Florida, White Privilege, and Racism

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At Oxford American, Scott Korb reflects on his white privilege, the state of Florida, and its racist history — a state in which his life was irrevocably changed at age 5, when his father was killed by a drunk driver in May, 1982. In 2008, Korb visits Dwight Maxwell, a black man who was behind the wheel of the car that killed his dad and confronts not only his father’s killer but also his deeply held racist beliefs: “Throughout my life I’ve held shameful attitudes about black people, attitudes that embarrass me now.”

As an adult, I’ve traveled to Florida again and again to learn what I can about the end of my father’s life, which was largely a mystery to me as a child. My aunt, who was in the backseat of the car, once took me out to where he died. The road there has been widened, made safer. She says his last words were, “Hold on, we are about to be hit!” At impact, he was not wearing shoes. The man who killed him spent eighteen months in prison, and in January 2008, I shook the gate of a fence around his yard in the rural outskirts of Dunnellon, Florida, thinking that we could each benefit from talking about our shared history.

For a long time, I knew only two details about this man, Dwight Maxwell. He was drunk when he smashed his dark Ford into the car with my father in it. I also knew he was black. (Until 2005, I didn’t know his name.) These details, which I learned from the adults around me, haunted me as a young person. I didn’t drink and was fearful of alcohol until after I graduated from college. Throughout my life I’ve held shameful attitudes about black people, attitudes that embarrass me now. About Maxwell specifically, his blackness—and my whiteness, I see—made it easy to concoct stories about him. Originating in nightmares that deepened a child’s fear of the dark, as early as six or seven my father’s killer appeared to me as a lecherous monster, lewd living and aggression being characteristic of a man properly locked away for murder. The nightmares invaded my waking hours, and even as I became a teenager I would privately picture him in the leisure suit of a Blaxploitation pimp. Not knowing his actual name, I’d supplied one of my own imagining: Chester Washington. Chester, after the comic character “Chester the Molester” from Hustler magazine, which perhaps we knew as kids from the porno stash of a neighborhood father.

As an adult I’ve slowly come to understand what I did in my childhood to racialize and demonize this man. My trip to meet him in 2008 was meant to put all that behind me. Over several years, I’d circled him like a private dick, reading newspaper accounts and court records, flying to meet his family in Florida, building up the nerve to visit the man himself. I was proud of myself for trying to reach him. A girlfriend called me brave, and I believed her. The hope was reconciliation, a vestige of my grandmother’s Catholicism; I’d sloughed off those old ideas and was seeking forgiveness for them; I’d let him know I’d turned out okay, that we as a family had survived and moved on. On a cold afternoon under a tree in his backyard, I said what I’d come to say, then he apologized and before long disappeared inside. I went away. Years passed. In 2013, after Dwight Maxwell was arrested for felony possession of crack cocaine and hydrocodone pills, plus two misdemeanors, I drove with my mother to the Marion County courthouse, in Ocala, to attend his court hearings and try to speak with him again, to see what more I could learn about the day my father was killed. My last day in Florida, I returned to Maxwell’s house, but, encountering him at the side of the highway, where he’d been pedaling a bicycle, he ducked into the woods, saying he’d told me all he ever wants to. Not understanding— unwilling to, it seems—I chased him into the woods that day, wanting to talk more, though I’ve left him alone since.

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