Author Joy Boothe and I felt that this short story about love and racism in America would be a fitting way to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on his actual birthday. 11 years younger than Nelson Mandela, Dr. King would by 85 today.
Joy and I filmed this video as a gift to her son, and, I mentioned to her later that it might be something worth sharing with the public. The story was first published in The Great Smokies Review. Joy and her husband Norm Rabek are two of the many dear friends we've made during our travels for Story of America. They live in Yancey County, NC in a house on a mountain ridge that they built themselves.
Joy says about the short story she reads above: "This is the true story of how I came to give that name to my oldest son. My grandparents on both sides were dirt farmers in South Alabama with only a few years of school. My granddaddy never learned to read. My parents were the first to graduate from high school. My mother got pregnant with me while they were still students. They both died when I was eleven. I had one year of college. My son Jesse has a master’s degree from MIT."
Full text of the short story:
Jesse. I am five years old and I hate the name. It reminds me of my great uncle Jesse Long. A drunk. At family gatherings he would roar in, all hot stinking breath and red face. He liked to sing “Mule Train” at the top of his lungs and stomp and stumble around like he was buck dancing. He scared me to death.
One thing led to another, I guess, until he put the shotgun he used to hunt with under his chin and blew his head off. I have heard Aunt Nanny, his wife, tell how it was a hundred times. “I was cooking back-bone and liver,” she’d say, “and it was bad hot that day. And flies, Lord, I’ve never seen as many flies as we had that summer. Jesse came in from the field to eat. He was sober for once. I was surprised, but I didn’t say anything one way or the other. You know he was bad to hit me if I mentioned his drinking. Anyway, he gets his gun out of the bedroom and walks out on the back porch. ‘Nanny,’ he says, real polite, ‘would you come here, please?’ Well, just as I stepped out on the porch, he pulled the trigger. His jawbone flew at me and hung in the screen by my head.”
Now, in Sunday school, when I study about Samson slaying his enemies with the jawbone of an ass, I picture Nanny and Jesse on the screen porch.
Notes by Eric Byler written on the day this interview was recorded in Aug. 2013. Release of this video was delayed due to a tense political climate in the mountains of western North Carolina.
Today we met with the Ledford family and filmed a long interview. They wanted to be interviewed all at once so it was six people plus Annabel. Not easy to light or to film, but I got most of it using 3 cameras.
Lee Roy Ledford, a former Mitchell County Commissioner, and the family as a whole are trying to navigate the shifting dynamics of politics in the region.
Luke and Jake Deyton, Lee Roy's grandsons, are college-bound very articulate and identify as Democrats, which the family light-heartedly tolerates. Lee Roy's daughter Tracy married into the Deyton family which she described as conservative Democrats, or "Dixiecrats." Lee Roy's son, their uncle Tommy Ledford, is a school board member who says he does not plan to seek higher office. He was the most conservative person at the table, and expressed the closest thing to disapproval of the boys' Democratic affiliation.
Lee Roy and his grandsons all expressed frustration with hate-based political rhetoric and what they called propaganda. Lee Roy's fallout with fellow Republicans in Mitchell County began with the marriage amendment (On May 8, 2012, North Carolina voters approved the amendment, 61.04% to 38.96%, with a voter turnout of 34.66%). He and the other county commissioners voted unanimously to encourage voters to vote their conscience. This was turned into, "Lee Roy is for gays getting married," and he was defeated in the next primary. He says his political career is over, and he and his son Tommy gave emphatic, negative responses when I asked if they were thinking of running a slate of moderate Republicans in the next primary.
Tracy spoke passionately about the teaching profession, and lovingly about her experience in Raleigh attending a Moral Monday protest themed around education.