Christine Weston's novel Indigo, set in pre-World War I colonial India, chronicles the coming of age of three very different characters -- Jacques de St.-Rémy, the French son of an indigo planter; Hardyal Rai, the son of a wealthy Indian lawyer; and John Macbeth, a wry, tough Englishman, son of a colonel in the British army. Weston does a masterful job of describing the slow-motion train wreck of the British occupation of India in an even-handed fashion, presenting the native Indians neither as noble savages nor as helpless victims, and their British overlords neither as evil exploiters nor as the emissaries of civilization. Her characters are complex, three-dimensional entities, not easily pigeonholed.
The most interesting of the three is John Macbeth, who as a young teen at the beginning of the story mistrusts all native Indians, but through his friendship with Hardyal grows past his bigoted, black-and-white view of the world. Nevertheless, when as a young man he joins the police force, he and Hardyal end up on opposite sides of the growing revolutionary movement, and Macbeth has no choice but to do the job his superiors expect of him and support the cause of the British occupiers. Although he remains a man of his time and context, he represents the potential we all have for doing the best we can with what we're given.
Which brings me to Haley Barbour.
For those of you who are not newshounds, Barbour is the governor of Mississippi. He gained accolades for his handling of the Katrina tragedy, and easily won a second term. He is now considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
The pundits are already speculating about the extent to which his past, and his state's, will weigh him down if he does make a bid for the nomination, and as a result he has been peppered with questions about the South's racist past. His replies thus far have seemed disingenuous at best. When asked what he remembered about the civil rights era in Mississippi, he said, "Not much." When a reporter mentioned the riots of 1961, he said that mostly what he recalled about that year was being on Yazoo City's winning baseball team as a thirteen-year-old.
"What I remember was more Mayberry than it was Mississippi Burning," the governor said.
Predictably, he's come under fire for these comments. Some have referred to him as a racist who is attempting to whitewash the history of a state that saw some of the bloodiest violence of the entire civil rights movement.
Barbour has tried, with little success, to counter these perceptions. "I went to an integrated college," he said, when asked about his earlier comments. "I never thought twice about it." He told a story about sitting in a literature class next to a pleasant young African-American woman who let him borrow her notes.
None of this has done much to alter the views of his critics.
My question is: what did you want him to say?
Barbour is 63; he was born in 1947. He was a privileged white boy in the Jim Crow South, and went to a segregated high school. He was seventeen when the Civil Rights Act was passed, twenty-one when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Many young whites, growing up in that era, accepted without question the prevailing attitudes of the time - just as we accept today's.
However, even if he once believed that whites were superior - a claim that seems to have no particular basis in fact, by the way - there is no indication whatsoever that he still does. Of all of the news stories and editorials written about him and his past, no one seems to be able to find a single thing he has said or done that is explicitly (or even implicitly) racist. That he's unwilling to engage in a dialogue about Mississippi's violent history may seem suspicious, but to me it speaks of nothing more than political expediency. Barbour's claim "not to remember much" about the bloody protests of the civil rights era seems to be more wishful thinking than it is racism. That all happened a long time ago; I was young then. It's over. Let's move on.
For the record, I don't particularly like Barbour's politics; I very much doubt I'd vote for him. But to cast him as a racist for his reluctance to discuss something that happened fifty years ago when he was a teenager is ridiculous. Like John Macbeth in Indigo, he is a person of his time and place -- as we all are. But any time and place produces good people and bad, people who rise above the prejudices of their fellows and those who swallow them and sink. It remains very much to be seen that Barbour is one of the latter type.