The plague of silence

Published October 14, 2021


EDITOR'S NOTE: Jill McCorkle is short story writer, novelist and native North Carolinian who lives in Hillsborough. She has taught creative writing at UNC, N.C. State University, Harvard University and Bennington College. In 1999 she received the North Carolina Award in literature. The essay was initially posted by Arrowsmith Press. 

 Today, I was out running errands in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and noticed a truck following close behind me. When I pulled into the left turn lane, he pulled up right beside me and motioned that I roll down my window. I assumed he would tell me that one of my tires looked low or perhaps I had forgotten to close my gas cap, and was preparing myself to thank him for his kindness. Imagine my surprise.

“You’re nothing but a plain shit eatin dog!” he yelled and then again. “I said you’re nothing but a plain shit eatin dog and your bumper stickers prove it!”

I have two bumper stickers from the last election; one is for the Governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, and the other for Joe Biden.

I was in the process of saying “what is your problem” when he screamed his statement once again: “nothing but a shit eatin dog” and sped off as soon as the light turned. With pen in hand I wrote down his license number. 

 Ironically, I was turning into the local nursery to buy mealworms for the bluebird population we have worked to lure into our yard. In many cultures, the bluebird is a symbol of hope and happiness, love and renewal. Some believe they protect against negative energy. Are there enough mealworms to be found these days?

On Saturday, I got an alert on my phone that the neo-confederates were gathering once again on the sidewalks in front of the Hillsborough courthouse with their flags. My husband and I have gone before to stand in opposition; my husband has regularly photographed those spewing hatred, some with guns tucked into waistbands (illegal on courthouse property), others in white Klan robes.

For years, a slogan for my native state was a chipper little jingle of “I like calling North Carolina home.” There have always been many reasons that was true, too. We have the Blue Ridge Mountains and a beautiful coastline.  We have some of the best basketball and barbecue you will find.  And, until recent years, we have had a progressive, nationally renowned university system — the university of the people — and we stood at the forefront of K-12 public education.

A harsh turn to the right of the university board has changed all of that — a recent example being the humiliating treatment of star-journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones who had the full support of the Dean of the Journalism School, faculty members of the university, and tenure review committees.

This sharp right turn, fueled by the former Republican presidential administration, has undermined the university system as well as unleashed the racist hatred that many of us might have stupidly — hopefully — thought was growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

But no, like the many killer viruses and bacteria of the past — anthrax, smallpox, you name it — it was resting dormant in its permafrost tomb, waiting for a shift in climate. The radical, pervasive racism we are witnessing needed only some strategic heated and hostile encouragement. The pernicious, evil virus is clearly alive and well, and there is a growing wall of denial and silence allowing and enabling it.

I do not in any way appreciate the flying of the Confederate flag, a symbol synonymous with the desires for white supremacy, or all the little stone statues erected in the lost cause era during Jim Crow. I applauded when the Confederate statue on the UNC campus was finally removed, and I was horrified that the university was planning to pay the Sons of Confederates Veterans to protect it.

I cringe at the many Trump flags I still see flying here in my home state, as well as the RV the size of a Greyhound bus I saw on the coast labeled “The Silent Majority.” I wanted to tell them I am pretty sure John Mellencamp and other artists would be horrified their music was being played.

Still, I am a believer in the First Amendment and an individual’s right to express a belief or opinion. I detest the banners I pass that read “F**k Biden” or “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump” or claim some patriotic stand for the attack on the Capitol, and yet, I would never pull a bumper sticker off of your car or accost you with invasive hostility on a public street.

I believe that those who stormed the Capitol were not your average tourists, but more on a par with the man who called me a “shit eatin dog” and the one flying the “F**k Biden” banners. It seems to me that is the sentiment of the people who invaded the Capitol and those who don white robes and spew hatred. But I also know they are allowed and encouraged to do so because of the many silent supporters who cast their votes, went home, and now are relaxed and enjoying the results.

Complicit silence is the most dangerous of all the infectious plagues. Many out there are not as easily recognizable as those in white robes with pistols, or those spouting profanities at the driver beside them, but the racism and hatred are in place; like an invisible hood, cowardly silence is dangerous, and the damage done to a community seeking peace and unity is catastrophic. You might even hear them claiming Christian ethics and values, using words like good, righteous, blessed.

However, I seriously doubt a righteous soul — Jesus for example — would have called me a “shit eatin dog,” and I also doubt that he would have stood silently by and watched a show of vicious hostility and hatred in his name; people threatened for having an opinion, casting a vote, and wanting others to have the chance to vote; people simply threatened because of who they are. Certainly, I am aware that my experience today is a cruel and inhumane daily occurrence for so many marginalized and targeted members of our society — hateful injustice heaped on injustice.

Although I cling to my mealworms, or whatever might bring a little hope or semblance of goodness into the yard, I also look to the sparrow — hard working, persistent and vigilant — a symbol of freedom and the choice of good over evil, and a reminder that every single soul — silent or screaming — is accountable.