Born in 1931 and raised in the south, my mother told me a story when I was a boy of a maid who was employed by an uncle and aunt of hers. She was an African-American woman named Mary. Mary lived on the other side of town in a neighborhood composed of other African-Americans when segregation was still rigidly enforced by the social strictures of the day. My then teenage mother would drive to the other side of town to pick Mary up, as she didn’t drive, and would deliver her to her aunt and uncles house in the white section of town to clean and care for their home, and then drive her home late in the evening to perform the same duties for her own family. In all the time that my mother performed this simple courtesy, Mary refused to ride in the front seat and would instead ride in back even though it was just the two of them. Mother would implore her to sit up front stating that it was the 1940’s and with the conclusion of World War II, things were changing. Folks would think nothing of it. Mary would listen politely, silently shake her head and continue to ride in back.
When asked why, Mary said it wasn’t for fear of what white people thought, she could shame the average redneck into silence and had many times, but rather what the people in her own neighborhood would think of her. That they would regard her as acting “better” or “uppity” in the parlance of the time. So in the back seat she remained. Trading some dignity in the eyes of white folks for the opportunity to be well thought of by her friends and neighbors. Told by my mother, this is one of the lessons I learned as a young boy regarding the complicated nature of race in America.
We have come a long way since the days of women like Mary refusing to ride up front for fear of what people will think. Like most people my age both black and white, I’m sure I still harbor some of the lingering prejudices of prior generations. But they are lingering barely and evaporate more with each passing day. Just as my mother told me stories such as Mary’s to teach that racial injustice in her day was as much about social customs for both blacks and whites as out-and-out racism, and could not be overcome simply by an invitation to ride up front, I take the same opportunity when speaking with my own two boys that seeing people as white or black or brown is no longer socially relevent. There are just people, good or bad. Their generation is gradually approaching Dr. King’s dream of a color blind society and are honestly mystified regarding all the harsh and incendiary talk lately of racism and who is or isn’t guilty of it. As far as they are concerned, such talk is as much yesterdays news as the battles of WWII were to my generation.
My hope is that this sudden outburst of race baiting that we see from some quarters is merely the last gasp of an earlier time, from an earlier generation, when racism was real and ones skin color was very relevent to where you lived, where you worked, how you were defined by others. In this regard I can somewhat understand and forgive the heated rhetoric being used by some of the old guard in the civil rights movement in referring to the tea parties or anyone else who questions their current agenda as racist. Theirs was a world of black and white lived in the harshest terms and is all they know. They fought the good fight but cannot now see or admit to themselves that their battle has been won. Like an old victorious general who no longer has a war to fight, they will continue to relive the final battle that brought them glory until they are gone.
Again, Morgan Freeman. This, with a little bit of luck, will be the world of my children.