White Girl in the Promised Land

Elatia Harris    

Last Monday my colleague Michael Blim wrote about the Supreme Court’s decision of a few days earlier – Parents v. Seattle Schools – which would start to expunge any consideration of race from the way our children were assigned to public schools no sooner than many of us were firing up our barbecues for the 4th of July. Would we, the People, be too beguiled watching the flames leap to notice the Orwellian turn the Court had just taken?  I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where outrage trumps barbecue any day of the week, so Justice Roberts got his work noticed here.  Read all about it in Michael’s post, which attracted a sufficient diversity of comments to utterly enlarge my notion of the 3QD readership.  And to confirm what I, a vintage Mid-century Southern white, have all my life seen exquisitely demonstrated – that plenty of people park their brains in a sub-basement before they think, and talk, about race.  In that plenteous number, a plurality of our Supreme Court judges might now be included; if so, they are more dangerous than the others, than all the others combined.

That race is an enduringly difficult subject may be the very reason why the Roberts Court drop-kicked it from the law of the land, as that law applies to school children.  One famous response, after all, to a refractory problem is to declare it a non-problem, so that no solution need be sought, still less found.  It’s a perversion of math, where changing a thorny problem to a problem that’s already been solved is as good as a solution — is a solution.  Gamesmanship and its sophistries pervade Parents v. Seattle Schools, as Michael has shown, never more than in the deeply artificial contrasting of “social engineering” with its false opposite, “individual responsibility.”

Does the Roberts Court imagine we are living in post-racist times?  Probably not, but by disingenuously transferring to the individual – the individual black child, that is – the entire burden of gaining not just opportunity, but access to opportunity, the Court implies one of two readings – either that it believes being poor and black is no different than being comfortable and white, or that it’s so different as to be an incontrovertible disadvantage, one that intelligent taxpayers will triage their way away from. To make no legal distinctions between black children who grow up with the stresses of poverty and white children who live in privilege is to make the law a guarantor of that privilege. Trust me on this one, for I can remember when the law was exactly that.

In a Large Southern City Which Shall be Nameless

A century before I was born in a large Southern city which shall be nameless, my mother’s family left Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where until the Civil War they raised cotton. Their house and everything in it had been garrisoned by Union soldiers before the war’s end, so when the family left, they left with nothing, and I was almost grown-up before I understood that that was as it should have been. Heading west, they joined a cousin in a not-so-distant state, a Methodist minister who wrote them there was pretty good cotton land to be had thereabouts. They got back on their feet – farming, ranching, banking.  There was, briefly, prosperity – my grandmother had a white Shetland pony, and was the fanciest little girl she knew – and then the Depression, which put paid to any notion of a real comeback.

A Southern family with a plantation background is a family keenly aware of dispossession, of what it is to be on the wrong side of history. This is different from an awareness that one’s ancestors were participants in and beneficiaries of a crime so vast and systematic that one’s nation is rocking from it still.  I cannot say that in childhood I found “plantation tales” charming and innocent, but the full horror of them was not yet available to me.  Here’s one.  When in 1860 my great-grandmother, Eleanor W., turned 6 years old, she was presented with her sixth slave, having already been given one for each previous year of her life.  Like little Eleanor, the slaves were children.

Coming along a century later, should I have felt personal guilt for this?  Well, it didn’t make me proud.  But my imagination, including my moral imagination, was affected by this story in a way that I have the sense to be grateful for.  I can only have first heard it in the spirit it was told – by my grandmother, little Eleanor’s daughter, owner of the white pony — as a testament to the lost paradise of plantation life.  It would be dense years of child-time before I could judge my grandmother for reckoning up the family’s glories this way, years more before I could understand the link between her own disappointments and her luscious memories of the subjugation of others.

You Look Like a Sweet Little Girl, But —

Sometime before I was 10, I spent a very dark summer.  That is, the summer was bright and I was dark from the sun. The photos show me looking fat and deeply tanned, with my dark hair gathered tight into a high braided ponytail.  I don’t understand the tan – then as now, my preferred summer activities were reading, writing and painting in the air-conditioning. I hated the heat, but I must have been out of doors more than I thought.

There was a party for a little girl I barely knew, at a country club totally off the screen of my club-shunning parents.  I had been made fully aware, though, that if we had been country club people — which we were not — this club was downmarket from where we would have wanted to be. The party was over, my mother was late picking me up, and I sat in the too-decorous front room overlooking the golf course, waiting for her.

I had a long wait.  My mother’s habitual lateness was inexplicable, incalculable on any particular occasion, and I may have given the appearance of settling in for the afternoon.  A woman in a pale blue dress with pearls and hose and high, high heels clicked out of an almost hidden door to look at me, again and again and again. She pressed her hands together as if doing isometrics to lift her breasts. I suppose that she was the manager’s secretary, psyching herself up to deal with a troublesome eventuality – me.

Finally resolved to do what she must, she strode towards me, chin lowered, hands fisted, wearing a sickly smile.

“You look like a sweet little girl,” she said to me.  “But I need to know – are you a white girl?”

The sound I had been waiting for, my mother’s wheels crushing the gravel of the driveway, delivered me from any necessity to reply. Too bad the lady couldn’t get a good look at Mother, I remember thinking — Mother, who was tall, blue-eyed, almost blonde, and beautiful enough that she commanded deference.  I knew what would have happened to me, had I lacked the right answer in this country club where people like me  — my people — never even wanted to belong: I would have been directed to wait outside, almost certainly at the back entrance, in the 100-degree heat that covered the city like a tight lid.  I would not have had the same right to tolerable shelter that a white girl had, and no blue-eyed avenger would have come early or late for me.

As may be imagined, over the years I have considered this occasion differently.  How complicit with the club lady was I?  Would I — who was plenty mouthy — have found my tongue, if my mother had come later still?  As I write this, I understand yet one more thing that was hidden from me then. The way the club lady fidgeted and flexed and left her office to look at me many times – until now, I have recalled that as guilty behavior: the lady had something ugly to say to me, and she didn’t want to do it.  It is far more likely, however, that she was showing herself to me so that I’d be gone at the very sight of her, as a black child would have been cued to be gone.  Important to her, too, would have been that club members coming and going would have seen not just me – a non-member to say the very least – but the brass, vigilant and battle-ready to shoo me.  The lady was intimidating me; white beneath my tan, I had no reason to know it.

Half a Decade after Rosa Parks

Integration wasn’t a cookie-cutter that re-contoured the nation all at once, as anyone who was present and paying attention in the late civil rights era knows.  So it was that, about five years after Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat, the odd bus-driver could still have it his way.  Legally?  No indeed — but there were bus-sized time warps, tiny fiefdoms, where that didn’t make a bit of difference.  And once more, my tan was taking me places.

Every Saturday for years, I went to an art class that lasted for three hours at a museum about a mile away from home.  It was heaven.  Believing that the bus was not an entirely salubrious environment, my mother normally drove me, and it was on one of the very few days that she did not that I was ordered by the bus driver to unseat myself, and get to the back of the bus.

It was crushing.  I hadn’t been asked if I were a white girl first, just ordered to the back of the bus.  I didn’t know the law, only that I was the daughter of a lawyer, and you did not treat me that way.  More than at any other time in my life, before or since, I knew the pain and rage of being othered – and it wasn’t even for real.  Nevertheless, as a demonstration of beastly unfairness – including the kind I bought into without thinking – it was colossally instructive.  You did not treat me that way, you did not treat anyone that way.

Furious, furious child of educated, cultured people, I glared at the driver.  I did not then, nor would I for a few more years, know of Rosa Parks – what had she to do with me?  Because I could, I hurried off the bus.  It had not been taking me anyplace I had to go, only somewhere I wanted to go.  Had there been a black person on board, that person would have known to remind the driver about the law.  In those dangerous days, however, when the law was not widely perceived as the guarantor of the rights of black people to inhabit the same space as whites, a black person might or might not have spoken up.  Certainly the smattering of whites riding that mile with me let the opportunity pass. 

I think if any among them had been 100% certain I belonged with them, somebody would have vouched for me.  She’s white, Mister, that somebody would have said to the driver, leave her be.  And I would have ridden on to my art class – outraged for sure, but the teachable moment just might have passed. 

How many more years would it take before bullying a black child on a bus in a white neighborhood ceased to happen in my Southern city?  I don’t know for a certainty if that many years have yet passed.  Even when the law is highly specific about treatment that is not legal, it is less specific about treatment that is not right. And, in creating room for wrongs that are no longer illegal, the Roberts Court, under the smug guise of even-handedness, has just opened the gate to violations – violations mainly of the rights of children – that only moral repugnance can now prevent.  However, less than 150 years after my great-grandmother, little Eleanor W., came into her sixth personal child slave, I am one of those who stand unconvinced that moral repugnance is, or has ever been, enough.

Mid-Century Whispers

White Southerners of my generation – Justice Roberts’s generation – who grew up talking about civil rights at home are numerous, but I am not one of them.  My parents were Democrats, not activists, they had no black friends, and the hugely divisive issues of the day were not table talk in our house.  I will never know, in their own words, what they thought about the end of segregation in the public schools.  Was it a good thing?  If so, then for whom — for every member of society?  I have to face that the straight answer from them might have been No.  But the imagined answer I can tease out in the form of inference from the very things I did not hear them say, from the very things I was forbidden by them to say.

Many whites my age remember truculent whispers behind closed doors – their parents, talking over the end of the world if the schools were integrated.  And after the schools fell – then what?  Whisper, whisper, whisper.  I never heard any of that at home.  If I had wanted to talk that way about black people being a threat, or needing to be kept down, or if I had wanted to use the N-word, that would have earned me a serious rebuke. My father, who would die before the civil rights movement bore fruit in our city, was adamant that no such words find a safe harbor in his home. 

More than I wanted anything, I wanted to please my father, so the casually hateful utterances about black people that my peers paid no penalty for went unsaid by me – and to an astounding degree given the regnant culture – unthought by me.  I did this for love of my father, not for the abstraction of social justice, and came later to understand that he had done as he did for love of me.  As a young adult, I asked my mother how it was that he had been so far ahead of the pack in this one area, this refusal of racism, when our entire culture encouraged it.  Mother looked a little strange and quieted down. He did not refuse racism, she finally told me, he refused to pass it on.

Orwell wrote of needful things that are lost in a generation’s time – they fall out of use and are gone for good.  My father would have known the exact several lines, and may have believed that one generation was also enough time for the permanent banishing of hideous habits of mind – although that would have been naive.  While he was ashamed of his racism, Mother told me, and knew it was wrong, he could change only his mind, not his heart.  So, like nearly everyone, my father had to struggle to be good in ways that went against the grain.  And like some people, he was in a key area of life – the commitment not to model prejudice for the rising generation – successful in his struggle. 

The Fountains

In a department store, I used to see something I never saw at school — two drinking fountains about six feet apart, one for whites and one for “coloreds.” The signs letting you know which one to queue up at were just overhead, the letters large enough to be read from the far end of the floor.  My school didn’t need two fountains, for there were no black children there, and no black teachers.

But what if a black child had wanted to drink at the fountain in my school? Not the water fountain but the real fountain – the well-supplied classrooms, the skilled patient teachers, and the general atmosphere of application and order in which a child thirsty for knowledge will flourish.  Yes, what if black children needed some of that? 

Living in an all-white world, I reached an embarrassing age before I wondered about these things.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Black children lived and went to school in a neighborhood far across town, and I was perfectly untroubled by the notion that they might be given a different school experience than I, if only because the notion did not yet exist.  True, I had been hit over the head by some Black Like Me moments during precisely the years that John Howard Griffin was writing his historic book, but it was a long road from a few astonishing pseudo-racial incidents to the realization that just across town from me, black children were having bad days in bad schools for lack of the very resources that made my own school days fairly pleasant and supremely fruitful.

And another thing I didn’t know then, and would not know for many years, was that some of those black kids in bad schools were my cousins.

The View from Behind the Courthouse

My brother, like our father a lawyer in the large Southern city which shall be nameless, occasionally takes a brownbag lunch to an area behind the courthouse.  There are benches, a view of a fork in the river, and it’s very pleasant because the eye can travel far.  He’s not the only one who likes it there. One day he got talking with a man at the other end of the bench from him.  My brother is gregarious, and easily clicks with people.  At the end of the lunch hour, he and the other guy, a black man who did business downtown, traded cards. On the card of his new friend, my brother saw our mother’s maiden name, a very unusual one.

“Let me guess,” my brother, who knew what he was getting into, said to the man.  “You must be the great-grandson of Byron S.”

“How did you know?”

“Because I am too.”

They shook hands, they made plans – my brother figures they were both kind of psyched, although it was of course very awkward.  It was also high time, my brother was thinking, as possibly was his newly discovered cousin.  So, these being enlightened times, it was all going to be all right.

That was more than ten years ago, and the two have not met again.

Byron S.

Our maternal great-grandfather, Byron S., was a banker and a two-family man.  The husband of Eleanor W.,  he had with her four children who lived past childhood, my grandmother of the white pony among them.  With another woman, a black woman who lived across town, he had many more.  This does not make him an unusual sort of Southern white man, but I didn’t know that when I first found out about it.  About it. 

This story — which is how I came to have a large black family whom I’ve never met, just as they have me — is the subject of a fiction I’m writing, so I will not write about it here.  I don’t want to meet these black descendants of Byron S. as a writer going after material. And how could I be other?  No, I want to write the thing and meet them afterwards.  And tell them truthfully, I made it all up – almost.

I do not know what they might want with me.  But they already know my first name, Elatia – it comes from very far back in my mother’s family, and there have been black Elatias too.  I mustn’t assume their curiosity about the white descendants of Byron S. is urgent.  But at the time there was a pitched battle to integrate the public schools, it probably occurred to them that the white descendants of Byron S. were holding on pretty hard to their better deal, and that only the law could or did take it from them.

MLK & Me

Much of the rhetoric of the civil rights era tends to be heard an ugly and inaccurate way. As if whites were feasting, and blacks wanted only that they should divide up their food into decent portions for everyone. The last sentence in the paragraph above reflects this thinking, although I wrote it with a subtext – whenever there are two opposed sides tussling for anything, somebody comes off with less of that thing. Hence the total absurdity of Solomon offering to cut the baby in half – not only will there be no baby, there will be a lesser half.  Over and over and over again, we need to be shown not to divide up that baby.  To see that society can only go forward as one, and that anything else is carnage.

The failure of many white people I have over the decades observed to understand  “I Have a Dream” is still striking, even as we approach the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  Some people think it’s all about blacks rising up to claim their place at the table, elbowing whom they must.  Others regard the notion of brotherhood as no more than something achieved when whites hand over what is, after all, theirs to hand over – the bounteous gift of equality before the law.  “I Have a Dream” does not concern itself only with benefits to black people, however, nor does it detail sacrifices from whites.

Reading it, one sees that it is a moral vision of an entirely different order.  The words are both too familiar and too little understood, and the point is in any case a cumulative one that quoting a line here and there will not support. “I Have a Dream” does indeed speak of freedom for black people – freedom to do what had not been done before.  Less emphatically though no less clearly, it speaks of freedom for white people – freedom from the corrosive burden of racial hatred.   People who know what that burden is, and yet do not bear it anymore, will appreciate what Martin Luther King had to offer whites. People who do not know what that burden is have already appreciated the offer — they are living in the Promised Land.

I cannot believe that the Roberts Court has laid aside the struggle for equal opportunity at the public school level because it believes the struggle has been a success, such a brilliant success that it is like Nietzsche’s good thing that ends by overcoming itself.  Nor can I believe that they understand the Promised Land as such a selective place – like a top, top school that only the most individually responsible kids can or should enter.  What I suspect is that they believe no worse result for society will attach to dismantling school integration than to enforcing it, and that if they’re right about that, tax money and effort will have been saved. If they’re wrong about it — well, they must be comfortable with the risk.  And they say they are not social engineers.