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.