And no, I’m not talking about Hugh McColl, or even yours truly, who was considered to have done fairly well in the wider world until I got laid off. (You doubt my celebrity in the place of my birth? Consider that I was once invited to address the Rotary at Bennettsville’s now-defunct Farron’s Restaurant — which was not defunct at the time. Of course, the invitation did come from my uncle.)
No, I’m talking about Aziz Ansari, whose celebrity now exceeds Hugh’s, and even mine.
The above moment in the pilot of “Parks and Recreation” was a sort of milestone for our hometown. It was, I believe, the first time a recurring character on a prime-time network show said to the world, “I am from Bennettsville, South Carolina.” The fact that he followed it up with “I am what you might call a redneck” hardly takes away from that proud declaration. We Marlboro Countians have a great appreciation for irony.
The irony goes deeper, however, than the assertion that the Indian-American is from Bennettsville and not, as Amy Poehler’s character had guessed, a Libyan.
The fact is that Aziz — since he’s a homeboy, I feel free to call him “Aziz” — has greater claim to Bennettsville than I do. Sure, I was born there (while he was born in faraway Columbia), but only because my mother went home to have me while my father, a newly minted Naval officer, was attending a school in San Diego. I grew up thinking of it as home because it was the place I returned to each summer to visit my uncle and grandparents between new postings to places where I would live for a year or so and never return to.
The one time I lived in Bennettsville almost year-round was the 1967-68 school year, when I was in the 9th grade at (also now defunct) Bennettsville High School. So if you walk down Main Street, you may not be able to find anyone who knows me, although you may run into an older person who will remember me as the boy who yelled right out at the preacher in church, completely cracking up the congregation, in the middle of an otherwise stultifyingly boring sermon in 1957. No, I’m not making this up. I have it on good authority that when my name comes up in B’ville, if it does come up, the conversation inevitably moves to the yelling-in-church incident. I’m quite the local legend for that. It probably surprised no one that I became a writer of opinion; I am after all The Boy Who Didn’t Know When to Shut Up.
But Aziz actually grew up there, and attended Marlboro Academy, which (irony again) is where most of the white kids went after BHS was finally completely integrated at the start of the 1970s. (When I was there I had black classmates in homeroom and P.E., but we were then under the “Freedom of Choice” system in which everyone declared which school they wanted to go to each year, and only the very bravest African-Americans dared to say that they wanted to go to the “white” school — something I didn’t really appreciate at the time; I actually thought the school was integrated.)
So his Bennettsville credentials may be more solid than mine, but at least I can say I was a Green Gremlin (possibly the quirkiest, coolest school mascot ever), and he was not.
Anyway, have any of y’all seen his new show on Netflix, “Master of None?” It’s pretty funny. Not something you want to turn on until after the kids have gone to bed, but funny. Check it out and we’ll discuss it here…