It Is An Ongoing `struggleMy ancestors in the Deep South owned slaves. There is an ante-bellum mansion called "Westwood" just north of Uniontown, Alabama, that is still in my family, and has been since the 1840's. As a child, my cousins and I used to play around in the slave cabins out back. Those shacks, along with the carriage house by the front road, were burned down during the civil rights unrest of 1968. The home survived only by dint of a distant cousin armed with a double-barrelled 20-gauge shotgun on the porch. Although I was never a member, joining the KKK would have been considered social climbing for me back in the 60's and 70's. As a child, I thought nothing of segregated facilities, using the "n" word and would have never thought of a black person as a friend. Not a real friend, anyway. As a sixth grader, in all-white Condit Elementary School in Bellaire, Texas, my teacher, Fortuna Schmidtt, spent ONE ENTIRE DAY ranting to the class about bussing, which was being implimented in the Houston Independent School District. Being a fellow transplanted Alabamian and a childhood friend of my family, she was against any integration, much less bussing.
My world radically changed in 7th grade at Jane Long Junior High School. There were black sudents, and more significantly for me, black teachers. My first year, my bigotry earned me an "F" in woodshop. Woodshop! The teacher, Mr. Wiggins, was a black man and, understandibly, had a bellyfull of redneck born-and-bred snot-noses like me giving him attitude and lip. I deserved that grade, and it was the only "F" I ever made in any level, kindergarten through college. It affected me, as well as my relationship with my father. I couldn't understand why he wasn't marching over there to give Wiggins what for, if not just whip him outright. It was a pathetic spectacle to behold, and it still causes me to wince at the recollection.
My POV on education, even for blacks, was skewed due to my Alabama exposure. My mother's cousin, John B. Crews, was the elementary school teacher at the all-black school in Uniontown. Nobody was expected to graduate. Damn few did. None were qualified for college, just based upon what John B. had fed them. During summers in Uniontown, as a youngster still in an all white elementary school, he made it abundantly clear to me how "deficient" the blacks were, and as if to demonstrate, he would give me a single page mimeographed math test he claimed to be the 12th grade math final. It was simple addition and subtraction, no decimals, no fractions, no numbers larger than 99. Of course, I would so well with my third or fourth grade skills, and he would beam proudly at that. He showed me a twelve inch length of black rubber automotive hose that he always carried in his left hand as he walked around his class. He whipped kids as a rule, and frequently. I thought nothing of it.
Knowing this mindset, it should be easy to see how the integration of the Houston schools would set me into off-balance stance.
I hated Mr. Wiggins. I also had a bad math teacher named Boibby English. He was not inclined to teach an attitude such as mine, and was unable to overcome his own attitude. He did not recomment I go on to Algebra or Geometry, but on to a Trades oriented final math class in the eighth grade. I am very adept at math, as I was to prove later, but this academic road bump put my math curriculum back by a year. My father, a math major at Annapolis, was pissed. Mr. English and Mr. Wiggins were friends. Mr. English was also black.
By the time I had reached Bellaire High School, I was getting "used" to being around black students and learning from black teachers. Then, in tenth grade, a black history teacher named Audrey Wilson had me in her class for American History, and she got my attention. She had me pegged and her approach to me was, in hindsight, brilliant. She engaged me in conversations directly about things like slavery, the War Between The States, er, I mean, the Civil War, and black leaders like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. She was friends with Barbara Jordan, who would become a hero of mine, but at the time still had a profound effect on me and my radically shifting paradigm.
I had begun taking lunches in Ms. Wilson's classroom so we could spend the hour talking, and somedays would accompany her to the library after the last class. The respect I was beginning to feel was natural and there was a disconnect between it and my attitude towards black people. She just didn't figure as black any more. It was not a conscious effort on my part, it was more of the way I coped with what I had thought and what I was doing.
My senior year, a black student transferred into Bellaire and joined the stage band, of which I was a part. I played trumpet, he played tenor saxaphone, and we hit it off almost immediately. The other band geeks, most of whom had known me since junior high school, were not only confused, they were hostile. It made me re-evaluate my bigotry, and shone a new light on my ongoing friendship, by this point, with Audrey Wilson. I pulled away from the sax pla
I became fully self-realized, racially, only when I moved to New York City in the very early 80's. It was full immersion in ethnic diversity 101, being face to face with a virtual united nations every time I boarded a subway train. I dealt with all manner of races in business and at play, and began to deconstruct all of my racism, or so I thought.
The older I have grown, the more I have found myself trying to shed my racist trappings. Even in the past year, I have gone into topics here on EP and have ranted, lectured and scolded others about their points of view.
I stand behind everything I have written here, and I believe the things I profess with all of my heart.
But, I am a racist. Still.
How disturbing it is for me to see myself intellectually backed into one corner or another, see my "surface" scratched hard and see disgustingly hateful racist things come spewing out. It hasn't happened often, but it has happened enough to make me lose a bit of sleep, to not feel safe, and to deal with ongoing self-incrimination.
I'm trying, I swear to God, I really am trying, but at 50 years old, I'm beginning to realize that we all take the sins of our past to the grave with us. I only pray that I continue to fight it, internally, and keep anyone from validating their own bigotry and hate by anything I may inadvertantly give voice to.
atmore 46-50, M 15 Responses 7 Nov 13, 2007