Warning: I don’t water things down. This is exactly the way it was. Yes, I could censor the “N” word or use these things (%$#@) but I’m not. I write the truth. The truth is important, so that we don’t ever forget. This may not be your story, but it’s mine…and if you’re of a certain age and from the South, don’t lie; it’s your story too.
Recently, I was speaking with a new friend about the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. He told me that he really didn’t think we had come that far. I told him that I didn’t agree and that if one were to consider civilization and time as say, a calendar year, that the Civil Rights Movement was basically a revolution that happened a second ago. I felt as though, for the movement to be so new, that we had achieved a great deal. Although, we still have a ways to go, and we certainly don’t live in a harmonious, racial Nirvana; I remember when things were quite different.
I’m a Southerner, born and bred. I love living in the South but it’s definitely a love/hate/shame relationship. Is the South more prone to racial prejudice between blacks and whites? You bet your ass we are; but I have a theory on this. When you’re from the South it’s basically two sets of prejudices and hatreds, that pits “us” against “them.” The first group, quite obviously is the white/black thing. White people with a deep hatred or prejudice against black people. The second group is the Southerner/Northerner thing. Yes, yes, hell yes, we lost the Civil War, but we’ll be damned if we’re going to let it go. And when you combine the fact that the reason the Civil War was fought was because Southerners wanted to keep their slaves and the North beat our ass and we had to give up our slaves, well, that little fact just doesn’t sit well with some. Whites against Blacks, South against North; it’s a recipe for disaster. At any rate, because we haven’t really had the lion’s share of different ethnic groups down South,we’ve had to hate on what we do have; black people.
I’m 52 years old. I was 5 years old in 1967, just catching the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. But, you know, just because some date or legislation marks the end of oppression doesn’t mean that it all instantly vanishes. Even today, I see the remnants of backwoods ignorance. Oh, you might have to look a little harder for it, but you just have to know where to look; unfortunately, it’s still alive and kicking.
But, as a little girl, it was all around me, and the sad thing is; no one thought anything about it.
“Lock your doors. We’re going through Niggertown.”
“Don’t put that in your mouth; an old nigger man mighta’ had his hands on it.”
“Lord, look at this mess. It looks like a family of niggers been livin’ here.”
“You need to be careful. Some big, black buck nigger might jump you.”
“Look at your tan. You’re black as a nigger.”
“And I heard, she took up with a nigger.”
“Eeenie meanie miney mo, catch a nigger by his toe.”
The only people that should be gasping at this are those that were born after 1975 or so, or Northerners. I know it’s hard to believe, but back then, we just didn’t think anything of it…or did we? I remember when my bus would stop at Dewberry to let the black kids off, that the white kids on the bus would yell out “nigger” as the bus pulled off…as the bus pulled off and not before. So, yeah, we must have known it was wrong to yell that at them; why else would we wait until the bus was pulling away. Now, to answer your question that’s I know is burning at your brain: Did I yell that out at the black kids as they got off the bus? I don’t know. I honestly don’t remember; I was only in the 2nd or 3rd grade; but here’s the thing; I think I probably did. Why? I don’t know. I was a little kid. It’s just what we did. Here’s what I do remember; I had black friends and whether I did or didn’t yell nigger at them as they got off the bus, I never used that word around them, face to face because, somehow, I knew it was wrong. So, if, at 7 or 8 years old, I knew it was wrong, how could grown men and women 3 and 4 times that age not know it was wrong?
Now, just in case you think that I must have been a junior Klansman in training; I wasn’t. I seemed to catch on to the social injustice thing really quickly. I was pissed, outraged, infuriated , campaigning for Kennedy and ready to join Dr. King and march on Washington…only that march had already happened and a couple of psychos had already taken both Kennedy and King. By the way, both of these events led much rejoicing in the South. Kennedy was no great loss because he was not only NOT a Baptist; he was a Catholic, and a Yankee and a nigger loving liberal. Dr. King being assassinated gave way to a bunch of good old boy rednecks, laughing heartily and slapping other on the back while saying, “Well, Ah always say that the only good Nigger is a DEAD Nigger.” Wooo, yeah, that’s real damn funny. I tell you all of this just to let you know what I was up against.
How many times was I, myself called a nigger lover? I don’t know. I’ve lost count. How many times have I been eyed suspiciously and asked, “Where you from, girl?” A whole damn bunch; too many to count. I’ve heard and seen so much backwoods, racial bullshit, you wouldn’t believe it. This is not a cop out, but the truth of the matter was that it was a different time; and we didn’t think twice about it. It was a white world. There was just so much that we didn’t see; so much that we just took for granted as being routine and “normal.”
There just weren’t any black people…not any that we could see, anyway.
No, black people on television, except for Julia, George Jefferson, the cast of Good Times and everyone on Soul Train (except for that one Asian girl.) For the most part, music was pretty much segregated in the South. We had about 4 stations to listen to: the “white” pop station, the “black” R&B station, the “country station” and the “old people’s station” of easy listening music. No black baby dolls. No black Barbies. Except for Fat Albert, no black cartoon characters. Sidney Portier and Sammy Davis Jr. were the only black entertainers and Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis were the only black singers white enough and non-threatening enough to be played at Thanksgiving and Christmas. You didn’t walk into a restaurant and see just as many black folks as white folks. At the mall, the grocery store, church, and swimming pools we were just as separated as we had ever been. I mean, for the love of God; I can still remember getting on the elevator with my Grandmother in the Doctor’s building and have having the elevator operator; an elderly black man, ask us “What floor, ‘mam?”
Socializing with black kids was fine as long as it was strictly platonic, but there were absolutely positively NO INTERRACIAL COUPLES. “He/she’s good looking, to be a black person.” A salt and pepper couple at Prom would have shut that dance down. If the white world found out that your boyfriend was black, it could very easily be the end of him; literally. Once, while waiting for my grandmother to pick me up from High School, I sat under a tree on the campus lawn and talked with some black friends of mine; Walter Henderson and his cousin Moses Foster. My grandmother pulled up in her Caddy, popped the automatic door locks and I got in. As soon as we rounded the corner the let me have it; spewing hate through a blue cloud of cigarette smoke. “I just thought my heart would stop beating when I saw you there sitting with those nigger boys! My God; what if one of those big black bucks were to rape you?”
I was just as outraged as she was, and I gave it right back to her by telling her that those boys were my friends. I will never forget her turning to me, her eyes full of hate as she said, “They’re not like us. They come from monkeys.” I told her that she was wrong and they were just like us. I told her that their blood was red; just like ours and that if you looked at the inside of them, they looked just like us. She told me again, that I was wrong and that they came from monkeys. Well, I suppose that I had just about all I could take because I will never, ever forget the words that came out of my mouth, next, and they were: “Well, if they come from monkeys then how come when they get sick they go to a hospital just like we do instead of the vet?” My grandmother gave me a go to hell look and informed me that I had a damned smart mouth. That was all good with me because at least I had the pleasure of knowing that I wasn’t a red necked racist like she was.
When I was 19 years old, I went away to work as a Summer Camp Counselor. While tucked snugly away in the backwoods of Soddy Daisy (yes, you heard me right; good old “No niggers allowed,” Soddy Daisy,) I met Al. Al was my age; a fellow counselor. He was good looking, devilishly charming with this smile that could just melt you and…he was black. Al and I spent all of our free time together, moonlight swims, canoeing, long walks holding hands and to my surprise when I kissed him, it was just like kissing any other boy…only his lips were much fuller and a bit more delicious. One day, as I was finishing up my daily run, the caretaker of the property stopped me.
“I thought you were a nice girl,” he said.
“I am a nice girl. What are you talking about?”
“Well…I thought you was…until I saw you holding hands with one of them.”
I knew who them was.
What did I do, you ask? Did I let him have it? Give him an earful? Storm off, outraged? No. I think I just…walked off. Yes, it happens. Sometimes, the shock and audacity of a situation overrides everything else and you just…walk away.
Has anything really changed? Yes. A lot has changed and yes, a lot more needs to change; and it will and that’s why I wrote this piece; this piece that was as painful to write as it was to read. But let me tell you what never seems to change; we as a species never seem to learn. We just keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. We just keep fighting the same battles but with different names. We just keep waiting on the world to change, as long as it’s not too much of an inconvenience.
So, I ask you to think about that. You think about that the next time that you say you’re tolerant so long as another’s beliefs aren’t too far off from your own. You think about that the next time you think it’s too much trouble to go and cast your vote for another’s deprivation of their civil rights. The next time you get so pissed off at some Hispanic that can’t speak English, you think about it. The next time you say to yourself, “It’s not my problem,” you think about this; if you’re a member of the human race then it is your problem.