My People

Racism. It is such a hot topic that as soon as we hear it, it elicits visions of punk neo-Nazis and red-neck Dixie flag wavers. It makes us think of police brutality, and social injustice.

When you think of racist, when you think of what a Racist looks like, who do you envision?

Is it a balding, middle-aged white man driving a hemi diesel 2 ton pick-up truck?

Okay, I have no idea if that last statement regarding pick-up truck tonnage is valid. But did it invoke the right image?

Let me tell you of my image, well one of them. Because, the image in my head varies across a long spectrum of social, economic, and yes, racial demographics. And every time I experienced it, it broke my heart a little bit more.

In my late teen years, I returned to the southern town where I was born, with every intention of going to college there. It was the place my mother had returned to after my parents divorced.

I was working as a waitress. I had my regulars that came in every day for lunch. A fair share of those regulars were my favorites and they felt like adopted family. Especially my sweet little old southern belle.

###

The sweetest ever. She was seventy-something. Giving. Loving. An all-around good, southern, Christian woman. If you were down and out, even if it was your own damn fault, this woman would offer you her wrinkled little hand and lift you up. She would feed you, clothe you, and send you back out into the world to try again.

My sweet little old southern lady was coming up to the register. The air was pleasant, the sun streamed through the window blinds. The ring of her southern belle accent always had a soothing effect on me. We were having our usual, post-lunch chat about the weather, or her grandchildren, or perhaps it was an upcoming church social. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but as she stood there, a nice young black family came in the door and was seated over in a section to my right.

What I do remember is the tension in her frail little shawled shoulders as they passed behind her with the hostess. What I do remember is the conspiratorial squint she gave as she leaned in and interjected what was part of a long line of heart-breaking moments for me.

“Those people ove’ theh’”, she whispered in that sweetest of southern drawls that always made me feel at home. “Can you bahleev? They le’ them move down the street fum me?” She huffed and handed me her money, tucking her wallet back into her purse.

I could tell that she had not seen the look of shock on my face. I could tell that she was oblivious to the tears welling behind my eyelids. The anger that I felt, at that moment… was incomprehensible. My southern training was in direct conflict with my ideological concepts of right, and wrong. My mind did what it always does, and I thank God for it. It channeled that anger… it made it into words.

“Well, it is about damn time…” I began.

“Excuse me!?” She flustered, her cheeks reddening a bit. She clutched her purse to her chest like a shield.

“I said, it is about damn time that they moved out of those shotgun shacks at the edge of town.” I slammed the register shut for effect. I glared at the sweet little southern woman before me. Still all the appearance of what she was before… but now… more like a demon in my midst.

She harrumphed and stomped out of the restaurant. I never saw my sweet little old southern belle again.

She was one of the many reasons that I left and never looked back.

###

I went back to visit my town many years later, and it was a very different experience. I took my daughters to visit my mother, their grandmother, for the first time.

I remember writing about how the air was a warm thick blanket that welcomed me back.

I remember going into Walmart (of all places) and being greeted by a sweet old southern gentleman. The ones that are of that breed that always look, to me, just a little bit like Jimmy Carter.

In every aisle were families, single people, young and old. White, black, and mixed race. Some of the mixed children were third generation. Had I been gone that long?

Curly, light brown and blonde hair framed sweet little cherub faces of varying shades. There was no tension here. Even among what most consider ‘redneck’ culture. They smiled, white, black, and mixed. They stopped their carts long enough to greet a familiar face and ask how their day was going. Some stopped longer to discuss what was happening that weekend.

In a small town. In one of the most deeply racist, both historically and socially, states in the Union, somehow… they had found peace.

 

 

19 thoughts on “My People”

  1. The thing is you judged that sweet old lady because of what she thought of her neighbors. There are people who have been my neighbors i did not like at all. Some of the same color, and some of different colors. Color does not make a good, or bad neighbor. She could have been upset because of something they had done to her personally. You will never know because you did not take the time to be understanding, and ask. It’s not a matter of race. It’s a matter of respect.

    Reply
    • I appreciate the sentiment, but first of all, this is literature. It is an essay about my experience from my perspective. I was there. I grew up in that town. I knew exactly what she meant. And yes. ‘Those’ people were expected to stay in ‘their’ part of town. Which, in fact, was shotgun shacks on the edge of town. The racism went both ways. If I feel like it, maybe I will tell you about the time I got rocks thrown at me for going in the ‘black neighborhood’.

      You don’t know me either, by the way. It’s one essay.

      Reply
      • I live in Alberta, Canada and unfortunately racism and bigotry are alive and well here, but there is also a well-spring of tolerance, acceptance, and friendship between peoples as well. Your post is awesome. It is honest and it is hopeful as well as inspirational.Thank you for that.

        Reply
  2. Canada? Really? I moved up ‘north’ when I was a teenager. I am still getting schooled on the depths of racist thought. It’s so much quieter, subtle, and somehow more pervasive here than it ever was in the south. At least we were free to speak our mind. Maybe that is what helped them move past it in the 20 years I was gone?

    Reply
  3. A really nice objective piece. Often when people read a piece about race can end up relating the outcome of the piece and its attitudes to the race of the person writing it. Your piece didn’t drive me in that direction at all, really balanced.

    Reply
  4. Wow, what a brave post. Impressive how you can take such a difficult subject, and end on such a positive note. The ‘othering’ that is occurring in our current political climate is hard to stomach, so I am thankful to hear that there is movement in the right direction.

    Reply
    • Yes. It’s easy to do. The worst is the anti-immigrant stance. Which on the surface, I can appreciate the concern. But really, the discussion has made me question, well, a lot of assumed concepts.

      Many people, regardless of race, don’t recognize those tendencies (which are perfectly natural) to divide and classify. Especially if they’ve never been exposed to it.

      The culture that I grew up in, where it was a part of the ‘social structure’ (and where a lot of the animosity and hatred existed), has pretty much fallen away. But the stark divisions in culture that those social divisions bred over the years, makes it even harder to find a middle ground. And ALL sides are guilty.

      Example, I was at a retail store once, and the main aisles were cluttered. A large young black man (college student) was coming towards me with a cart. There was not enough room for both of us to pass, so I moved over into the other side of the divider displays (I was in a hurry) so that I could get to the register faster.

      HE, assumed I was moving over to avoid his blackness. So, HE brought his cart over into the other lane to ‘force’ me to come face to face with him. I smiled and laughed. I shook my head. And pulled my cart over to let HIM pass. I appreciated his sentiment. But HE had come to the wrong conclusion about MY intentions. lol.

      Reply
      • You are right, we all have tendencies, and biases that take noticing and effort to change. A person’s skin color is not the defining attribute about them. We are all human, and all want love, friendships, successes. While the needle may have moved some, I do believe we still have a long way to go.

        Reply
  5. I started the first grade in school, I experienced racism. I really did. It was within a few days.
    All of us were supposed to have crayons, so our parents bought them. My mom did for me i know.
    One girl who was black decided she wanted my crayons. I still do not know why. maybe she didn’t have any, i dont know. But for some reason, she picked me. Maybe i had a sign on my head that said, ” pick me.”
    She took my crayons and told the teacher i took hers. No, I didn’t. But i wanted them back. My parents paid for them.
    So then, she wrote the ” N” word on paper and showed the teacher. She told her I wrote that. So the teacher sent me to the principals office. He asked me why did i do that. I asked him WHAT did that word mean? I am dead serious. I had never known that word till that day. He didn’t define the word, but just laughed at me and said i knew. No, i didn’t.
    My mother taught us to treat other people the same way we wanted to be treated.
    He told me he was going to give me “licks” with his board he punished kids with. I got three that day.
    He asked me if i was going to apologize. I said, ” for what? I did not call her that word.” Then I got three more licks.
    I told him they were mine, not hers and she took them. Of course he didn’t listen and never believed me.
    I went back to class and still couldn’t get my crayolas back. So, if i couldn’t get them back, i broke them all. Then i told her to have them now.
    My mother never came to school for that. She didn’t care.
    And that was a day I always will remember and I learned how ugly people could be. And also how they did not care about the truth.
    I wrote it off as people being ignorant. And…many still are. It doesn’t matter what color or race.

    Reply

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