Thursday, June 2, 2011

Looking Away Toward Dixie: a Postcript About My Mother, Race, and the Park Across the Four-Lane Road

Tennessee Williams said that he wrote from a "sense of the awful" - which he suspected, but could not literally see, as he contemplated a circumstance or situation.

I think I know where he was coming from.  I have rarely spent a day in the South and not felt that.  It's casually corroborated by newspaper stories in which police might rough up a suspect before handing him over; stories about hung juries and political payoffs; stories about entrenched privileges vis-a-vis the poverty that is entrenched by them. 

I've been writing about my mother's influence on me as a painter - which cut a swath across my life as a boy.  Yet, even then, there were multiple swaths and colorations.  When you write, you choose - even as you see peripheral movement, things happening off to the side.  You can't get to everything, so you move closer in.  It's a way to understand one thing while ignoring another.

My mother used to talk about coming to a city that was so mired in the past that it could not look at itself and see anything untoward.  Its accommodationist racial policies were such that black folk saw you coming and, sometimes, stepped off the curb.  It wasn't a wrenching movement.  It had grace and form.  It was, after all, practiced all the time.  When ladies of a certain age and social conditioning strolled among the housewares at Gerber's or Goldsmiths, they were projecting an entitlement that was rarely questioned.  Who could doubt that they belonged there, in their long white gloves and seamless gowns, from which an unseemly tightness could be purged by dieting.  They knew each other, but did not always speak - in spite of the gregariousness that's said to be endemic to the South.  Their husbands, sometimes crude, vital men; sometimes well-spoken professionals, let them be the wives they had told themselves they'd always wanted to be.  They shone in public, though not ostentatiously.  Status was not asserted; it was in the air, in the culture, before one's eyes. 

Parallel lives ran at a somewhat uneven gait beside them: the people who stocked the shelves and ran small errands.  The people who took deliveries or waited for the larger shipments that would make stevedores of them.  They came on foot, or by bus.

Their whereabouts was a mystery.  "Where on earth is that?" one might inquire of a maid or yardman who had mentioned a street address.  "And how do you get back?"  Sometimes, a gracious family would take its maid to the mean little house where she quickly spent the money she'd earned across town, but they seemed, these gracious folk, to be the exception.  When the help was done, it had to find its own way home.

They worked, these shadowy people, longer hours than the people who hired them.  As they watched their betters down martinis or stand decoratively before a barbecue grill, they hoped that they could get a glass of water before they left.  And they sometimes rushed out because the bus might not be there when they caught up.

We - who were outlanders and would never achieve any status to speak of - had a maid.  Her name was Doris and she hearkened from a place that evokes the phrase "near-neighbor" but also gives the lie to it.  She lived just half a mile away, yet her more dismal location was as off-limits, in a social sense, as the antipodes.  People seemed to lurk, rather than live, there.  The unemployed were to said to fan out into "good neighborhoods," commit their crimes against persons and properties, then come back and distribute all the swag among themselves.  Or kill one another stealing it.  The reality wasn't quite so lurid.  Most of the people in this neighborhood worked for a living, but made only enough. . .to live in this neighborhood.  Their industry mocked them and shut them away.  But they couldn't, when they took stock of the situation, go anywhere else.

How was it that we, who had very little money, could afford to have someone come over and cook, clean, and do laundry for us?  Well, it wasn't all the time, but it happened enough so that, when Doris didn't come around anymore, I felt sad.  I can't say that I was raised by a black woman, as Southern boys of a certain era were.  But whenever a good-natured person comes into your life, you tend to remember that person.  And long for him or her to come back.

Doris used to let me watch her.

"Why do you wanna do that?  Why don't you go out and play?"

I didn't know why I wanted to stick around and "do that" because I generally preferred to be someplace where I might fall off of something or find a potential weapon in the grass.  I know why I wanted to watch her now; I enjoyed her approach, which was both haphazard and full of precision.  When she put the laundry out, she liked to move the clothes-pin box along underneath her.  She did it with a kind of willful daring, kicking, rather than slewing, the box along.  She seemed to dare that box to tip over - which it never did.  It was her nature acting up.  Had she been more fully in the world, she might have taken such bravado farther.  As it was, she had kids of her own - which she could take better care of with the extra money.

I asked her about these kids one time.

"Oh, I have lots of chirren," she said, with a big laugh, as if these children were acting up even as she spoke.

"What are their names?"

"You don't want to know their names.  Now, hush up!"

I was hurt.  I did want to know them.  But I think she wanted to keep some measure of privacy to herself.  I didn't, of course, understand and avoided her for a while.

"You mad at me?" she asked me later on in the day.

"No," I said, tearing up.

"I'm sorry.  You want to know the names of my chirren?  Well, I'll tell you right now!"

And she did, though I don't remember a single one of them.  It was her generosity that defined that moment.  Nothing else really mattered. 

When she was done, she hugged me.  She knew my mother - who was generally around - wouldn't mind.  As indeed she did not.

Perhaps not on that evening, but some other, my mother took me aside and told me some things I wasn't necessarily curious about, but might - if I put my mind to it - think of later on.

"Just because Doris works for us. . .doesn't mean she's not as good.  Do you understand that?"

"Yes," I said, having never considered equality in this way.  Doris was Doris - whom I liked to watch going about her business.

"In this part of the country," said my mother, trying to fetch out words that would shed some light on an unusual situation, ". . .in this part of the country, people like Doris, colored people, work for white people.  It's a way for them to make extra money.  It's a tradition that doesn't exist where we were, but it does here."

I tried to consider the difference between one part of the country and another and came up with geographical features alone.  Red hills, blue grass, streams instead of rivers.  My mind even leaped to architecture; sometimes you had brick houses instead of wooden ones.

"Do you understand?" asked my mother, hoping that she'd breached a sealed area - or fleshed out an empty part that was too wide open.

"Yes'm," I said, using the formal response. 

"Yes'm" was indissolubly local.  If you didn't learn it formally, you learned it as you wafted your way through.  You said "Yes'm" and "Yessir" to your elders, to people in authority, and to strangers who were bigger and older.  It re-enforced the structures and proprieties everyone would, in time, observe without thinking.  Meanwhile, you started off polite.  Politeness made things go faster and happen easily.  If you weren't polite, you were a "heathen" or some other rascally thing.

There was a public park across the big street that separated our somewhat meaner subdivision from the nicer one.  Our houses were serviceable, with big yards that had been raked clean by the developers.  Sprigs of tree and shrub shot out of fuzzy grass.  Pine-board fences separated one backyard from another.  No one house was bigger than its neighbor, but each was distinguished by the placement of windows or some other thing that could be seen as having style.  Front yards were ruled by a strip of concrete, where a car would sit.

The park was unimaginably large, a great sea of green amidst the gridlike streets around it.  I would later try to hit baseballs past all this green and come up short.  It was the pastureland our post-WWII economy denied city boys who dreamed of living next to nature.  It was a Wordsworthian mountain-scape, carved from sand and clay by the meandering glacier that got serious once it reached Texas.  From its perimeters, a whole countryside was imaginable.  Its hills were abbreviated, but they rolled like any other.  And there were noble trees there - trees so big nobody could climb them.  In the fall, there were so many acorns underfoot that it hurt to walk through them.  "Ouch. . .ouch!" were the only words I spoke until I was away from them.  Shoes might have met this problem head-on, but they were unthinkable. 

From a fairly early age, I was allowed to go to this park by myself.  There was no supervision there; you could roam around - if you looked both ways before crossing the street - unchecked.  Other kids would find you and you could make a whole day of it. 

One afternoon, I was messing around in a play-area, with its stunted box-hockey stadium and concrete-bordered sandbox, when a black girl came up on me and stuck me with a pin.  I shrieked, first in horror, then with the realization that pins carried disease and might kill me.

"Why did you do that?" I asked sensibly.

"You stay away from me, you hear?" was all she said back.

"I'm gonna tell on you!" I threatened.

"Just stay away or I'll do it again."

Before long, she was joined by schoolmates, who were being disgorged from a bus.  They looked on with a calculating fury, as if they'd rehearsed this little scene and were giving it all they had.  I had never observed such unity in children.  I was too traumatized to appeal to the lone authority figure, a teacher who wandered among these children with exhortations to straighten up, stay in a single file, and do exactly as she said. 

As I staggered homewards, I looked back, thinking that some cataclysm of Biblical proportions might occur.  But all I saw were these children, who couldn't form in a straight line for love or money.  I kept looking back for the effect I most desired - complete destruction of a place and people - but was not satisfied.

Meanwhile, I was nearly home, weaving down the sidewalk on which I would, later on in life, pick out the names of people who'd poured certain sections.  People who took pride in the work they did.  Or were insanely territorial; each contractor, in claiming a little section for himself, became the empire-builder for whose privileges he grandiosely yearned.

"Mom," I said, bursting into the house, "Look what happened!"

My arm was hurting, but the wound was small: just a pinprick that bled with a decorum that didn't comport with my sense of outrage.

"What?" she said, waiting to be concerned if necessary or - as she was a little more often - amused.

"Somebody stuck me.  Look!"

As she examined the wound, and became assured that I had indeed been the victim of an assault, she tried to get me to explain what happened.  My mind was not yet grooved on rigorous analysis.  When it was asked to contemplate a sequence, it could not.  Or, rather, the sequence came out in pieces that could not necessarily be linked in time or space.

"She said stay away!"


"After she stuck me.  I wasn't hurting her.  I didn't see her, mom.  I promise!"

"I believe you," she said, applying some mercurochrome to the wound, which made me wince.  This was the most serious medication in the house.  It was used on gashes and punctures that might, later on, require medical intervention.  I began to sense that and ceased to let on.

"It isn't hurting anymore," I said.  "It just. . .I'm better now."

"Who did this?"

"A girl."

"What kind of girl?"

I hadn't the language to answer this question, so I used my only frame of reference. 


"What about Doris?"

"Her. . .she was. . .colored."

"Oh.  A colored girl did this to you!"



"She said I scared her."

"What did you do?"

"I was just playing.  I promise.  I didn't see her until she. . .why?"

I think I started to cry, as kids often do when they realize the enormity of a thing that has happened to them in a world they would not, from that time forward, understand.  As in: My God, I could have been killed.  Or: here I was playing and everything turns dark on me.  There was survivor's superiority too - which predates the guilt that is far more searing.  We who are safe love to glorify the dangers we have recently, and most nobly, endured.

"I think I see what happened," said my mother, putting the mercurochrome away. 

I don't remember whether she explained the situation to me, fraught, as it was, with a psychological complexity I would not have, under any circumstances, appreciated.  Years later, however, she told me about the incident and said that the girl stabbed me with her pin because she thought I would do her bodily harm if I wasn't disabled.  She said that, in a kind of analogous response to whites demonizing blacks, she had observed, as a schoolteacher, that blacks had somewhat distorted views of whites - even whites who could not possibly hurt them.  They were, like us, prejudiced - though I think we went first and they followed.  If we regarded them as undesirable, they could regard us as undesirable too.  This particular girl had crossed that line and decided that I, as representing a racial stereotype, was likely to put foolish things aside and attack her first.  Better to nip that sort of in the bud and go on the offensive.

That was my mother's explanation and I think it is very likely.

In the ensuing years, racial equality would be achieved by law, but it has never, in my experience, been universally adopted.  When I come to Memphis, whites and blacks are woven together in common places, but they are not comfortable there.  They do business and they go home - mostly to places that do not impinge, influence, or affect positively or negatively the daily lives of people they have never tried to understand, but must acknowledge and accept from a counter or cash register.  People talk about the pitfalls of integration.  Perhaps a segregated society works better in the short run, and under specific circumstances.  People whose institutions and businesses are home-grown are liable to be more loyal to them and, should they be threatened, defend and/or rescue them.  Perhaps a strain in human nature disallows equality and settles for suspicion.  Our minds are as skilled at rationalization as they are at the technical things that allegedly foster progress.  We think we're moving forward separately, but we seem to be cutting ourselves off that way.  Had life been fair, I would not have known Doris.  It would be endurable not to have known her, but her life was of a richness that spilled over into mine.  And yet she was only possible because, as my mother said, colored people had to come over and work for whites to make extra money.  If that money had been available then, what kind of world would we know today?  Or would we equals find downtrodden people of other sorts and make them work for that extra money?  It is very likely.  We don't seem to have learned the lesson religious leaders, poetic biologists, and lovers of human excellence have always known and told the rest of us in vain: we are all as one.

Why is that so hard for us to get?  My mother knew it, but her hands, like so many other hands, black and white, were tied.  She spent her life trying to untie them - which is about all any subversive intelligence may do.

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