Marian was a black woman who “did” for my grandmother. Marian cleaned and ironed and occasionally helped out in the kitchen when my grandmother entertained. A tiny woman, she moved through the house like a wispy shadow, rarely speaking unless she was spoken to first. I was told Marian was one of the few people who could quiet me as a baby. In her later years, a stroke garbled her speech and limited her to doing only the lightest housekeeping chores. But Marian still showed up at the back door twice a week because she was devoted to my grandparents.
My grandmother was a product of her era, a lovely and gracious woman whom I adored. But she was educated in the south a hundred years ago and carried the spores of racial discrimination deep in her soul. Nanan wasn’t a cruel person but viewed colored, as they were called then, as inferior to whites. Looking back, I think it was less of a choice on her part than something she just accepted as fact. It was the norm. If there was food about to spoil in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable, my grandmother’s standard response was “give it to Marian.” When one of my “colored” classmates sat at her dining room table for my twelfth birthday party, it was the first time a black person ate there instead of serving the food.
I grew up in a blue-collar small town. Families of color tended to live in two separate neighborhoods, but we all went to the same schools, played on the same sports teams and for the most part, got along. The town tended to be very insular, more resentful of outsiders than of those who were not white. But it’s probably also true that everyone got along because the black families played by the white rules of the time.
The N-word was never spoken in our home, but there was still an underlying “us and them” mentality. My dad sold insurance to many of the local black families and would remark that their houses were so clean you could eat off the floor. As if that were a surprise. I will never forget the day he and I were looking at a Norfolk Southern timetable from the 1930’s he had just added to his railroad collection. On the back there was a picture of an alligator swallowing a cartoon black man with the caption “Gone ‘coon.” I didn’t understand it until my father reluctantly explained that in the south, blacks were sometimes referred to as “coons,” and at the time, this was not only considered acceptable but humorous. I was horrified.
I have always thought of myself as very open-minded but am well aware that shedding prejudicial values is a constantly evolving process. Prejudice is an insidious bastard and can worm its way into the fabric of the best intentions. There are people, not all of them grown-ups, who have helped me by telling their stories and by being wonderful human beings I’ve come to love and respect. But living in my privileged white bubble, I cannot begin to comprehend what it’s like to see someone who looks like me in that alligator’s mouth. Or to be a highly educated African American man who is still viewed with suspicion when he walks down the street. Or to have to say thank you when I’m handed a white family’s moldy bread and torn clothing.