Wednesday, June 9, 2010
My childhood friend, Susanne Allen, wrote a very thoughtful post about children, race relations, and her experiences of growing up in the deep south in the 1970's and '80's. Susanne lived up the street from me as a child and I attended the schools describes and knew the students she speaks of. She has given me permission to share her words here on LifePrints. Enjoy.
How do you keep them from being that way?
By Susanne Allen
A response to Roger Ebert's Journal entry "How did they get to be that way?"
My first grade class was the first year of integration at my Elementary school. Our school bus route was extra long and took place in the wee hours of the morning while it was still dark. We had to have enough time to drive town to, I kid you not, Jim Crow Road, and pick up just enough black people that there could be exactly ONE in each of the classrooms.
As we progressed each year the classes kept their one token black child. Classes were phased according to aptitude and the black child of the highest phase class was Joan. We never spoke to her of course because...duh...she was black. In third grade a girl from Ohio moved to town and became Joan's best friend. Caryn was on thin ice of course for "not being from around here" to begin with and she told us we were all stupid for not being friends with Joan. "It isn't going to hurt you if you talk to her!" she said. Sure enough, over time, I discovered I could talk to Joan and no golden hand descended from the heavens and ruined my life. It didn't give me an incurable disease or cooties. I didn't even turn black. We heard that Caryn's mother let Joan come over to visit at Caryn's house INSIDE the house and the two of them even had sleepovers the same way they would if Joan had been a white person and nothing bad happened to Caryn either!
Sometime in sixth grade our teacher, Mrs. Rhinehart, sent Joan to the office with a note. While Joan was gone she spoke to all of us. "Look," she said, "anytime color or race is mentioned you all turn and stare at Joan like you think she's going to grow horns. Don't do that. Think about how she feels. She's a kid jut like the rest of you." I'd like to think we all treated her better after that.
Our high school was Robert Wood Johnson Memorial Comprehensive High School. It is important to note here that the band geeks, of whose glorious company I was a member, used to chant "Go! Robert Wood Johnson Memorial Comprehensive High School, Go!" at football games. Best cheer ever! Johnson, for short, had about 1,500 children and was 4% black with one Jew and a handful of Roman Catholics. The rest of us were painfully WASP. When I went to Georgia Tech a friend of mine who went there too, John Kater, used to respond to questions about where the Johnson contingent hailed from with "We're from Gainesville, GA, Population: Baptist."
It couldn't have been easy to be non-white, non-protestant at Johnson. I remember listening to someone ask the Jewish student about her faith and race, "What are Jews?" She responded very dryly, "You know those people in the Bible? Those are Jews." The questioner seemed genuinely surprised, "Really?" "Yes," she nodded sagely, "Those are Jews."
Popular pretty girls in school were either cheerleaders or flagettes. The flagettes were a dance line in the marching band that dressed in pretty shimmering costumes and danced with small flags attached to batons. Not to be confused with color guard who spun larger flags and rifles. We were not so cool or popular. In my junior year, I was the Captain of the rifles and Vanedra was the captain of the flagettes. I believe she was Johnson's first black band officer. She was the best dancer and black was cool because it was the heyday of Michael Jackson. "Can you feel a brand new day" from The Wiz was part of our marching band repertoire. After Jackson's death I heard people mocking Rev. Al Sharpton for saying Jackson changed the world. Sharpton was right. For the children of people whose parents and grandparents used the "N" word, Jackson made black people accessible and even desirable as friends. Black was cool therefore Vanedra was cool.
As most good band geeks know, it is common high school band practice for the officers of the visiting band to go across the field to visit the officers of the home team during the third quarter. Our drum major always formed us up in a line and marched over making a show of it.
On one fall evening I'll never forget our game was against Forsyth County High School in Cumming, Georgia. This county is the setting of a book called Savage Sundown by Elizabeth Forbush and was known in the day, whether true or not, as a Klan stronghold. I remember the band had to have special bus drivers for the games, as the black drivers were not willing to be in Forsyth County after sunset.
After our performance the officers formed up and marched across to meet the Forsyth officers. We relaxed into a small group chatting and suddenly something was wrong. There was Vanedra, her back now turned to the folks in different uniforms. You could see her trembling hands and bright eyes brimming with tears. "They won't shake my hand," she whispered. Someone said, "What?" We stood beside her, walking toward the other officers, Venedra put out her hand to shake and the Cumming folks pointedly looked away and some giggled to each other. The insult was clear. They would not acknowledge Vanedra. Our drum major, James Dills, had a stormy expression on his face, a good ole boy turned unlikely champion. "This is ridiculous," he railed, "if they won't shake her hand we're going back." He formed us up in a line and we marched back to our side. Vanedra held her head high and was the picture of grace as we marched with her shoulder to shoulder back to our side of the field.
In a recent journal post by Roger Ebert, Ebert describes his turning point in his personal views about race. As a child he noticed his palm was the same color as the black child's palm. Watching Vanedra march back from the Forsyth County band officers was my turning point. I decided I never wanted to make another person feel the way those people had made Vanedra feel. I've probably failed. I was raised with racist instincts reinforced by many people in my life. I remember in college referring to a Brazil nut by the horrible name I was taught to call it (a "N" Toe) and my friend Ed turning to me with a shocked look on his face, "WHAT did you just say?" I had never really processed the word.
The only thing I feel certain I've accomplished is to make sure those reinforcements were not passed on to my children. After a soccer practice last spring the kids were telling me something about another child. I think the name was "John". "Oh....which one is John?" I asked. "He's the one with he darkest skin." They were not being self-consciously politically correct. They weren't looking to avoid the term black which I think would have been and okay descriptor had they chosen to use it. The child in their mind was simply the one with the darkest skin and from the way they said it, it seemed to mean as little to them as "child with blonde hair" or "child with lots of freckles." I smiled.
In his post Roger Ebert asks, "How do they get to be that way?" I know the answer to that. I once walked in on my grandmother, who in all other respects, was a loving wonderful woman that I adored, bouncing my son on her knee. They were watching Different Strokes and laughing at something Gary Coleman said. I thought it was such a sweet scene until I heard her talking. "Look at the little "N" boy. It's a shame you'll have to go to school with people like him. We tried to keep it from happening."
I think a better question for Ebert is "How do you keep them from being that way?" There is no doubt that elements of racism are instinctive. The herding breed dog raised around one color of sheep will cut alternate colors from the herd. If you raise a herding dog with goats they will separate sheep as different and not belonging. People who breed herding dogs as pets have to make an effort to introduce their dogs to different colors, sizes, and shapes of people and other animals so that they don't see the different as an "other" that elicits an alarm bark.
I believe large elements of bigotry and prejudice are learned and will disappear if not reinforced. A retrieving dog will not continue to retrieve if no one ever reinforces the behavior. You can overcome the instinct to be wary of "the other" through exposure to diversity. Honestly, I think a huge part of where my father went wrong in conveying his racism to me was that he was so busy laughing at Bill Cosby he forgot to point out that the funny man was black.
The mural Ebert talks about keeps people from being that way. The celebration of diversity and exposure to different ideas and people keeps people from being that way. Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson even the sometimes cranky Rev. Sharpton keep people from being that way. It is always upsetting to me when people see any literary or dramatic portrayal of a Caryn or James type person as a racist "white savior" fantasy. A person who acts as a bridge is as much a hero for taking that position as is a person that takes a stand. Those people should be acknowledged. To do so doesn't lessen the sacrifice, burden and work of the people that were being oppressed. It can be one of the hardest and most courageous things in the world to do to take a prejudice you've been raised with and set it aside.
I've also always thought that if Vanedra had children that someone should tell them their mother is a civil rights hero just as much as Rosa Parks. And Joan was Oakwood Elementary's Charlene Hunter-Gault. She should be spoken about in reverent tones and admired and maybe even have a mural.
As an after note, I was taught by my parents to call Brazil nuts by the same name and just like Susanne, did not learn until much, much later the gravity and horribleness of what I was actually saying. I just thought it was a nut. She says it best when she says she never really processed the word...I understand completely. Thank you for reading, Lisa