Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Louisiana Politics (or Why I'm Mad at William Jefferson)

"Here's to no longer biting our tongues!" said a brilliant woman I know. In the spirit of that declaration, I just have to write hastily about one William Jefferson.

I don't know much about the Jefferson case; anyway you look at it $90,000 frozen dollars is a bit troublesome, especially given the allegations of past issues. But I'm mad at him. Yes, for the obvious reasons--because he's black and from Louisiana and a Democrat. Trust me, black Louisianans had (and apparently have) a lot of hope and pride tied up in this guy.

But you know why I'm really mad at him?
Jefferson was born in Lake Providence, a small town in East Carroll Parish in far northeastern Louisiana, where he and his eight brothers and sisters worked alongside their father, who was a sharecropper and a heavy-equipment operator for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Though neither of his parents had graduated from high school, Jefferson graduated from G.W. Griffin High School in Lake Providence and received a bachelor's degree from Southern University... He later earned a law degree from Harvard University in 1972.
The child of grade school drop-outs, sharecroppers, William Jefferson is probably a "first." Part of the first generation in his family to reap the benefits of civil rights struggles, to go to college (an Ivy, no less), to escape. Not to downplay what he means to his constituents, but can you imagine what his successes mean to his family and community?

I am a "first" myself. And I can't tell you how many people in my hometown expressed pride in me when I was working on my BA. How many elderly people came up to me in church or at the store and pressed soft, wrinkled dollar bills in my hand--a little something to take back to school with me. They used to make me stand there while they rummaged in their bosom, or reached for a safety pin that held money to the inside of their dresses, or dug slowly in faded backpockets for crumbling wallets. They were praying for me, they'd say, and they knew I'd be fine.

Or how often my hairdresser, who'd been doing my hair since I was a six-year-old getting a press and ponytail, waved away my payment and told me to "Save it for a book or something you might need." Or the number of little "scholarships"--like the one from the Parents' Civic and Social Club or the church education fund--that helped me buy books or eat off-campus or make a trip to the store. These people had a vested interest in me, much as I'm sure Jefferson's community had an interest in him.

Moreso than I, Jefferson comes from rural poverty. In 1990, for example, Lake Providence was the poorest commmunity in the nation--not just in Louisiana, which is something in and of itself, but in the whole damned country. I can't believe he's not some kind of symbol, a source of pride, proof that there is a way out of Lake Providence. His story, his legacy, means something to those people.

If he is guilty of wrongdoing, that is a lot to throw away, a lot to forsake. No one, not even firsts, can live their lives for other people; after all, people take a chance if they choose to live through you--God knows I've disappointed some. But I don't think there's anything wrong with realizing that, in the eyes of your community, you represent much more than yourself. I can't help thinking that ignoring that makes you a bit selfish.

That's why I'm mad at William Jefferson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally understand your anger. While I am not a "first" in my family (for a bachelors), I do know the feeling of pride you speak of. I am the "first" with a PhD and I've received similar encouragement from family and friends.

It is quite disappointing when one of "your own" does wrong and makes the entire community feel (and look) bad. It just makes me grit my teeth with anger. Kinda makes you think, "you know he was raised better than that. what the h*ll was he thinking!?!?" So very disappointing.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...