I used to teach at a high school in a small, isolated rural town in Georgia. I arrived there already in my forties and already formed as an adult, not really subject to the formative process that I would have undergone if I’d been a new young teacher.
People who visited there said it was like going through a time warp. The school was racially integrated and black students excelled as much as white students. Extra-curricular activities included white and black students, but there was no inter-racial dating, and there were no mixed marriages. In school, among faculty, and in the town, black and white citizens were friendly toward each other, but the churches were distinctly segregated, as well as the neighborhoods. Wealth was pretty much evenly distributed. Well-dressed black and white students attended school together, participated in activities together, but there it ended. Everyone seemed content with this arrangement.
Even with that peculiarity, it seemed an idyllic place to live. I decided not to live there, however. For one thing, I’m a Catholic, and while there were many Baptist, Pentecostal, and even a Methodist church or two, there was no Catholic church. I decided to live in a small city about 45 miles distant, where there is a Catholic church, and make the commute to work every day.
There was another reason, however, one less obvious, or less easily explained. The people of this town had lived there for generations. Everyone was identified, defined, placed, by their relations. “Joe Thompson’s boy,” or “Mary Alice’s brother,” or “one of the Conners.” This was particularly true of women: To live there, a woman had to be someone’s daughter, wife, sister, or mother. If none of these identities applied, she was no one—and she was also expendable, disposable, a useful target in feuds, someone who had no relations to hide behind–or hide within. An unrelated person is defenseless; they can safely be scapegoated with no fear of backlash or set up as a despised figure around whom others can unite. (I hadn’t yet read Rene Girard.) In any case, I sensed a profound danger almost from the day I arrived.
So I commuted. I knew they thought I believed I was “better” than they were. I didn’t, of course, but I had no choice but to let that belief stand. And over the years I taught there, my instinct for the danger I had sensed was proven accurate many times. I saw my students graduate and get trapped there. Too often they went away to college only to return after one semester, saying they were homesick. But it wasn’t their families they missed—they missed themselves. Hundreds of miles away from the relations which had given them their identity, they didn’t know who they were. One or two told me on returning that they were frightened, even terrified. Coming back home, they felt “safe” again. One of my brighter students gained a full scholarship to Yale, only to return in less than three months, weeping, and saying that she “missed home.” It wasn’t home she missed, but herself. She didn’t know who she was up there.
This, I think, is what “tribalism” really means, very much like the social structure of animals who live in packs. Every child is given a place, a slot, in the overall tribe. This place belongs to him or her. But more importantly, the child belongs to it, so that the child and the place become one thing and can’t be separated. It isn’t a matter of class or race; it’s a matter of belonging. That is why the races lived so peacefully side-by-side there and also why racial integration remained superficial. It wasn’t a “white” thing or a “black” thing. Everyone knows who they are, and where they belong. One man came from the North with his family, intending to live this seemingly idyllic life. He attended a black church and was asked by the pastor, in rather strong terms, to leave.
I taught there for eight years but never stayed after school for any kind of social function or any school-related activity that did not require my attendance. The commute was very difficult sometimes, but, although I was fond of my students and had a great deal of respect for many of my colleagues, I didn’t live there. There were times when sentiment or complacency caught me, and I’d have to do something to extricate myself—take a day off and stay home, or even say or do something to garner disapproval and initiate exclusion. If I’d chosen to live there, I would have given up my faith, I would have had to marry in order to build a social defense wall to protect myself, I would have had to allow the town to define me by assigning me a place and an identity.
That was many years ago, but I still reflect on what I learned about social cohesion and its cost.