Killing Snakes

When you’re not an actual victim of atrocity, you drop your head at the news, and pray that this time will be the last. I can only make guesses at what it’s like these days to be a black American and see the flickering blue lights of an officer come to life behind you. I can’t speak to that at all. But I know the secrets of the paler American. Even the ones with a religion that demands equality. With freedom he takes for granted, and the hate he takes in unawares.

I watched the video of Travis Cole of Greensboro, NC sitting on his mother’s front porch, confronted by police; beaten, and then arrested for no good reason. It’s a shocking moment—the instant the conversation turns from awkward, but polite, to pointlessly violent—and I stared at my computer screen, trying to understand how this had happened when my phone rang. My mother began telling me about a snake that had gotten into their house.

My childhood home is surrounded by trees. Blackbirds, jays and cardinals paint the backyard every morning, snacking on the bugs and berries there. Squirrels bounce from limb to limb like some animal circus act. It’s not unusual to walk outside after dark and encounter a opossum eating from the cat’s bowl. It’s all so common it loses its ability to dazzle or startle anymore. But, on the rare occasion you stumble onto a snake, the moment sears itself into your memory.

We reserve a special brand of fear for these beasts. Due to the skin of Christianity stretched across the South, we hate them with a religious fervor. Snakes are forever connected in our minds to the animal that slithered up a tree in the first garden to tempt that innocent duo. An irrational and murderous abhorrence we never bother to question. Whether they are coiled to attack or blithely meandering along, we feel the world a better place without them.

You learn to shoot a gun in the South the same way they learn to pray—by cultural osmosis. I haven’t shot a gun in years, but I still get the attraction. There’s a twelve-year old in all of us that likes watching things explode. If you’ve never held your breath as you stare down the barrel to line up your shot, and then see a frozen milk carton of water detonate, or a soda can shredded, there’s little I can do to make you understand.

It is control, yes, but it’s also power. And when you add in the idea that you’re ridding the world of something you see as representing evil itself in some metaphysical way, there’s a sense of self-righteousness too. I personally feel guilty stepping on a roach, but as I line up the shot to end a water snake that has crawled too close to my home, I feel nothing. Perhaps not nothing. Perhaps, instead, justification, a sense of pride at righteousness prevailing.

My father once brought home a badly Xeroxed page which purported to show how black human beings were something less than human. That we were created by a loving God from nothing, but they were the ones descended from apes. At home, church, and school, racial epithets were casually thrown about, and the belief that African Americans were natural criminals was a foregone conclusion. Not up for debate. We locked our doors when driving through certain parts of town.

I still feel it. The irrational hate, the fear, the judgment. It creeps in. I despise it. But my faith has taught me different. I’ve learned that you have to choose between it and hate. One will always destroy the other. For some, black Americans are forever connected in their minds to the people our great grandparents owned; people they thought of as things; animals. The grandparents who used the faith that is rescuing me from my hate to justify theirs. When they see a man sitting on his front porch, waiting for his mother to get home, beaten, he is finally getting what he deserves. That’s our secret. If we didn’t hate, we’d have to face our sin. So, we label you, dehumanize you, we reserve a special brand of fear for you. All this so our hate feels like justice. We hate you with a religious fervor. We feel nothing. But perhaps not nothing.

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