Chapter 1 of Waking Up White.
What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?
Growing up as a child in the south in the 1940s and 1950s, the stereotypes were rampant.
There was my grandmother’s black maid who had worked for her when my mother was a girl. Daisy Burton was a loving presence in my life. I can remember her in the kitchen cooking dinner for the family who descended on the grandparents’ home every summer. She cooked meals, made the beds, vacuumed the rugs, waited on the table at dinner (at noon), washed the dishes, and then went home to her little house. She kept chickens and had a little garden, and often brought us fresh vegetables for dinner. She killed one of her smallest chickens for my birthday every year from the time I was 8 or 9 years old because I loved fried chicken, and I got a WHOLE one for my birthday dinner. We loved to go over to her house and dig worms to take fishing, because you could always find the biggest, fattest worms in her compost heap.
She finally retired when I was in High School, but my grandparents took a weeks worth of groceries over to her every week until she died. When it came time for her to apply for Social Security, she didn’t really know how old she was. She had no birth certificate, but my grandfather had her get the old man who lived next door to her give her a certificate saying her age. He KNEW how old he was, and he remembered when she was born his mama took him over to see the “new baby.” (Notice that it took my white grandfather helping her to get her the benefits she was entitled to.)
She was faithful to our family until she died. When I had my first son, Big Al and I took him over to see her. She was almost completely crippled with arthritis, but she and her friends had made a blue and white checkered quilt “for Abbie’s baby boy.” When we showed him to her she praised the Lord, and declared that looking on his face was “just like looking at the face of the baby Jesus.” She probably still would have thought so at 3:30 in the morning when he presented us with dirty diapers.
There were other black servants in my life: the porter at the bank where my grandfather worked, the janitor and nursery attendant at the church who kept it running, the yard man who kept the lawn to perfection. These folks were loving to me, and I was loving to them.
Grant (I still don’t know whether that was his first name or his last name) was the porter at the bank. He and his wife raised six children and sent them all to college on his salary. They worked after school and weekends as well. One son became a doctor, and a couple of his daughters were school teachers.
John and Pearl worked at the church. No matter what strange thing they were asked to do, they did it happily and carefully. I remember on Christmas the ladies had decorated the church with greenery and candles. They were afraid the candles might tip over and set the whole church on fire, so they put John behind the greenery at the front of the church and gave him the task to “try to look as much like a poinsettia as possible, and if anything catches fire, put it out.” Pearl kept the nursery and loved all the children who passed through.
Dan the Victor (his name was Dan Victor) was the yard man. Even after I was mostly grown he still had an old wagon and a poor sway-backed horse that he drove around the neighborhood. It had a sign on it that said “I plows, hauls, and cuts grass”. Cut grass he did, and after he was finished it looked like he had personally snipped each blade with fingernail scissors.
There were things that made me wonder, like the two drinking fountains at the department store downtown. I wanted so badly to drink from the “Colored” fountain, but I was never allowed to, with no explanation.
I remember when the National Guard integrated the schools in Little Rock. My grandfather praised Governor Faubus for his stand. It was understood that the black children simply weren’t smart enough to go to school with the white kids. They had their own schools – why did they have to attend “our” schools? Besides it wouldn’t be good for them because they could never succeed in an integrated classroom.
I also remember being told that “Colored people smelled bad.” They couldn’t help it. It was their body chemistry. It didn’t make any difference if they bathed and used deodorant.
There were no public swimming pools that I remember. We swam at the country club, or we had a membership at a private swimming pool. I feel sure it was so there wouldn’t be any question about whether black people could come swim with us.
I knew the story of the slaves, and that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. But the “rest of the story” was that the Civil War was really an economic war between the industrial North and the agricultural South. The “colored man” in the South was simply a lower class citizen (if they could be called citizens at all).
I certainly never questioned any of this. To me, it was a fact of life that people of color were less intelligent, dirtier, smellier, less frugal, less careful and “not like us,” even though I knew better.
If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.