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I can still recall reading about this curious Georgian creeping about in the Oval Office turning down the thermostat, going to bed with a book under his arm, and a cup of cocoa to soothe away the day’s tensions. Not at all like Nixon turning up the air conditioners in the family quarters so he could light a fire in the hearth and enjoy an ersatz winter night. He wasn’t thinking about how to save the nation any money. Or the man who installed solar panels on the White House roof to make use of some renewable energy. They were torn out when Reagan took over. He wasn’t into pinching the nation’s pennies. Gee, Carter, our aging hero and crusader, was ahead of his time by some fifty years when he shocked all his political cronies with those panels. It was good fun to snicker about the peanut famer with goofy ideas and Sunday School morality. When Iran decided to hold the embassy hostages until 1981 minutes after Reagan was inaugurated, Carter was doomed to private life. But he didn’t stay idle for long; he was wielding a hammer and saw soon after, building houses for the poor with others from Habitat for Humanity. Even Rosalynn was out there in the burning sun hefting up planks and helping steady the dry wall. But no one really cared about the Carters after that.

Now that he is dying, and placed himself under the care of hospice nurses, some reconsiderations are beginning to filter into the news. He was, for a time, our Gandhi, a reformer and a man who set his own life as the example for what he hoped India would follow after separating from the British Empire. Gandhi’s long march to the sea to harvest some salt in defiance of the British salt tax started to move the vast inertia of colonial paralysis toward change. But Carter was perhaps the purer product of Gandhi’s influence than most people knew. To go from the White House and the absolute of American power to the lowly chores of building inexpensive shelter for the needy was a free fall from the pinnacles of brute force down to the humble earth where ordinary human beings lived out their lives. He did this without boasting, and, as I have read recently, did it through rain or shine. He would get sick and still pull on his work clothes and go out to raise the roof beams. The press tired of his modest ways, and found his own little tract house dull and even embarrassing as the afterlife of a politician who once ruled the world.

Jimmy, if I may call him that, was a born southerner, a man saturated in the rural values of his state. He was slow to wake to the torment of Black apartheid in this country. He didn’t know how to uproot the powerful poison let loose by George Wallace, David Duke, all the hate-mongering fellow southerners. It was not in his field of vision for years to come, but when George Floyd was murdered by the police, he finally made his pronouncement that the real curse on America was its long history of racism. He was out of the racial closet, and standing courageously before the press letting the country know he had a large soul, one that could feel the pain and the misery of his fellow Georgians. This was a much bigger lift than putting up solar panels or turning down the thermostat. He was throwing off the blinkers of white identity, of white rule. He had put on his loin cloth and begun to show himself with a palmful of sea salt, and a vision of American atonement that few other white southerners had found the courage to profess. Carter had redeemed himself and threw off the shackles that blinded him to the main theme of American social history. He now stood in defiance of Ron DeSantis, who set out to erase the memory of black slavery and segregation in his own run for the White House.

Right now we are suffering from a shortage of white heroes, men and women willing to defend the liberty of black lives. It is hard to believe that we are still faced with the denial, the enmity, the outright hatred of Black Americans two hundred years after the end of the Civil War. But you need only glimpse out of your left eye the extent to which history is about to be purged of its true account of black misery and despair. I can’t help but suspect that the draconian laws against abortion in the southern states is in part a war against black women’s freedom. That we are witnessing a new phase of black captivity by imposing drastic punishment on such women who choose to grow up first and not be the victims of rape, incest, poor education, poverty, and mind-numbing entrapment of the young.

Carter was at a crossroad of the American future – a man who seemed to know that we were dithering and incapable of seizing tan opportunity to change the principles by which we conducted our lives. We were literally dragging a nation burdened by poverty and rejection into a future that had already defined itself as technological, reserved for educated white men to pursue and begrudgingly accepting young women who fought hard to win a place at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and other universities that held the keys to admission into the new utopia of Science. Otherwise, one leg of America’s progress was dragging a vast population of minority citizens who were relegated to the lowest castes of our social hierarchy. For nearly four decades I lived and taught literature in Texas, where my classes were filled with young white men and where blacks and Latinos were concentrated in the ranks of maids, groundskeepers, bus drivers. In the small towns around our campus were blacks living on the ragged edge of society, many of them broken by the hard labor on the dirt farms and cotton patches. I spent months teaching as a poet in the prison at Huntsville and the work farms in the hinterlands. The majority of inmates was black, and their only hope of getting paroled was to profess a feverish devotion to Christ and the narrow vision of southern Baptist faith. I had to read reams of shrill rhetoric on the glories of the moral way, on the joys of being saved, and the rapture felt at the coming of the end times. I didn’t believe in any of it. It wasn’t like the earthy, unrehearsed pain of the blues. It came from a thinly conscious desire to escape from misery by lying to power, and promising to renounce the native passion and freedom of instinctive blackness. It could break your heart to read such gibberish.

Carter lived in the iron grip of this racism, and no doubt hired blacks to work his peanut farms. He must have passed Georgia chain gangs and met the eyes of men doing time cracking rocks for the railroads carrying cotton to the big mill towns. He knew there were two Americas in his midst – the one privileged and favored with the best jobs and the best educations, and awarded the coveted the prize of a woman of social stature to marry. He passed all this in his car but until Floyd was pinned to the ground for over nine minutes as he cried out to his mother to save him, he didn’t know how to peel away the calluses from his heart. He finally realized that the shelters he was helping to build included all the George Floyds of the south, the men denied their right to participate on an equal footing with white men. And to enjoy the company and love of educated and enlightened black women.

Who knows what Carter’s dreams were like as he let this tragic incident work its way into the recesses of his spirit? How could a white southerner reach down into the quick of his soul and find that he had been wrong not to question the hell of his own state? When Trump pried open the doors of racism and let out the political tidal wave of resentment and pent up fury against black life, it wasn’t long before every other bigoted southern pol found the courage to join him in the region-wide crusade against equality in America. Carter had to move a mountain from his chest in order to behold his own troubled conscience. But he did it, and he was no doubt aware that this was coming near the end of his life. He was not afraid to die, or to take the scorn of his fellow Georgians when he prayed for the courage to tell the truth about the black tragedy in America. We were not only a flawed society, but a democracy that had not been allowed to evolve past the closing days of the Civil War. We were stalled in the bowels of the Dark Ages, and it would take men like Carter to shake off his illusions and speak for the first time from his soul. He could befriend blacks, make allies of their most ardent reformers, but he could not show himself as a redeemed man in the eyes of his nation until he had mounted the stage and proclaimed he was a champion of universal freedom.


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