I am a holder of stories, a lover of words that capture deep truths, a constant investigator. Being a Southerner is complicated for me, and it is no one’s problem to figure out but my own, and yet I value those who have done their own work and shared it. So I offer you a few quotes from the end of the novel, “Run with the Horsemen” by Ferrol Sams.
Sams grew up in the same place I did, but two generation before me, so there is a connection to the town squares and the geography he describes, the culture he inherited. The main character’s name is Porter, and it’s his coming of age story during the depression. The two main figures in Porter’s life are his father and his best friend Buddy, the son of a man who works the family’s land and is black. Porter learns to see his father for the complex and broken man he is rather than an all powerful king, and he comes to understand that he is responsible for protecting his strong, hardworking and kind friend from the racist forces that threaten him.
The end of the novel is crushing…crushing. Buddy is now a grown man with a wife, and Porter’s dad goes to his house, drunk and angry because Buddy encouraged one of his friends to pursue a better job than the friend currently had working with Porter’s family. Porter’s dad beats Buddy with his rifle, choking him and gouging out one of his eyes; nearly killing him. He confesses his actions while also justifying them to Porter. Sams describes Porter’s reaction thus:
“The boy lay in horrified rigidity, staring at his father, dilated pupils, sickened to his soul, not daring to breathe.”
His father then explains that Buddy had already forgiven him, and waits expectantly for Porter to also absolve him of his guilt to offer forgiveness just as Buddy had, but instead, Porter hardens his gaze and says,
“I’ll die and rot in hell before I ever say that to you!”
Porter knows his dad will not harm him and so he has the power to withhold absolution.
The final words of the book describe Porter in his room, alone, in the dark, after his father finally leaves. Porter stuffs his sheets in his mouth and weeps.
“Falling on the floor, he knelt shivering and bare kneed against the bed. Shuddering with a deep sigh, he forced his body to be still. With deep and simple passion, he prayed, “Our merciful Heavenly Father, what in the world am I going to do? I love him so!”
This novel haunts me because it captures what I feel being a daughter of the South. As I have grown into an adult and have learned of the racist history of my state and region, I often can’t hold the two together. How can this culture of hospitality, sweet tea and front porches also be the culture of modern day lynchings and systemic oppression? I feel horrified, sickened to my soul, unable to breathe. My heart also echo’s Porter’s prayer; “Dear Lord, what do I do? I love this place so!” I am not a child anymore. We are the adults in the room now. I will stand proudly on the shoulders of those who worked fearlessly, or bravely despite fear, during The Civil Rights Movement, while standing behind or beside the black leaders of today, the leaders who educate and advocate and help us shape the culture and laws that we pass to our children. I will not do this perfectly. I will handle my own guilt that I identify with the Porters of the world and not the Buddys, knowing my broken heart is a luxury because my body is safe based on the white skin it is wrapped in.