Standing On A Chair

Telling it like I see it…

Rants from the Chair: On Segregation in the Deep South

When I finished the book, I sat there on my deck under the old oak tree with all those chortling squirrels and a couple of red-headed hammering woodpeckers, and I cried.  The tears welled up and I just went with it.  Not since I read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye have I been so moved by a novel.

I am talking about The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

For those not familiar, it takes place in 1962 Jackson Mississippi, and concerns the relationships between affluent white women and their black maids.  I won’t say more about the story, but I will say that it is a profoundly important book.  Reading it compelled me to remember my own personal encounters with segregation at its most blatant and horrible. 

There is a pivotal character in the book, ‘Miss Hilly,’ who reminds me of my maternal grandmother.  My grandmother, whom I was instructed to call, ‘Maw-Maw,’ was the person who introduced me to the N-word. 

I don’t want to sugar-coat it or anything, but Maw-Maw was a vile and virulent, venom-spewing bigot.  And a proud one at that!  Her grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and she was a faithful fan of the Ku Klux Klan. 

“Those niggahs this, and those niggahs that, and that niggah the other thing,” she spat within my earshot on a regular basis. 

Quite astonishingly, my mother suffered this influence, but she came out of it on the other side.  She recalls as a child, hearing her mean mother verbally abuse their long-time maid Suzie.  My mother says whenever that happened, she would run to Suzie and give her a kiss, hug her intensely, hoping to salve the wounds Suzie sustained daily from the wrath of Maw-Maw.

“How is it that you escaped becoming like Maw-Maw?” I asked my mother.  “How did you know she was very wrong?  How did you know to be kind to your maid?”

“Well, because I loved Suzie so much,” she said.  “And I knew she was a person.  Just like me.  I knew her skin color wasn’t supposed to mean anything.”

In the summer of 1956 my family was transferred to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.  I was eight years old.  This is where I first saw separate drinking fountains for Negroes and Whites.  This is where I saw banks with a side for Negroes and a side for Whites.  And this is where I got into trouble in a liquor store. 

There was a velvet rope which divided the place in half, one side for Negroes and one side for Whites.  As I waited in line with my mother at the check-out counter on the Whites side, I spotted a little girl on the Negroes side, sitting on the floor and playing with a doll I apparently thought was awesome, because I scooted under the long, velvet rope and plopped down next to her, where she smiled at me and shared her doll.  

Out of nowhere I felt someone pull me up by the arm the next thing I knew I was sailing over the velvet rope and placed abruptly down in front of my surprised mother.

I knew then that the velvet rope was not to be crossed.  Ever.

I am telling you, there are times when I am embarrassed to be white.  There are times when I feel the full force of guilt and shame over the repeated vicious abuse and cruelty we, as a race, have inflicted on others.

I can’t bring myself to choose another book to read right now.  I guess I need more time to savor the residual aura of this one.

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June 14, 2011 - Posted by | Segregation | , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. And beyond the overt, there was the subtle bigotry. I had sweet as pie southern (paternal) grandmother whose father had fought for the south in the war. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she sure saw that the “Coloreds” needed to tow the line. My mom didn’t say much, but did teach me that white women were ladies and Negroes were women. So subtle as to go right to your soul…. Thank God for the activities of the 60s which turned a lot of thinking around. If you have a chance to see the documentary about Freedom Riders do so, it will lift you right up. I’m delighted with the success of The Help. It is a powerful book because it does get at the subtleties. Have you read the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I heartily recommend. It’s the reason I’m heading to Guernsey!

    Comment by Becky | June 14, 2011 | Reply

  2. My favorite part of this was when you shared about Doer going to kiss Suzie to make her feel better. Gave me chills. Really cool to hear about her as an innocent child!!

    Comment by Farrah Pirkle | June 14, 2011 | Reply

  3. My Aunt just brought this book to me and said it was a very thought provoking book. Loved your experience at the liquor store. I had a similar one when I was 8 at Webb City. There were 2 drinking fountains by where you bought ice cream cones, one was marked white and one marked colored. While waiting in line for ice cream I decided that I really wanted a drink of water, but I wanted the colored water, not the every day white water. There were a number of people in line that were mortified at what I did, and a few rude comments made to my Dad when he didn’t get upset with the situation. I wasn’t in trouble, but we left before getting ice cream. I have to admit that I was, and still am, disappointed that the colored water was the same as the white water. I really thought it was going to be some spectacular rainbow of color coming out of that water fountain. I think it might have been different had I been with my Mom, who was raised by a Southern Belle, instead of my Dad who was one of those Yankees. In the car on the way home he just told me that the water is the same but some people are different. Even then I knew he was talking about the ones that were upset, not the ones that were supposed to drink the colored water. I think my Mom would have been one of those mortified people.

    Comment by Linda Wines Stokes | June 14, 2011 | Reply


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