I hate hearing, "Well, that's just the way it was." But actually that’s the way it was. If you’re told, from the time you are born, that red is green, it will take a long time for you to think otherwise. Let me explain.
Growing up, we lived on a lone country road with three Black families of three brothers (James, Booker, Uncle Jim) to our left. All of us were poor. We were good neighbors. We borrowed sugar or flour from each other, and when it rained, we stood on Uncle Jim’s roundabout porch half a mile down the road from us while waiting for the school bus. James, our closest neighbor, and my daddy would lean against our gate posts at the end of a long day and talk about farming. We drank cane juice from a tin dipper at Uncle Jim’s as the horses went on their merry-go-round to crush the cane. When James and Ethah’s newborn died, my mother made a special burial gown.
But we didn’t socialize. I was born into the pervasive culture of segregation in the deep South. Blacks had separate water fountains, schools, churches and seating in movie theaters. among other things. That’s just the way it was.
When I had peanut boilings or spend-the-night parties, I didn’t invite Cassie Mae, James’ daughter, who was about my age. It wasn’t that I excluded her. It just never even occurred to me. Cassie Mae and I were friendly, but if I had known the history of Blacks, we might have been close friends.
I saw convicts working on the road. Just criminals doing their time. Teachers taught mostly about the Civil War — the big battles, the great generals and who won. Nobody told me about the discriminatory laws passed after the war, such as vagrancy laws, whereby people who were found to have no jobs were put into jail. And who had no jobs? Mostly Blacks. And why was that? They certainly knew how to work, considering all the toiling they had done on the plantations. So why no jobs? The jobs, the factories and the plants were in areas where Blacks were not allowed to live and they lacked transportation to get there. So those convicts I saw were not necessarily criminals unless you can call being out of work a crime.
The myth that Blacks were sub-humans salved the plantation owners’ conscience for their brutal treatment of slaves. And after the war, that perception perpetuated the stereotype of Blacks being mentally defective and shiftless children. When the 14th Amendment was passed, they were still regarded as second-class citizens. Even when allowed to vote, they first had to pass a very difficult test designed to keep them from doing so.
If we learn the history of Black Americans, we might be a little more understanding of their plight today. Education procreates knowledge, leading to an awareness that all people are indeed created equal and deserving of equal treatment, equal schooling and equal job opportunities. It is up to each of us to facilitate growth both within ourselves and in our rightful places in the universe.
I have searched for Cassie Mae. I want to tell her that I know the color of red.
Ann Silver is a retired teacher.