I grew up in the 70’s, in a small town in Southern Kentucky. A small, racist town. A small, racist town where every May right before high school graduation there would be a big racial fight between the blacks and whites out in the stadium parking lot; the participants using fists, baseball bats, broken bottles, chains and sometimes knives on each other. It happened every year, like clockwork. The tensions of the school year would just build and build, all that hatred for each other locked up in one building for nine months, and BOOM!!! out it would come in violence and blood just as predictably as the daffodils and tulips coming out of the earth when the Spring Sun finally comes out and stays.
This is where and how I grew up. Learning about racial hatred. Learning about it from my town, from the news, and from my Daddy’s family, where the prejudice ran deep and the ‘N’ word flowed easily from all my relatives lips. All my relatives but my Momma. She was born and raised in Chicago, only moved down South her senior year in high school to meet and marry my Dad. She had very different views and racial relations and had no problem with airing them in front of her ignorant in-laws.
I remember one Sunday in particular, for it was the day I chose to be an open-minded, loving person rather than a close-minded bigot. There aren’t many occasions when you really *know* you’ve found your moment, but this was one of those apocryphal times for me. I was sitting up on Grandmother’s chest freezer watching the ladies clean up dinner (lunch for you Northerners) and they were all talking about interracial dating. Of course they were all heatedly against it, and my strange Mother said she didn’t see anything wrong with it, a person was a person, plain and simple. One of my aunts…my *favorite* aunt, asked her how she’d feel having a "N word" kissing her baby girl. I sat in silence, thinking about the boys in my 3rd grade class, wondering how I’d feel if one of the black boys were to approach me and realized I wouldn’t feel any differently about it than I would if it were one of the white ones: namely, disgusted…I hated boys. My Mom said plainly and loudly, for the entire house to hear, "It wouldn’t matter at all, except that he treated her well and she liked him. Color doesn’t matter. Behavior matters."
I was seven years old that day. I never forgot that exchange between my Mother and my beloved family I spent every Sunday and holiday with. I chose who I was that day.
It never really came up though, until my Junior year of high school. I was dating a guy who’d already graduated, and a dance was coming up I really wanted to attend. He couldn’t take me since he had to work, but his friend Mark was off, so he told me to go with Mark. Mark was ridiculously handsome, very popular and one of the nicest guys I knew: he was also biracial; his mother white, his father black. I knew the ramifications of choosing to take a ‘black’ guy to the dance with me: I’d be called a "N word" lover, castigated by lots of my so-called friends and absolutely cast out of some of my social groups. Ta hell with them, I thought…and went to the dance with Mark, and had a great time. I did indeed get called names, Mark offered to take me home early to save me from harassment and I refused, there were people who used to talk to me every day that thereafter hissed things about me behind my back, and I realized something profound–it didn’t matter to me nearly as much as the fact that I’d done what my values told me were right.
My Dad’s family are still a group of racist asses. My children are open, loving individuals who count amongst their good friends gays, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Indians, Native-Americans…the list goes on. Because I sent all the girls to Head Start, the first people my kids ever brought home for a sleepover, each and every one, was an African-American friend, since they weren’t in a predominantly white classroom, it truly was a mixed classroom.
This is heavy on my mind right now for a number of reasons. Because there’s so much talk of race in the news with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, because my husband Mike is Hispanic, which makes my daughter a chicana, because Jess is engaged to a Native-American, because Becca is dating an African-American now. When news of who Becca’s beau is hits the family circuit, the roof is going to go up so high, the space shuttles are going to be jealous of it’s distance possibilities. My brother found out accidentally and had the nerve to tell me he "didn’t like it"…like it was any business of his!
We went to my cousin’s yesterday for Easter lunch and an egg hunt. I was a little concernerd, it’d been a while since I’d been around these people and I knew they were all prejudice and was honestly hoping that the years and the times had settled it down some. So not so. I heard my cousin’s husband remark during a basketball game that at least a white guy had gotten in the 3 pointer. One of my uncle’s was asking me about the town we live in, and I described it as I always do-like Mayberry RFD on valium. One of my other cousin’s husband’s asked me if it had the same values as Mayberry, and I scornfully replied "Yes, I’m afraid so. There are only 6 black families and the only two Hispanics are Mike and Laura." The jerk grinned and asked me how far away it was and nudged my cousin and asked her how soon she could be packed. I shook my head, told him I found him sad and hollered at everyone that we were leaving.
When I told my Mom about Becca’s boyfriend…a great guy who makes her happy, who is made happy by Becca…Mom said that she believed people were souls, and that souls don’t have colours, or races, or creeds. That people are simply shells that hold inside the essence of a person’s being, and THAT is what matters. How that person speaks, and behaves, and how they evolve over time, not what colour they are, or how they practice their faith or sexuality.
This is the woman who hurt me so many years ago, but this is the woman I learned to love and forgive. She made it easy, because she evolved too. This is the woman who taught a seven year old how to believe and be an open, loving person. And I’ve sent that message down to six more people.
Now I wonder if I’m going to lose any blog buddies over this…