Growing up in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, as white flight from the Sears and Roebuck neighborhoods surrounding Birmingham was just beginning to have an impact on the city’s economy, all anyone had to do was watch the CBS Nightly News with Walter Cronkite to find out what we knew instinctively. Racial tension was palpable.
What wasn’t reported then, and isn’t acknowledged now, is that saying the “word not to be uttered” could get you backhanded across the mouth by any adult who heard the word cross your lips. We weren’t all raised by maids. We weren’t all filled with hate.
When I was in the third grade I overheard one girl call another girl the “word not to be uttered.” I didn’t know it was acceptable for them to say it to each other and when the teacher overheard me say to the girls, “You’re not supposed to say…” (I said the word), off to the principal’s office I went. That they had said it too made no difference.
When the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s “Roots” aired I was ten years old. Our family watched it, as I suppose most people did, horrified and sickened by the scenes of cruelty as well as sorrowful for the lives of people sold into slave labor, who had endured the unimaginable. Except it wasn’t unimaginable because I knew the Bible stories of the plagues that led to the Exodus of slaves from Egypt and the story of the slave Hagar who was used to produce an heir for Abraham and then cast out with her child when Sarah had a son of her own.
Characters from “Roots” such as Chicken George and Kizzy, events like jumping the broom, even parting the Red Sea didn’t belong to my culture. My culture, a byproduct of these other cultures, my culture, known for racism and backward ignorance was an embarrassment. Even as a child I had been keenly aware of what the world thought of people from the South, but I had no idea just how backward people believed we were until I left Alabama for my “education.” I didn’t want to tell people where I was from, but one word out of my mouth was a dead give away and when asked, I sometimes joked and said I was from the Bronx…South Bronx.
Today, my beliefs are strong enough to withstand the judgment/ridicule of others. My personal beliefs are just that, personal. My attitude, actions and reactions are my own responsibility. The consequences of which I must be prepared to accept without the need to blame people or circumstances. For all the talk lately about what passes for responsible behavior, about the failures of governments and judicial systems, I believe it is important to remember this: The difference between being in the trenches and being in the gutter is how far we are from the center of the road. I learned that from Dr. King.
“…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”~~Martin Luther King Jr.