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.

Me and Jeff

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