Marty and Nick Jr. Go to America

Martin Amis in The New York Times:

AmisIn 1967 my father took another teaching job in America — “at Vanderbilt University at Nashville, Tennessee,” according to his “Memoirs,” “an institution known, unironically I suppose to some, as the Athens of the South.” Princeton started admitting black students in the mid-1940s. Two decades later my father asked if there were any “colored” students at Vanderbilt. “Certainly,” came the unsmiling reply. “He’s called Mr. Moore.” Nor did the staff common room, in the department of the humanities, provide any kind of counterweight to the “values” of the surrounding society — i.e., the raw prejudices of the hog wallow and the gutter. The culprit in the following anecdote was a novelist and a teacher of literature called Prof. Walter Sullivan.

Whenever I tell this story, as I frequently do, I give him a Dixie chawbacon accent to make him sound even more horrible, but in fact he talked ordinary American-English with a rather attractive Southern lilt. Anyway, his words were (verbatim), “I can’t find it in my heart to give a Negro [pron. nigra] or a Jew an A.” The strong likelihood of hearing such unopposed — indeed, widely applauded — sentiments at each and every social gathering moved my father to write that he considered his period in Nashville to be “second only to my army service as the one in my life I would least soon relive.” All this happened a long time ago, and I can prove it. During that year in Princeton the Amis family — all six of us — went on a day trip to New York City. It was an episode of joy and wonder, and of such startling expense, that we talked about it, incredulously, for weeks, for months, for years. What with the train tickets, the taxi fares and ferry rides, the lavish lunch, the lavish dinner, and the innumerable snacks and treats, the Amises succeeded in spending no less than $100. When he got back to the U.K. in 1967 my father wrote a longish poem about Nashville, which ends:

But in the South, nothing now or ever.

For black and white, no future.

None. Not here.

His despair, it transpired, was premature. One of the most marked demographic trends in contemporary America is the exodus of black families from the Northern states to the Southern. Nevertheless, those of us who believe in civil equality are suddenly in need of reassurance. I refer of course to the case of Trayvon Martin. Leave aside, for now, that masterpiece of legislation, Stand Your Ground (which pits the word of a killer against that of his eternally wordless victim), and answer this question. Is it possible, in 2012, to confess to the pursuit and murder of an unarmed white 17-year-old without automatically getting arrested? Ease my troubled mind, and tell me yes.

More here.