On this matter of racism and our current condition, there has been plenty of commentary. As a writer, I’m opting to tell a story instead … a true story.
I was born and raised in Woodland, California during the 1960s and 70s. It wasn’t Waterproof, Louisiana, but the town certainly had its issues with racism. In Woodland, most of the racism was directed towards Mexicans because they were the predominant minority. There weren’t that many black people. I think I can count all the black kids in my age group on one hand. However, for those few souls, there was plenty of hatred to go around.
There was one instance that remains clearly burned into my brain. It happened when I was in the third grade at Dingle Elementary School. That would make it 1968 or ‘69. There were two brothers, Eddie and Ernest Monroe, that showed up at school that year. I don’t know where they came from, but they were definitely from out of the area. As I recall, they both spoke with southern black drawls. They also wore suits and ties to school. All that, combined with their very dark skin, made them the targets of the white boys of Dingle.
I don’t recall to what degree I took part in the harassment of the Monroe brothers. I’d like to think I was innocent, but I honestly don’t remember. There was sort of a blue collar/farm boy thug element that led the charge, but I can’t say I didn’t tacitly stand by and do nothing. I’m sure I at least did that.
There was one incident I especially remember. Ernest Monroe, the younger of the two, who was in my same class, was gregarious kid. He wanted to be funny. He wanted to be liked. Perhaps a coping mechanism, I don’t know.
Anyway, unlike his older brother who was rather quiet and introverted, Ernest was always trying to join in. This would often result in him being called names (the N word was routinely used) and being told to get lost.
One day, towards the end of the lunch recess, I was walking off the playing field across the black top on my way back to line up for class, when I saw a group of boys standing in a circle, yelling loudly. As I walked up to the circle, I could see that they were yelling at Ernest, who was standing in the middle in tears. Everything you could think of was being shouted. (Some of those eight- and nine-year-old boys had very foul mouths.) I remember one kid, our class bully, a fat sallow-skinned boy named Tim, himself the son of fresh-off-the-boat Irish immigrants, rushing forward and spitting on Ernest. There were probably punches thrown as well. That, I don’t remember. I just remember Ernest standing in that circle of white boys, crying his eyes out.
I’m sixty now and I can still remember that image of Ernest very clearly.
When lunch was over and we filed back into the classroom. Our teacher Mrs. McCain sat in the middle of the room clutching Ernest and glaring at all of us as we took our seats. Some of the boys were still mumbling racial slurs under their breath.
I don’t recall what happened after that. I don’t remember what Mrs. McCain did … a lecture perhaps … or just a long period of silent reading. I imagine she was quite disgusted. Perhaps she had no words.
I am fairly certain it was that same afternoon, when I returned home from school, that my mother heard a racial slur come out of my mouth.
Never before had I felt the sting of my mother’s fingernails dig into my skin so deeply.
My mother sat me down at the bottom of the staircase and told me to listen … to just listen. She then proceeded to tell me the whole history of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings in the south. But then she went on. She told me how black people moved north, to places like Ohio where she was from, to escape. But … and these were her exact words, “the people around them hated them.”
I don’t know what all else she said. I don’t have it memorized. But I do know that my mother’s words that day were a watershed for me. I saw it all differently after that.
I don’t know what happened to the Monroe brothers. I don’t remember them coming back to school the next year. I still have this mental picture of Mrs. Monroe dressing her sons in their suits and ties in the morning, telling them to be good children and mind their teacher, perhaps thinking to herself … This is California. Things will be better here … not knowing what sort of hell she was sending them into.