When I was a little red-headed girl in the 1950’s and 60’s, I lived in a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, partially populated by black people during the day. At night they went home, most of them by the bus that stopped on the other side of the railroad tracks.
The woman who worked for my family was named Elizabeth. My father called her Miz Crute, especially when he wanted to get her going on some topic that entertained him, such as her next door neighbor who welcomed a man crawling through her window in the middle of the night.
“Oh, go on, Miz Crute,” he’d say.
Sometimes she’d say to him, “You crazy, Dr. Parker.”
Elizabeth started cleaning house and cooking for my family before I was born and stayed to clean my father’s reduced living quarters when all five children were long gone and my mother had died. By then her hands were gnarled with arthritis, but she and my dad still liked to banter.
A black man named Slim worked for my family, too, mainly trimming the vast rim of hedges that went around our property. My dad knew him from the hospital where Slim was an orderly. As our yard man, he never went into the main part of the house. He went through the garage and the basement door there if he needed to use the toilet. It was the same toilet Elizabeth used, tucked in a wooden enclosure at the bottom of the basement stairs.
Most of his work cutting the hedges was done in the slathering heat of Virginia summers. My mother put a jar of ice water out on the back porch for Slim to drink from. Elizabeth could use the glasses in the kitchen, but never, ever was it possible to imagine her using one of the toilets we used.
Of course neither Elizabeth nor Slim ever came through the front door or sat at the dining room table or in the living room. No one had to tell them the rules. It was as though we were all behaving according to some unquestioned, natural law that gave whites money and privilege. Good whites were kind and courteous. Bad whites were mean, or worse, treated blacks as equals.
Thinking of all this now is sickening.
I can list all the ways my family, especially my mother, was far less racist than most of our neighbors. My mother told me the story of one of her first memories, seeing the black chauffer who worked for her family stepping up on their long front porch in his World War I uniform, and how that planted an assumption in her head that a black man could also be a hero, equal to all the white men she saw in uniform. But that assumption got buried beneath the protocol of a woman who lived in the upper classes of southern, white society. My mother financed the education of one of Elizabeth’s nieces, a young woman with theatrical talent and promise, but in no way could she tell my father or any of her bridge club friends about that.
When I became a radical hippie chick, in the cocoon of private school and financial security, I brought a social worker I was dating and a group of black kids to swim in our pool one day. It felt very weird, scary. My father was at work. I don’t even know if anyone ever told him about it. I know that I felt righteous but like I’d done something creepy and threatening to my own well-being.
Poor little rich girl that I was, I was pretty starved for affection at home and turned to Elizabeth for some. I would walk to the bus stop with her, hang around while she worked, beg her to let me iron the napkins. She told me that when she died, I’d be like the girl in the movie “Imitation of Life” who followed her mother’s hearse in tears at the end because she’d passed for white and denied her black mother. When I visited her at her home, she told her neighbors I was her albino daughter. There were pictures of me and my siblings all over her living room. But her house was in another world – the world of the ghetto where cockroaches thrived and dogs, sickly because no one could afford a vet, were chained in the backyards.
It never occurred to me that her own daughter was neglected because of the time she had to spend looking after me and my family. It never occurred to me that her inability to read or write was a direct result of poverty and that her poverty was a direct result of racism. It never occurred to me that the ways she and Slim were treated were the remnants of slavery. It never occurred to me that the Confederate flag and Gone with the Wind, which I was enchanted with, were blatant supports for a system of racism that included slavery and lynching.
When I dated a black man, once, just to say I’d done it, Elizabeth herself snorted, “Why you want to mess around with them monkeys!” Maybe the most insidiously horrible part of racism is teaching people to hate themselves.
But we white girls at the private school loved soul music. We loved black musicians and athletes, and some of us even crossed the line and protested in the Civil Rights movement. I and a few of my hippie compatriots blew out our tenure as editors of the school newspaper with the headline “Say it Loud,” referring to the “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” chant. We printed quotes from students about their thoughts on integrating the school. It was our first and last edition of the paper.
My activism for civil rights was patronizing more than radical. I continued going to the Country Club where Arthur Ashe wasn’t allowed to play tennis. When I made friends with a black woman whom I waitressed with at a summer job, I showed up at a Country Club function where she had been hired to work, thinking we could be friends there, while I sat with the judges and doctors who would never consider anyone with her skin color as a member. It is mortifying for me to remember her discomfort at my attempts to act like we were equals. I didn’t have a clue as to the obscenity of racism and the injustices that still linger as a legacy of slavery. I thought that fighting for civil rights was like fighting for the end of the Vietnam War and that righteousness would prevail and then we could all keep living the way we lived.
Was I willing to give up anything? Was I willing to forgo my privilege in order to make room for someone else to get their share? In theory, maybe.
My privilege comes directly from the slave trade. My ancestor, Carter Braxton, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His plantation is still owned by cousins of mine in Virginia. This man not only bought and sold slaves; he “bred” them. And he had a son with one of his slaves. As with many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, there are African-American descendants, but the groups that tout their connection to these forefathers are almost exclusively white, proud of their heritage – proud of their privilege, which is largely on the backs of captured human beings who were sold and used as free labor, whose children were taken from them and sold.
People don’t give up privilege or myths about their righteousness easily. Despite the evidence – such as lynching and then outrageously skewed numbers of incarcerated and murdered black men – there’s a pretense that any unfair advantages we whites enjoyed dissipated with the Emancipation Proclamation, the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the election of a black president.
Indeed, many blacks have risen to greatness despite racism. But how many more would have done so without it?
To say that the playing field is even is bullshit. To say that a black child can all on his or her own take advantage of the same privileges as white kids, if he or she isn’t lazy and has the gumption, is bullshit. For one thing, there are a lot of people who do not want that to happen and will do what they can to stop it. That’s obvious in transparent and enraged slogans such as “Take America back.” Nostalgia about America’s past culture implicitly includes nostalgia for white privilege.
Slim and Elizabeth made a living the only way they were allowed to in my neighborhood – they worked for shit wages and endured humiliating traditions that made their inferiority an assumption. As a child, I accepted the rules that they couldn’t use our toilets or our silverware. Maybe my family was kinder than some, but so what? We could afford to be.
The truth is that we all suffer and there is a common bond that is deeper and wiser than notions about race. I unfortunately know what any mother, black or white, feels when she hears that her son is dead. But I don’t know, and never can, what it feels like to grow up being told that I don’t deserve to come through the front door. I don’t know, and never can, what it feels like to know that my kin have been slaves – property, with zero chances of realizing any potential or dreams outside of what the white culture allowed.
Without a doubt, my life had a racist foundation, including the entertainment industry that chronically depicted blacks as uneducated criminals. That effectively scared me away from liking the idea of my culture being controlled by “those people.” But reality is the best medicine for stupid people. Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry are just a few of the people whose writing heals ignorance. And I’ve experienced eight years with a black president whose class and intelligence will be sorely missed. Harriet Tubman is going to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. Now we know about her heroism and intelligence and his criminal treatment of Native Americans.
But if you are someone who wants to keep privilege or go back to a time when you could be superior without doing anything to earn it, reality will look like a threat. I want a decent world more than I want privilege, because I want people to be kind to me more than I want the responsibility and karma of unearned privilege. I want cruelty and greed to become the new victims of prejudice. I want the cruel and greedy to be told they can’t come in through the front door. There’d be quite a shuffling of people going on in that system and some serious integration.
I was inspired to write this blog after seeing Nathan East this afternoon play for free at a music store in Albuquerque He’s being honored here at a showing of a documentary about him. I’ve seen it. And now I’ve seen him. A more decent and talented human being I could not name. At the end of his presentation of awesome playing and stories about Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder, he and his two band mates played “Purple Rain.” Shit. And then he and his big family stood on the stage pleased to get some little award in some strip mall city. He wore his superiority with amazing grace.
I am deeply grateful that my childhood is over.