Perspectives: A Letter to Governor Haley
Dear Governor Haley: Some in the Indian-American community are upset that you don’t do more to publicly embrace your Sikh heritage. Well, you have my permission to toss a spoon of cold grits in the direction of their dotted foreheads. As a genuine American elected official, you owe the people of South Carolina nothing more or less than the basics, such as honoring our state constitution.
Before you get all excited about my position on this matter and start asking me to contribute to some future campaign, just hold on. It is part of our Southern culture to treat a complicated topic such as the one I bring up as if it were a wad of fine tobacco. You chew on it, then you chew on it some more, and just when you think it’s all chewed out, you act like it’s all fresh and good. I’m not telling you something that you don’t already know, since every day when you report to work you walk right past the red Confederate Flag that still flutters on our state house grounds.
I have lived long enough in the South to know the order of things, so before I start sharing my thoughts, I might suggest that this is as good a time as any to pour yourself a favorite beverage, just like the blue bloods do on their stately porches down in the lower part of our state when they are confronted with confounding, confusing and conflicting thoughts. And nothing beats a story when confronted with such thoughts; so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell a story.
Today’s a work day for most people, but not for me. Our company was acquired over a year ago, and while I have started a new venture, business is slow. Instead of wasting time fretting about the future, I have decided to view the extra time as a gift, and to use the gift to improve my photography. I like photography. It’s quiet, engaging, and even physical, depending on the angle of the shot.
This morning’s goal is to get a perfect shot of the recently restored Campbell’s Covered Bridge, the last of its sort in South Carolina. My Nikon camera rests on the passenger seat, the radio is tuned to NPR, and I am sipping on hot coffee.
When I moved to Greenville in 1983, there were signs that our sleepy town, long dominated by the white faces of the textile industry, household names such as Milliken, Hollingsworth, and Stevens, was changing. Not by choice, mind you, but as the jobs disappeared to China and India, we needed new industries and companies to move in, and they did. Now those legendary names are mostly gone, and their mill villages—homogenous communities where people worked together, played together, and worshipped together—are nearly extinct. Still, customs and memories outlast brick and mortar.
I worked for AT&T during those transitional years. AT&T, unlike the textile industry, had an aggressive affirmative action program. As a result, we had a mix of women and blacks in our sales office. One of the black guys was assigned to work with me as a technical consultant on my accounts. I liked Preston; some customers didn’t.
“If you want to sell us something, don’t bring that n________ out here again,” a vice president of a local bank called to tell me after Preston and I returned from an introductory sales call.
On another occasion, Preston and I had a sales call in Blairsville, Georgia. After our call, I suggested lunch at a local restaurant. Preston didn’t say much so I figured he wasn’t hungry and I kept on driving. Years later, I figured out the real reason he didn’t want to stop.
In just a mile or two when I pass the Dixie Republic, a place that advertises itself as the “South’s largest Confederate store,” I will again think of Preston and the stark cultural contrasts in our state. Greenville was just ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the best places to live in the country, but that city, my city, and its burgeoning reputation as a thriving international business community disappears quickly once you leave its suburbs. About 100 years ago, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group, persecuted members of my birth religion—the Roman Catholic Church—just like they did AfricanAmericans. When I was shooting some photos yesterday at the abandoned and historic Arthur Barnwell House in Greenville, I came across the letters “KKK” spray-painted on the kitchen door.
Yet, Governor Haley, I have something in common with the folks that live in the rural parts of our state, the type that might frequent the Dixie Republic and vote for Tea Party candidates, such as you.
I grew up in an all-white world, too.
In the 1960s, I attended all-white Holy Trinity Elementary School in Poughkeepsie, New York. My dad, who worked for IBM, lived in a similarly white world. When it was time to pick up dad from work—this was back in the day when one car served the household—mom would pack my three sisters and me into the Ford station wagon for the short drive to the IBM plant. Once there, all of us would try to spot dad among the floating sea of a thousand other white men, all dressed in dark suits and white shirts. There were no black or brown faces, and the faces with makeup were secretaries.
When we moved to Raleigh in the late 1960s, color, in the form of a few blacks, appeared in my life. Our Little League baseball team was integrated, as an example, and the television shows began featuring black men and women in realistic roles. What? You’re wondering when did Indian-Americans appear in my life? Well, you weren’t in our classrooms, you weren’t in our textbooks and you didn’t live in our neighborhoods. You just started to show up, all of a sudden! No warning! So we don’t know who you are! Our sum knowledge of India, as you have probably figured out, is restricted to a meager and inaccurate collection of symbols and sound-bites, such as caste, arranged marriages, and reincarnation.
Yet, despite not “knowing who you are,” we elected you governor. It’s a great sign for a democracy when political positions trump race and religion.But it locks up my Irish-American brain when I consider that the (metaphorical) white boys of the Dixie Republic, a place where black Preston would not want me to stop, helped elect a brown governor.
Last night, when I was researching the origins of the phrase, “melting pot,” I came across the thoughts of Shashi Tharoor:
“If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.”The thoughts are perfect. The thoughts are imperfect.
In today’s pluralistic society, we have to mix with the next dish. It’s not enough to be on the same plate. We have to be better than that.A year or so after our trip to Blairsville, Preston took me aside. “Bill, when we go out after work for a beer, we always go to your white places. Next time we go out together, let’s go to a black bar.” I first panicked, but then the salesman in me kicked in, and I gave Preston a big cheerful, “Oh, hell yes,” like I was about to suggest the same thing. On the next available Friday night, I lived up to my promise. I walked into the all-black bar, felt the stares, and wanted to leave. I was now the minority and I didn’t like it.
Preston went to the men’s room. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer from an aptly named bartender, “Gramps.”
“I bet you wonder why I am here,” I offered to the man to my left.
“Yea, not many white people come in here,” he replied with a smile.
We talked, shared a few laughs, and as my on-edge nerves relaxed, I wondered why it took so long for me to make the effort. It was as if I was waiting for the governor to sponsor “get to know a black person” legislation.
Two decades after Preston took me to a black bar, we hired our first Indian-American employee. For the first six months of employment, she performed her assigned duties well but remained socially isolated in our mostly white company. As her manager, I was polite, but American-distant, as if waiting for her Indian-ness to wash away into the melting pot. During the company Thanksgiving meal, when I saw her sitting by herself eating a plateful of green beans while the other employees scarfed up roasted turkey and oyster dressing, I realized I had failed, again.
That afternoon, I called her into my office. She knocked politely, sat down and opened her notebook.
“I apologize, Roopal. You had told me several times that Jains don’t eat meat, and I just didn’t listen. I also realize that I haven’t made much of an effort to get to know you. So if it’s OK with you, I’d like you to share a few of your favorite stories of life in India.”
Governor Haley, I didn’t know this then, but Roopal and I had just laid the first planks to a bridge connecting our two different worlds. In the intervening years; many more stories have been exchanged; my wife, Janis, and I have formed close friendships with Roopal’s family; and Janis, Roopal, and I have twice traveled to India. Sure, we have enjoyed India’s famous and not so famous landmarks, but even the delicate domes of the Taj and the exquisite columns of Ranakpur fade when we remember that gentle moment when at the end of the first visit, Raina, Roopal’s cousin, placed a tilak on our foreheads and said, “You came as our guests, but you are leaving as our family.”
Bridges, like the one I am about to photograph, allow the passage of goods and ideas between two different worlds, and I can’t think of a better metaphor.
As I have mulled over these confounding, conflicting and confusing thoughts the last few months, my mind inevitably snaps to the third Great Mughal Emperor, Akbar. This Muslim man in a Hindu land could neither read nor write, had Christian, Hindu and Muslim wives, allowed his wives to practice their foreign religions within the mosque, eliminated the taxes that had been levied on pilgrims to Hindu shrines, and the annual tax that had been assessed to non-Muslims. For good measure, he developed an incredible library system, supported the arts, and granted women certain rights and privileges. He even welcomed Hindus into his leadership circle and trusted them with great responsibilities.
It’s unfair of me to want you to be Akbar, and use your rich heritage to push the people of our state to think beyond the southern border. It’s unfair of the Indian-American community to want you to be Akbar, and openly embrace what there is to be embraced. Akbar was an emperor who ruled with honor and impunity for fifty-plus years. You, as an elected official, have no such luxury. For that matter, it’s not really the American way to wait for a central authority figure to take action, anyway. The decision to reach out, or not, is really up to me.
I have arrived at Campbell’s Covered Bridge, Governor Haley, and it’s time for me to start snapping. It’s a beautiful October morning, and I hope I do the topic justice on this my third try.
[Bill Fitzpatrick, seen here in Jodhpur, India, with wife Janis Bandelin and friend Roopal Jain, is a co-author of Destination: India, Destiny: Unknown, A Three-Week Journey Beyond the Taj and Behind the Symbols. ]
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