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 slavery 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.
19 thoughts on “My Roots Are Showing”
You said it and you said it well. Even as a Middle Easterner, I get where you’re coming from. Even in the Arab world, we point fingers at each other and label one another as “rich”, “poor”, “lazy/stupid”, “servants”…etc. It’s sickening. Ignorance is never restricted to just one group of people…it’s pervasive and debilitating.
Funny how we go forward and backward over the continuum of time. I suspect economics has a great deal to do with our attitudes. I am a third generation Texan with family from Louisiana, Texas and Kentucky. My daddy though, he married a damn’d Yankee (the traitor). My grandmere’ had a great deal of a hand in raising all the girls in the family, but my grandfather wasn’t allowed around me in particular, my father didn’t want his ‘white sheets and bad attitudes’ to infect me (his words). I didn’t understand this for years.
My dad moved us away from Texas, we lived in Seattle, Germany and other parts of the world most of my childhood until I returned home at 15. I suspect, as you say by then I was informed and formed, responsible for my attitudes, actions and reactions.
I really am from the Bronx! (The North Bronx?) And I grew in Los Angeles. My Lutheran pastor father’s ministry was always in the inner city (that’s where his heart was), so I’ve been part of the “race dialog” in this country all my life.
It really is extraordinary when I think back to when I was a kid, the language and mindset that were still common at the time, even in as diverse a place as NYC. I know there’s a LOT of work still to be done, but we have come a long way in some respects, at least.
Yeah! Now we all drink from the same fountains of political correctness. Of course, you’re right Madame. We’ve come a long way. We just have to keep going, don’t we? Well, Jim Dandy!
Great post, Honie and trust me I know how you feel. This from you: “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 still get that and it doesn’t anger me anymore, it just makes me sad for those who continue to label or believe the stereotypes that are forever being perpetuated on reality shows. Despite what everyone may think they know, there was racial injustice/tension everywhere — not just in the South — it was highlighted more in the South. It’s wrong wherever it occurs.
Having encountered bigots all over the country, I can say without a doubt that the South doesn’t have a monopoly on ignorance and intolerance. We need look no further than the current explosion over gun control to see that there is venom spewing from sea to shining sea here in the good ole U.S.A. And you’re right Brigitte, just getting angry about it is a waste of energy. I’d rather do something useful. Mint julep anyone?
“My attitude, actions and reactions are my own responsibility.”—If only more people would subscribe to this belief. Well said, Honie.
If only. Thanks Carrie.
My mother’s family was from south central Virginia and I heard prejudicial statements coming from my relative (and my mother) about Dr. King and how the Civil Rights Movement was moving too fast. But I grew up in New York and learned it was not moving too fast. In fact it was not fast enough. Yesterday in San Antonio, we had one of the biggest MLK Day marches in the country. Dr. King would be proud, I think, to see blacks, whites, Latinos, and others all marching together to honor him and to push for continuing equality. His legacy lives on.
Parades are great. I love a parade! I couldn’t agree more that appreciating different cultures is important. I’d also say that equal opportunity isn’t the same as equality. Equality cannot be legislated into a society any more than fear can be legislated out of the human heart. Until we are all equal to the task of taking personal responsibility for our actions, how can we celebrate our great progress? People are still being sold into slavery. People are still denied swift justice when they have been brutally assaulted. If Martin Luther King were alive today, I wonder what he would have to say about that. I don’t believe we are saying enough. We certainly aren’t doing enough. We need affirmative action, and not just the kind that looks good on paper.
Having spent much of my youth in Georgia and Alabama (64-69), this post really resonates with me. Yes, the tension was palpable. And when dad moved the family to Seattle in 1970 I quickly lost the accent to survive as a 13 year old in a place intolerant of people that sounded like I did.
Great post Honie.
Georgia to Seattle, must have seemed like a world apart. “…in a place intolerant of people that sounded like I did.” Thank you for saying that. Sad for kids to encounter intolerance, but amazing how adaptable we can be when we don’t want to get the shit kicked out of us. My adaptation was a well developed smart mouth. Served me well, some times more than others. Always being on the defense can take a lot out of a person though, and sooner or later we just have to accept ourselves for who we are and let everyone else miss out, if that’s what they want, it’s their loss.
Nice to see you around!
A wonderful post. Thanks.
Great piece Honie… there are so many different legacies from that time and place, but your story was wonderful, and so was the reminder of Martin Luther King’s words… I could just hear them rolling out of his mouth….
South Bronx – awesome! We did hear that word in our house, unfortunately. My father even named a pet rabbit that word, he thought it was funny. I think the power of Dr. King’s legacy is that things like this seem almost unbelievably ignorant now.
My father was no Atticus Finch, but there were things he never had to say, I just knew were unacceptable. Poor white families faced prejudices, women injustices, even though it didn’t make the front page. Movies often depict the extreme of a situation just to make a point. Sad that the point is lost on people who only focus on what the media tells them is important.
It is interesting to me that my mother’s family, from the south and dirt poor, really did not have the same harsh attitudes that my father did – I remember mom saying something about being “poor white trash” wasn’t any better. You are so right about the media – so much of matter is not rising to the top of the scrolling screen – injustice is just as rampant today, we just feel better about it because we have “made strides”.