SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Patricia Elam

The KKK and Me: my ties to the Klan

    I was married a few months ago in a very quick ceremony at a courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee.  We didn’t tell anyone about our plans as we simply woke up early in the morning and went to the courthouse.  Our family and friends were upset we did not share our intentions, but we didn’t want to hear negative comments or wishes from anyone.  During the summer I had the chance to meet the rest of my extended family: my mother in-law, my step father-in-law, many nieces, nephews and cousins.  The Woodard clan, as they called themselves, was very friendly and excited to meet me.  I had mixed experiences meeting my new extended family, but one of these experiences sticks out in my mind.

    Driving down the dusty two lane highway between Tennessee and Georgia, I kept bothering my husband with questions about his family as we drove.  Every few miles I would try to get more and more information about them so that I knew what to expect, but it proved to be of little help as we turned left down that unpaved dirt road towards Steve’s house.  The green fields opened up to a large expanse of land all around us, in the distance a small yellow speck came into view.  As we drove closer, this speck increased in size until we parked in front of it.  The bright yellow three level home stood welcoming us from its foundation.  This home was adorned with a small group of people sitting in rockers on the porch, on the stairs, and children running to and fro in the front yard.  As we continued approaching the house, I became more anxious.  Being lead into the unknown, and unsure of what to expect, my anxiety kept growing.  Walking through the house I was comforted by the smells that aroused my senses.  Burning kindling in the fireplace, the sweet smell of tobacco that followed Paupa from room to room, or the many different scents of food that flowed from the kitchen; all were soothing as I was welcomed into my new family.  The Woodard family was accustomed to the smells, but I enjoyed every moment as I could not enjoy these things at home in Arizona.  I felt less anxious as I walked further into the house and began chatting with different family members.

    As I continued to try to meet everyone and making my way through Steve’s house, the entire family questioned me about my marriage and circumstances surrounding it.  After the short winded meet and greet through the house, trying to remember forty or fifty people after just meeting them kept me wondering who was who.  My step father-in-law, Kenny, introduced me to the crowd of cousins on the porch, his nephews (Steve’s sons) Eric and Tyler watching football in the living room, his brother Steve, and his father and step-mother in the kitchen.  Everyone referred to grandpa as Paupa, who was Steve and Kenny’s dad, and their step-mother as Imogene.  With this information in mind, I was able to make it through the day and tried to remember as many names and faces as possible.  My step father-in-law, Kenny, and his brother Steve took turns showing me from room to room and explaining various family stories to me.  Steve also took it upon himself to share with me the secrets to successful marriage, though he was currently going through a very bad divorce.  “You should never go to bed angry,” he said.  I did not put too much stock into the conversation as I was still trying to remember names and faces.  After an hour of parading through the house and short introductions, I was ready to relax and take a few moments for myself in all that was going on.  I took a seat at the kitchen table and just began to observe and take in everything that was happening around me.

Children rushed in and out, parents or cousins rushing after them.  Those that were cooking went from room to room setting up tables and preparing for the meal.  All the action, and I was just happy to sit and watch it all.  Eventually, a nice older man came and sat next to me at the kitchen table.  I was able to recall that this was Paupa, my step father-in-law’s father.  I struck up a conversation with him about different topics and listened intently to the stories he shared with me.  He talked about traveling to different parts of the world and about his time in the Army.  I was amazed at how much detail Paupa shared and recalled from his adventures.  After a time, he began using racial slurs in his descriptions of people and places.  He talked about putting “chinks” in internment camps in California, going on to further explain how he and his buddies would beat them up after drinking at a local bar.  As well, he discussed the horrible treatment of the “negro” people in the South while he was growing up.  After listening to his discourse on the treatment of immigrants and African-Americans, I was ready to exit the conversation and move elsewhere.  I excused myself and began to wander away from the kitchen for brighter conversation.

    I excused myself and went to find my husband talking to various family members in a parlor near the kitchen.  Upon seeing me, he led me outside to a quiet place and I proceeded to tell him everything Paupa had just shared with me.  To my horror, he let me know that Paupa and this family have deep rooted ties to the Ku Klux Klan.  They have been members of the Klan for many generations.  He explained to me that Paupa, his oldest son Steve, and Steve’s two sons were all members of this group and are still practicing as well.  As I began to piece together what my husband was telling me, I became upset and was ready to make our exit.  As we walked back through the house, Steve’s two sons sat in the living room and were actually discussing their latest clan meeting while watching football.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this conversation and looked forward to leaving with no intention of returning to see these family members again.

    It might have been better to stay and discuss how I felt with my new family instead of getting upset at their belief system and walking away from it.  Everyone in my step father-in-law’s family was very nice and treated me with respect when I met them.  Each family member having their own personality with unique perspectives and ideas, I did not take the time to get to know these individuals and overanalyzed the situation.  By not stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, I lost the possibility of gaining understanding in this situation.  When I originally shared this situation with others, I was very disgusted by the thought of being affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and by the fact that the new additions to my family could have such attitudes about life.  Before meeting the Woodard clan, I had never formally researched the KKK or different view points of people living in the southern United States.  Paupa is a military veteran and thus comes from a different background, far different from my own.  He was raised in the South, brought up with certain core values (those of the KKK as well as those of most southern families during the mid-1900’s), and I did not stop to think about this beforehand.

    The reason this incident clearly sticks out in my mind is because it unexpectedly took me across two different borderlands, race and culture.  When I originally shared this incident with others, I was disgusted by the thought of being personally affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.  Their cultural identity clashed harshly with my own, creating feelings and ideas in my own mind that were unsettling.  I do not share their ideas about race, racism, or culture; though I know I understand them much better having been able to expand this incident into different points of view.  The Woodard clan has been a fixture in the South for many generations, their ideas and experiences are those created from a certain historical, religious, and cultural point of view.  Being part of the KKK, Free Masons, Shriners, as well as the “feminine” equivalents to these groups (Stars of the South and Daughters of the Revolution); the Woodard family is very much set in their views of the world created through white male dominated historical perspectives.  In my own opinion, there is no justification for punishment, hatred, or blatant discrimination against others based on their ethnicity, race, or identity.  Through coursework this semester I have been able to step out of my own skin and examine the “other” in different situations, as well as examine these situations through a different lens. 

    In examining the perceptions and experiences of others, I have gained a greater respect for other people, the events, and ideologies that shape their individual being.  However, I know that my own feelings and ideas are further validated by the many changes that the United States is going through currently.  Having voted for an African-American president next term (Barack Obama), it shows how far we have come as a nation being able to grow beyond our own history and forge a new path into the future filled with diversity and change.  It is because we have been able to shed ourselves and move beyond the ideals of the past, though not forget them in the least, that we are able to embrace open diversity and openly challenge who we are and our individual places in the world.  My only hope is that one day my family members will be able to wake up, take off their blinders, and join the rest of us as we begin to forge a new and exciting future; while learning from the past and using it as a key to helping us shape and create our new foundation of change and growth in the United States.


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