Epiphanyblog

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Race Conscienceness

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When I was about to enter the 4th grade, if I recall rightly after all these many years, we moved to Warner Robbins, GA, where my Dad was stationed at the Air Force Base. He was a Flight Engineer with the Strategic Air Command.

Before the new school year started, Mom took me with her to Macon, GA, to buy some new school clothes, like every other family did before the new school year began. The new school year required new clothes.

The two lane road from Warner Robbins to Macon ran fairly straight through pastures and fields of Georgia. Mom wasn’t much of a talker, especially when she was driving, so I spent my time looking out the windows at the scenery. Everywhere was green, especially the green of the grasses which I thought was nearly as tall as I was. The scenery was both beautiful and dull. Grass everywhere I looked, only broken by an occasional oak tree. Dull and uninteresting. Then my vision was captured by a lonely shack, sitting in the midst of long green fields. Even at a distance, I could see the doors and windows were missing, leaving gaping holes in a gray brown structure. It looked like something left over from the Civil War: ancient, unpainted and falling apart. But smoke rose from the chimney. The ramshackle building was occupied, I knew. People lived there…and my understanding of the South told me who. The people living in that run down house were Negroes.

I turned to my Mom, pointing out the building, and asked her why someone would live there. Without a shrug or twinge of conscience, she replied, “Because they want to.” I gaped at her but kept my mouth shut. After all, children were to be seen and not heard, I’d been taught. No child questioned the judgment of a parent. Yet in my mind and heart, I knew I’d heard a lie. It was a lie of unconcern and prejudice. My heart ached for the people who were forced to live in a home without doors and windows. Forced into such extreme poverty. I both hated hated and loved my mother at that moment. How could she not understand the wrongness of such living circumstances? How could she not empathize with the occupants? How could she be so callous?

But that’s what prejudice does to the human soul. My Mom was raised in Spokane, WA, and probably never saw an African American until she moved to the South with my Father. What she knew of “Negroes” she learned from my Father, who had been raised to believe in the precepts of what we would now understand as extreme prejudice, in Missouri, and from our White, Georgia neighbors. I was in the second grade when we moved to Georgia from Columbus, Ohio. Dad was stationed at the Air Force Base near Albany. My first memory of our house in Albany was being asked to play ball by a Black kid about my age. My brother, who was 13 months younger than I, and I went out into the front yard to throw around a baseball. As we were looking round and taking in new our surroundings, this young Black boy stepped out from between two houses just down the dusty road. He yelled at us, asking us if we wanted to play ball. His southern accent was so thick we couldn’t understand him. I yelled back, ” What?” He walked toward us onto the dirt road and yelled again, asking us if we wanted to play ball. Again, I failed to understand him, and yelled, “What?” Again he walked closer to us and yelled his question to us.

Mom came out of the door then and yelled in her “brook no questions” voice, “Get back here.” I guess she had seen us from the kitchen window. I yelled back to the young Black boy that we had to in and we ran back to the kitchen door. Mom met us at the door, scowling, and angrily stated, “You are never to play him. You could catch horrible diseases from Negroes.”

That summer while playing I often listened as my mother talked to our White neighbors. I heard that Negroes were lazy and not to be trusted. I heard they had a separate high school of their own nearby which they refused to attend and which had fallen into complete disrepair because they vandalized it. I heard that refused work and overcharged for the work they did.

I was a child and much too young to question my elders. Nevertheless, something about what I heard rang false. It didn’t feel right. In Church, I’d been taught that Jesus loved everyone, regardless of race or creed or color. Yet here I was hearing hatred. What I heard didn’t feel right from our White middle class neighbor.

One day shortly after we arrived in Albany, my Dad took a wrong turn and accidentally drove through the Negro section, of town. I remember very distinctly, even now, the picture of that afternoon. I remember how the yards were neat and clean. How their clothes were old but clean, well pressed and neat. How their houses were poor and in need of paint and thinking that if they had just a little bit more money they could fix up their houses. But I could see in their faces a sense of pride…and an extreme, stark fear of these white people driving through their neighborhood.

They stopped dead in their tracks. Not a sound was heard. Even the children stopped playing. They stood or sat quietly, as if waiting for some awful evil to assault them. No one said a word. They just watched and listened. Their fear was palpable. So, when Mom and I took that trip to Macon, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of my Mother’s response.

Much has been made of Rev. Wright’s hateful comments this last month. And for him I feel sorry. I pity him…but I also understand the pain and anger from which his comments arise. I don’t think anyone from White America can truly understand how it felt to be treated with such hatred and animosity, and at the very least such distain.

In the 50’s and 60’s, African Americans were accepted as humans yet somehow less than human. They were less than Whites. Even as late as 1973, well known but prejudiced PhDs sought to convince the public that Blacks had smaller brains and were therefore incapable of higher intellectual thought.

So, who, under these circumstances, can blame Rev. Wright for being paranoid. His generation grew up needing paranoia just to stay alive. Who can blame him for being angry? His generation grew up feeling dispair and the hatred towards them of the White ruling class. Who can blame him for not yelling out in anger at the inequities which still exist in our society?

Look around you at work. How many African American faces do you see? You’ll see Caucasian faces and Asian faces and Middle Eastern faces, but how many African American faces?

Is prejudice truly gone from our great, melting pot of a society?

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Written by Valerie Curl

April 5, 2008 at 5:24 AM

Posted in race

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