I was born and raised in a small town in the near-South. It was a fine place to grow up, and I have wonderful memories of it. But it was not so for everyone. It was the mid-1950s and Jim Crow was in charge. It was always referred to as the unofficial law of the land, but it was pretty much the official one too. His version of the law was the only one that mattered. The rules were scratched on a tree trunk somewhere, or scrawled on a tombstone, and not many of us deviated very far from them.
And those laws divided our town, a perfectly good little town that worked together pretty well, into two towns. It split the law into two opposite but unequal sections. It divided us folks up into two groups. It was no secret. There were separate schools, separate churches, separate restaurants. The swimming pool for all of my childhood did not allow any ‘Colored’. The Little Leagues and Babe Ruth Leagues when they began, and for all the years I was involved, were for white boys only. There was a clear delineation between privilege and the lack of it. And nobody tried to hide it. The movie theatre had separate and vastly unequal seating. And the popcorn there was not available to everyone.
In recalling all of this, in reflecting on this small, not-unique society of my youth, I cast no aspersions on any of the good people of that town. I make no accusations and am not judging. Or if I do, I judge myself and my own immediate family more severely. In hindsight, I am disappointed in us for the roles we DID NOT play, the leadership we DID NOT take. I endowed my People with a certain higher respect than they perhaps deserved. We all had immense blind spots. Not unlike the rest of us now who no doubt have blind spots we are unable to recognize.
Growing up, I recall only one colored friend, and that was only for a short time. I was very little, maybe 5 or 6, and his name was Billy. That’s all I can recall, except for his smile. It was big and delightful, and we had great fun together. We lived right below High Street, which was the designated Negro street, and Billy lived directly behind us. We played a lot that summer, mostly in our backyard. For reasons we did not understand, we were not allowed inside when he was over.
One afternoon I was with Billy and we wandered up to his small house and went in. I had never been in his house before. He had a large family, and his father worked for my father, so everyone knew who I was and called me by my name. I recall they were all friendly and seemed pleased I’d come.
It must have been about dinnertime as his mother asked me if I was hungry and offered me something to eat. I was, so I sat down and ate, though I didn’t quite know what it was. My hazy recollection is that the food tasted different but good and that the house was warm and welcoming. We played for a while on the floor with his brothers and sisters, and then I went back home.
When I got there, I was excited to tell my mother where I had been, what I had eaten, the names of Billy’s family and how much fun it was. But she was not pleased. She was angry. She was aghast that I had been inside their house. And even more so that I had eaten something. She checked me over thoroughly and roughly. She quizzed me repeatedly about what I had eaten, what it looked like, what it had smelled like, the utensils/silverware I’d used. She let me know I would probably get sick and made me change my clothes. She told me I was never to go back in their house again. And the subject was closed.
What I recall is that it was confusing and hurtful. When we are told by an adult that we’ve done something wrong, something that doesn’t feel wrong to us, there is a sense of isolation, detachment. We are adrift from our known little world. We try to process it, and when it refuses to be processed, we assume that we are wrong. That we have done something wrong. We decide that we are just little kids and that adults know more than we do. Besides that, they have all the Power. They are in charge. So we ‘learn’ it. Like driving on the right-hand side of the road. It is not a question to ask anymore. It is just the way it is. The way we do it. And to do it different will just cause trouble.
Billy and his family moved to Indianapolis later that summer, and I never saw him after that.
I reluctantly told this story to my sister for the first time recently. It is not how I think of my mother, and it was painful to tell. It is not how I want to remember her. But the story is true and would not go away.
It turned out she had her own long-sheltered story, from probably the late 1940s. She also had only one friend who wasn’t white. His name was Isaiah, and his mother was Miss Hamilton’s cook. It was late in July, and they were riding on an old bicycle that he had. They would have both been about 9 or 10, and Isaiah was showing off a bit. He was swerving side to side on the sidewalk on Main Street, and my sister had her arms around his middle, holding on tight. In her memory, they were both laughing, the sun was shining, the sky was blue. It was great fun on a summer’s day. It was one of those moment to treasure.
She heard our grandfather call to her harshly from the Mill across the street. “Come here, girl,” he barked. The smile was still on her face when she approached. He got up close to her face. “Don’t you ever let me see you touching and rubbing up against a colored boy again, you hear,” he said, angrily. And the subject was closed.
I have an image in my head of a little 9-year-old girl with a huge, joyous smile on her face, a smile which quickly transformed to a look of shock and shame. She remembers she started to cry as he walked briskly away. She didn’t understand. Something broke. That moment is still in her memory, but not as a treasure.
I have written about my grandfather more than once. He is a revered figure from my childhood, a man I respect and still admire. And the thought of his ugly, hurtful words that day, of the prejudice and fear and roiled anger that must have been permanently part of him, fills me with deep regret and shame. He is an icon of what I perceive as a more genteel time, a more honorable time. But it was a flawed time. Just as this one is. Just as they all are in some respects.
His father, my great-grandfather, fought for the Union Army in the Civil War with the 2nd Independent Ohio Volunteers. Presumably he fought at least partially for the principal of freeing enslaved people. But it is not likely he fought for the free association of the Races. Not many at the time believed in the Equality of the Races. That wasn’t part of the deal. So for his son, the thought of his granddaughter sharing space on a bicycle and wrapping her arms around the midriff of a little black boy was abhorrent. It was a notion his 19th Century brain could not tolerate.
I repeat all of the above with great personal ambivalence. I loved my parents and my grandparents with all my heart. Still do. They were fine people in almost all respects. But their racial views were detestable, and it taints my perception of them. Their racial views, though moderate for their time and place, were the inherited attitudes of an America in which there was a hierarchy of Humanity. There was a fine and just and abundant America in which most white folks lived, and there was an unequal and unjust and restricted America in which most ‘colored’ lived.
And I, like many of us, was born into a social caste system which favored me. And though I did not of course cause or perpetuate slavery, though I am not responsible for it, I was aware of its vestiges. I saw them every day. And I do not recall stepping outside the lines. I do not recollect acting in any way that Jim Crow might not approve.
The sad truth is that many of us were taught poorly. The history we learned was incomplete and, in many cases, an out-right Lie. The Truth is now seeping out about our collective History, and the real stories are much more horrific than the ones I tell here.
It is our assigned task then, as I see it, to unlearn what we were so poorly taught. It is our assignment to become more knowledgeable and more aware than our parents and grandparents were. To broaden our horizons and include more people than they ever had the liberty to do.
My mother, at some point, accepted that assignment. I don’t know what prompted it. Possibly it was the re-stimulation of returning to college in her 50s. Perhaps it was her public position as County Librarian. Possibly it was the Civil Rights Movement itself. We never had that talk. But I know there was a shift, an awakening of sorts. So I know it is possible. And I perceive that it is time to liberate ourselves from the shackles of our prolonged ignorance. These times graciously afford us that opportunity. And I have some faith that we can.