The despicable news coming out of Charleston, South Carolina brought to mind Percival Everett's short story The Appropriation of Cultures, which all of us at Graywolf felt we should share.
Daniel Barkley had money left to him by his mother. He had a house that had been left to him by his mother. He had a degree in American Studies from Brown University that he had in some way earned, but that had not yet earned anything for him. He played a 1940 Martin guitar with a Barkus-Berry pickup and drove a 1976 Jensen Interceptor, which he had purchased after his mother’s sister had died and left him her money because she had no children of her own. Daniel Barkley didn’t work and didn’t pretend to need to, spending most of his time reading. Some nights he went to a joint near the campus of the University of South Carolina and played jazz with some old guys who all worked very hard during the day, but didn’t hold Daniel’s condition against him.
Daniel played standards with the old guys, but what he loved to play were old-time slide tunes. One night, some white boys from a fraternity yelled forward to the stage at the black man holding the acoustic guitar and began to shout, “Play ‘Dixie’ for us! Play ‘Dixie’ for us!”
Daniel gave them a long look, studied their big-toothed grins and the beer-shiny eyes stuck into puffy, pale faces, hovering over golf shirts and chinos. He looked from them to the uncomfortable expressions on the faces of the old guys with whom he was playing and then to the embarrassed faces of the other college kids in the club.
And then he started to play. He felt his way slowly through the chords of the song once and listened to the deadened hush as it fell over the room. He used the slide to squeeze out the melody of the song he had grown up hating, the song the whites had always pulled out to remind themselves and those other people just where they were. Daniel sang the song. He sang it slowly. He sang it, feeling the lyrics, deciding that the lyrics were his, deciding that the song was his. Old times there are not forgotten . . . He sang the song and listened to the silence around him. He resisted the urge to let satire ring through his voice. He meant what he sang. Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.
When he was finished, he looked up to see the roomful of eyes on him. One person clapped. Then another. And soon the tavern was filled with applause and hoots. He found the frat boys in the back and watched as they stormed out, a couple of people near the door chuckling at them as they passed.
Roger, the old guy who played tenor sax, slapped Daniel on the back and said something like, “Right on” or “Cool.” Roger then played the first few notes of “Take the A Train” and they were off. When the set was done, all the college kids slapped Daniel on the back as he walked toward the bar where he found a beer waiting.
Daniel didn’t much care for the slaps on the back, but he didn’t focus too much energy on that. He was busy trying to sort out his feelings about what he had just played. The irony of his playing the song straight and from the heart was made more ironic by the fact that as he played it, it came straight and from his heart, as he was claiming Southern soil, or at least recognizing his blood in it. His was the land of cotton and hell no, it was not forgotten. At twenty-three, his anger was fresh and typical, and so was his ease with it, the way it could be forgotten for chunks of time, until something like that night with the white frat boys or simply a flashing blue light in the rearview mirror brought it all back. He liked the song, wanted to play it again, knew that he would.
He drove home from the bar on Green Street and back to his house where he made tea and read about Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg while he sat in the big leather chair that had been his father’s. He fell asleep and had a dream in which he stopped Pickett’s men on the Emmitsburg Road on their way to the field and said, “Give me back my flag.”
Daniel’s friend Sarah was a very large woman with a very large Afro hairdo. They were sitting on the porch of Daniel’s house having tea. The late fall afternoon was mild and slightly overcast. Daniel sat in the wicker rocker while Sarah curled her feet under her on the glider.
“I wish I could have heard it,” Sarah said.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Personally, I can’t even stand to go in that place. All that drinking. Those white kids love to drink.” Sarah studied her fingernails.
“I guess. The place is harmless. They seem to like the music.”
“Do you think I should paint my nails?” Daniel frowned at her. “If you want to.”
“I mean really paint them. You know, black, or with red, white, and blue stripes. Something like that.” She held her hand out, appearing to imagine the colors. “I’d have to grow them long.”
“What are you talking about?”
Daniel and Sarah went to a grocery market to buy food for lunch and Daniel’s dinner. Daniel pushed the cart through the Piggly Wiggly while Sarah walked ahead of him. He watched her large movements and her confident stride. At the checkout, he added a bulletin full of pictures of local cars and trucks for sale to his items on the conveyer.
“What’s that for?” Sarah asked. “I think I want to buy a truck.” “Buy a truck?”
“So I can drive you around when you paint your nails.”
Later, after lunch and after Sarah had left him alone, Daniel sat in his living room and picked up the car-sale magazine. As he suspected, there were several trucks he liked and one in particular, a 1968 Ford three-quarter ton with the one thing it shared with the other possibilities, a full rear cab window decal of the Confederate flag. He called the number the following morning and arranged with Barb, Travis’s wife, to stop by and see the truck.
Travis and Barb lived across the river in the town of Irmo, a name that Daniel had always thought suited a disease for cattle. He drove around the maze of tract homes until he found the right street and number. A woman in a housecoat across the street watched from her porch, safe inside the chain-link fence around her yard. From down the street a man and a teenager, who were covered with grease and apparently engaged in work on a torn-apart Dodge Charger, mindlessly wiped their hands and studied him.
Daniel walked across the front yard, through a maze of plastic toys, and knocked on the front door. Travis opened the door and asked in a surly voice, “What is it?”
“I called about the truck,” Daniel said. “Oh, you’re Dan?”
“The truck’s in the backyard. Let me get the keys.” He pushed the door to, but it didn’t catch. Daniel heard the quality of the exchange between Travis and Barb, but not the words. He did hear Barb say, as Travis pulled open the door, “I couldn’t tell over the phone.”
“Got ’em,” Travis said. “Come on with me.” He looked at Daniel’s Jensen as they walked through the yard. “What kind of car is that?”
“It’s a Jensen.”
“Nice looking. Is it fast?”
The truck looked a little rough, a pale blue with a bleached-out hood and a crack across the top of the windshield. Travis opened the driver’s side door and pushed the key into the ignition. “It’s a strong runner,” he said. Daniel put his hand on the faded hood and felt the warmth, knew that Travis had already warmed up the motor. Travis turned the key and the engine kicked over. He nodded to Daniel. Daniel nodded back. He looked up to see a blond woman looking on from behind the screen door of the back porch.
“The clutch and the alternator are new this year.” Travis stepped backward to the wall of the bed and looked in. “There’s some rust back here, but the bottom’s pretty solid.”
Daniel attended to the sound of the engine. “Misses just a little,” he said.
“A tune-up will fix that.”
Daniel regarded the rebel-flag decal covering the rear window of the cab, touched it with his finger.
“That thing will peel right off,” Travis said.
“No, I like it.” Daniel sat down in the truck behind the steering wheel. “Mind if I take it for a spin?”
“Sure thing.” Travis looked toward the house, then back to Daniel. “The brakes are good, but you got to press hard.”
Travis shut the door, his long fingers wrapped over the edge of the half-lowered glass. Daniel noticed that one of the man’s fingernails was blackened.
“I’ll just take it around a block or two.”
The blond woman was now standing outside the door on the concrete steps. Daniel put the truck in gear and drove out of the yard, past his car and down the street by the man and teenager who were still at work on the Charger. They stared at him, were still watching him as he turned right at the corner. The truck handled decently, but that really wasn’t important.
Back at Travis’s house Daniel left the keys in the truck and got out to observe the bald tires while Travis looked on. “The ad in the magazine said two thousand.”
“Yeah, but I’m willing to work with you.”
“Tell you what, I’ll give you twenty-two hundred if you deliver it to my house.”
Travis was lost, scratching his head and looking back at the house for his wife, who was no longer standing there. “Whereabouts do you live?”
“I live over near the university. Near Five Points.”
“Twenty-two hundred?” Travis said more to himself than to Daniel. “Sure I can get it to your house.”
“Here’s two hundred.” Daniel counted out the money and handed it to the man. “I’ll have the rest for you in cash when you deliver the truck.” He watched Travis feel the bills with his skinny fingers. “Can you have it there at about four?”
“I can do that.”
“What in the world do you need a truck for?” Sarah asked. She stepped over to the counter and poured herself another cup of coffee, then sat back down at the table with Daniel.
“I’m not buying the truck. Well, I am buying a truck, but only because I need the truck for the decal. I’m buying the decal.”
“Yes. This truck has a Confederate flag in the back window."
“I’ve decided that the rebel flag is my flag. My blood is Southern blood, right? Well, it’s my flag.”
Sarah put down her cup and saucer and picked up a cookie from the plate in the middle of the table. “You’ve flipped. I knew this would happen to you if you didn’t work. A person needs to work.”
“I don’t need money.”
“That’s not the point. You don’t have to work for money.” She stood and walked to the edge of the porch and looked up and down the street.
“I’ve got my books and my music.”
“You need a job so you can be around people you don’t care about, doing stuff you don’t care about. You need a job to occupy that part of your brain. I suppose it’s too late now, though.”
“Nonetheless,” Daniel said. “You should have seen those redneck boys when I took ‘Dixie’ from them. They didn’t know what to do. So, the goddamn flag is flying over the State Capitol. Don’t take it down, just take it. That’s what I say.”
“That’s all you have to do? That’s all there is to it?”
“Yep.” Daniel leaned back in his rocker. “You watch ol’ Travis when he gets here.”
Travis arrived with the pickup a little before four, his wife pulling up behind him in a yellow TransAm. Barb got out of the car and walked up to the porch with Travis. She gave the house a careful look.
“Hey, Travis,” Daniel said. “This is my friend, Sarah.” Travis nodded hello.
“You must be Barb,” Daniel said.
Barb smiled weakly.
Travis looked at Sarah, then back at the truck, and then to Daniel. “You sure you don’t want me to peel that thing off the window?”
Daniel gave Sarah a glance, to be sure she was watching Travis’s face. “Here’s the balance,” he said, handing over the money. He took the truck keys from the skinny fingers.
Barb sighed and asked, as if the question were burning right through her, “Why do you want that flag on the truck?”
“Why shouldn’t I want it?” Daniel asked.
Barb didn’t know what to say. She studied her feet for a second, then regarded the house again. “I mean, you live in a nice house and drive that sports car. What do you need a truck like that for?”
“You don’t want the money?”
“Yes, we want the money,” Travis said, trying to silence Barb with a look.
“I need the truck for hauling stuff,” Daniel said. “You know like groceries and—” he looked to Sarah for help.
“Books,” Sarah said.
“Books. Things like that.” Daniel held Barb’s eyes until she looked away. He watched Travis sign his name to the the back of the title and hand it to him and as he took it, he said, “I was just lucky enough to find a truck with the black-power flag already on it.”
“What?” Travis screwed up his face, trying to understand.
“The black-power flag on the window. You mean, you didn’t know?”
Travis and Barb looked at each other.
“Well, anyway,” Daniel said, “I’m glad we could do business.” He turned to Sarah. “Let me take you for a ride in my new truck.” He and Sarah walked across the yard, got into the pickup, and waved to Travis and Barb who were still standing in Daniel’s yard as they drove away.
Sarah was on the verge of hysterics by the time they were out of sight. “That was beautiful,” she said.
“No,” Daniel said, softly. “That was true.”
Over the next weeks, sightings of Daniel and his truck proved problematic for some. He was accosted by two big white men in a ’72 Monte Carlo in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven on Two Notch Road.
“What are you doing with that on your truck, boy?” the bigger of the two asked.
“Flying it proudly,” Daniel said, noticing the rebel front plate on the Chevrolet. “Just like you, brothers.” The confused second man took a step toward Daniel. “What did you call us?” “Brothers.”
The second man pushed Daniel in the chest with two extended fists, but not terribly hard.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Daniel told them.
Then a Volkswagen with four black teenagers parked in the slot beside Daniel’s truck and they jumped out, staring and looking serious. “What’s going on?” the driver and largest of the teenagers asked.
“They were admiring our flag,” Daniel said, pointing to his truck.
The teenagers were confused.
“We fly the flag proudly, don’t we, young brothers?” Daniel gave a bent-arm, black-power, closed-fist salute. “Don’t we?” he repeated. “Don’t we?“
"Yeah,” the young men said.
The white men had backed away to their car. They slipped into it and drove away.
Daniel looked at the teenagers and, with as serious a face as he could manage, he said, “Get a flag and fly it proudly.”
At a gas station, a lawyer named Ahmad Wilson stood filling the tank of his BMW and staring at the back window of Daniel’s truck. He then looked at Daniel. “Your truck?” he asked.
Daniel stopped cleaning the windshield and nodded.
Wilson didn’t ask a question, just pointed at the rear window of Daniel’s pickup.
“Power to the people,” Daniel said and laughed.
Daniel played “Dixie” in another bar in town, this time with a R&B dance band at a banquet of the black medical association. The strange looks and expressions of outrage changed to bemused laughter and finally to open joking and acceptance as the song was played fast enough for dancing. Then the song was sung, slowly, to the profound surprise of those singing the song. I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten . . . Look away, look away, look away . . .
Soon, there were several, then many cars and trucks in Columbia, South Carolina, sporting Confederate flags and being driven by black people. Black businessmen and ministers wore rebel-flag buttons on their lapels and clips on their ties. The marching band of South Carolina State College, a predominantly black land-grant institution in Orangeburg, paraded with the flag during homecoming. Black people all over the state flew the Confederate flag. The symbol began to disappear from the fronts of big rigs and the back windows of jacked-up four-wheelers. And after the emblem was used to dress the yards and mark picnic sites of black family reunions the following Fourth of July, the piece of cloth was quietly dismissed from its station with the U.S. and State flags atop the State Capitol. There was no ceremony, no notice. One day, it was not there.
Look away, look away, look away . . .
The appropriation of cultures read by Ruben Santiago Hudson