I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Brother to a Dragonfly by Will D. Campbell. New York: The Seabury Press. 268 pp.
It was with some misgivings that I approached this month yet another memoir of rural Southern Life. The subject has been exhausted by a swarm of admittedly excellent Southern writers, and I am past the point, anyway, of thinking that going barefoot in the summer, fetching water from a well, cooking vegetables with sidemeat, and shitting in an outhouse produce a particularly more virtuous, poetic, or tragic character than any other upbringing. I have also somewhat lost interest in those details in themselves, as striking as they once may have been for a man from my urban background. I am ready, in fact, for the new wave of Southern writers, those who were brought up in mobile home parks and spent their youths exploring shopping malls.
Brother to a Dragonfly describes conditions which, if anything, seem more primitive than those usually rendered, a deep South where serious illness was common and inadequately treated, where boys had their first sexual experience with barnyard animals, where young children watched a man chase his elderly in-laws through a pasture and murder them with a shotgun. It was a life where a father, frequently unemployed, failed at a W.P.A. job and had to go on relief; where the W.P.A., with little understanding, compassion, or humor, came in and tried to rid the area of hookworm; where children anxious to join the Baptist church had to wait for summer, when the river would be warm. But the simplicity of the early part of this narrative makes no great claims for itself. It describes these conditions not in order to startle the reader or excite his sympathy, but simply because these were the facts as they were. Brother to a Dragonfly tells the story of a region, certainly, but the facts of that region are not the whole of its story.
I had expected something exceptional from this book, because I had had some previous acquaintance with its author. Will Campbell was at Duke for a month last year as Theologian in Residence, a title which he was rather wary of, and an abundance of rumors surrounded his stay. He was known first and foremost as a longtime fighter for civil rights, important in the early years of that movement, but had, more recently, been minister to the Ku Klux Klan. He was a Baptist, a Southerner, said to carry a walking stick and wear a broad-brimmed black hat, like a preacher in a grade-B movie. He was known to chew tobacco and drink bourbon. He had for some time been involved with a small organization called the Committee for Southern Churchmen, whose motto, rather quaintly, I thought, was Be Ye Reconciled. He was a graduate of Yale Divinity School.
He delivered two sermons in the massively ornate Duke Chapel. I had half expected him to preach in his shirtsleeves, shouting, mopping his brow, slamming a Bible around for emphasis, but he spoke for the most part reservedly, in a disarmingly conversational tone. The second of his sermons concerned “The Least of These” (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me”), and he spoke of encounters similar to some in Brother to a Dragonfly, of an elderly black man who did not like violence but swore he would kill to protect his daughter, of a Klan leader who understood that his aims and tactics were much in line with those of the country as a whole, of backwoods preachers who handled venomous snakes in their services and were bewildered by legal attempts to stop them. At each of these encounters, Will Campbell had thought of those words concerning “the least of these,” but in subsequent speculation had come to see the truth that each of these men embodied, that “the least of these” might be other men altogether, those outwardly more prosperous but whose moral position made them small. He stated his understanding of the Good News, that Christ had reconciled us all to God, and to one another: “God was in Christ making everything cool between us and himself. And between us and us, all of us . . . words of St. Paul which say, “God was in Christ” and then in the most radical verse, the most maddening, infuriating, to me, passage in the whole Bible, “ ‘No longer holding your misdeeds against you.’ ” He spoke of his gut reaction to that. “Now, I don’t like that. I don’t like it at all. I want an enemy . . . Ah, Mr Jesus, I like it when you say I’m reconciled to old black men with daughters facing hostile troops. That’s cool. I like it when you say I’m reconciled to poor whites and Kluxers and people whose ideologies may differ from my own and yet from whose loins I sprang. I like that. I like it when you tell me I’m reconciled to the sinshouters of Cabin Road hurling poisonous reptiles through the air. I like that. But don’t tell me I’m reconciled to the likes of this!” Sitting to one side, I saw him gesture in front of himself as he spoke those last words, toward that elaborate chapel, the prosperous and now rather uncomfortable looking congregation sitting before him; I smiled, then realized: he means me. For I was one of those who scorned the Klansmen, who scorned the ignorant congregations who drink strychnine and handle copperheads; I was a child of that upper middle class whom he felt had oppressed his people. I had a new understanding of that quaint phrase, “Be ye reconciled,” a new understanding of that old commandment to love our enemies. Several days later, in a crowded dining hall, I saw him eating alone, screwed up my courage to speak to him. Suddenly I was conscious of how I looked, what I was wearing, even what I was eating, but there are people in whose presence one feels an instant acceptance, and when I stepped to his table, stammered out a few words, “Mr. Campbell . . .” he looked up casually, said, “Sit down.”
Brother to a Dragonfly is ostensibly — by its title, its prologue, the publicity surrounding it — the story of Will Campbell’s brother Joe, of the relationship between the two brothers. Growing up in that rural Mississippi community where children were likely to find all their companions among their kin, they were inseparable. Will was a sickly child, had survived a bad case of pneumonia at the age of five, and Joe was the older brother, who would naturally lead, protect, take the greater share of the load. When their father was ill it was Joe who took his place; when their mother — a sickly, hypochondriac herself — was ill, it was Joe who tried to hold things together, who did all the worrying. In the mores of their community, it was believed that the sickly child was called to preach, and Joe took that calling of his brother’s seriously, wanted to bear his antagonisms for him, keep him pure and apart from other men. All his life Will was to fight that role of the preacher set off from others, but Joe, in his own mind at least, kept putting him in it.
World War II marked a turning point in both their lives. Though Joe had previously left home, found a job in a CCC camp, he had a strong aversion to entering the army, perhaps because, all his life, he had balked at the orders of authority figures. Talk of patriotism, of fighting for freedom, meant nothing to him; he loved his patch of land in Mississippi, but had no feeling for the country as a whole, and it made no sense to him to give up his freedom in order to fight for it. Characteristically, Will, with his preacher’s deferment, was trying to get into the war, and there was something frantic in Joe’s protestations. “Don’t do it, Will. Please. For my sake. For Mamma’s and Daddy’s sake. For God’s sake. Dammit, Will. Please don’t get into this mess.” It was as if Joe, the worldly brother, the protector, had encountered a threat in the world that he couldn’t handle, and he couldn’t bear the thought that his sickly brother could. While in the service Joe broke his leg in an auto accident, and, as if his body were obeying his will for it, the bone refused to set properly. He experienced inexplicable symptoms, hallucinations and personality reversal. Even once his leg should have healed, he claimed he could not stand on it; when he was accused of malingering, ordered to stand, he loosened the brace so that he fell and broke the leg again. Finally discharged, he still insisted, even at home, that he could not walk. Will spent time with his brother, was bewildered by his behavior, and began to lose his image of Joe as a leader.
The war marked a turning point for Will also in another way. While in the South Pacific, he found and read, at Joe’s urging, the novel Freedom Road, by Howard Fast. That single evening of reading changed his life. The novel concerned a former slave named Gideon Jackson, told of his struggles to educate himself, his attempts to organize blacks and whites against the gentry, his eventual destruction by the Klan. Will and Joe had had glimmerings of the racial question before — their grandfather, when they were young, had been quick to inform them that there were no niggers left anymore, only colored people; also as children, they had witnessed the aftermath of a murder among blacks, had begun to understand that many whites didn’t have much regard for the life of a black man — but in reading Freedom Road Will had what could only be described as a conversion experience. He knew that the remainder of his ministry would be devoted to the peculiar tragedy of the South.
He did indeed become involved with the civil rights struggle, first as chaplain at the University of Mississippi, then as a representative of the National Council of Churches, later in a variety of other guises. What with all the tragic history that has come since, it is hard to remember how much actual physical danger was involved for both blacks and whites in the early days of the civil rights movement. Will Campbell was in many ways a man without a home, one of those handful of courageous Southerners who had rejected the values of their culture but refused to abandon it, remained in the South amid hatred, mistrust, and violence. Brother to a Dragon Fly is first and foremost the story of Joe Campbell, but as the book proceeds, it seems to become a history of the civil rights movement. Will Campbell’s unadorned style is at its most effective when reciting those events both moving and terrifying.
Joe in the meantime had embarked upon a successful career as a pharmacist, had, like Will, started a family. Though he was somewhat responsible for his brother’s involvement in the civil rights movement, he was most reluctant to see Will enter it. Race was a fearfully divisive issue in those days, and ever the protector, Joe was afraid of what Will’s involvement would mean for the family; he was also concerned for his little brother’s safety. Joe had always had a fear of pain. Even as a child, and throughout his life, it was he who had been most anxious over his mother’s largely imaginary illnesses, and already as a pharmacist he had started to use his own pills to get him over the little hurts of life. A doctor once told Will that he had a high tolerance for physical pain. “I’ll bet you hate to be bored though,” he said. “I’ll bet you like excitement.” Will, the brother who had been set apart, was moving headlong into all the turmoil of his age, while Joe, almost without knowing it, had started a kind of retreat from life.
A major catastrophe for both men was the accidental death of their sister’s son. Joe had been making money, had enabled his sister to buy some land in rural Mississippi and live near their parents. Lee Campbell had new children to raise; now his grandchildren had someone just down the road with the time and wisdom to impart things that only he could teach. But Will Edward, out riding his bike with a message for his grandfather one Sunday, was struck by a car and fatally injured. Following so many other hardships, the sorrow after that accident was almost more than the family could bear. All the theological instruction in the world could not have trained Will Campbell to accept that event. It was years before he got over it. Oddly, at the time, it seemed that Joe was taking things better, but the fact was that he was far enough along in his addiction to drugs that the calm he exhibited was not his own.
His tactic soon backfired. The amphetamines he had been taking in huge quantities began to have the opposite effect from what he intended, made him irritable and paranoid; he returned to sedatives to bring him down. He began to experience extreme personality changes, the generally gentle man having outbursts of manic violence; he attacked his wife, frightened his children. Will tried to help his brother, confronted him with facts, but like many an addict Joe denied the evidence. His family left him, first temporarily, hoping he might change, then permanently. Will had him enter a hospital, later even a mental institution, nursed him at his own home, but nothing seemed to help for long. Even when Joe found a new wife, understanding of his condition, he was unable ultimately to change. The latter half of Brother to a Dragonfly is largely the story of a hopeless dilemma. Deep within himself, Will Campbell knew what a doctor had once told him, that his brother could not be helped; nevertheless, the man was his brother, and he had to try to help him.
Will was to have one more conversion experience, in the presence of Joe and another man, P.D. East, a close friend of theirs, a journalist, iconoclast, skeptic. East constantly prodded Will about his vocation, had asked him once for a ten-word definition of Christianity, and Will had replied, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” One afternoon in the presence of those two men, Will heard of the brutal murder of a young civil rights worker at the hands of a Mississippi policeman. Campbell had known the young man, was stunned, horrified. But East would not let him rest. He wanted to test the definition. “Was Jonathon Daniel a bastard? . . . Is Thomas Coleman a bastard? . . . Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” Suddenly, at the hands of a pagan, skeptic, Will saw the implications of his own definition, that in regarding the white Southerner as his enemy he had given in to a ministry of liberal sophistication, had not acknowledged the grace of God which reconciled all men, that the white Southerner was as much a victim of the tragedy and as much in need of his ministry as the black. In many ways his whole ministry had been a denial of his heritage, his people. He began at that point the most paradoxical and perhaps the most courageous part of his ministry, to the poor white Southerner: the civil rights worker became a minister to the Klan.
Others have spoken of the dual nature of Brother to a Dragonfly, that it is on one hand a history of the civil rights movement and on the other the story of Joe and Will Campbell, who from their origins in primitive rural Mississippi arrived at astonishing careers. Really though, it is just one story, of a man learning to love and serve his brother. His brother changes; his own idea of his brother changes; and the task, as he proceeds, becomes more and more a hopeless and thankless one. Brother to a Dragonfly is unconventional in its form, a little loose in its structure, not a model autobiography. But as a human document, for sheer emotional power, it ranks high, and becomes for the reader, as he makes his way through it, a moving and important experience.