I've been thinking about racism this primary season and how I grew up in it and in honestly still find the taints and stains of programed reaction in me. I was born in 1938 in a small southern Indiana town which had a Sundowner law. That is, the coloreds, as the "nice"" middle class people called them, couldn't be in the county after sundown. I didn't know this at the time. It wasn't spoken of in polite company which my mother was always sure we would keep. When we moved to a small town in another county, my mother told me we would get to see colored people. I suppose she did this to arouse my interest and curiosity and sell the move as I was leaving my best friend Janie and going into a new town and new school where I knew no one. I have to say I was truly disappointed in the colored people as they looked like everyone else but with good suntans. I was six.
My father owned the five and dime store which sold everything from wallpaper to toys. The black people came in the front door, I think. It was late 1944 and the war was almost over. I remember skipping down the street happy that Roosevelt had died. My mother had told me that God had killed him because he wanted too much power.
When I was about 8 or 9, they integrated the black school with our school. My mother said some people said they weren't going to send their children to school because of that. We were different. We thought it was okay. This was before the Warren court. There were two girls whose names I still remember, Becky and Betty Jean. By high school, we knew that one was very sweet and nice and one was angry. We couldn't figure out why. I had a friend who had Southern pretensions. Her father had played in the Grand Ole Oprey and she took friends with her sometimes and was able to go back stage. I, because I didn't like that kind of music(again my mother), I was never chosen for this treat. She and the angry black girl got in a huge argument which Peg told us about. Becky had said, "You hate me? Well I tell you I hate you and all white people more than you could ever hate me!" Peg was shaken and upset. I was aghast and puzzled. All white people? What was she so mad about? I wondered. Didn't she get to go to school with us? Weren't we nice? I mean at least I was nice. I always smiled and said hello. A nice white person, not like some.
The colored lived literally across the railroad tracks. One of the high school adventures was to go drive through the neighborhood at night. I don't remember any vandalism or even any noise making. It was thrilling though for reasons I couldn't then explain. They were the others, dark, dangerous different. And I'm sure we infuriated them by our intrusion.
It was in college that I began to let myself think the unthinkable. Those were great moments of adventures of the mind. Maybe there was no God. I would imagine it and look at the world that way and see how it felt. And if it felt livable and true, I would allow myself to stay in that mind set and explore it. I remember reading an essay for English Composition on how mysegenation might be a good thing. It would give us curly hair, more musical talent and that was the tone at the end of the lighthearted essay. I actually thought about these things, and the unthinkable thoughts blew my mind open a little. But it was turbulent and hard to take the ideas home and be met with amused condescension or fear and anger. I used to have a recurring dream about running away from the Russians or the Nazis or some military force and trying to get my family to all stay together and someone was always lagging behind, sometimes it was my dog, and getting seen by the enemy and thus we would run on with me so anxious and trying so hard to keep us together. And eventually we split apart and in real life our whole family fell into disarray and divorce.
Home from college one summer, my mother went with me to swim at the reservoir. She couldn't swim and wouldn't have been any use to me if I had gotten into trouble, but I was a strong swimmer and insisted on water on hot summer days. While we were there, some "colored" guy came by. He was young and good looking and he stopped and chatted with my mother. She, in her polite, nice to negroes way, chatted back, and after we left for home she told me he had kept commenting about me, how good looking I was, what a great figure I had, how she must be very proud. She was puzzled and a little upset that perhaps something improper had occurred. I listened to her babble on like I always did, but the gist of his message sunk in. I started fantasizing about the guy. My heart even now rises to my throat to think about how much trouble we could have gotten into. I started driving past the feed store where he worked, hoping to catch a glimpse of my admirer, my hormones on the loose, bored with my small 2000 people town. He was smarter than I and didn't come out. He knew what awaited him. Beaten up, run out of town, killed? I don't think my father was into murder, but other might have been, who knows.
It was near the end of college that marches for civil rights began to take place--1960 or so. I read "Black like me" which gave me the insight I needed into life in the South. The book was about a white guy who darkens his skin, shaves his hair and goes south, helped by some friends, to mingle with the black community and reports the anger fear and shame that was the life hidden from our view and disabused me of the white story that everybody was happy with segregation. It seems strange now that that confirmation was necessary.
I had to wait until I was in graduate school to find a lover of color, a Nigerian, Victor Guani a sweet man and a Catholic who prayed for me which puzzled and amused me, the atheist. I could not see my own pain. We got stopped by the Bloomington cops for being black and white together and they took our names. And when I didn't finish my graduate courses that semester and wasn't rehired as a freshman composition teacher, they told me it wasn't just because of my grades. And then of course, I had their number. They were just like everyone else--hypocrites and liars. I enrolled in the Education Dept. and they were furious with me. Called me in and said I needed to make a clean start somewhere else which I eventually did, but not before hanging out with the hangers out who had just come back from California where they said it was fantastic and I heard poetry read at the newly opened coffee house by Allen Ginesberg and Gregory Corso. Wow. It was a message from afar and I left my adopted home, Indiana University, once more disillusioned and set out for the west.
So it was the end of Barack Obamas speech at the AIPAC that brought back to me the moment when the veil was ripped away from those smiling clinched jawed white southerners who kept saying that their system worked and was echoed by all the white people around me, including my aunt and uncle back from Mississippi. They swore that everyone, even the negroes, liked living separately. Those three names had a world of pain embedded in them. Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. They were my age. If I hadn't been a little too far on the edge of cynicism I could have done what they were doing. Having women with the men was one of the rules impressed on civil right workers in the south because southern attitudes toward women kept violence at bay.
We saw the vicious murderous hatred that ruled the south. And the sheriffs who kept it that way. By that time there were a few people coming back from working in the south and telling it like it was. Southern blacks saying it's easy for you to come try to register me to vote, cause you're going back up north to school this fall. I have to live here. People had to be ready to die! And they did die! There was the dark underbelly of all the white people I had grown up with and loved including Aunt Helen and Uncle Ray. All the smiling faces and church going piety hid broken dead bodies and Chaney castrated. Kurtz said it best The Horror My people had done this for years and lied about it.
The point Barack makes to AIPAC, after of course pandering to them(I have been very angry at them for their lack of compassion for Palestinians and angry at all the politicians who parade before them seeking their support and money), the point he makes is that Goodman and Schwerner were Jews. He reminded them that Jews were in the forefront of the civil rights fight, shoulder to shoulder with Afro-Americans. It was a stunning moment. Unexpected. In mentioning that trauma he touched a truth of the time. He was given a standing ovation for giving Jews their due in the struggle for equality. They knew something about prejudice. The Holocaust was only 20 years uncovered in 1960.
As the civil rights movement continued Black people showed their anger at all white people and pushed them away--except for MLK and more especially after his murder. Malcolm X and Mohammed Elijah and the Black panthers didn't want whitey's help so that whitey could congratulate himself of being "a nice white person". A rift occurred between the Jewish community and blacks. I didn't understand it at the time. The whole country was splitting apart, generations argued and railed with each other, black and white fought, and the peaceniks and war hawks were scathing in their attacks on each other. The 60's was a trauma of national proportions. I was gone out of the country, leaving it for what i thought was forever, divorcing myself from my family and my country. I hoped to leave the pain of separation and betrayal behind, but of course I carried it with me in my travels all around the world, buried, looking for somewhere to live "where the people were nice to each other" and realizing finally no such place existed.
It is the genius of Barack to be able to touch the wound that has so traumatized us. He is able to speak of what we have been so afraid of that we have hidden it from ourselves and from each other. Hearing him remember the connection between Jews and the civil rights movement, my annoyance with AIPAC melted away and I sobbed off and on all day, remembering the wound, my own and the country's, knowing just the touch and the recognition is healing. The truth shall set you free. Whether he will be president or whether as president he could do anything to further trust and connection, I don't know. But his presence right now as Democratic nominee is healing. It is an opportunity to recognize the pain and betrayal of forty years ago and forgive.