Many Questions. No Answers. Part II

Each of us has come by our awareness of black history differently. And thus there are those who see this history as an obvious cause of the current crisis in America. Or “a poor excuse.”

My own awareness of black history was a long time coming. I grew up in an all-white suburb of Boston. As a young child, I knew nothing of race. My father worked at Gilchrist’s a department store at what is now Boston’s downtown crossing, and on holidays he would take me to work with him so I could sit in one of the windows overlooking the Washington and Summer Street intersection to watch the parade go by. On the subway into Boston and at my father’s workplace here and there I would see a few dark skinned people. I’m sure I must have asked, and I’m sure I was told matter-of-factly that they were “Negroes”. A minimum of neutral information.

In fourth grade I remember vividly  making large detailed drawings of a Southern Plantations. My takeaway from that project was  that these place were very different from the farms of New England because not only did the workers there grow crops they also had workshops where all necessary craft work—like carpentry and black-smithing—were done, and that each plantation was a village unto itself and totally self sufficient. The fact that this work was done by enslaved people, if mentioned at all, was totally glossed over.

At some point in my early teens I was down for the count  with either measles or mumps–something that was going to keep me in bed for a while. So my mother gave me her copy of Gone With the Wind to read. And that was my first introduction to the American South and the history of slavery and the Civil War. Oops! Surely, I was still as ignorant to the horrors of slavery when I finished the book as I had been when I started. Worse, I drank the Kool Aid and was left with the impression that slavery was a relatively benign, paternalistic system, and that slaves lives were not much worse than the lives of factory workers or miners in the northern states.

But before too long news of events “down South” put the lie to the fairy tale picture of slavery and reconstruction painted by Margaret Mitchell. I had heard of Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus, but remained oblivious to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was only vaguely aware of the brave stand of black college students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensborough, North Carolina, in 1960. But when the bus carrying seven black and six white “Freedom Riders” was bombed in 1961, there was no way to pretend that all was well in America.

In January of 1963, when I saw, on the evening news, saw George Wallace spouting “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” I was horrified. Appalled. 

I remember the 1963 March on Washington…and hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I only witnessed this on television; I was still in high school. I had never been to Washington, DC, or anywhere much beyond the confines of Boston. But I ever after wished I could have been there. What a message. What power. What inspiration. I had decided, by now, that Margaret Mitchell was an idiot.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was a watershed moment for our family. When I remember my mother during my growing up years, she was always in the kitchen, cooking or ironing, and listening to the radio. On that day, September 15, 1963, the fall of my senior years of high school, I remember coming home and finding her there. In the kitchen. At her ironing board, talking back to the radio. Expressing grief. Anger. Disbelief. This was too much. This was unacceptable. The oppression of black people. Their fight for equal rights and justice. It wasn’t just a problem “down South” any more.

I don’t remember exactly when I first saw Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With.” But I can assure you, it is an image that grabbed my heart and has never let go of its grip. Published in the January 14, 1964 issue of Look magazine, it’s a spectacular portrait of courage–as  Ruby Bridges, just six years old, a tall-for-her-age (I’m guessing) African American child, in her immaculate white dress, shoes, socks and hair ribbon, and escorted by U.S. Marshals, strides bravely past racist graffiti and the splatter of a squashed tomato (likely  hurled at her)  to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans. Oh, the power of that painting!

As a high schooler, I was an indifferent student, spending much of my class time covertly reading books borrowed from the school library rather than paying attention to Mr. Snell’s explications of geometric formulas or Miss Heisserer’s droning and slow-moving discussions about Thoreau at Walden Pond. After seeing To Kill a Mockingbird I read the book, had my first introduction to racial “justice,” but felt hopeful knowing that prejudice was tempered by wise, compassionate, fair-minded people like Atticus Finch.  (Unfortunately,  the book’s sequel…or prequel… informed me  that I had given old Atticus way too much credit. ) Next,  I decided to plow through were Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After reading about Eliza and George’s desperate striving to escape to Canada and poor Tom’s fate, being sold off to Simon Legree I thought about the story that Abraham Lincoln, when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, had said “So this is the little lady who started this big war.” This anecdote is said to be just apocryphal–an urban legend, if you will. Even so, I like to imagine that Harriet Beecher Stowe did help start the Civil War. And I say to myself: “Well, good for her!”

I read The Confessions of Nat Turner soon after it came out in 1967 (though lauded when it came out, the book soon fell out of favor among influential black leaders). I found it a revelation–and a far cry from Gone With the Wind. This dark narrative of cruelty and oppression rang much truer what common sense dictated a life of slavery must have been like.  It was becoming more than obvious to me that my fourth grade social studies project had been pure fantasy; a plantation that prospered  by slave labor was not simply the southern version of Sturbridge Village. In 1969, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published. And for me, the haunting nightmare that stands in memory from everything else in that book was the necessity of Angelou’s uncle to hide in the grain bin in his own store when the terrorist night riders of the Ku Klux Klan came looking for him.

That was how I first became aware that lynching was a mechanism not just for punishing fabricated offenses but for killing the owner of a flourishing business in order to deprive him and his family of all that they had worked so hard to create.

So as a young adult, I was gaining an awareness that the miseries inflicted on African Americans did not end with the Civil War. But what about the present day–the difficulties, the struggles, the frustrations, the justifiable anger of black people? What did I know? Really? Nothing.