Archive: Aug 2011

Guest post: My mother worked as a maid for white families most of her life

A painting of Altha by one of her clients.

Note: A few months ago I asked my mother if she would respond to some questions about her life during the Civil Rights period. When I was a child studying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. each February, it never occurred to me that this was happening during my mother’s childhood. With the premiere of the movie “The Help” I thought it was time to get some family history on record, especially since most of her life my grandmother Altha worked as a housekeeper for white families in a Southern city. These are Deborah’s (my mother’s) thoughts.

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Guest post: Not my fondest memories of my hometown

Note: A few months ago I asked my friend Maridith to share her experiences during the time of the Freedom Riders and how they compare to now. Here is her story.

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I’m convinced we don’t understand race, and perhaps we never will. We’ve seen strides forward, but today I wonder if we’ve traded one form of “segregation” for another. More on that in a moment.

I remember vividly, as a child, the mores that governed race in our small town. The balcony of the Ritz Theater, now a renovated conference hall and adjacent cafe, was restricted for blacks. Black women were the domestics who took care of white children and white homes. The town separated itself geographically and psychologically by race, and schools were not integrated until my senior year of high school. [pullquote]I wrote an editorial about our racial attitudes, in which I asserted “It’s time to stop pretending the Ku Klux Klan is a fine Christian organization.”[/pullquote]

Because we weren’t exposed to each other in school, church, or social gatherings, our understanding of each other was based on myth, fear, and deliberate distortion. Phrases entered the white vocabulary as fact: “they” want to take over; “they” want something for nothing; “they” will destroy “our” way of life. Race was defined as “the other,” and “the other” presented a threat to the comfortable status quo. But we were part of our culture, and that’s not the way we saw things then; we accepted the rhetoric. I can see more clearly 50 years later.

Several events stand out for me as seminal. In 1963, when James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, my dad was sheriff of Clay County. He was one of the hundreds of law enforcement officials called to Oxford. It was a tense, uncertain time that ultimately led to violence. I was in the 8th grade, and out of all the hundreds of kids in our public schools, I was the one and only person with a name reminiscent of Meredith. It was a time when the teacher called roll at the beginning of home room every day, and every single day became a torture for me. She started with the Abbotts and the Baileys and worked herself down the alphabet to the Walkers, and I’d start getting tense. When she came to “Maridith Walker,” the whole class would snicker and whisper under their breath. It was humiliating and demeaning–and I began to get a sense of what being an “outsider” felt like. It’s not pretty. And these were folks who had known me my whole life. How much worse for the “strangers” among us.

These were the days of the Freedom Riders, and my recollection is that I didn’t really comprehend the significance and courage of their undertaking. The phrase “outside agitators” entered the vocabulary, with the suggestion that everything would be OK if “they” would just let the accepted order remain. “They” didn’t understand our way of life. “They” didn’t understand what it was really like. I couldn’t comprehend someone caring so much about a principle that they’d enter a place where they were so unwelcome and, worse, where they faced jail, or–as the case would tragically prove–death.

Years later, when I was a senior in high school, our class enrolled the first two blacks in the history of West Point public schools. It was uneventful, and Minnie Matthews and Sylvester Harris became visible but certainly not lightning rods of controversy or dissension. I was editor of our high school paper, which that year was inserted into the Daily Times Leader as a tabloid. I was busy reading Ayn Rand and thinking that the world could be changed with a single, strong voice. So I wrote an editorial about our racial attitudes, in which I asserted “It’s time to stop pretending the Ku Klux Klan is a fine Christian organization.”

[pullquote] “It was commonly asserted that I was nothing but a ‘communist’ anyway.”[/pullquote]

And then, it hit the fan. The editorial generated a storm of controversy and chatter among the community and my own classmates, who would walk on the opposite side of the hallway when I approached. Perhaps exacerbated by it and other editorials I had written, I was accused of trying to subvert the accreditation process for the school system. I was called out of class and chastised by the principal. My mother threatened to sue the school board.

Not one of my fondest memories of my hometown, and I suspect some folks still hold those long-ago opinions of me even today. When I went to Millsaps College as a freshman, it was commonly asserted that I was nothing but a “communist” anyway. I’d write those editorials again today, but I still vividly remember the hurt, the tension, and the feeling of being completely shunned. Suddenly, I was the “outsider.”

We have long since passed the days when one black student could disrupt a university or a state by his mere presence. Today, our university is 20 percent African-American. I’m proud that we’ve had three African-American student body presidents and that leadership and academic opportunities exist regardless of race.

But here’s what I observe, both in my own community and our campus: we tend to self-segregate. We gravitate to those most like us, and while the doors are open, I still see a psychological and often economic divide. Someone has to continue to have the courage to bridge what separates all of us. We need the Freedom Rider spirit alive today–that spirit that reaches across the barriers to the human being.

Be sure to visit Maridith at her blog, In Walking Distance.

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Not from around here

I was lucky. I grew up mainly on military installations, in densely packed neighborhoods filled with kids, and not just any kids, a high diversity of kids. Diverse in ages, abilities, background, religion, family country of origin, and most visibly race. It was hard to go outside and not find 20 people to play with, and it often looked like one of those posed stock photos with a rainbow of kids, only this was real.

That’s how I grew up with this strange accent that causes people when they meet me to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

Before I could ride my bike without training wheels, I had British biscuits and egg rolls regularly (and not from a Chinese buffet mind you). It was normal to hear other languages, to learn to listen past an accent, to accept there’s a giant world out there made of different countries and languages and that these people could not only all be your best friend’s mom but also be no different than your own.

It was not rare for my friends families to be of a different race. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a meal I loved as much as Luisa’s annual birthday party where with anime in the background we ate plate fulls of Filipino food. I had sushi long before it was a trend.

This is greatest gift being a military brat gave to me: it shaped my world view. I’m not sure without it that I’d have my white husband or that I’d be carrying this biracial child. I don’t know if I’d dream in English, Spanish, and French or be willing to forgo cable and new cars to save to leave the country every now and then.

One of the hardest things for me on a daily basis is living in a place so unlike what I knew. When my dad retired, we moved to a mostly white town, and for the first time I felt what it was like to be the only brown spot in a bright room. I distinctly remember in Mississippi Studies class, the boy who snuck to touch my hair and wiped his hands off on his jeans. I remember being asked if my parents were drug dealers because I had nice clothes and we lived in a nice house. I remember for the first time choosing to sit at the small black table, not because these people were my friends but just to be around people who looked at me and I wasn’t different for a part of my day.

Somehow after that I moved to an even more divided community. As of August 10, it’s been 10 years I’ve been in Starkville. It’s been an experience that’s made me all the more glad for my childhood and even high school. I am commonly the only person of color not around, who is not serving food or emptying a trash can. Throughout my BA and my first MA, I never had one TA, lab assistant, lecturer, or professor who was not white.

Honestly, my biggest worry so far about having a child is the communities she will grow up in that will shape how she feels about herself and the world as a whole. I hope to be able to give my child a more varied experience that I’ve been able to find here. Simply choosing a daycare is difficult.

Some people claim that we think too often and too much about race and that if we did not, the problems and division would go away. I am not one of these people. It’s real. It’s there. It affects entirely more than it should, so my challenge has been to understand it better and to create interactions that provide my family a multicultural experience, and part of that involves looking back.

I know my own experience, and I know what I’ve read in books, seen in movies, and continue to read in the news. This year with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, I started asking people around me who were alive then what it was like. I’ve also asked friends who had varying experiences (growing up biracial and now studying sociology with a focus on race, and growing up as the white kid in a Delta public school) to share their thoughts with me. I have two guest posts I’ll be sharing today and hopefully at least two more to come, though I’m always looking to understand more.

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Dance parties and waning exhaustion

That's the belly at 15 weeks and 5 days. I'm due in late January.

If I had to choose two these words for this summer, they would be “neglect” and “growth.”

I have neglected this site despite the long list of post ideas and photos I have taken but not shared.

I have neglected my garden that I barely got planted before I promptly planted myself on the couch after work. On my cow path to the couch, I’d pass seeds I intended to plant and watered beds and feel guilty of my neglectful ways.

I haven’t watched my chickens fight over pieces of cake or spent hours watching my bunnies tear around their room. The most quality time I’ve spent with the dogs has been them napping next to me on the couch.

I’ve passed up invitations to go hang out or see a band and even a nighttime theme party or two to bury my face among the sofa cushions.

I have had a good excuse, at least I think I do. Come January we’re expanding our flock to include a baby, of the human variety no less. We knew it was time to expand, but we weren’t sure with which species. A dog sounded good, a big one this time to protect our chickens and our little dogs as they age. D had also agreed to a goat. It would help with the lawn and could potentially provide milk. But, somehow we decided to go really exotic and try our hand at a species that has the potential to one day communicate with us using more than tag wags, licks, clucks, thumbs, and pleading eyes.

So our family is growing, and along with it, my waistline is rapidly expanding. Even as I type, I feel my shirt crawling up my belly. That’s not the only place experiencing growth, you should check out the weeds in my garden. They are practically in a renaissance.

Now that I’m in my second trimester, I’m getting less friendly with the couch and planning for our new addition. I’m about 40% of my way through this pregnancy and am quickly reaching the point where the baby can hear, which means it’s time to start influencing her (or his) music tastes. I definitely have some ideas of how to start a dance party in my womb, but I would love to hear what you’d put on this baby’s playlist.

My ideas
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