In the early seventies, Pete Price got a job as a supervisor at the Duke Energy power station in Belews Creek. After that, he became a vice president at Gem-Dandy in Madison, which made men's accessories like suspenders for socks. Later still, he was a shift supervisor at the Pine Hall brickyard, on the Dan River near Mayodan. But every time, he got fired by a boss he considered less intelligent than himself, or, more likely, he quit. Quitting became a habit, "just like a crease in your britches," Dean said. "Once that crease is there it's virtually impossible to get it out. That's the way it was with failure to him, and you could not get it out of him. He thought it, he breathed it, he lived it." The crease started on the Price tobacco farm, where Dean's father received a disadvantaged piece of land that had no road frontage. Dean's uncles ended up doing much better in farming. He also suffered from little man's diseasehe stood five seven and a halfand it didn't help that he lost his hair early. But the biggest failure came in the work that meant the most to Pete Price.
Decades later, Dean kept a black-and-white picture in a frame on his fireplace mantel. A boy with a bowl of shiny black hair cut straight above his eyes, wearing a dark suit with narrow pants that were too short for him, was squinting in the sunlight and hugging a Bible against his chest with both arms, as if for protection. Next to him stood a little girl in a lace-collared dress. It was April 6, 1971. Dean was a few weeks shy of eight, and he was about to give his life to Jesus and be saved. During the seventies, Dean's father had a series of small churches in little towns, and in each church his dogmatism and rigidity created a rift in the congregation. Each time, the church members voted on whether to keep him as their preacher, and sometimes they went for him and sometimes against him, but he always ended up leaving (for he would get restless, he wanted to be a Jerry Falwell, leading a church that had thousands of members) with hard feelings on all sides. Eventually he had trouble getting another church. He would visit a new town and try out for the job by preaching a sermon, always fire and brimstone, only to be voted down. There was one church in particular, Davidson Memorial Baptist Church, down in Cleveland County, which he'd had his heart set on, and after failing to get that pulpit he never really recovered.
From his father Dean acquired ambition and a love of reading. He went straight through the family's set of World Book encyclopedias from beginning to end. One night at dinner, when he was around nine or ten, the subject of his ambitions for the future came up. "Well, what do you want to do?" Dean's father said with a sneer.
"I'd like to be a brain surgeon, a neurologist," Dean said. It was a word he'd learned in the encyclopedia. "That's really what I think I'd like to do."
His father laughed in his face. "You got as much chance of being a neurologist as I've got to flying to the moon."
Dean's father could be funny and kindhearted, but not with Dean, and Dean hated him for being a quitter and for being cruel. He heard his father preach many sermons, even a few on street corners in Madison, but on some level he didn't believe them because the meanness and the beatings at home made his father a hypocrite in the pulpit. As a boy, Dean loved baseball more than anything else. In seventh grade he was intimidated by girls, and at ninety pounds soaking wet he was too skinny to play football, but he was a pretty good shortstop at Madison-Mayodan Middle School. In 1976 there were black and white boys on the team, and his father didn't want him around the black boys. To get Dean away from them, and to win points with his congregation of the moment, Dean's father pulled him out of public school (Dean begged him not to) and sent him to Gospel Light Christian, a strict, all-white Independent Fundamental Baptist school in Walkertown, a two-hour bus ride from the parsonage on Mayodan Mountain where the Prices then lived. That was the end of Dean's baseball career, and of his black friends. When Dean was in tenth grade, his father started teaching American and Bible history at Gospel Light, and it would have been easy enough for him to let Dean play baseball after school and then drive the boy home at the end of the day, but his father insisted on leaving school at three o'clock so he could go home and read in his study. It was as if Dean was the competition in the family, and his father had the upper hand and wouldn't give an inch.
Copyright © 2013 by George Packer
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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