Times A-Changing

1 Conversation

Faces of the 1960s.

If we're honest, most of us hate our ancestors.

They were arrogant, nasty, ignorant, flea bitten slobs who lived like pigs and cluttered up the landscape with their greed and ambition, knocking down anybody who got in their way. All they left us with are a lot of old trash monuments and a legacy of problems to solve. We suspect we might like some of them, individually, if we met them – after all, they're kin, and blood is thicker than water – but we'd have to shake our heads over their backwardness. They were rude to their womenfolk, worked their kids half to death, hated strangers, started wars all over the place...don't let me get started on their sexual practices...

We're a little better now, just a very little. And we're trying to pick up the pieces. But the hurts are there – the holes in our psyches, the sore places we're reluctant to touch. They are there in us and in our neighbours. We want to help one another. And sometimes we just don't know how. We're afraid to give offence, so we invent Political Correctness. We're afraid to make things worse when we try to make them better.

I apologise in advance for what is to follow – it's too personal, and it's all anecdotal. But that's all I've got to give. I'm going to throw my two cents into the pot, and see if this widow's mite's worth of memory helps us along in the discussion. If not, shrug at my ignorance, and move on, hoping the next generation will do better.

It started in Memphis when I was five years old. I loved going to the Overton Park Zoo. Zoos are magical places, and this one was special. The peacocks strutted all over the park, unconfined except for the yearly banding round-up (you could keep all the feathers that dropped from outraged parties), emitting their comical cries of 'Help!'. The zoo was fascinating, but the weather was hot, and kids get thirsty. I headed for a water fountain.

'Stop!' my mother said. I stopped. She pointed to a sign. 'You can't use that one. Let me find you another one.' As she led me away from the longed-for drink, I wondered why the sign, that said 'Colored'1 meant I couldn't slake my thirst there. Wasn't I coloured enough?

Later in the day we headed for my favourite hamburger stand. An individual business, not a chain, a square concrete block in a shady grove beside convenient picnic tables. They made the burgers to order, you only had to walk up to the screened window...

The window of that said 'White', of course. The one on the other side was for the Coloured folk.

I must have just learned to read. This was disturbing me. Something was not right on Summer Avenue.

And then I was eight, and my mother couldn't do heavy lifting until my sister was born, so Minnie stood at the ironing board while Mama napped, and listened patiently to a garrulous kid natter on and on...Outside in the summertime, the muscular men with baskets on their heads went down the street chanting, ''Maters! Fresh 'maters!', then came to the back door, just like the garbage men...yes, history students, those garbage men, the ones Dr King was trying to help when he was...

But that was 1968, and I was in high school near Pittsburgh, in as ethnically diverse a crowd as any in Europe...except that we were all 'white'...some of us were part Indian, and wouldn't have been 'white' in Louisiana, just as Jimmy Carter wouldn't have been 'white' in the old South Africa...we didn't care, but we had no black neighbours, and only one Jewish family, there in the unfashionable part of the North Hills.

A digression. 'Race' is a myth cooked up by overseers. In 17th-Century Jamestown, there were two classes – the landowners and the slaves. The slaves, no matter where they had been shanghaied from, London, Glasgow, Barbados, were free if they could survive seven years of back-breaking labour, Indian assault, and typhoid outbreaks (that got better when the apple trees produced and you could drink cider rather than the James River). When the slaves got uppity, the landowners used a divide-and-conquer strategy: tell the 'white' ones they were better. We're still trying to get over the success of that strategy. End of digression.

University. African American students were reaping the rewards of the Civil Rights Movement. Hurrah. They wouldn't talk to me. I changed accents so they would talk to me. To some people, that drawl is a red flag to a bull. Not to my friend Catherine.

Catherine was a 60-year-old African American woman who worked in Housekeeping. She said to me, 'Oh, you're a Southerner, too. I'm from Alabama. Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savour?' When I confessed that I did, she took me and my girlfriend to church with her – sharing my mother's opinion that we belonged there on Sunday morning.

Church was different. More 'offerings' – I learned to bring quarters. More singing. More exuberant singing. Nicer hats. Catherine introduced us as her children. Dramatic pause. Her adopted children. Then she took us home to lunch in her government-subsidised apartment.

Catherine made us hamburgers, then settled down with leftovers for herself – black-eyed peas and greens. I pretended outrage. 'Catherine, you mean you are going to eat black-eyed peas and not offer me any?'

Catherine's eyes grew wide. 'Why, honey, you don't eat that ***** food, do you?' (Here she used a word considered so impolite it can't be printed here.) I laughed, although I had never, EVER, used that word in my life. 'I was raised on that stuff.'

One person's soul food is another's grandmother's staple. I loved Catherine, she loved me. We had so much in common...

I have lived to see a beloved female relative – who once angrily shouted at me that black people could never be as smart as white people – brag on her mixed-race grandniece, and opine that her nephew 'married up', because his wife's people were so much better educated than his side of the family...

I have lived to see my own mother and the African American neighbour lady, wearing identical straw hats, wave companionably at one another as they rode their lawn tractors in a stately dance around the azalea bushes...synchronised yard-cutting, a local sport...

I have lived to see people criticise our new mixed-race president not for his ancestry, but for his policies...oh, and the fact that he swats flies on television, kind of undignified, I guess, but I liked him for it, that man is cleverer than I will ever be, and far more ambitious...

I have lived to see at least part of Dr King's dream come true, that the children be judged, not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I am very grateful to have seen this, to know that the human 'race' is capable of at least this much progress, that my generation has that to its credit before it becomes ancestors and gets on posterity's hatelist...

I am grateful, too, that I can feel sure that I will never again see a sign on a water fountain that says 'White'.

What have I seen in half a century? People across an artificial divide, learning to respect one another's differences and to celebrate their common heritage.

Maybe we do learn.

dmitrigheorgheni's Fiction and Poetry Archive


09.07.09 Front Page

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1Correct spelling. I will not insult the British by assuming they had such signs.

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