From rodeo clowns to voting rights, understanding race and history

August 15, 2013

Have the folks who jeered the President Obama stand-in at that Missouri rodeo ever heard of Bill Pickett?

Pickett was an African American cowboy, inventor of the gutsy bulldogging technique, grabbing cattle by the horns and wrestling them to the ground. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pickett starred in rodeos and movies, traveled the West and in the 1970s was inducted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame. He’s depicted as a legend of the West on a U.S. stamp. Pickett was a founder of the same rodeo tradition that allowed the Missouri state fair crowd to whoop and holler, encouraging a bull to run down the “president” while an accomplice jiggled the broad lips on the mask of the clown dressed as Obama and an announcer teased violence that recalled the worst of the ways this country has treated its black citizens.


This photo provided by Jameson Hsieh shows a clown wearing a mask intended to look like President Obama at the Missouri State Fair. (Jameson Hsieh/Associated Press)

A disgusted observer said the scene resembled a Klan rally, and gave him “a sense of fear.” So that’s what passes for family entertainment these days.

The clown, now banned from the Missouri State Fair, has become a star, invited by GOP Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas to peddle his act there. (Stockman’s posse has also included rock musician, gun enthusiast and Obama basher Ted Nugent, the congressman’s guest at the president’s 2013 State of the Union address.) Will the clown draw even more screaming, anonymous audience members, shouting insults in front of their children while patronizing an event that black, Mexican American and Native American wranglers and ranch workers helped develop and nurture?

The racial irony is enough to make you laugh and cry. Does anyone teach history anymore? Is anyone curious about anything? Or are too many people content to follow along, listening to like voices and shutting their ears to any facts that stand in the way of preconceptions and rock-solid opinions?

We seem to be a country made up of people who want to honestly discuss race across color lines and those who want to ban the discussion, convinced that more talk only means more division. That’s after George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, a New York stop-and-frisk police tactic judged unconstitutional, and disagreement with an African American president that too often turns ugly and racist. Recent examples include the rodeo display and protest signs in Arizona reading “Bye Bye Black Sheep” and “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!”

A recent poll found that about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans socialize only with friends of their own race. And I think that’s being generous, as people got to judge who that friend could be. Remember Paula Deen said her driver and bodyguard was like family before she compared the color of his skin to an inky black backdrop behind her.

But for those who find that color line too perilous to cross, at least read some books on how this diverse country has always had trouble dealing with that diversity since its settling by people who moved in on the people who were already here.

In North Carolina, where I live, the Republican leadership of the state could use a few history lessons. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory is doing his best imitation of a southern governor of old, blaming the discontent of thousands who protested the legislature’s conservative policies on “outsiders” and explaining his signature on new voting laws, not in a public appearance but a YouTube video in which he fails to explain how reducing early voting and countless other cutbacks protect the integrity he favors, and blames opposition on the “extreme left.”

When Sen. Kay Hagan on Tuesday urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to take action against the law that tightens voter ID requirements and loosens campaign financing, the North Carolina Democrat evoked the state’s checkered civil rights history. In a letter to Holder, she expressed pride in the role North Carolina has played in the civil rights movement, “best exemplified by the four brave young students in Greensboro who in 1960 refused to give up their seats at a whites-only lunch counter and helped spark the movement” that “led to the passage of the initial Voting Rights Act.”

The senator, who faces a tough re-election battle in 2014, wrote, “I strongly encourage the Justice Department to immediately review North Carolina House Bill 589 and take all appropriate steps to protect federal civil rights and the fundamental right to vote.”

Julius Chambers, who wrote a few chapters in the history books for his work on equal rights for all Americans, was recently mourned with words of praise and also caution from those who fear his lessons are being forgotten by those with an agenda and short memories.

As Franklin McCain, one of the original Greensboro Four, told me in an interview last month for theGrio, “It irritates me that things that we thought we solved 40, 50 years ago have raised their ugly heads again.”

In conversations on race, too many believe they already know it all, when we have so much to learn. The lessons, from those who have lived it, are right in front of us.

 

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

 

 

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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