be necessary at a later time.”
I was deeply chilled by the realization that Duke was willing to consider the enactment of laws designed to control human mating behavior. It was almost impossible for me to believe that any late-twentieth century adult would propose such an idea. Nevertheless, Duke stood in front of me, earnestly describing his vision of a utopian future, one in which white people stayed white forever, with no interference from any other tribe. Transgressions from this norm would result in punishment, though he hadn't yet outlined exactly what form that punishment might take.
Feeling suddenly dizzy, I shifted my gaze to the walls of the shop. They seemed to revolve around me in a panoramic vista, as if I was viewing them from the center of a carousel. My eyes came to rest on the cartoon of the drooling black man, and nausea swept over me. When the vertigo finally lifted, I leveled my gaze at Duke. “I'm not interested in joining the Klan” I said. “I was just curious to find out how you operate over here. I'd only heard negative things, and I wanted to know your perspective. After hearing it, I'm more convinced than ever that it is best for all of us to work out our differences, and leave each other alone to live our lives as we see fit. Thanks for having me over, though.”
I had been raised to be polite, even towards people whose ideas struck me as abhorrent. That obligatory politeness was part of my own white heritage, but it didn't run deep enough for me to allow myself to be manipulated by Duke's words. Duke stared at me with a puzzled expression on his face. He looked both disappointed and vaguely hostile, as if I had intentionally swindled him. Then he rearranged his face into a smile that was simultaneously chilling and radiant. “Well, I do hope you'll reconsider” he said.
“I need to get back to the city” I replied. I inched towards the door, placed my hand on the knob, and remembered that I had almost forgotten the illuminated cross. “I have one request” I said. “The Figaro reporter said that you have a huge cross that lights up in the dark. Can I see it?”
For a moment, Duke appeared pleased, but then he was seized by a recollection of his own. “The main bulb's burned out” he apologized. “The cross isn't working right now. Unfortunately, I can't illuminate it. But if you want to see it anyway, just follow me.” He walked to the other side of the room, and threw open a door.
Tentatively, I followed him to the threshold and peered inside. The new room was larger than the shop area, and was obviously used for meetings. Duke's enormous cross hung majestically on one wall, and looked down upon folding chairs and cardboard boxes of Klan literature. Its bulbs gleamed ominously in the semi-darkness. “The effect is so much more dramatic when the bulbs are illuminated,” Duke said sadly, “but you get the general idea.” He reached inside one of the boxes and removed a handful of slightly yellowed newspapers. “Please take these, and read them if you get the chance.”
Because I had been trained to be polite, I allowed Duke to place the newspapers into my left hand. My fingers reflexively clutched the pages before I could stop them, or think of an excuse. “If you don't mind, I'll be going now” I said. Duke stuck his hand out for me to shake, and I grasped it limply for a moment. Then I wandered towards the door and stepped outside.
I scurried away from Duke's bookstore—slowly at first, and then with increasing speed. I fervently hoped that the arrival of the bus would be swift, but I felt prepared to wait for as long as necessary. Finally, I collapsed into a bench at the bus stop and opened one of the newspapers. It was the most recent copy of the monthly KKK newsletter, filled with articles that described Klan events in the greater New Orleans metro area. In the corner of one page, a cartoon showed a line of Klansfolk striding down a city street, clad in their robes. All of them wore large shoes that pointed in the same direction. The accompanying caption read, “Keep on Ku-Kluxin'.”
I could hear the rumble of the bus in the distance, so I closed the newspaper. For a moment, I considered abandoning the literature at the bus stop, but I had been taught that it was impolite to litter. Instead, I scooped up the parcel of papers from the bench and boarded the bus. As I fumbled in my purse for change, I accidentally dropped the clump of newspapers. They slid across the floor while I extracted the coins and dropped them hastily into the fare box.
The bus lurched forward and picked up momentum. An updraft caught one of the newspapers, and the pages tumbled through the aisle like autumn leaves. I stumbled down the center of the bus, and hastily gathered the papers while the passengers stared straight ahead, indifferent to my plight. One of the pages came to rest beside a middle-aged African-American woman's foot. She lifted the paper from the floor and handed it to me. Finally, she re-directed her gaze towards the dirt-encrusted bus window and stared outside with an impassive expression on her face.
The woman, too, had been taught the dubious virtue of politeness, for reasons that were vastly different from mine. “Thanks” I said, as I slid into the space behind her. Although I realized that my recent clumsiness had made subterfuge unnecessary, I folded the papers and stashed them safely in my purse. Then I settled into my seat and prepared myself for the ride downtown with my fellow humans-all of us exhausted, just heading home for rest after a long, grueling day.
#Real #PersonalEssay #KKK #Racism #GrandDragon #WhiteInAmerica
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