Understanding, cooperation in short supply these days

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 16, 2005

I have a confession to make.

It won’t be popular with the great majority of Times readers. My parents would probably say I shouldn’t be so open about it. But being honest with myself means being honest with my readers, too, so here it is:

I don’t like watermelon.

You can tell what’s wrong with it just by looking at its name: it’s a melon that tastes like water. If you ask me, fruit is a lot better when it doesn’t remind you of the time you were seven and made Kool-Aid with twice the water and half the sugar.

Then there’s texture. I like fruit and I like drinking fruit juice, but eating watermelon’s like trying to do both at the same time. It’s what you’d get if you soaked the sponge you use to wash your car, dyed it pink, and made it edible.

The seeds don’t help, either. Last I checked, most recipes don’t call for small pieces of rock to be mixed at random into the dish. When I’m hungry and stick a big forkful of food in my mouth, is it so wrong to want to not worry about what parts I can swallow and what parts I can’t?

Well, maybe. Working around the seeds isn’t that tough, I know. Yeah, watermelon’s still good for you and yeah, it’s still got lettuce, at least, whupped in the taste department.

So you’ll have to excuse me. I’m still a touch bitter over the many, many times I’ve passed on a big slice of watermelon at somebody’s picnic and heard–everybody, all together now–“You don’t like WATERMELON?”

No, sorry, I don’t like watermelon. What bugs me is the implication, however slight, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with that. That if I don’t like watermelon, well, I must have fallen off the monkeybars onto my head as a kid, or I was raised by bears, or, worst of all, I’m some sort of closet Yankee.

But I’m here to tell you, even if I don’t like watermelon, trust me: I’m a Southerner. I grew up near Lake Martin and love spending Saturday afternoons out on the water.

I live for college football in the fall. I’m higher on farm subsidies than the space program and firmly believe that the sweeter and darker tea becomes, the better it gets. I thank God on a regular basis he made the chicken so doggone good when fried up.

Run-of-the-mill Southerner? Nope. Don’t like Roy Moore. Like the NBA more than NASCAR. Don’t like watermelon. But a Southerner nonetheless, in my opinion.

It’s an opinion I believe many would differ with, though. You think Alabama needs higher property taxes? Your accent isn’t all that thick? You don’t like WATERMELON? Then you’re not one of us.

I raise the issue not because I’m sobbing into my pillow at night over it or anything, but because it’s this kind of attitude that’s spreading and day-by-day pulling our country, our state, and the Black Belt apart.

Take North Carolina’s East Waynesville Baptist Church, whose pastor preached from the pulpit that anyone who voted for Kerry last November needed to “repent,” and should leave the church. Eventually, the pastor took matters into his own hands, leading a successful charge last week to kick out nine church members for the terrible sin of voting Democrat.

Take Washington, where on one side you have demagogues like Ann Coulter, who labels liberals “traitors” and “treasonous,” and suggests someone should to come along to root liberals out like Joe McCarthy went after Communists in the 1950s. On the other side you have the sour-grapes Dems, who are preparing to filibuster the President’s judicial nominations for no real reason other than pure spite.

Take the Alabama Republican Legislative Committee and the Christian Coalition, who last January decided winning another state House seat for the Republicans was worth viciously smearing the name of candidate Gloria Dolbare, via a mass-mailing that said Dolbare supported gay marriage. Nevermind that Dolbare did not, of course. Nevermind that she was a special education teacher and the wife of a former Methodist lay minister. Nevermind that she was a widow fulfilling her late husband’s wish by running for the seat he vacated when he died of cancer. Nevermind any of that when there’s a seat to be gained.

And then take the Black Belt, where simultaneously two of our oldest and most prominent cities, Greensboro and Marion, are embroiled in contested mayor’s elections that reveal the deep splits that still divide them in two. Nothing yet I have experienced in my four months living in the Black Belt has been sadder than having two groups of residents from the same city, who should be working together to fight what is already an uphill battle, eyeing each other in courtrooms and City Council halls with nothing but distrust and ill-will.

It brings to mind President Bush in those angry days after 9/11, where we were told, as our soldiers headed to Afghanistan, “you’re either with us, or against us.” It certainly seemed justified at the time. But there’s no give-and-take in that mindset at all, no negotiation, no compromise, no empathy. It’s been repeated and repeated since then, and this is the upshot: churchgoers in North Carolina that would rather kick their Christian brothers and sisters out of the church than share a pew with a Democrat.

You’re either with us, or against us.

It’s now high time we as a country, a state, and a region took a minute to say: We may disagree, but we’re both Americans. We’re both Alabamians. We share the Black Belt. You’re with me.

I’m with you.

Even if you don’t like watermelon.