Josephine Ensign
Source: Josephine Ensign

I grew up in rural Virginia surrounded by White supremacists and the KKK. I went to school with—and received direct threats from—the son of the Grand Dragon of the KKK. Hate groups are, unfortunately, alive and all too ‘well’ today as they were then, and according to the wise folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center, they are proliferating in number. Hate groups are not confined to the South but they do seem particularly prevalent there, especially White supremacist hate groups, for obvious historical reasons. It is both disingenuous and dangerous for Virginia politicians, including Governor Terry McAuliffe and Mayor of Charlottesville Michael Signer to claim that the White supremacists at this past weekend’s hate rally were “not from here.” Of course, they likely represented almost every state and dark, dismal corner of our country. But of course, they were born and bred Virginians as well. It is dangerous for us to deny that hate starts at home, that hate is present where we all live, in each and every community. Fight hate. Here are ten ways to fight hate in your community, brought to you by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Hate crimes are a public health issue, recognized as such by the American College of Physicians in a recent statement, by the American Public Health Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Nurses Association, and by a growing number of other professional associations.  

And, because the memory of the following experience was brought back for me over the past few days, here is my story of my first run-in with the KKK. I was ten years old. Oh yes, and when I was back in Virginia this past fall right before the November election, on the exact farm where this KKK rally occurred, there were huge signs for both Trump and a White supremacist/nationalist group.

One late summer day I was riding in our VW bug, my mother driving on back roads from the airport, within view of downtown Richmond, not far from Oakwood Cemetery. We had just dropped off a camp counselor who was flying back to college. I was ten, sitting in the backseat, slumped against the right side window, reading a book, vaguely registering the countryside and farms we were passing, when my mother slammed on the brakes.

“Damn!” I never heard my mother curse, so I looked up quickly.

“What?” I asked.

“Keep your head down and stay quiet,” she said, adding more softly as she turned off the engine, “It’ll be OK.”  I could see her leaning forwards, both hands tightly clutching the top of the steering wheel. I slumped down in the seat while quickly peering out the side window to see what had stopped us, to see what would be OK, to see what she didn’t want me to see. I figured it was a bad car accident and she didn’t want me to see the dead or injured people.

It was approaching dusk, the witching magic hour for the waning sun. The field next to us glowed golden, with large rectangular hay bales strewn about the field of wheat stalk stubble. Hovering over the field, suspended in the thick damp evening air were shining motes of hay bits, effervescent like Fourth-of-July sparklers. With our car engine turned off, the sound of cicadas and crickets created a curtain of white noise, as mesmerizing as the floating hay.

“ Evening, ma’am. Don’t mean no trouble. I gotta’ stop you here awhile. There’s a meeting that’s passing through, that’s all. You can get going in a minute or so,” a man’s voice, polite, official-sounding, with crisp words stuck in a slow Southern drawl, came in my mother’s open window. I looked between the seats and saw a spotless white-gloved hand cupped over the doorsill. Behind that was blazing white with a thin, trickling, blood-red cross, above the cross was no face within a white mask, pale thin lips moving within an elliptical cutout area. From the words spoken and the weight of the voice, I expected to see the uniform of a policeman. When I first saw the white mask, I felt disoriented and had to remind myself it wasn’t Halloween. I stayed quiet, huddled down behind the seats. As the man walked away, I looked out the front windshield to see where he was going. Up ahead, perhaps fifty feet away, was a swarm of ghostly pointed-hat masked figures swirling around a huge bonfire. It took a moment for me to see that inside the bonfire was a ten-foot dark wooden cross.

“What’s that and why are they wearing those weird costumes?” I asked.

“Shhhhh—I’ll tell you later. Stay down and stay quiet,” my mother said.

Absorbing the fear in my mother’s voice, I sank deeper in the seat, but moved over in the middle so I could see out the front windshield at the fire and the figures. Several of the white-clad men reached into the fire with long wooden sticks and withdrew flaming torches. Then en masse, with fluid amoeboid movement, the group came toward us, sucking in lone figures as it streamed forward. I heard deep-voiced chanting, words indecipherable as a foreign language. They grew louder, surrounding our car, lighting the inside with their glowing whiteness and lit torches, gently rocking the car as they brushed past it, moving across the road, then thinning to double file down a dirt path that cut through the next field. The comforting, familiar smell of wood smoke followed them.

I didn’t hear my mother start the car. We were speeding away, screeching around bends in the road. Reflected in the rearview mirror, I saw my mother’s face set hard as stone, etched with the fierce anger I seldom saw. I was more afraid of her anger than I had been of the men we had seen. I stayed quiet, huddled down in the back seat, bracing myself for the rough ride. When we got home she disappeared into her bedroom, talking quietly with my father—so quietly that I couldn’t make out what they were saying, even with my ear pressed against the rough stucco wall between our bedrooms.

At the dinner table that night, my father told me we had been in the middle of a Klu Klux Klan meeting. “They’re racist white men who wear those costumes to look like ghosts of Confederate soldiers to scare black people, and to scare white people who don’t agree with them, like it scared your mother.” As I slowly chewed a mouthful of food, I considered this information. The ghostly man who had stopped us seemed polite, a Southern gentleman. Being in the midst of the KKK meeting had been exotic, dreamlike, seductive—almost beautiful. I knew that what I had seen, the way I had seen it, was not something to discuss. I swallowed the dissonance between my mother’s reaction and my own experience of the encounter.

The dissonance remains. It took living out of and looking back at the South to understand that ghosts becoming part of the landscape are something not to relax into. The landscape of my childhood is a landscape of half-buried violence, covered with violets, punctuated by deep, abandoned wells. The roads leading back to it are as twisted as the country roads I grew up on. Within the accretive layers of nostalgia lies the sludge of orange dust tasting of blood. I both fear and yearn for the complexity, the offbeat rhythm of the South that has formed me.

From the chapter “First Families” included in my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net.

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