A Reflection on Racism – 50 years later, C. Dianne Phillips
Reflecting on the news of the week and on the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream” speech…I share the following memories…
Fifty years ago, the summer of 1963, I was a little girl. I didn’t get to watch tv often because we didn’t own a TV, but I did listen to the radio in the evenings after going to bed. My mother would play the radio in the living room as she read books. The sound of the radio was very soothing and I enjoyed listening to the shows as I laid in my bed looking at the night sky outside of my window. We didn’t have central heat or air and our windows were open to allow air to flow through the house. My bedroom window faced east and I was in clear view of the ecliptic and the nightly motion of stars across the sky. I laid there many nights dreaming of the future…dreaming of being the first woman to walk on the moon…..unaware of the divisions that existed between people in the world.
Ellie Mae: Our family had a Negro caregiver/babysitter (mammy, my mother called her) and she came to our home and cared for us when we came home from school and when our parents were gone or at work. Her name was Ellie Mae, and I remember thinking she was so interesting. She looked different, talked different and her daughters had interesting, intricate braids in their hair. I remember that I really wanted my hair braided the same way, because I found the texture of the folds in the hair to be pleasing to the touch and very cool looking. The VO5 oil they used also had a very pleasing scent. The entire experience was so sensual to me.
Innocence: Ellie Mae would occasionally take us with her to her family home, where they sat in the kitchen talking, cooking, braiding, caring for babies….it felt so warm, secure, joyful and safe. I remember her mother, sister and all the children. They would always touch my hair and face and say how pretty I was. I remember feeling special because they talked about how beautiful my white skin was and my silky hair, “Like a baby doll.” One day, I remember them admiring my little sister’s bare behind. She was notorious for pulling all of her clothes off and running around naked. I loved how they laughed at her “Lilly white” behind. haha.. They were all very nice, laughed a lot…sometimes they gave me buttermilk and cornbread…my favorite treat. I just loved Ellie Mae’s family. I was not allowed to tell that we went there though. It was “our secret.” My younger sister was not really old enough to talk in a way that would reveal our leaving the house during the day…so I was the grown up kid…the keeper of the secret.
Braids: On one occasion, Ellie took us with her to her mother’s home and a woman, who was there with us, offered to braid my hair. I think that my expressions of curiosity and wonder about the process and admiration of the product made her feel she should share this unique gift with me. I had watched them braid each others hair a number of times and thought I could perhaps do it too at some point. I remember trying to braid my little sister’s hair, but her hair was so fine…and she didn’t have enough of it…so every attempt to braid simply fell out of plait immediately. ha.ha. As I recall, she looked a little bit like tweety bird…only with more hair.
Introduction to the “N” Word: Later that day, my mother came home from work. She and my father were both school teachers, who worked in the summers to make extra money…as teachers were grossly underpaid, much worse than today. I was sitting at the kitchen table, while Ellie was cooking dinner, when my mom came in the kitchen. I proudly showed her my fantastic new hair style. She seemed very upset and exclaimed that she was not happy about my braided hair. Somehow, Ellie Mae and I were both in trouble. I remember that I felt very sad and cried as my mother had Ellie Mae remove my braids. I felt very anxious as I couldn’t help but feel confused as to why “WE” were in so much trouble for simply making my hair look so cool. I honestly had no idea why it was a bad thing. Later on I heard my mom telling my dad that she didn’t want her children looking like,”niggers.” I remember thinking, “what on earth is a “nigger” and what did those beautiful braids have to do with being one?”
The next day, we went to my grandmother and grandfather’s farm in Arkansas. It was a very long drive and I remember getting to lay in the back window of the car and look at the stars as my father drove in the night. My parents left us there for the rest of the summer. When I returned to go back to school, Ellie Mae was gone. I remember asking about her and my mother just said, “we had to find someone else .” I remember sitting in my window and looking out and wondering about the kitchen at Ellie Mae’s mom’s house. I remembered the smell of bread and VO5. Gosh I missed her hugs. The new lady was mean too. We all hated her. I feel bad that I can’t recall her name now, but she was mean and spanked us all for the slightest infraction.
In August of 1963, we were all under the age of 10, so we were not as aware of Martin Luther King’s speech, as teens would have been. I do not have a significant memory of that date or event. The events that I do remember are when Alan Shepard (1961) and John Glenn (1962) both rocketed into orbit. I remember that my mother was pregnant with my little brother at the time John Glenn was in orbit and she swore he was circling inside of her with John Glenn above. I also have a vivid memory of the assassination of President Kennedy (Nov. 1963) and the discussion of how his brains flew all over his wife’s beautiful dress…a child could easily hear everything the adults were talking about after we went to bed. The images in my mind were probably far worse than the actual event. I remember our visit to my grandparent’s home to watch the funeral on television. It was such a sad event and everyone cried, including my mother. “His poor children….that Johnson murdered him so he could be president…no..it was the communists…no it was the mob…no, it was them damned hippies.” All I knew was that someone had blown his head off and I could not get that scene out of my mind. I was horrified by the imagery.
The death of president Kennedy made me so sad. He was so handsome. He was Irish and Catholic and to me he was just the dreamiest. I had his picture pinned up in my room. My grandmother had clipped it from a magazine and given it to me. It was in color and I loved to look at it. Later on, I also had a full sized poster of Bobby Kennedy too. Our current president, Barack Obama, reminds me very much of Bobby Kennedy in his speeches rooted in social justice. The Kennedy’s were all my heroes. They were Irish Catholics just like us.
TV and Selma: A few years later, our family had a television. At that time, I did get to see Martin Luther King…I watched the news every night and saw the horrors of war in “Viet Nam,” …the continuing body counts of Viet Cong, vs. US and allied troops, my mother eventually stopped watching the news because she couldn’t stand the news of so much death. I watched the “Beatles” on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and soon found out the definition of a hippie…..then, I saw the black people being beaten by police (Selma, 1965) and heard the comments of the adults also watching in the room. It was then, that I became aware of who that “n” word was referring to. Those poor people, like Ellie Mae, were causing all kinds of trouble because they wanted to be equal to white people and be allowed to vote. I remember distinctly wondering why they weren’t equal? It seemed like a true mystery to me. My feelings of confusion, sadness, fear, anxiety over the entire experience kept me awake that night. Why were policemen…we were supposed to trust them…beating up on those poor people who were not doing anything to hurt others? I remember feeling insecure because I was not sure I should trust policemen anymore.
Enlightenment: In my mind, there was a clear incongruity. My inner feelings of love, comfort, joy and curiosity, were now replaced with confusion, fear, anxiety…guilt…why did I feel guilty…like I was doing something wrong by actually liking the “black” people? I had made a startling discovery. My parents were racists. My entire family was racist. We were all supposed to want black people to be less than us. We were better than them……”THAT’s not right?!!” Inside, I knew this was not right. I remember that my mother actually felt that she was progressive in her own feelings about black people because she hired them and interacted with them. She did good for them by giving them money to do things. She was gracious from a position of power.
I remember hearing my uncle ask my dad, “John, are you raising a bunch of “nigger” lovers, when I expressed horror at the beating of the people on the television. I distinctly remember feeling insulted and shamed. I left the room and talked to Jesus and my grandpa in my room. It just seemed so confusing to me. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong..” I remember singing this with Ellie Mae…did Jesus love them too?
Social Justice and Civil Rights: As I became a young teen, I watched the news every night. I watched the Viet Nam war. I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I watched Richard Nixon resign. I came of age in a world where the black man, the woman, all minorities slowly struggled to gain equal footing in a male dominated, white world. I embraced the social justice teachings of my Catholic faith and began to speak out against war, poverty, oppression of all kinds. I learned about our role in Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador….etc. I watched as John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King….all died. I watched nuns, brothers and priests fight for social justice and I embraced the teachings of Jesus Christ. I became a peace activist and even a vegetarian because I couldn’t bear the thought of eating another animal. I was seen as weak, lilly livered…a hippie..by my family. “You have a jelly backbone and the world is going to eat you alive.” my mother used to say.
Fear: I grew up fearing Russians, nuclear bombs and nuclear war, black men, aliens and pregnancy. I saw America as strong, a leader in all things, especially in matters of social justice. We were more progressive than other countries..had an enviable college system, freedom and the American Dream….WE were #1, admired, hated, ….looked at as the keeper of all democracy and human rights on the planet.
Hope: I watched the world change and experienced the changes through music..”I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. ….”If I had a hammer..” “Heaven help the black man, if he struggles one more day. Heaven help the white man, if he turns his back away. Heaven help the roses, when the bombs begin to fall. Heaven help us all. ” ….. It was a marvelous time, a revolution in thought, music, personal freedom and expressing of thoughts and feelings. The sky was the limit. Women and minorities could achieve upward mobility. WE did overcome….
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.
or was it an illusion…a dream…now turning into a nightmare of reversing all forward progress as a society….sigh…memories of different time in my life and in the history of this great country..
Cynicism and Disillusionment: .. .too bad the current political will of the day is reversing all of the good work done by so many in the name of civil rights and human dignity. Racism, hate, bigotry….evil laid in wait for the right time to emerge once again. I pray it is not too late to reverse the trend.
I wonder what the world will be like in another 50 years. I hope I will be able to live to see true equality, true peace, true respect for the dignity of all human persons.
C. Dianne Phillips, Sciencegranny