From earliest childhood–the 1940s in Fairfield, Alabama, I remember there seeing “Negroes” in my house and yard. Needless to say they were there as maids and yard men, paid a pittance and given food and iced tea in dishes/glasses not used by us. But they had names–Josephine inside and Charlie outside–and they played with me and let me “help” them as they worked. My mother’s theory about “colored people” was simple–“her” Negroes were not like “those other people” who were lazy and then got drunk and fought with knives on the weekend. When Josephine needed to see an eye doctor, Mamie (what we called my mother) took her to her own person though Josephine couldn’t ride in the same elevator to get to his office as my mother did. Often, my mother went back to work right after lunch and was read to out of a favorite magazine by Josephine who refused to work until half an hour had passed so that her food could digest properly. And Mamie was fine leaving me in the care of Josephine, whom she exploited by paying her $5.00 a day, when she went off to her garden club or church work group, though she refused ever to let one of the white teenagers in our neighborhood “baby sit” me because she didn’t trust them with her precious child.
I could keep sharing examples of blatant paradoxes around the relationship between my white family and the Black people I knew in my growing up years. What these examples all illustrate, however, is the ultimate paradox that existed between contact and messaging between black and white southerners. Only recently, as I am reading critical race theorists, have I begun to assess how that paradoxical proximity has enabled me to “read” white supremacy differently from some of my white friends who grew up in other parts of the country than the South. In an odd way, my youth and adolescence spent in the cauldron of white supremacy with all its inhumane manifestations has given me clarity about what Black thinkers/writers/activists are working so hard to convey to too many of us whites who have trouble dislodging ourselves from our privileged bubbles.
Because I spent hours every day with Josephine or Charlie, I talked to them about everything, many things I never would have dreamed of saying to my mother or father. So I developed an easiness and familiarity around black people, even as I came to hear more white adults say really demeaning and harmful things about all such individuals. ‘
My patchwork exposure to “racism” turned on a huge paradox: I knew in my very bones that my whiteness meant all sorts of different things from their “colored ness.” (I use “colored” to refer to the non-white people I saw every day because Mamie chastised me severely the day I came home from fourth or fifth grade and said the “n” word: “You must never say that word again, Honey, because it would hurt Josephine’s or Charlie’s feelings.” Having no idea what she was talking about, but loving Josephine and Charlie the tangled way whites often do, I never said the word again.) But I also knew in those same bones that Josephine and Charlie, and by extension other people in their community had lives and ideas, cracked funny jokes with me, taught me all sorts of useful lessons about gardening and cleaning and food preparation. I even knew Josephine had children since her two daughters often came to our house when they weren’t in school and we played together for hours in the side yard.
The limits that proximity couldn’t erase, however, turned on my not knowing anything about what they did when they were not at our house, so their full humanity was denied me because of the system in which we all were trapped. As I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, being in proximity with blacks is hard won for me. But when I find myself with black people, I must fall back into my childhood/teenage years because I have an easy way of talking and relating that often eludes me at white dinner parties or wedding receptions and the like. More importantly, in a perhaps odd way, two words in the phrase “Black Lives Matter” make deep sense to me since some of the important people in that childhood were black and they mattered. The fact that their “lives” were pretty much a blank slate complicates everything about our proximity but it still gives me clarity in many political situations.
I’ll end with just one glaring example of how this works for me in the present. When the Orange Man began to run for president, he uttered his basic slogan “Make America Great Again.” I felt panicked when I first heard him because I flashed to all the white southern governors/mayors/business owners who had said the same thing when they wanted to exclude blacks. It was not anything as subtle as a “dog whistle” to my ears–it was a megaphonic cry that meant millions of my fellow Americans would know what it meant and move into his orbit. My white liberal friends laughed at what a fool he is, but I tried to get them to take him seriously since I knew he had a genuine chance to get elected. After all, all those whites had endured eight long years of watching the wrong colored man light the Christmas tree, free the Thanksgiving turkey, roll the first Easter egg down the expansive lawn, and speak at the podium in the Rose Garden where he was supposed to be walking around with a tray of goodies.
So I am coming to understand those early years with Josephine and Charlie in a new and deeper, more complex light. And, once again, I am feeling at home in the midst of an unsolvable but powerful paradox.