My Mother’s Battle For My Future

When I was a girl, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy were the rage – books, cartoons and dolls. The dolls had red yarn hair, button eyes and red, white and blue clothes.  Most of my friends had at least a Raggedy Ann doll in their room. I never had a Raggedy Ann doll. Instead, I had a doll my Grandmother made for me. My doll was brown, not pink like Raggedy Ann. She had black yarn hair looped in nubs close to her head, she had a brown and white gingham dress and I had a matching dress.

I never saw another doll like mine and was always curious as to why this was my doll and I didn’t have a Raggedy Ann doll. I had Raggedy Ann books, no doll, and I never felt it appropriate to question a gift from my Grandmother.

 

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While my parents were very consistent and regular with their message that all races are equal and sprinkled evenly with good and bad elements. When I would ask, “Why ‘Negroes’ live in such poor neighborhoods?”. Mom was quick to respond, “That’s how they like it, they prefer to be with other ‘Negroes’.” I was incredulous, this just didn’t make sense to me.

I began to notice more nonsensical responses one Summer when I began to attract some boys who would come by the house. My father indicated that there was a problem because most of the boys were Catholic. We were pretty regular attendees to the Lutheran Church.  I was aware of the significance of Martin Luther and the Catholic Church but mystified how that had anything to do with my social life centuries later.

Then in college, I brought a boy home. He was beautiful, when he and I walked down the street, no one saw me. He was tall and slim with beautiful olive complexion, dark brown ringlet curls on his head, snappy, bright brown eyes and a quick infectious smile. My folks liked him in general, pleasant and very polite, just “a little dark”. Luis’ mother was an Iowa farm girl and his father was from Peru.  He called himself a “Hickspanic”.  He was from a large family, but the only mixed family in an Iowa town, so he had some stories to tell.

Many years later when I brought my future daughter’s father home to meet my folks, they got very sentimental for the days long ago when I introduced them to the boy who seemed “a little dark” because this man was more than “a little dark”. My Mother tried during those in between years (from when Luis and I broke up till she felt totally defeated meeting the man who would become my daughter’s father) to win me over to her way of thinking.

One of her arguments was that I wouldn’t be allowed in certain white neighborhoods, to which I replied, I didn’t want to live in those neighborhoods anyway. Most of her arguments I had a good answer for, except when she pointed out that Cardinals and Blue Jays do not reproduce together. I could only say that I had no conclusive evidence that this was true.

I was accused of just being rebellious. Adults who cared about me asked me if I was dating non-white men just to hurt my parents or maybe I was just going through a rebellious stage to establish myself as an independent adult. Most of my life I had been considered quite the goody-goody.  I had no idea why I would be rebellious, just sounded like it would create chaos and hurt feelings which it did, but it was not because I wanted to be rebellious, rebellion was not on my agenda.

Finally, quite exasperated and at her wit’s end, my Mother made an impassioned plea.  “Honey, if you can’t fall in love with a White man, could you please make it an Indian or a Mexican?”  I was stunned. On the one hand, I had moved my Mother off of white. No idea that was possible.

On the other hand, my Mother thought it was possible for me to carry a piece of a brown paper bag with me and hold it up to measure the brownness of someone’s complexion to determine how close I would get to them emotionally.

I let this sink in a minute, and then gently laughed and explained to my Mother that knowing her as I did, I knew that whoever I loved, she would love also. She didn’t like hearing that, but didn’t argue with me.

After I married and my daughter was born, with much drama and cajoling, I got my parents to visit and meet their granddaughter. Once my sweet baby was slipped into the crux of her Grandfather’s arm, it was like those scenes in the movies where there’s a heavenly light and the choir sings. It was a done deal, the family could heal. From that day on my Father and my Father-in-law enjoyed talking on and on about the ills of the world, regularly agreeing that there was good and bad in both races.

Not long after my daughter’s birth, my Mother shared a story from my childhood. When I was about 2 or 3 years old, my Grandmother went into a trancelike gaze into my eyes. When she was done, she announced to my Mother that I was going to marry a Negro.  My Mother vigorously resisted, but my Grandmother insisted it was true.

To remind my Mother of this, that Christmas my Grandmother gave me a brown gingham dress she had made with a brown Raggedy Ann style doll in a matching brown gingham dress that she had also made. With one story, one question was answered and many more surfaced.

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Can’t Stand a Bigot!

My daughter has a beautiful café au lait complexion. I have more of a ruddy au lait complexion. Twenty-five years or so ago, people found this curious and would stare at us for a while. I discovered that I had a timer in my head for what was an appropriate span of time for the curious stare. People, generally managed to stay within their acceptable limit.The acceptable limit is hard to describe as it consists of factors besides time – primarily the crinkles at the corners of eyes and mouth.  These crinkles are very telling and cannot be trained to be false, like a smile.

Were these crinkles warm and accepting, curious and confused, snarly and disapproving or any of the myriad of levels in between? Once the crinkle expression is defined with micro-second speed, an appropriate time can be assigned.It’s an awesome responsibility, setting this time. If people are genuinely warm and accepting, that must be embraced and welcomed with responding warm crinkles of the eye and mouth corners. If they’re curious and confused, they get a little time to see normalcy and then move on. If they’re snarly and disapproving, that’s when they get the identical eye expression of a lioness protecting her cubs.

My daughter would notice these stares and ask, “Mom, why are they staring at us?”

I’d reply, “Honey, they just haven’t seen two such beautiful women in the same place at the same time.”

To which she’d reply, “Moooooom!” – end of discussion.

Living in Chicago, there were certain neighborhoods where we’d draw fewer stares than others. A good Puerto Rican neighborhood was the best place for no stares. Mostly because my daughter and I were the same complexions as those in many Puerto Rican families.

We also liked it because people were friendly, a hardy “Good Morning” was required when passing a neighbor, very family-oriented with solid respect for elders, good food and outstanding music.  Generally, folks in the neighborhood seemed humble and gracious. A comfortable place for my beautiful daughter and I.

One evening, we’re in our local grocery store trying to figure out dinner. I spot this handsome, red headed, well dressed white guy. My first thought is, “What the heck is he doing here?”  Not typical of our neighborhood – at all. I steal a few curious glances, but I’m not going to stare. This is a no-stare neighborhood and I’m not going to violate that.Then it happens – he’s staring at my daughter.  He has literally stopped what he was doing and is staring at my child. I’m trying my best to read his crinkles but they’re unfamiliar to me.

Hey buster, you best know when to look away. Time’s up and he’s still staring, okay bud, looks like you need some educating and I’m just the Mom to do it. Get ready, here I come, you’re going to get it now!

As my fiery 5’2” frame charges toward his well-groomed 6’2” self, he suddenly looks at me, smiles and says, “You know, your daughter looks just like my daughter. Here let me show you her picture.” Well, shut me up! (Not easily done.) I get a whole new category of crinkles to consider.  So, who’s the bigot now?

Two Sides of the Same Coin

For most of my childhood, pretty much up to age 17 or so, I found my father to be all knowing and all powerful. I never once doubted that.  What led to my father coming down off the pedestal when I was 17, began with something that happened when I was five. 

I had pneumonia five times before the age of five and the doctor recommended removing my tonsils as a solution. Arrangements were made. My folks brought me to the hospital the evening before my surgery. The nurse had to get me settled and prepared, she suggested my parents get a coffee, then come back to my room. 

When they returned to the floor, they found me walking the halls arm and arm with a “Negro” girl just like we were long lost friends. Negro was the word my parents used when trying to be polite. In their natural environment it was always Colored or worse. 

This was most likely the first Negro I ever met. I had seen black folks when we took the bus to downtown Des Moines, which was still a segregated city.

All of this happened in a time long, long ago when families sat down to dinner together. During the week, every day Dad arrived home at 5:05 PM and expected dinner on the table at 5:12 PM. Dinner was generally swiss steak, ham steak or pork chops, boiled white potatoes, canned vegetables, Wonder bread and real butter with delicious homemade desserts.  The desserts were bait to get you to eat the horrific canned vegetables.

Sundays were for extended family dinners and would happen in the dining room. The menu generally consisted of a baked ham with pineapple and cloves, scalloped potatoes, Waldorf salad and corn on the cob with either lemon meringue pie or banana cream pie for dessert.

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It was usually a warm and happy time with lots of news and family history being shared. Plenty of gentle teasing and humor with a pinch of competition thrown in for good measure.

Never stated, but clearly understood, this was a time for adult only conversation.  So, I just couldn’t resist when I had a question that turned out to be a real show stopper. I must have been about seven when I asked, “What’s a sex pot?”  Not sure I ever got an answer, but I did get a lot of questions back at me.

We lived across from some vacant land with a great tree that had a big horizontal branch, perfect for lying on and reading a book. There was this teenage boy who used to come down our block and spend hours in that tree. One day I was in the tree and found a book titled, “The Sex Pots”. I intuitively knew this wasn’t good, that’s all I knew and I put the book back. 

I shared this at Sunday dinner and the next time the teenage boy came down the street, my Dad went out to meet him and he never came to the tree again.

Back to the story at hand. During one of these Sunday family dinners, the usual banter and teasing is going on and I’m half listening, I may have been six at the time, I heard my name. My Daddy is telling a story about me! I’m so proud and eager to hear what he’s going to share.

He goes on to share the story of when he and my Mom found me walking down the hall arm and arm with a Negro girl. As I listen to the marvel and amazement in his voice, I have no doubt, he is proud of this moment in his young daughter’s life. My younger brother is sitting next to me at the same table, hearing the same story at the same time. It’s about 12 years later, I discover in a very harsh way that my brother heard marvel and amazement but it was the opposite of pride he heard in our father’s voice.

Over the next 12 years, I remember my parents frequently telling me that there are good and bad people in all races so it’s a wrong to judge people because of the color of their skin. Of course, they never foresaw the end of segregation so how often would I be interacting with Negroes anyway.  All I heard was that we’re equal.

When I was 16 or 17, my high school initiated a Black History Class. I signed up. Our class of about 300 students had less than ten Black students. Our claim to fame was that when there were civil rights demonstrations at other schools, they’d send the instigators to ours because it was not likely they could stir our students up. Sadly true.  My theory was that was why we got the Black History Class, little chance of reaction but it looked good for the school board.

 The teacher was Reverend James Harris. He really impacted me. We read and discussed “Soul on Ice”, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and more. I still remember him bringing a newspaper article about a young man who was arrested for a store robbery and sharing that the evidence that led to his arrest was footprints in the snow leading from the store. Reverend Harris blew my mind wide open. I was so charged up and wanted to share this inspiration with my family.

So at dinner one evening, I was sharing some of the brilliant lessons I had learned. I decided to top it off with this great insight, “You know, you can’t say that there’s anything wrong with interracial dating because if you do, then you’re saying that one race is better than the other and we all know that’s not true”.

Well the roof blew off the house. My brother looked at me like I had just returned from another planet. My mother got very pale and teary. She soon thereafter started wearing a George Wallace for President button. My father took charge and roared that if he even heard of me walking down the street with a Black man in college, he would bring me home and lock me up. I was confused, but began realizing perhaps I had misunderstood when I thought my father was proud to see me walking down the hall arm and arm with a little Negro girl.

George Wallace

About Reverend James Harris, I went looking for him later in my life to thank him for the impact he had on my life. I started my search looking at small churches in Des Moines and couldn’t find him anywhere. I eventually found him and discovered he had left Des Moines to be an Education advisor to President Ford. He was named by Ebony magazine as one of the 4 most influential African Americans in the US. He was the Founder and Pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church, Silver Springs, MD; past President of the National Education Association, an Educator (art and mathematics) for 35 years, and a Tuskegee Airman. His paintings and sculptures can be found all over the United States.

I was not surprised that Reverend Harris had this magnitude of life accomplishment, but I was very surprised that a man of his accomplishment would be introduced to me in my life. Thank you Reverend Harris!

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Rev. James Harris