Remembrance versus Reverence

KKK outfit, Bergen County, New Jersey, circa 1925

I unpacked the Ku Klux Klan hooded mask, long robes, and cream cord belt from their soft-sided carrying case.

The satchel’s cover-flap was pointed so the hood could be slipped inside the flap for storage.

I also found a folded American flag with 48 stars, one pair of white gloves that buttoned at the wrist, and woven palm fan. Cross burnings could become excessively hot.

This Ku Klux Klan gear belonged to a suburban New Jersey woman who donned these robes almost a century ago during the Klan’s most menacing heyday of the 1920s.

The gloves were charcoal smudged. Is that because this New Jersey housewife held a flaming torch to ignite a Klan cross? Perhaps lit the one staked in front of my grandmother’s house?

Were those Klan flames, menacing my family on a Bergen County hilltop, visible across the river to the people of Manhattan?

Monuments to white supremacy — statues of confederate generals and street named for them — are being felled at record speed in US cities and towns, north and south. As the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, observed: we need to face our national flaws and correct them.

But what about those other, more private and personal, relics: Ku Klux Klan robes and emblems?

When a Klan hood and related KKK items came up for auction this past June in Taylorstown, PA, locals feared that our national flaws — instead of being corrected — might be celebrated.

Auction ad, Taylorstown, PA, June 2017

“Do you believe this?” a Taylorstown local asked her friends on social media where she posted a photo of the auction’s newspaper ad.

It’s wrong to “make a profit from racism,” responded resident Derrick Edwards, a young father. A former resident replied that these KKK items were an “ugly reminder” of growing up in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt.

When the auction’s advertised caterer promised to be a no-show the auctioneer pulled the Klan items and donated them to a Maryland museum.

The unspoken fear is that the Klan regalia would be bought as objects of reverence.

Which is precisely why the Argentine government took charge of a secret cache recently uncovered in Buenos Aires of Third Reich memorabilia including original Nazi statues, toys for the indoctrination of children, and personal items belonging to Hitler.

Third Reich items, Buenos Aires, June 2017

These totems of a flawed past — surfacing in New Jersey, Pennsylvania & Buenos Aires — seem imbued with incantatory power.

I admit to being mesmerized as I fingered the red-lined Ku Klux Klan cape.

The long robes and pointed Klan hood are my one connection to a night of family terror.

I’m drawn to these flawed objects to try to understand what was in the mind of New Jersey woman as she buttoned her smoke-smudged gloves and grabbed the neatly folded American flag.

It’s a form of remembrance in the service of divining what fear is. Not the kind my father felt inside the house while flames licked a 25-foot-high, ten-foot-broad cross with fire roaring dangerously close to the eaves of his house.

My drive is to pry apart another type of fear that made an otherwise ordinary woman join a secretive white supremacist society in 1920s New Jersey — or Pennsylvania or 1930s Germany.

What I know is that when a secret cache was uncovered in Buenos Aires I understood its centrifugal pull and I felt fear all over again of the extreme right wing as if no time had passed between my father’s terror-filled nights and this moment.

Ku Klux Klan gloves, fan, flag, Bergen County, New Jersey, circa 1925

The Ku Klux Klan at Home in Hillsdale