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Hard truths and tasks / August 06, 2020
What do you do about a problem like Jack Dunavant?

Last week, the long-serving member of Halifax Town Council penned his now-notorious letter, “Killing America,” that suddenly has people calling for his proverbial head. (The August meeting of Town Council should be, how shall we say it, interesting.) In case you’re just getting back home from Myrtle Beach or Planet Mars, Dunavant’s letter purported to tell the story of the moral and social breakdown of the black family unit in America, and the alleged central role of safety net social programs in bringing about this lamentable outcome. In many respects, Dunavant’s letter could have been written by any bog standard Republican voter, insofar as it echoes party dogma going back to Barry Goldwater, popularized by Ronald Reagan, and given a sheen of intellectual respectability by various right-wing think tanks and self-proclaimed policy mavens like former House Speaker Paul Ryan.

But the thing that set people off was Dunavant’s stroll down memory lane with his description of a more harmonious era among blacks and whites. A longer-than-usual quotation is in order here: “I was privileged to be raised in a home by and with good colored people back in the day when children were born in wedlock and expected to behave like civilized human beings. And whenever one of us boys stepped out of line Aunt Rose did not hesitate to tan our hind-parts with her ever-present dish towel. I loved those good people who helped raise me and especially Arthur Easley who taught me how to hunt and work at an early age, they were members of my family then and today. There were no black people back then, there were colored people and they didn’t cotton to being called black, either.”

This unfortunate passage came after Dunavant railed against the modern-day “so-called welfare system” that “is nothing more than a crime breeding syndicate that has taken a particularly heavy toll on hard-working Black families — and the Black man has been made superfluous by government welfare checks.” The implication is unavoidable: If only we could go back to the happier days of black people serving as the household help, or, to quote Dunavant directly, “colored people” who “didn’t cotton to being called black, either.”

The letter was utterly disgraceful, no getting around that fact, but before we move forward with an autopsy of “Killing America,” let’s try to take full and fair stock of Jack Dunavant’s contributions to Halifax County. I’m a little biased here because (a) I grew up in Halifax across the street from the Dunavant family and have known Jack all my life, and (b) all of Southside Virginia owes him a great debt for his advocacy and leadership in the fight against uranium mining in Pittsylvania County and against large-scale hog-farming in Halifax County. Because the latter points are probably well-known to most people (they certainly should be), let me just further say I have witnessed many personal acts of kindness by Councilman Dunavant that belong somewhere on the scorecard of his character, good and bad, in the service to Halifax County. We are all fallen in the eyes of God. There’s that, too.

Whenever people express themselves as rancidly as Jack did last week, the question naturally arises: Was offense given purposefully, or not? Let me be clear about this much: I do not believe for a moment that Jack Dunavant is a vicious bigot, and you do not grow up in the rural South without seeing the type with your own eyes. Hidden beneath his otherwise deplorable depiction of race relations in the “good ol’ days” was a kernel of truth — many warm relationships existed among White and Blacks, and in this grand mosaic of social relations the bonds of affection and love ran in both directions in segregated Southern society. Where Dunavant commits a category error of the highest order is in believing that his personal experience somehow defines the era — as if his happy memories erase the pain and hardship of millions of African Americans growing up in the apartheid society of the Old South, denied the full measure of economic and educational advancement, legal rights and individual freedoms that their white counterparts enjoyed, then and now.

This full measure remains out of reach for many Black Americans and people of color to this very day. In his letter, Dunavant spoke of his “great pride in the wonderful race relations we have enjoyed over the years in Halifax County.” Dunavant didn’t mention it specifically, but the crowning achievement of Halifax County’s “wonderful race relations” was the peaceable integration of our public school system in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. It’s probably true that everyday interactions between Whites and Blacks leading up to that point in time — the sentiment shared by “good people” of both races — had much to do the relatively harmonious fashion in which integration went forward in Halifax County. But none of this was unique, nor determinative. Lots of White children grew up in Prince Edward County with love in their hearts for the African-American women who made their meals and cleaned up afterwards, and we all know how our neighbors two counties to the north reacted when federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools. That Halifax County acquitted itself more honorably at its particular time of trial is best seen for what it is — an opportune development, and a stroke of luck.

We haven’t been quite as lucky since, as witnessed by the toxic tone that Dunavant strikes in his letter. Whatever you may think of the political and policy argument he deigns to make, there’s no excuse in this day and age for making a statement as aggressively nasty as “colored people didn’t cotton to being called black.” One could have posted Dunavant’s letter on the social media page of KKK grand wizard David Duke and no one would have batted an eye thinking the site had been hacked. “Killing America” goes way beyond promoting a controversial point of view. In her Viewpoint letter elsewhere in today’s edition, letter writer LeLe Jones Snead rightly diagnoses its dyspeptic phrasing as “a sickness in the belly” that, along with the good things Dunavant has done in his lifetime, will define his public persona going forward.

Dunavant should resign from Halifax Town Council. Since I know Jack well, and can say with the burning certitude of a thousand suns that his answer to that will be “hell no,” it falls to Council as a whole to act. It would be somewhat surprising if the town charter actually empowers Council to remove a fellow member from office, which may not be the best idea anyway — Dunavant is a duly elected official, after all, and no one could possibly have done a better job of canceling Dunavant’s claim to represent the town than Dunavant himself — but it surely behooves the governing body to state, emphatically, that this shameful letter in no way defines the Town of Halifax or Halifax County as a whole. Dunavant has lost all ability to speak on behalf of a substantial share of the town’s population; whether or not he chooses to come to terms with this reality shouldn’t stop Town Council from making the point blazingly obvious.

It’s sad. My neighbor would do himself a favor to step away from his steady diet of right-wing nonsense and get out more in the world. A good start would be to immerse himself in the life of Halifax County’s Black community, which, in my very limited experience at least, has demonstrated quite well that it doesn’t need lectures from moral scolds doing double duty as old White men with their noses stuck to Fox News to understand the challenges that it faces. I’ve sat through programs by African Americans speaking to fellow African Americans, and it’s a pretty regular occurrence to hear the subject of the Black family come up. No one needs the diagnoses of Jack Dunavant and fellow travelers to know that poverty, crime, fatherless households and other social ills are ever-present concerns in the Black community. (They’re also problems for the White community, too, not that you’d know from listening to the stone-throwing contingent of the Republican Party.) Unless Dunavant believes Black people are incapable of thinking for themselves, the more fruitful question he could be asking himself is this: Why aren’t more people, of all races, buying what he’s selling? Was his argument brought down by bad salesmanship, or a defective product, or both?

Let’s be real about what’s really “Killing America” — the proud ignorance typified by Dunavant’s letter that is relentlessly tearing the country apart. It’s no accident that “Killing America” provoked a firestorm at the exact moment Americans are dying in the tens of thousands from a virus that every other advanced country in the world has managed to keep in check, more or less. It also much be noted this pandemic has preyed most viciously on the poor and people who do the “essential work” of America, many who are Black and Brown. Apparently, men like Dunavant also are the only people left in America who haven’t seen images of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe, or read about the raid by Louisville cops that left Breonna Taylor dead from gunshot wounds while sleeping in her apartment. Would it have been so hard to incorporate these facts into a letter to the editor purporting to explain what’s “Killing America”?

Last week in this space, I wrote about the rise of racism in America and the apparent inability of those who have been seduced by its power to place a filter on their ugliest thoughts. I wasn’t writing about Jack Dunavant specifically, but the point obviously applies. I suppose there’s some value in seeing this filter torn away, so that we can all be clear about the foul reach of racism in American life. But count me among those (probably a small contingent by now) who was genuinely sad to see Jack Dunavant hurt his good reputation by writing a singularly despicable letter. That wasn’t the voice I remember hearing back in the day from my old Scoutmaster and boyhood neighbor. But enough with the trips down memory lane. We’ve got the present to worry about. Killing America is the task that is embraced by those who peddle hate, reject science, condemn compromise, celebrate disinformation, promote a toxic brand of “personal freedom” (up to and including refusing to wear face marks to protect themselves, and more important, others) and contort long-held “principles” for no other reason than simply to anger political opponents.

Saving America? That, friends, is the job for the rest of us.

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