Red and Yellow, Black and White
The evolution of my relationship to the civil rights movement can be traced far back into my childhood. Before the phrase “civil rights” or the word “racism” became well-known among white people, at least the white people I knew, I was interested in black* people and why they were treated differently. There is a song in the musical, South Pacific, that may explain how a little cracker child such as myself escaped the mind-warping that drives racism in American culture. The song, to which I was directed in high school by my friend Roy, is “You Have to be Carefully Taught.” The words are, “you have to be taught to love and to hate, the people your relatives want you to hate, you have to be carefully taught.”
Because of the historical fluke that caused me to be born in the North instead of in the South, I was not so carefully taught. I was, to some degree, insulated by my “Yankeeness” from the full training in institutionalized racism that southern children receive from birth. In those years when children are indoctrinated with the most fundamental assumptions of their culture, the ones that will probably motivate them consciously and unconsciously for the rest of their lives, I was located in an area of the country that was not segregated as overtly as the South was segregated.
If there were black children in my kindergarten class, that circumstance was so unremarkable that I don’t remember them. Whereas I cannot remember ever seeing a black person in Cleveland, I have no doubt that the lives of the black people in Cleveland were different and unequal to the lives of white people in Cleveland. But, I was not faced at every turn with situations and signals proclaiming the superiority of one race over another, as I would have been had I been born and spent the first five years of my life in the South. If those situations and signals were present, as I am sure they must have been, they were present where a very small child would not see them.
At the same time, I was taken to church and Sunday School since before I can remember and there I was carefully taught, in the words of what may have been the first song I ever learned, that “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” (I was gratified to note, when searching for a link, that the lyrics now include brown children, something new since my childhood.) We were taught, as a fundamental tenet of the Baptist religion, in opposition specifically to Catholics, that everyone has equal access to God and is equal in the sight of God—white people, poor people, colored people, even women. Hard to believe as it is when observing how my former religion plays out on the ground, it is manifestly true that equal access to God and equality in the sight of God is basic to the religion in which I was raised.
I saw pictures of Jesus with all the different kinds of children of the world in my Sunday School book, which required me, each and every Sunday, to find the picture of Jesus in the back of the book that corresponded to that day’s lesson, cut it out and glue it to the page containing the lesson. I cannot remember a time when this is something I did not do, either at home or at church on Sunday morning. The picture was often of Jesus with a “black,” or “red,” or “yellow” child.
Hypocrisy was a big word for even me as a small child, so I took everything at face value. Jesus loves the little children of the world, even the black ones, and here is his picture, loving those children. I even have a memory of a stained glass window in some church of my childhood, depicting that very scene, Christ speaking to children of four different colors. I cannot imagine such a window being in my church in Groveland, Florida, and the church I remember in Miami did not have stained glass windows, but it could have been the earliest church we attended in Miami or a church in Cleveland. That a Baptist church would choose to have such a window, in the face of the fact that so many Baptists are also racists, is a measure of the mental condition I would later learn to call “compartmentalization.”
Compartmentalization is a word used in psychological circles to describe that mental process by which conflicting information, including attitudes, may co-exist inside the mind of an individual or the collective mind of a culture, as long as the information from one area, or “compartment,” is never applied to another. In my experience, it is either a prerequisite or a great facilitator of hypocrisy. In this case, the information that Jesus loves all the children of the world never escapes from the church and is applied to real children in the real world. Jesus loves them, but He loves them over there in the church compartment, or “in their place.” I learned the song but somehow I never learned to compartmentalize its message. Segregated churches, once I became aware of segregation, have always been especially galling to me for that reason. “Is this what Jesus had in mind?” I have often thought.
When I precociously began to read the Miami Herald, which we had delivered, at age 10 or so, and read that colored children wanted to go to school with white children, I just could not understand the problem. If we were all God’s children and He loved us all equally, why should we not all go to the same school? It made no sense. The influence of Southern racism on me, ultimately, was to remove all moral authority from any authority figure in my life, or most of them. I had to ask, how can you people be in any position to judge anything I do as long as you are hypocritical racists? The race issue, more than any other, taught me as a teenager that I was on my own for moral guidance.
Lulie and her brother
Given compartmentalization, my religion was the source of some God-almighty confusion on the race issue during my childhood. I remember once, when I was about eight, walking down the sidewalk on 27th Avenue with two other kids, an older female friend of mine and her little brother, from a family my family disapproved of as being “real crackers.” They were much poorer than we were and lived in a tin-roofed and unpainted shed-like house in the middle of the cow pasture at the end of our street. I cannot now imagine how I met them, unless it was on the way to school, a walk I made by myself from first grade on. I was not put off by the house at all, since it was not all that different from my grandparents’ house in Fort Green, but I did find their ignorance trying.
Since my friends did not attend church and I was trained to be evangelical from an early age, I was telling them about mine. I said that one of the teachings of my church was that everybody in the world was equal in the sight of God and therefore my brother or sister. They both laughed out loud at that one and proceeded to argue with me about it. As they did, we walked by an old black man sitting on a bus stop bench, either waiting for the bus or just waiting. Luckily for him, no white person was waiting there for the bus or he would have been standing, not sitting.
Lulie pointed to him and asked, “What about that nigger* over there? Is he your brother?” No one had ever hit me with a question like that before, so I had to think about it for a second or two. I looked at him carefully and saw that he was pretty raggedy and possibly drunk. If I said “yes,” I knew I would be in for some serious teasing and might never live it down with these two. But, if I said “no,” I would clearly be denying Christ. As deeply religious as I was at that time in my life, I felt that Jesus was possibly the only real friend I had, maybe the only friend or relative I had that really loved me. So, I could not see Him, but how was that different from my imaginary friend in Cleveland? No one but me could see her, either, but she was very real to me. Between Jesus, on the one hand, and Lulie and her little brother on the other, there was no contest.
I looked at the old black man and I looked at Lulie and I said, “Well, sure. If everybody’s my brother and sister in Christ, then he is, too.” The laughter and teasing began immediately and included a bit of pushing and pulling of my braids. I feared it might occur to them to throw rocks at me, as many of my colleagues at school were fond of doing when I had failed to evade them on the way home. The “N” word was used copiously, as in “ha ha, she thinks that old nigger is her brother.”
I held my ground, but I was actually pretty mystified. I cannot say with a straight face that no one in my family had ever used the N-word in front of me, since my mother was fond of the expression, “working like a nigger,” as in, “Whew, I’m tired. I been out there in the wash house working like a nigger.” She was also fond of saying, defiantly, in response to any form of criticism, that she was “free, white and over 21” and therefore could do what she pleased. The N-word was implied in that statement which was, of course, untrue, since she was also female. However, those are the only occasions when I heard that word, used or implied, in our household. Had I used it, for instance, my face would have been slapped just as rapidly as if I had used a cuss word.
Nevertheless, in response to my reporting this incident to my mother and asking if I had done the right thing and asking why Lulie and her brother were so aggressive in their teasing, my mother explained to me the following things. In the first place, she said, Lulie and her whole family were clearly “poor white trash” or they would be going to church and would never have asked that question or used that word. First things first, I was instructed not to go to their house or play with them anymore and to avoid them in general. I had no problem with that.
Then, demonstrating compartmentalization before I had a name for it, my mother told me that I had done the right thing, the Christian thing, and that I was right that everyone was a child of God and therefore my brother or sister in Christ, and yes, that meant “red and yellow, black and white,” just like the song said. She gave me the information from the church compartment, but even then I knew that it conflicted with her real behavior. That information was located in the real life compartment. This may have been the point in my life when I received the lecture about the N-word. It seems a likely time for it to have happened.
I was, at some point, instructed that I should never use the N-word because a true lady never would. I was then instructed on the proper way to speak of the people in question. If I was talking about one person, that person was a “colored man” or a “colored lady” but if I was talking about all of them together, they were colored people or Negroes. I was also told that I should never use the phrase “colored man” or “colored lady” “to their face,” even though, given our station in life, probabilities were low that I would ever have a conversation with a colored person in which I would need to use that phrase or, period. The only time my mother would have imagined me speaking to a colored person would have been if we had had servants which, of course, we did not have because my mother was, in fact, a servant, albeit one with aspirations to raise her daughters to be “true ladies.”
*Nomenclature in this chapter, be forewarned, is not going to be consistent. In my lifetime, the people I am writing about have changed their self-designations faster than I could keep up with it. To write about my past truthfully, I must immerse myself in the time period and I find it nearly impossible not to use whatever word was in accepted and common use during the time period I’m writing about. I finally gave up trying to be consistent and may use different designations even in the same sentence, depending upon whose perspective is being presented. My use of the words “black,” “colored,” and “African-American” may be seen as quite erratic, but I have been unable to come up with a cure for that. All of these have been, at some time in my lifetime, the preferred word to describe persons of obvious African descent. The NAACP has never changed its name and, although the word “colored” is now viewed by younger black people as demeaning, that is not the opinion of the NAACP, an organization that still represents large numbers of black people.
Also, in ordinary circumstances, there is no occasion and has never been, where I would use the N-word on my own steam, not quoting someone else to make a point or, later on, following the lead of black members of my family. However, I will use it here to preserve the historical tone, ala Gilbert King, whose contemporary book about a civil rights case will be quoted extensively. There has been great controversy over whether Mark Twain’s works using that word should be assigned in high school literature classes. I have come down on the side of yes. It is part and parcel of his time period and to convey the racism of his time period it is necessary to describe the language of those living in it. The same is true of the time and place about which I am writing. Use of the word by white people as a pejorative is not acceptable, but use of it to convey the reality of racism is.
© Jentri Anders, 2016