How to teach a child? How do they best learn? I’m thinking of that great mantra of contradiction and hypocrisy, Do as I say not as I do. As I look back over my past life I try to figure out how I got to the complex and sometimes cockeyed set of morals and values I carry around with me. You got to get along in this world is another complex and cockeyed mantra. Both of these mantras teach me that life is complicated and that there is more than one set of values and morals I can apply to life. When someone tries to set down a set of rules that applies to everything they are going to fail. Where do values and morals come from? They come from life and occasionally they come from movies but more on this later.
I’m going to tell you some stories, stories that changed my life. You’ve heard stories like this before. In fact, you probably have some yourself. I’m not alone in this. I’m not special. These are stories about how I got to be who I am — the strong, scared, confident, neurotic woman I am today. I’m a confused bundle of contradictions and I don’t understand me either. You’ve got to be carefully taught. The problem is, taught what?
Something important happened the summer I was eight. The windows were open and I woke to voices in the front yard, one my father’s and the other a deep baritone. I slithered over to the window in my pajamas and peered out from behind the curtains to see what was happening. There, under the big Beech tree in the front of our house, was an enormous black man. There were ropes slung over his shoulder and metal stuff that jangled when he moved. He said, “Yes Sir, No Sir” to my father like Dad was a Lord and he kept laughing like my father had just told him the funniest joke imaginable. I was little then. The man wasn’t really enormous. When I’ve returned to spaces I inhabited when I was young, I’ve been constantly surprised by how much smaller they are than my memory of them. In my memory, this man loomed large. He may have been over six foot tall and there were fewer six footers back then, back in the 1950’s, and he was strong and muscled. My father, a wiry at 5 foot 7, looked dwarfed beside him. I felt intimidated and decided to stay inside. The man was there to prune the Beech tree.
Later that morning he started singing and the most incredible sound came out of him. It was so deep, so rich and so powerful that the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I got a chill. He sang Summertime, Old Black Joe, Old Folks at Home and Old Man River. I had heard these songs before but never like this. His voice soared straight to heaven like a prayer. I stopped what I was doing and listened. My father had gone out somewhere and I wished he could hear him. I snuck a look at the man. His skin shone like it had been oiled and he sat on a tree limb high up with his head tilted back as if he was singing to the sky. He should sing for a living, I thought. My father came home and the singing stopped. I asked him about it.
“I told him to shut up. If he keeps up that caterwauling, we’re going to get complaints from the neighbors.”
“I don’t think anyone will complain, Daddy. He’s really, really good. Did you hear him?”
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “I try to raise you right. You don’t know nothin?”
“That’s a double negative,” I said. He always corrected me when I did it.
“Watch it, kiddo,” he said.
Later there was a knock on the back screen door and there was the man, smiling at me.
“Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “We have lemonade. It’s fresh and really good.”
He thanked me but said he only wanted water. I filled the glass twice. I told him I enjoyed his singing. I said he was really good and asked him if he wanted to come in. He thanked me and said he would stay outside. He said he was all sweaty. I told him it was okay but he insisted.
After that Mom came into the kitchen. I told her I had given the man a glass of water.
“Which glass did you use?” she asked.
I showed her. It was still in the sink. She picked it up and threw it into the trash. I was shocked. It was one of our best glasses and I couldn’t understand why she did that. She said his spit was all over it. Then she said something ugly about his spit.
“Why is his spit different from our spit?” I asked. She said there was something wrong with me that I didn’t understand. She said he was not like us.
I didn’t understand. That night and for several days after that, I questioned my parents about what they said about him. I started looking at every black person I saw after that. I looked at them closely but I couldn’t understand how they were different.
One night I said, “They have lips just like us. They have eyes just like us. They have arms and legs and noses just like us. Why aren’t they like us?” I wanted my parents to make sense. The next time I went to confession I asked the priest about it. He said that it was a problem and that I should pray about it. He said I should go with my heart but that I also needed to obey my parents. He said to keep praying and I would find an answer. I prayed but the only solution I could come up with was that my parents were wrong. I didn’t want them to be wrong but they were. I had to be obedient. Honor thy father and thy mother is the fifth commandment and for my parents, obedience was the bottom line. I was a quiet child to begin with but I became even quieter. I didn’t talk about it but I watched.
Sometimes when he was out driving my father would swerve so he would almost hit a black person. If they had to jump or run he thought it was funny. My heart would be in my throat. He came close sometimes. He used the N word too until it became politically incorrect to do so. He would say it and look at me out of the corner of his eye daring me. I felt myself get hot and once in a while I cried but this would just frustrate him.
“You’re an dummkopf,” he said. “Don’t you have eyes in your head? Did I raise a daughter that can’t see?”
To me it seemed obvious. There was no difference between white people and black people. I didn’t see what the problem was.
Dad told me that the Irish used to do the N work, digging ditches, hauling coal. He said the Irish were so poor they put the black people out of business for a while. He said black people didn’t have the same brains we had. I couldn’t see this either.
I didn’t know any black people. We lived in a white neighborhood and my school was 100% white. Somehow I thought that normal, the separation. I always tried to be super polite to black people. That wasn’t hard. I was polite to everyone.
When I was fifteen, I got my first job. It was at a soda fountain in a Five and Ten store. I wanted money to buy shampoo and conditioner. Dad wouldn’t buy it for me. I also wanted makeup. I had a green nylon uniform with a little cap and a hair net. There were three people who worked the counter. I think I made 70 cents an hour. The boy who was the cook made more. When I found out, I asked my boss about it. He said only men could be cooks and laughed at me.
One day about mid-summer, a well-dressed black man came in and sat at the counter. I took his order and went to the back to tell the cook. My boss was watching me.
“What are you doing? he asked. “Tell him we don’t serve N’s.”
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“You’ll do it or you’re fired,” he said.
So I went back to the man but I couldn’t say it. I started to stutter.
“That’s okay, sweetheart,” he said, and he got up and went to the take out counter. He left me a 50-cent tip. I hadn’t done anything.
The next day when I came to work my boss said I wouldn’t be working the counter that day. He said the dishwasher, an older black woman, wouldn’t be coming in and I should wash the dishes. I couldn’t find the gloves and the water was hot. It scalded my hands. At break I went into the store and bought my own gloves but my boss wouldn’t let me wear them. He kept adding more hot water. My hands were red and raw by the time my shift was over. I stumbled out. I was embarrassed. People in the store had come to watch my punishment. I had been on display all day.
At dinner my parents asked me about my hands. I was afraid because I thought my parents would be angry with me too. That didn’t happen.
“See,” my father said. “You’re impossible.”
But he told me to quit. He said he was proud of my ambition but I didn’t need a job like that. He drove me to the store the next day and asked me if I wanted him to come in with me but I didn’t. It was for me to do alone. Somehow I knew that. I didn’t go to the lunch counter. I went to the back where the office was and told the lady I was quitting. She said she wouldn’t be able to give me my final paycheck until Friday, that I should come back then. I walked out of the store fast with my head down. It seemed like all the employees were watching me. I was so embarrassed I thought I would sink through the floor but I didn’t cry until I got to the car. I was disappointed. I had been proud that I had gone out and found the job by myself. My parents were nice to me about it. My father said he would pay for shampoo and conditioner from now on if it meant that much to me.
I try to remember if anyone felt the same way I did back then but it all seems to be pretty negative. Back then means 1950 for the first memory and 1957 for the second one. For some reason Rogers and Hammerstein understood about teaching hate and fear in 1958 when South Pacific came out. The song was “You’ve Got To Be Taught” and it’s surprising how applicable the words to the song are today. To hear the song as it was sung in South Pacific, click on the youtube.com video at You’ve Got To Be Taught Video. In the comment section that follows the video, someone commented that Dylann Roof was “carefully taught”. You know the name Dylann Roof, don’t you? He’s the young racist who killed nine people in a South Carolina church on June 17, 2015. The next comment is from a woman who played the part of Bloody Mary in several productions of South Pacific. She commented that the song is as relevant today as it was back then. I agree. I used the song before in a post about Buddhists hating the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The song applies to a lot of situations. We whites in America don’t have a monopoly on hate and fear. It has existed throughout history, all over the world. What’s my point?
We are all creatures of our experiences. Mine have affected my point of view. Where does compassion come from? Is it an innate characteristic? What made me question my parent’s point of view? What made me decide it was wrong? What made others I know decide differently? I don’t know the answer and I very much want to know the answer because if I can find the answer to that question, I can solve the problem, the problem of racism. This is all about persuasion. I want everyone to think that the races are equal. And if you don’t, I want you to reexamine how you developed that point of view. I have one hell of a lot of nerve asking you to do this. I’m no better than you are. I know that. But I’m damned sure I am right about this.
I want things to change now. I’m tired of waiting. I’ve been patient long enough. I’m getting too old to wait any longer. I want to see significant change before it’s too late for me to celebrate. I’m in a fighting mood so I’m making a pact with myself. I will no longer let racist statements slip past me in the name of keeping the peace. I will challenge every racist statement I hear. I will show people by my actions and by my words that times have indeed changed, that attitudes have changed and I won’t be afraid anymore. And I want you, you being anyone who reads this, to do the same.
South Carolina voted to take down the Confederate flag from public buildings. I think that’s good. The Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery. I appreciate that some people say that it stands for Southern pride. Once the Swastika was an ancient symbol of peace before the Nazis literally twisted the symbol and turned it into something evil. Symbols can hurt. It hurts me to see the Confederate flag and it seems to be out more than ever now, blowing by in the back of a pick up truck, waving cheerily from someone’s house where it wasn’t last week but it’s down from public buildings and that’s a good thing. I’m grateful.
But there are other issues. One huge issue right now is the cut back in the number of days allowed for early voting, the elimination of same-day registration, and the imposition of voter ID laws that are clearly designed to take away African Americans right to vote. It’s subtle and it’s cagey and it’s a very real happening. Let’s not congratulate ourselves that the Confederate flag came down in South Carolina and let it go at that. The flag is a symbol only. The voter laws are a relevant and current reality.
According to a New York Review of Books article, the new laws seriously impacted the last senatorial race in North Carolina. A quote follows.
In North Carolina shortly before the 2014 election, Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House of Representatives and the Republican candidate for the US Senate against the incumbent Kay Hagan, rushed through the legislature one of the harshest voting laws in the country. It cut back the number of days for early voting, eliminated same-day registration, and prohibited people from voting outside their home precincts—all forms of voting heavily relied upon by blacks. Tillis defeated Hagan by 48,000 votes. One way to look at this is that in 2012, 700,000 people voted on those early voting days that were later cut; and 100,000 voters, almost one third of whom were black, had previously been able to register and vote on the same day. North Carolina hadn’t yet imposed a voter ID law in 2012, but one is in place for the next election. Big Dangers in the Next Election
Kay Hagan had been ahead in the polls and most likely would have won the election if the new voter laws had not been in effect. It’s not too hard to figure out. According to the Pew Research Center, 80% of Black Americans lean toward the Democratic party vs. 11% that lean toward the Republican. Pew Research Center polls I don’t find it too much of a stretch to realize that Tom Tillis won the Senate seat because of the new voter laws that were passed only weeks before the election. There was a federal trial on this that started Monday, July 13, 2015. Lets hope the federal system of government is less biased than the North Carolina system of government. Tillis and his cronies tried to cover the changes by saying that they were to prevent voter fraud but that’s not true. The laws instituted were a carefully crafted system of voter fraud in and of itself. The new system limits and defrauds the African American voter of his basic right as an American citizen to vote in a fair election. Tom Tillis cheated. The election he won was unfair. What cuts particularly deeply is that Tom Tillis was Speaker of the House when the new law was passed, a position of power, a position of trust. He abused that trust and probably would not be Senator today if the new laws had not been passed.
A federal trial opening in Winston-Salem on Monday is meant to determine whether recent, sweeping changes in the state’s election laws discriminate against black voters. These changes were adopted by the Republican-dominated state legislature in 2013, immediately after the United States Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it ended a requirement that nine states with histories of discrimination, including North Carolina, get federal approval before altering their election laws. New York Times article on voting rights legislation
If South Carolina takes down the flag and North Carolina takes away the vote, we’ve gone backward not forward. The voter ID laws are a huge issue. We need to fight and if we don’t fight it now it will be too late.
There is one thing every one of us can do and it isn’t hard. We can change our attitudes. We can stop being afraid and stop being patient with people who want to preserve the status quo. The status quo is a difficult thing to let go especially when we are the ones enjoying privilege. Why should we do it? We should do it because it’s the right thing to do. The phrase, the right thing to do, brings me circling back to another movie, Do The Right Thing, a 1989 movie by Spike Lee. It was a controversial movie in its own right and too involved a subject for me to get into here. But that phrase, the phrase from the movie, Do The Right Thing became a mantra for me. Each situation is difficult to figure out. What should I do? I often don’t know so I repeat that question to myself. What would be the right thing to do? Sometimes the answer is obvious and sometimes it’s not. But I try — and trying is the right thing to do.