Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear

This is not a story of the South. On the contrary, it's a story of suburban New England. Though the protagonist's bloodline is from another South, in a country which, like ours, has notions about its North and South, prejudices that have to do with skin color and Africa.

In the mid '70s I lived briefly in a suburban development of a Connecticut town. This was no John Cheever territory. It was middle middle-middle class, everything from skilled blue-collar to the local chief of police. Across the street from me lived one of the former, a man about my age (30) who, unlike me, was a motorhead. He gladly volunteered to do maintenance on my car for the mere pleasure of it. He was a good neighbor.

Men hanging around cars being worked on is an American pastime. I'm pretty clueless about mechanics but I'm curious about people, so I spent time at my neighbor's as he tinkered with spark plugs and talked. He was worried about some kind of black invasion, an imagined wave of rioting African-Americans about to wash over our subdivision. Indeed, there had been a race riot in the town precisely on the night half a decade earlier when I had driven straight through from the Midwest to my new job as a junior faculty in a local college. The riot, as much as it was, was an echo of what had happened in big cities; it didn't last long and, in any case, I'm pretty sure it didn't make it to the subdivision where I now watched my car get a tuneup and listened to my neighbor tell me how he intended to protect himself and his home from the invading black hordes.

He had guns. He showed them to me, another pastime as American as hanging around a car with its hood open. He was ready for the black invasion. I'm even more clueless about guns than about cars, but I listened to the man who was a good enough neighbor to work on my car for free.

This town on the Connecticut River, once a prosperous port in the days of river commerce, was home to a large Sicilian community. As it was told to me, two entire Sicilian villages packed up and moved here, even erecting on New England soil an exact copy of their church. They were part of the large Sicilian immigration that gave us our familiarity with Italian food as well as The Godfather movies and the culture they are based on.

In a country where, as I said, there are prejudicial notions about North and South, Sicily is south of the South. My sister's late mother-in-law, who lived in an American city with a large Sicilian population, always made it clear that her family was Neapolitan not Sicilian, never mind that Naples is in the Italian South and traditionally seen by Northerners as a center of organized crime and a lazy, shiftless people. Sicily to snobby Italians is the underdevelopment of underdevelopment.

And they're dark. Just look at the map. Practically Africa. My good but racist neighbor was Sicilian. And he was dark. And he had hair that was almost nappy. And a flat nose. And thick lips. With his guns he was drawing a line in the sand. What he did not realize was that it was the sand of the Sahara, for his "whiteness" was Northern African if it was anything, and I don't mean pied-noir.

I thought about him as I saw the New York Times chart showing a very dramatic spike in gun sales at the times of the Obama elections. They're coming. The black hordes. Get your guns. The second amendment gives you the right to protect yourself from your fellow Americans, certainly that must be what the Founding Fathers meant, even as they bore arms against a foreign enemy that was -- wait! -- as white as they were, from the same stock, in fact.

Mirror mirror on the wall. Forget Snow White, the mirror says. While she's partying with the dwarves you're being threatened by neighbors who are not fair at all. And forget what you see reflected. You may not be as fair as that little-people-lover, but you are fair, oh yes, you are. And forget poisoned apples. You need artillery.

A member of my own family shares three things with my Sicilian neighbor from Connecticut days. Guns. Racial attitudes. And some looks. Spanish-Cuban like myself, he is not fair nor are his features northern, even if at least half his genes come from northern Spain. Anyone who knows the Iberian peninsula knows that we were wildly mixed before the mestizaje of the New World. Thus, as Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel once observed, in a Spanish family you can have first cousins who are as fair as a Swede and as dark as a Sicilian. It's the roll of the DNA.

Neither my relative nor I would ever be taken for Swedes. And, unlike with my good neighbor, I don't hold back with him when he spouts racism: being family gives me that freedom, plus he doesn't fix my car. "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror?", I ask. "Do you think you look white?" I say that when his venom is aimed at Arabs. Dress him like one and no way he's going to just walk through the X-ray machine at the airport. Neither would I. Yes, half our DNA hails from Celtic northern Spain. But the Moors made it there. Plus who knows what other peoples roil in our gene pool.

No matter. The mirror doesn't give you an optically accurate reflection. The mirror gives you guns.