"The issue of sex and race is still a toxic one for South Carolina." Plus: Why Jews shouldn't have Christmas envy.

By Salon Staff
Published December 23, 2003 9:43PM (EST)

[Read "American Gothic," by Rebecca Traister.]

I am from South Carolina and briefly attended elementary school with Strom Thurmond's eldest Caucasian daughter. I'm finding it rather amusing that the national press has suddenly become so fascinated with something that has been common knowledge in my home state for 20 years and was talked about in the regional press up to 10 years ago. Strom Thurmond's black daughter and his hypocrisy about her have been the subject of local jokes for ages. That powerful white men have slept with black women while also warning about the threat black men pose to white women -- that's old news where I'm from.

I think part of the reason this wasn't exploited when Thurmond was alive was that by the time it came out, he had already become a joke. There was no need to shoot Thurmond down because no one took him seriously on the national stage anymore.

The sad part is I left South Carolina to get away from that environment -- and have watched over the last decade and a half as the worst of Southern values have taken over much of the country. If Strom is the joke, then Dubya's the punch line -- and it ain't funny.

-- Malcolm Maclachlan

Perhaps Essie Mae Washington-Williams wanted to protect her father. She does not seem to have any ill will toward him. She also may have wanted to protect herself from the media firestorm that would have followed her if this story broke while her father was alive and running for office.

She saw how Monica Lewinsky was followed, as well as countless other parties in political and sexual scandals. Perhaps she simply did not want a part of that. I'm not denying that Strom Thurmond's opinions on race in America ran counter to the reports of how he treated his daughter. However, can you blame someone for not wanting to intentionally hurt her father and his career while he was alive, and potentially ruining her relationship with him?

-- Coleen Ryan

Thanks to Rebecca Traister for her insightful article on Strom Thurmond's paternity of Essie Mae Washington-Williams. The astonishing media blackout on the rape issue as this story has broken is second only to the press's refusal to address the rumors about Washington-Williams during Thurmond's lifetime or in his obituaries. By drawing attention to then-Judge Thurmond's 1942 death sentence against a black man accused of raping a white woman, you highlight the full extent of the late senator's hypocrisy.

-- Diana Williams

There is something so profoundly sad about Essie Mae Washington-Williams and her finally coming forward to label Strom Thurmond as her father. While I have deep sympathy for her and the pain she must have felt her entire life not being able to be acknowledged as his child, I cannot help asking if she made the right decision to abide by his wishes to keep his secret. She states that she did not want to damage his professional career even when she found his stances against civil rights hard to accept. I find that such a difficult proposition to swallow.

At the time Thurmond was unleashing some of his most virulent rhetoric regarding civil rights for African-Americans, people were literally dying. They were killed while fighting what he was striving to maintain -- the inherently unfair and unjust status quo that reduced African-Americans to second-class citizens. Imagine how the events of that era might have changed had she spoken our earlier and defanged Thurmond, labeling him publicly as the hypocrite we now know him to be?

Perhaps it is unfair to question Ms. William's decisions regarding her father, given her history and the era that she lived through. I just have to wonder if I would have done the same.

-- Wendy Goodman

A young, rich, white racist preys upon a poor black servant or slave. An old, old story. Read Mary Chesnut's diary. Ask Sally Hemings. The right side of the room is strangely silent. No noise is heard from the Southern heritage neo-Confederates or their northern Republican buddies. Are you still there, Trent Lott? How about you, Ann Coulter?

-- John Mize

It is amazing to me that any white person in South Carolina can claim not to have known about Thurmond's African-American daughter. I was born and grew up in South Carolina, and I am white. My family has been in the state since before the American Revolution. Strom's daughter was discussed among adults when they thought the children weren't listening.

I understand perfectly why the subject was not addressed in the state newspapers. The oligarchy that has run the state from its earliest days didn't want to let the news out. And of course, they all just loved Ol' Strom for standing up for white people.

The issue of sex and race is still a toxic one for South Carolina. When George Bush got into trouble in the 2000 Republican primary, white voters got phone calls telling them that John McCain had a black daughter. (Senator and Mrs. McCain have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.) Rumors were put out that McCain had slept with a black woman and had given his wife a venereal disease. Mr. Bush topped it off by going to Bob Jones University, home of the ban on interracial dating. South Carolinians lapped it up, and handed him their votes in overwhelming numbers.

However, there is no excuse for the national media to have given this story a pass. It makes one wonder what else the great liberal media isn't reporting.

-- Frances Molefsky

[Read "Mom, Why Don't We Have a Christmas Tree?" by Abigail Pogrebin.]

As a Jewish mother of two boys, I read Abigail Pogrebin's piece with mixed emotions. She seems to be arguing that we have to kick Hanukkah up a notch in order to properly "compete" with Christmas. The problem with this approach is that in such a contest, Hanukkah can't win.

The fact remains that Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday, whereas Christmas is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar. Ms. Pogrebin seems to be treating Christmas as the gold standard against which Hanukkah must be judged; but if we adopt that standard, Hanukkah will invariably fall short.

I do agree with her that celebrating Hanukkah joyfully, with customs that are meaningful, is a wonderful idea. But we should do so for its own sake. We shouldn't endeavor to create a "faux" Christmas, but to affirm our own traditions with joy, warmth and love.

-- Tamara Yelin

I'm not Jewish, but I think Christmas used to be easier to ignore than it is today. What we've now got is the cult of Christmas. Between the nonstop Christmas music stations, the Christmas trees that go up on Dec. 1, and the stores that try to get you in the mood in October, we all suffer from Christmas overdose. No wonder the kids feel left out. I say, bring back the low-key Christmas.

-- Marybeth D'Amico

If Hanukkah is going to be one of the four Jewish holidays you celebrate in a year (Passover, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah being the others), then of course it is going to be directly competing with Christmas. I didn't come from what I would consider an especially orthodox family but celebrated everything from Sukkot to Shavuot. Hanukkah was just another holiday on the calendar.

Yes, we had tons of good food, games, presents and songs (contrary to what Adam Sandler might think), but we knew it wasn't a major holiday. We knew all about Christmas, but it was just a parallel holiday with lots of cartoons associated with it and some really bad food (my father had a thing for fruitcake -- none of us would touch it). The key to Jewish continuity is both ritual and education. Unfortunately, not enough Jews seem to want to bother.

-- Debbie Wolgelerenter

Abigail Pogrebin shouldn't worry so much about Christmas trees.

The decorated tree is a pagan tradition from North European "tree god" traditions. For most of recorded history, the Christmas tree didn't feature at all in Christian celebrations. In fact, the festival of Christmas itself, coming as it does so close to midwinter solstice, is pagan in origin.

The Victorians rediscovered the Christmas tree in the mid-19th century, and for some reason (the looks and the lovely pine smell?) the idea caught on.

True, a Christmas tree isn't Jewish. But then it isn't Christian either.

Is it unrealistic to imagine that everyone, including atheists such as myself, can enjoy Christmas for what it is, a midwinter festival featuring lots of presents, food and booze?

-- Roger Kirkham

Salon Staff

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