Memories of Jim Crow
I was eleven years old the first time I became acutely aware of the hideousness of racism in our country. It was a Saturday afternoon; I remember this because I was allowed to take my nine year old sister to the movie theater that day, just the two of us. In the small Tennessee town that I grew up in, we didn’t worry much about “stranger danger.” I felt very grown up and worldly that day, and indeed I was about to get an ugly taste of the “grown up” world. As we filed in to take our seats, I caught sight of the balcony one story up, reserved for African Americans, though the term African American was probably unheard of back then. I stood frozen at what I saw, and on some level, knew that it would be a moment I would never forget.
Studies have shown that highly emotional experiences are better recalled than non-emotional ones. Fifty years have not diminished a feeling that I later identified as shame. Details are vivid—the faces, the direction I was facing, the chatter of people in the theater, my sister holding my hand. As I attempted to process the information in front of me, an injustice that I had only been vaguely aware of was suddenly out there like an evil clown in a bad dream. Just as ugly. Just as overpowering. But there was nothing that I, a little girl, could do. I imagine the predominant emotion of those in the balcony was also shame to a much greater degree. Their attempt at studied nonobservance could not hide the embarrassment of being deliberately, forcibly separated. I was and am, embarrassed with them.
Today nearly a half century later as we experience the backlash of re-electing our first black president, I must painfully acknowledge that little has changed except the rules. In more polite company, the racist code-speak is subtle. Conservative talk show hosts try and convince viewers they aren’t playing the race card in their rhetoric. Recently, Dennis Miller remarked oh so casually to Bill O’Reilly, “I don’t like Barack Obama anymore. You know why? Because he doesn’t like me and around 50 percent of America.” Doesn’t… “like me?” The irony is, while they are serving up the same rotten stew that “angry blacks” don’t “like you” it is THEY who are angry, resentful and afraid.
As those emotions become manifest in other quarters, behaviors are not so subtle. After a long and wearisome election season, states are petitioning to secede from the union, internet communications filled with blatant referrals to our good president by “the N word.” Mannequins being burned in effigy or displayed hanging in a noose. What more can one say about such insanity.
The most indefensible of all, President Obama’s own “colleagues,” conservatives who occupy the highest offices in the land, and are supposed to be role models, participate in this tyrannical temper tantrum without restraint. They knowingly ramp up the propaganda machine even higher, with dire predictions that America is going off a cliff. They do this with full knowledge of the chaos, unrest and probably irreparable damage to our national conscience they are causing. Their hatred of the Democratic Party has grown to such obscene levels that I fear our current system will never right itself. And in their sick narcissism, it doesn’t even matter if they cause the rest of the world to look upon us as fools.
So Barack Obama, who is the only president I have ever truly admired in my lifetime, whose call has always been for unity and co-operation, cannot receive even the common respect that his office is normally afforded. Racist Americans, isn’t it time to grow up? I do believe our country is going off a cliff, not your imaginary cliff but rather a cliff of intolerance, hate, and division. Get rid of the balcony! For only then can you take real pride in America once again.