Sunday, May 19, 2013


    Awhile back, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice questioned the need for the Voting Rights Act, now that we have a Black president. The ramifications of such a statement are stunning and if nothing else, seemed to demand serious discourse to close the ever-widening gap that divides the body political. But it’s been my experience that argument rarely leads to agreement where such discussions are concerned, so there’s no way I’d step into that fray. Not here, at any rate. However, it did prompt me to reflect upon my own life where matters of race are concerned, and what I’ve learned upon the way.

    I spent my younger years in the Pacific Northwest. Swedes and Norwegians abounded. Blonde hair, blue eyes and porcelain skin were the order of the day. Fine people, all, for the most part, but most definitely White. I do not recall even seeing a person of color until a trip to Texas, when I was ten or so, brought me face-to-face with the realities of a Black and White world. My mother, siblings and I took a bus trip to see my grandparents in the town where Mama had been raised. There was a layover in Dallas and entering the Greyhound Bus Depot was like a step into foreign land. I wasn’t in Washington anymore.

    First to greet my eyes were the water fountains, clearly marked so as to assure no one could mistake which one was which. “Whites” one sign said, and nearby, “Coloreds”. Restrooms were similarly designated. Whites and Coloreds, Men and Women. We entered the one that said White Women, my brother being young enough to join Mama, my sister and me. There we languished, awaiting the bus to Denison. It was a big room with high ceilings, hard wooden benches and cold hard floors. There was nothing friendly or inviting about it, and I may have wondered if the Colored Women restroom was similarly uninviting. Surely it could not have been worse. I'm guessing now that I was wrong about that.

    But it was the shock brought by my introduction to the Ugly Face of Racism that had the most long-lasting effect.

    The last leg of our journey to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was on a city bus. When we boarded, my sister Margaret, 16 and an about-to-be teenage rebel of the first order, headed down the aisle toward the back of the bus, suitcase in hand. Mama’s alarmed expression told me there was trouble afoot.

    “Margaret!” she called in a stage whisper, then upped the volume to get my sister’s attention. “Margaret!”

    True to form, Margaret’s expression was surly. “What?” she growled, but did not slow down.

    “You need to get back up here with us!” Mama ordered. “You can’t sit back there.”

    “Why not?” my sister asked.

    The exchange was getting attention from the other passengers, who watched with interest.

    “Because,” Mama said, “in the South, only Coloreds sit in the back of the bus!”

    Whereupon, Margaret turned around, stomped back to the front, and fairly shouted, “Well, I’m sure as heck glad I don’t live in the South!”

    Years later, the full import of Coloreds in the Back of the Bus was brought home to me when national attention was drawn to a woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama to a White man. Only then did I understand that assigning Black human beings to the rear of a common form of transportation went far beyond that. Blacks were required by law to turn over their seats to White human beings who wanted to occupy that space. A real head shaker, that one.

    But as my mother often told me, unless I’d been raised in the South, there was no way I could understand what it was like, living among the Coloreds.

    And Margaret’s words would ring in my head. “I’m sure as heck glad I don’t live in the South!”

    The older I got, the more I knew about my parents’ own and mostly well-hidden racism, and the less I liked it. We relocated from Washington to the outskirts of Denver. The school I attended was in a small school district, decidedly White, but there came the day when a kid of a different color joined the student body. He didn’t stay long, no surprise, I suppose, given the lack of acceptance he received from his fellow students. I’ve always felt badly about that particular turn of events, but the bottom line was, back in those days, a White girl simply did not interact with a Black boy, even anything as innocent as brief eye contact.

    Through the years, race relations in the South were evolving at a fevered pitch. The brave lady who would not give up her bus seat to a White springboarded a series of actions that were to change that Ugly Face of Racism, or at least drive it underground. The world watched as schools were segregated by force, which included armed guards escorting Black students to their classrooms. White students protested outside, vocalizing their objections in no uncertain terms. One Little Rock High School girl wearing a poodle skirt, her hair in a pony tail, her expression one of contempt and hatred, was interviewed by a reporter. “You’re such a pretty young lady,” he remarked. “Why are you so angry?” “Because,” she snarled, “I’m not going to school with no N-----rs!”

    But, unlike the Black boy who quickly exited my high school, those Black students in Little Rock and other Southern towns did not walk away. They stayed, Separate But Equal a thing of the past, and eventually pretty young White girls and their fellow White classmates did indeed go to school with Blacks, and who knows—unlike me in that Denver suburb school, they may have even talked to them. It took marches and beatings by cops and attacks by dogs and fire hoses, but the protestors kept their eyes on the prize and they prevailed. The Ugly Face of Racism remained, of course, but it no longer wrote the script for life in the South.

    With the passage of time, I became fully aware of the Black and White of my family dynamics. Daddy, bless his soul, had only disdain for Coloreds. It seemed a contradiction, given he was a Christian, a deacon in the Baptist church we attended, taught the men’s Sunday School class, served communion, led in prayer at church gatherings, and insisted we have family devotions each night. But the truth was out there—Daddy had no use for Coloreds. Oh, he thought they could be saved, but he was convinced they would have a separate place in heaven after they went to be with the Lord.

    We had conversations about this, during which came to understand the depth of my father’s racism and the underlying reason. Whites were superior, period. No matter the success of Coloreds, their accomplishments, intelligence, financial status, place in history, fame, contributions to society, they were still Coloreds, inferior to Whites. Period.

    When this fact about Daddy was imprinted on my brain, I avoided further discussions on the topic of race. Again, argument rarely leads to agreement, and besides, I told myself, my parents were raised in the South, where their racism was imprinted on their brains, set in stone for a lifetime. Silently, I thanked them for moving to Washington from Oklahoma when I was an infant. I wondered if, had I spent my childhood in the South, I might not have been that poodle-skirted pony-haired girl consumed by hatred, declaring I wasn’t going to go to school with “no N-----s”.

    Or, maybe I’d have joined with those who marched for freedom and equality for all. I’d like to think so, but I was far removed from that arena with all its attendant horrors, and could only watch the horrifying events unfold on a television screen. Blacks and Whites arrived from other states to join the fight. When I heard they rode in on charter buses, I thought, “I’ll bet they didn’t make the Blacks sit in the back!” Recalling the incident so many years before on that bus to Denison, I could not suppress a tiny smile.

    When the TV series "Roots" aired, I and I am sure millions of others had our level of consciousness raised about the Ugly Face of Racism that was Slavery. I’d read enough to know it was a factual if toned-down depiction of that scourge on our nation’s history, so when Daddy asked me, regarding Roots, if I thought Slavery was really all that bad, I said, my voice tinged with sadness, “Daddy, it was much, much worse.” I could only hope my words touched a nerve with him, but somehow I doubted it. Coloreds were, after all, inferior to Whites. Period.

    I need to make it clear my parents’ racism did not affect my love and regard for them. It was, in a way, the least of their faults when it came to our family dynamics. Accepting people for who they are can be a long-term project, with feelings ebbing and flowing like the tides. I took care of my parents in their later years, setting aside the issues that may have divided us. My sister maintained her Teenage Rebel status far too long into adulthood. When she at last overcame the inner pain that plagued her, she opted for good mental health and repairing broken family relationships. She died in a traffic accident, far too young, but by then had left us with a ton of positive memories. One of my favorites was her outspoken objection to not being allowed to ride in the back of that bus to Denison. She was no racist, that was for sure, and I have wondered if her path was set the day she declared she was glad she didn’t live in the South!

    My own path when it came to equality took twists and turns along the way. It was marked by blatant discrimination against women—equal pay? Forget it. Equal opportunities in the job market? Help Wanted Female, Help Wanted Male anyone? While I never marched in the streets or burned any bras, I was subject to that kind of discrimination in spades, so to speak, and I greatly admired those women who fought that good fight that finally brought about, for the most part, Equal Rights for Women. I was grateful to share in its benefits.

    I was also grateful that my parents, biased as they were, taught me to think for myself and reach my own conclusions. It didn’t take long, thankfully, for me to realize how awful it would be to be hated, discriminated, diminished, scorned and treated with disdain simply because of one’s color—the one immutable fact of life that cannot be changed. The ability to take pride in one’s efforts and accomplishments stripped away because you are Black. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best—his dream was that we should be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.

    I do not claim to be totally free of bias, even now. It could rear its ugly head unbidden, without me even understanding where it came from. But I can honestly say, or I hope I’m being honest, that for me a person’s race does not define who he or she is.

    If I do judge, it is those who do let that make a difference, and sadly, in spite of the strides and hard-fought battles for freedom and equality, the Ugly Head of Racism seems once again to be rearing itself over our country. I am appalled at the rhetoric: Slaves should have been grateful that their White masters provided them with all that wonderful lodging and food? Blacks should be subjected to what amounts to a poll tax to be allowed to vote? Schools should be segregated?

    And now that we have a Black president, voter rights laws should be struck down?

    Sorry, Mr. Supreme Court Justice, but for me you have just become that Ugly Face of Racism. Wish I could get in touch with my father, now that he’s been in heaven a few years and doubtless realizes everything he thought about “Coloreds” was wrong. I suspect he’s walking the Streets of Gold side by side with them. I’d have him send you a message from the God he served so faithfully all during his life:

    You are dead wrong, Mr. Supreme Court Justice. Rule on the side of truth, okay? As Jesus said, it will set us free.

Saturday, November 19, 2011



When I was about nine years old, I began to chronicle my life, writing chapters for each awesome and stunning event as it transpired. Nowadays, it might have been a best seller. I mean, who could resist a book with an entire chapter devoted to “Glasses”? That covered the time when I was ten and a school-sponsored eye test discovered my eyesight was definitely problematic. A subsequent diagnosis revealed I was near-sighted and had astigmatism. Glasses were prescribed to remedy the condition, and for me, it was an episode worthy of an entire chapter in my autobiography, along with enthralling accounts titled “Second Grade”. “Our Cat Midge”. “The Time I Joined in Teasing a Classmate and Hated Myself for It”. “Third Grade: Gosh, I Miss Second Grade!” “I Follow the Lord in Baptism.” And then, of course, “Glasses”.
I was so excited that I had been prescribed eyewear I figured everyone I encountered would share my enthusiasm. Of course they did not, and in fact, most of those within my circle of family and acquaintances did not even notice. I would preen, grin, blink wildly behind those lenses and fondle the frames to call attention to this new addition to my face. Beyond the occasional, “Oh, look, it’s Four Eyes” from cousins around my age, it soon became obvious that for anyone but me and I suppose my parents, who had to pay for them, glasses were not a pivotal moment in my existence. “Glasses” became one of the shorter chapters in my life story.
Another lesson I learned was that those who cared about me were few and far between. Since my autobiography generated so little interest, I took to writing the story of a spunky little orphan girl in the wild, wild west and the challenges she faced on stage coach rides, eluding bad guys on horseback, and chewing wax. Yes, chewing wax, which in my endless pursuit of knowledge I learned was what people did prior to the advent of chewing gum. Later on, I became aware of chewing tobacco, but of course my spunky-yet-righteous heroine would have disdained popping a wad of tobacco leaves in her mouth and chomping away. Don’t know if the word “yucky” had reached the lexicon back in those days, but I’m sure the term “ladylike” was well established by then. Remember “Godey’s Lady’s Book”? It set the standard for refined women of the era. Since the editor’s model was Queen Victoria, it follows that females chewing tobacco would have been greeted with horror and immediately ostracized from the social circles to which they aspired.
Thus it was that my little orphan navigating the wilds of the west popped wax into her mouth rather than a chaw of hoobastank, as the tobacco was also known. Other details of her life were carefully recorded in my narrative, but I confess that to this day, I do not recall her name.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thoughts on Letting Go

Recently I read an article by a Writers Digest editor on the topic, “Letting Go”. I was at once reminded of Philip Roth’s novel titled Letting Go, which I read eons ago and found to be a disturbing story with characters I could neither relate to nor begin to understand. A friend of mine, a college professor, had loaned me the book. When I finally worked my way through it, by then on the verge of a major depression, I asked my friend why the hell he recommended it. Or words to that effect. He replied that what he found so interesting was that here were these characters going through all these traumatic experiences and at the end of the book they hadn’t changed at all. In other words, what could have proven to be life-altering episodes made not a whit of difference in terms of the way they looked at or conducted their lives. Like I said—depressing!

At that time, the only other book by Philip Roth I’d read was Goodbye Columbus, which was made into a movie that got a lot of attention because of actor Ali McGraw’s scenes featuring full frontal nudity. Pretty shocking back in the sixties, for sure, but it is worth noting her co-star Richard Benjamin did no scenes in the same mode. Guess movie audiences weren’t ready for that, although I’m thinking it might have generated a lot more female viewers. The thing is, Philip Roth went on to write a lot of novels far more shocking and depressing than the two I read early on in his career. My college professor friend, who also loaned me Sometimes a Great Notion, another downer in my opinion, was no longer in my life and probably wouldn’t have recommended any more of Roth’s books anyhow. Fool me once, I guess. In one of Roth’s book the protagonist was so obsessed by women’s breasts that he finally turned into one. That alone made me glad I’d put him on my don’t-bother-to-read list when I did.

But I digress! Back to the WD editor’s article. He believes in the importance of letting go. His point is the importance of not holding on to stuff that holds us back from achieving great things. He listed tangible effects, such as junk, old food, clothes, books and toys.

He went on to include some intangibles, things you can’t throw in a box and haul to the dump—e-mails, expenses, and last but not least, grudges.

Regarding e-mails, the editor is right on target. We can delete e-mails with a click of a mouse, and he went on to say he regularly deletes e-mails from his deleted folder, because he believes in deleting things that have already been deleted. That makes sense, of course—clutter is clutter, and our cyberspace deserves cleaning out just as much as the space we occupy.

As for expenses, these days cutting them becomes easier and easier, most of all because the price of everything is soaring into the stratosphere. The reasons for this unchecked inflation that drives ordinary people into borderline poverty are too many to discuss here and besides they make me very-very angry. Suffice it to say, expenses can be cut, though some creative measures as to methodology are required. I’m finding this as depression-producing as a Philip Roth novel, but I must say the phrase Letting Go has often proved in my case to be life-altering indeed.

Now as to grudges, the WD editor states (and I hope I’m not guilty of plagiarizing here, but his words resonate with me), a lot of people have done a lot of horrible things to me over the years. But I know I'm not perfect—none of us is, come to think of it--and I’m sure I’ve stepped on toes and hurt more than a few feelings through the years. If you have trouble with letting go of things, I hope you can at least put some effort into this one. Forgive people who do you wrong. One of the saddest facts of our life on this earth is that all too soon the moment can come when mending fences, reconciling differences and taking actions that would mitigate grievances is no longer given to us. Death may be the great equalizer, but it also slams shut the door that might have been the way to knit together ties that have become unbound. Anger, resentment and regret are typical to us as human beings, and often justifiable in many ways. But grudges can be counterproductive and soul-sucking by their nature, and Letting Go is called for, if for nothing else our own good emotional health.

Again, I quote the WD editor, who ends his article with these words: Letting go of things can be scary and intimidating at first, but once you start releasing yourself from clutter, it can get addictive. It's totally liberating!

Words of wisdom that could prove indeed life-altering, Philip Roth notwithstanding!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Yet Another Poem!

Once again, my Muse has directed me to wax poetic. This one has a story behind it. Well, first of all, as one might guess, it touches on the subject of a long-term relationship--not one that's gone bad, but rather has a firmly entrenched communication gap that is likely neither unusual when it comes down to it, but is certainly not intolerable. It is, as they say, what it is. The really cool "rest of the story" has to do with a workshop I attended several years ago conducted by Oregon's own (at the time) poet laureate, Lawson Inada. His poetry and writings are more than worth the read, if anyone has time, but this incredible man in one hour generated a level of enthusiasm and love for poetry I had not before experienced. When I registered for the workshop, the write-up about it said that Lawson welcomed participants to bring their poetry to share. Now--I'm no poet, as this piece doubtless confirms, but to my amazement, Lawson asked me to share my piece, and lo and behold, he decided we would read it together. Talk about a moment etched forever in my mind, one that never fails to bring a sense of joy and awe whenever it is recalled. Lawson read one line, I read the next, and while he did not pronounce it the best poem he'd ever read and declare I was the next Sylvia Plath (not a bad thing considering her life), I shall be forever honored to have shared that brief time "on stage" with him as together we read my words. So--that's it, folks. Nothing earth-stopping and certainly not a pivotal event in the history of mankind, but for me...well, it sorta was! So here it is, for your wondering eyes to feast upon:

Failure to Communicate

I've heard I'm from Venus
And you are from Mars
And while I'd love to think we're soaring
Out among the stars
I have this notion, for better or worse,
That more likely you and I live in a different universe.
While I aim for Andromeda
You plant your feet on Terra Firma.
I talk
You don't listen
I listen
You don't talk
Some days I think I'll just a long walk
Off this short pier we've danced on for 40 some years,
Put an end to all the frustration and tears.
It sounds appealing, release from the turmoil,
But I confess for me it's mostly internal.
It's been so long-standing, perhaps it's too late
To change it now, our failure to communicate.
So I'll plant my feet on Earth's solid ground
Keep my eyes on the future, the place where I'm bound
And maybe some day, out among the stars,
Our souls might just meet
On Venus or Mars.

Anita Lanning

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Aunt Hattie's Sucrier

For several generations, what we’ve always called Aunt Hattie’s Sugar Bowl has been in my family. Aunt Hattie was my father’s aunt, his mother’s (my grandmother’s) sister. I have no clue as to how or when she obtained the bowl, or for that matter, how my parents came to possess it. At any rate, it languished, well-wrapped and seldom used, for many years. It is quite lovely, Aunt Hattie’s sugar bowl, with an attractive design and a lovely contour marked by two curved handles. The best way to describe it is exquisite. When I hosted my mother and father’s 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries, Aunt Hattie’s Sugar Bowl graced the reception table. A few years ago, a friend who is an antique dealer agreed to check out its history. The only identifier were the words on the bottom of the sugar bowl: “T&R Boote Waterloo Potteries Burslem Staffordshire England Makers to Queen Victoria”. My friend learned that T&R Boote’s Waterloo Potteries had closed in 1906, after which they made only ceramic tiles, so the piece may have dated back to around 1900, perhaps even earlier.

Awhile back I came across a website of a company which, for a nominal fee, appraises antiques online. I decided to go for it, and e-mailed a photo of the sugar bowl along with the written information. Before long, I had my answer:

"Aunt Hattie’s Sugar Bowl" is actually a T&R Boote Limited Waterloo Pottery Sucrier. Its date is Circa 1900. It seems T&R Boote Ltd was founded in Burslem, Staffordshire in the 1840s and this is a typical example of their wares from around 1900. This type of tea ware was produced in large quantities and so individual pieces are inexpensive at auction.

Its value? $10-$20

So—part of the mystery is solved! I still have no idea where or when my great-aunt, who I remember as being very kind to me when I was young, came to own the sucrier. But at least I know that it was one of probably a million such pieces, and therefore of little monetary value. I could shrug and say “it figures”, but value aside, this sucrier remains a family treasure I don’t intend to part with, and probably wouldn’t have even if its worth were considerably higher. I’ll keep it safe, and who knows? Perhaps one day my children will use it at their parents’ 50th anniversary. I’m glad I had the appraisal done, because it clarified what I think I’ve always known--the real value of Aunt Hattie’s Sugar Bowl is far more than monetary!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sky Sounds

On occasion my Muse gently encourages me to wax poetic. Sometimes I listen and obey. This is one of those times.

Sky Sounds

Wisps of clouds move across a bright blue sky
Harmonic trails in their wake

Sun rays and moon beams join the chorus
On their journey to earth's surface

I tune the reception of my heart to the frequency
Let the melodies engulf me, fill my soul

Where some see shapes in clouds, I hear only music
Sky Sounds reverberate, reach my longing ears

My spirit lifts to rest on those clouds and I listen
As Mother Earth sings a lullaby to her children.