Sometimes a bit of random dialogue will jump out of a movie and stick with me for days. I was watching Chaplin a few days ago, and the following snippet did just that.
Chaplin: It’s a good country underneath, Doug.
Fairbanks: No, it’s a good country on top. Underneath—that’s what starts showing when we’re scared.
Well, which is it? I’ve been rolling that over in my head, trying to sort it out. Thinking back to when I was very young, the country seemed wonderful. There were fireworks on the Fourth of July and the Pledge of Allegiance. We had mothers, apple pie, and the flag.
Christian women prepared fried chicken for covered dish socials at the church, where “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was sung with perhaps more enthusiasm than the national anthem. Then as now, few could really sing “The Star Spangled Banner” very well, but we could put that patriotic zeal into a full-throated rendition of the high school fight song—“Dixie.”
I could ride my bicycle as far as my legs could carry me, safe in the knowledge that—as far as that might be—I couldn’t possibly get more than a residential block from the home of someone who was friends with my parents, a classmate, or a teacher. And even if I had a tumble from my bike and really hurt myself, I could have knocked on any door and been given help from one of those Christian women.
The outside world, not to be reached by bicycle, was sufficiently safe so that Mother could drop me off in downtown Tyler to go to a movie (I’m a generation too young to call it the picture show) where I had the offerings of three different theaters. Even there, it wasn’t like I was isolated. The square was populated mostly by stores where Mother and I shopped, which I could have easily run into for help from a cousin or salesclerk or the father of a classmate in the unlikely event that some “stranger danger” emerged.
After the movie, I would call Mother to come pick me up and wait for her by the fountain on the town square, after visiting the grave of Shorty the Squirrel. For a young boy with limited experience, my remembrance is barely shy of idyllic. A good country on top.
But underneath? Last year, a group met on Juneteenth in remembrance of the 92 known black victims of lynching in the Smith County area, several of whom were killed right on that square where I waited for Mother. And not just by hanging—some were burned alive. A wire report from 1912 described the killing of Dan Davis, under the screaming headline, “NEGRO FIEND BURNED AT STAKE; MOB VIOLENCE RULES IN TYLER.”
Three years earlier, a black man named Jim Hodges was lynched after being accused of assaulting a white woman. She was unable to identify Mr. Hodges as her assailant, and her father tried to stop the mob that gathered and carried out the killing by telling them that Mr. Hodges’ guilt had not been proven. This all led to another headline: “LYNCHED WRONG PERSON: Texas Mob Believed to Have Hanged Negro Who Was Innocent.” That story headline begs the question, “Would it have been acceptable to have lynched the right person?” Underneath—that’s what starts showing when we’re scared.
With the 100th anniversary this week of the Tulsa race massacre, we’ve been reminded—or sadly, found out—how easily the truth can be papered over. Not just in Tulsa, but in cities like Chicago (1919) and Atlanta (1906) and Washington (1919) and a host of small towns with killings on a smaller scale.
So is there any truth to Chaplin’s statement in the movie that “it’s a good country underneath”? Well, the article under that sensational 1912 headline included a description of Mr. Davis’ death. “Davis did not weaken. His voice was hoarse and he showed fear, but there was no cry from him until the flames seared his flesh, when he moaned in agony. The crowd stood around until the fire died down and little was left but charred bones and ashes.” The piece concludes with references to other “act[s] of mob violence that has been restorted [sic] to in the city.” Seems like a journalist was sending a message, even back then.
Good on top? Well, at least better. Good underneath? Well, the underneath of the past is immutable, but what we pass forward to be the underneath of tomorrow is up to us. We bear witness to what happened on January 6, we bear witness to attempts to suppress voting, and we bear witness to failed efforts to confront police violence.
I wish we could frame something that neither Chaplin nor Fairbanks seemed to contemplate in that imagined conversation—a country that is good on top and good underneath. Truth is, we can’t be either unless we can be both.