It will all go back to normal if we put our nation first…
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse
—Bruce Cockburn, The Trouble With Normal (1981)
It’s 1952 and I’m an impressionable 13 year-old suddenly in Texas. I was happy living in Uruguay, but I’ve just been sentenced by well-meaning parents to get educated at a Southern Baptist boarding school, an institution imbued with a culture that is as foreign to me as Uruguayan must be to Southern Baptist Texans.
My classmates are mostly white Texans, staunchly prejudiced against anyone less white than they. Wanting to fit in, I parody their behavior, making fun of Negro mannerisms (niggerisms) with stupid enthusiasm. I comport myself well as a racist. I don’t question myself.
A year or so later, I’m visiting my big sister in New Orleans. Late one night, I board a street car on Canal Street. A stop or two down Canal, a drunk Negro boards, shuffles half-way down the isle and slumps down in front of the placard on the seat back that reads Whites Only.
“Get back a the sign,” the driver says. Drunk doesn’t move.
“Boy, you better move,” the driver says. Surly stare from the Negro.
Driver gets off the trolley, walks over to a phone booth and calls the cops. Minutes later, a paddy wagon with four cops arrives. The cops rush aboard, jerk the Negro off the Whites Only seat, drag him off the trolley, slam him onto the pavement and beat the living shit out of him with night sticks. They truss him in a straight-jacket, throw him in the back of the paddy wagon and drag his ass off to who knows where–fling him in the Missippi river, for all I know.
It is frightening. I nearly vomit. I’ve never seen such violence done to a human being. I feel somehow violated myself, but do not register the injustice, being still a semi-racist.
Now its 1957, and I’m a Marine getting a transfer from Charlie Company, Fifth Marines, to First Force Recon Company. The other Marine transferring with me is Ted Davis, a Negro. Ted and I spend the next three years practically joined at the hip through all the training and other macho bullshit that constitutes being a badass Marine. We get out and, by coincidence, both wind up in the San Francisco Bay area. We meet a couple of times, nothing special. How do I feel about Ted? He’s a good guy. Do I think he’s less than me? No. What is it, then? I’m still stuck with some kind of vague prejudice I can’t quite describe, even now.
Sixty years later, I am no longer a half-assed racist. How did that happen? I really can’t say. Reading Pat Conroy’s first book, The River Is Wide was important. Conroy, a South Carolina boy, went through a metamorphosis as a result of his experiences as a teacher in an all Negro school. He understood, and conveyed without preaching, the corrosive futility of holding prejudice towards a race.
I was lucky. Racial prejudice is a visceral attitude, not a rational position. My prejudice was flimsy, insubstantial. It would not hold up against reason, so it just got tired and wore off. Nothing to feel self-righteous about.
I have friends who are fourth generation Southerners. Their prejudice emanates from tradition. If you love and respect your Grand Daddy, and he cites holy scripture to support the claim that Negroes are inferior to whites, well, you’ve got to deny your heritage if you aspire to change your convictions.
Where I get to depends, in part, on where I start from. Owning my truth helps.