We keep hearing how America needs to be great again. My question is to when are they referring? For the next few blogs I will be discussing what I saw happening during our so called “great” period. It was a time of hope when we were moving forward toward true greatness, and beginning to come out of the dark. The country was starting to realize the importance of inclusion and how damaging bigotry could be to the community and the kind of violence it could encourage.
I did not realize growing up that my parents were bigots (albeit soft core bigots). As a young girl living in Seattle, Washington in the 1940’s exposure to “the other”, whether color, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation was limited at best. That was the era of community libraries, one of which I chose to haunt whenever possible. Reading was my joy and escape. As a result the friendly librarians knew this young girl would make a bee line for the adult section and read the forbidden tomes that gave graphic accounts of Jewish experiences not only in Europe, but in my own country. I learned about Harriet Tubman and the brutality of the slave trade (not to mention the lynchings still happening at the time in my own country) . I cried over the Native American’s Trail of Tears and felt sorry for the Chinese workers mistreated while creating the railroad that opened up the west. I knew no one in those categories, but felt a kinship.
Around the age of four or five I was exposed to a black person for the first time. Soon after begging my parents for a puppy my father took me to a small dark apartment where a quiet, polite dark-skinned gentleman handed me a tiny, black Cocker Spaniel puppy. My father gave him three dollars and we walked out with my Twinkle dog. Nothing that I remember made that transaction out of the ordinary, and I thought little of it. The first red flag in my memory was probably two or three years later when the family was on vacation. During our picnic in a park I found a perfect playmate, a little girl my age with whom I spent a fun filled afternoon. Upon returning to my family I was ecstatic about my wonderful new acquaintance! My father’s reaction was puzzling. He said that it was nice that we had fun, but she was not someone I should keep as a friend. The incident stayed in my young mind for years until I finally got it…my little friend was a child of a different color.
That incident was the only memorable indication until college talks began. The University of Hawaii was under discussion when my grandmother interjected her complaint that I would end up married to a…and here she used a word I had read but never heard. I simply laughed and said not married, just dating. My father looked shocked, and that was the end of that.
A few years later while I was living in Redding, California the female contingent of my family picked me up on their way south to Mexico. It was lunch time and everyone was hungry, so I pointed out a small restaurant on the way out of town. My grandmother took one look and said she could not eat there. Why not? Her answer was “They serve n….s there” . She was 80 years old, a kind and caring mother and grandmother. It dawned on me that I had no idea what her background was, how she was raised, or where she grew up. Her attitude could shock, sadden and depress me, but I could not disavow my own grandma.
All of these experiences were low key compared to what was occurring in the south, but they put an exclamation point on what I had read, and news of what was happening in the southern states, including the murders of innocent protesters.. The country was beginning to move in the right direction , trying to de-segregate schools, disallowing discrimination in housing and attempting to grant equal rights to all citizens. It is sad to realize that there has always been an under current that would like to return to those days of separate restrooms, black citizens shoved to the back of the bus, and bombing black churches inhabited by young children.
I still remember that lovely little friend and hope fervently that she was not aware of any snubs that came her way, and grew up free from harassment and hatred. She never knew how my father reacted and hopefully, if she remembers that day at all, it is as warm in her heart as it is in mine.