Brad Smith (jesus_h_biscuit) wrote,
Brad Smith
jesus_h_biscuit

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On This Day, For Mama, Miss Ethel, & Dr. King

Him: (disgustedly) Your Mama doesn't care if you kiss niggers?
Me: (confused but feeling very uneasy about this new word) Kiss a what?
Him: That nigger woman in your house!
Me: I don't know what you mean, you mean Mama's friend Miss Ethel?
Him: Our nigger maid isn't allowed to sit down and watch the TV at my house.
Me: (incensed that he called her a "maid", this other strange and new word, and climbing down the treehouse ladder) You shut up, I'm gonna tell my mama what you just said!


I was raised by a Liberal mother who spent a great deal of time speaking out against injustice and getting involved in helping others wherever she could. It is her influence alone on me that motivates me, it is my upbringing in a home so politically and religiously diverse that gives me the ability to separate my own personal feelings from issues of fairness. My mama would get very worked up about socioeconomics (particularly as they relate to race and racism) and tried hard to plant that seed in me, and she was more than successful.

I truly 'get it'. I get the fact that until you live it or at the very least live in it, you don't get it. I understand that the biggest problem facing underpriviledged people is not a lack of education or a lack of advantage, but rather a lack of compassion from the rest of us. Where there is no compassion, there breeds apathy and resentment. Believe it or not, the majority of the people who bitch and complain the most about the poor, the homeless, or the generally disenfranchised have all come from backgrounds where there was at least a base level awareness that there was such a thing as hope, and that it could take you places if you had enough of it. I'm speaking of people who feel they have no hope if they cannot afford the vacation or car they want, there is no hope for them if they cannot look a certain way or get enough attention from all the right people. No hope unless they can one day be Paris Hilton, as weak an aspiration as that is. Imagine for a moment that you had no hope for living, and not because you're depressed with a decent roof over your head, even if it isn't your own. Imagine you have nothing AND you've eaten nothing in several days, and yet everywhere around you people who have the most basic necessities of life are not only taking it all for granted but also completely ignoring you like you don't exist. Imagine the desperation of the people that survived Katrina, and imagine feeling that desperate on some level EVERY DAY OF YOUR LIFE. Now imagine that you are a different race and DON'T have the educational tools or work experience you may currently have, and not only is there no hope of acquiring these sorts of things but no knowledge whatsoever of how one even goes about it - not even THAT much. Because no matter what got you where you are, society at large thinks you're scum - they have no compassion and do not care about you or your desperation. You are not THEIR problem.

When I was a child, my Mama owned and operated a cosmetology school in the poorer part of town, right outside the projects. I grew up witnessing how compassion and the gift of hope could make a change in a person's life. The majority of Mama's students were black folks from the projects across the schoolyard behind the beauty school. In lieu of tuition for those who wanted to learn the trade but couldn't afford to, they worked in the school and oftentimes later worked in her salon, as long as they worked hard. But they were much more than just students and employees, they were our extended family as well. We gave them love. We gave them hope. They came to our house for dinner and just to hang out, play cards, watch TV and such. We visited them in their houses and apartments and did the same.

I understand now what my Mama was trying so hard to instill in me in one single instance during a visit to one of our extended family members, Miss Ethel Snipes. I know several of you might find this hard to believe, but for me as a child it was nothing for us to go to see these extended family members in the projects. Granted, this was the 70's and they were considerably safer places for middle class white bread like us to be in, but still. I didn't think about it because to me it was just all very normal. Walking in I smelled the pungent aroma of collard greens, a pot of tender pinto beans, and cornbread in a cast iron skillet. I heard Mama giggling and smiling and holding Miss Ethel in a see-saw-rocking-back-and-forth hug and remember her whispering to Mama "Now Miss June, I couldn't get me no chicken, I'm sorry about that" and Mama telling her dismissively "So what, sugar - that just leaves more room for greens! Say you're sorry to me ONE MORE TIME, and we're gonna fight!" I gave Miss Ethel a big hug and a kiss on her cheek myself and sat in the kitchen with them while they gabbed about the beauty school (she wasn't a student, she came in to get her hair done by the students on Saturdays for church on Sunday. She was in her 60's and was a retired mill worker who cleaned houses for supplemental income) and plated up dinner for us, which I remember as some of the most kick ass soul food EVER - and Mama made over it like it was a banquet the likes of which had never been seen before, even though it was just beans, greens, and cornbread. We brought the tomatoes, Vidalia onions, and hot sauce. It was only Springtime, but the tiny apartment was sweltering and had no AC, but there were fans running in the windows and it felt really good standing by them. Mama even ceased my complaint about the heat by exclaiming about how my Daddy kept the house too cold and that this felt better. She told me later in the car about how some people had no AC and couldn't afford it as it was expensive, and to be glad I had an AC or she'd turn it off and never turn it on again until I did. It was a fabulous meal and to this day I love that kind of stuff. Before we left, Mama slipped me a $10.00 bill I was to secretly hide in the sofa cushions, and she'd explain why later. This was all very normal to me.

She explained racism to me. She explained Dr. King and Medgar Evers, segregation and "whites only", and made it personal by asking me what it would feel like if half of my friends were not allowed to be in my class because of the color of their skin. I tried hard, but I just didn't get it. I didn't get it until the day I came home from school at age 8 with a friend from down the street. Miss Ethel was over watching soap operas with Mama and helping with laundry (5 kids and a husband, you do the math). I greeted them both with hugs and kisses, got a popsicle for my friend and I, and headed off to the tree house in the backyard with him. Even now I get chills by the exchange that followed.
Him: (disgustedly) Your Mama doesn't care if you kiss niggers?
Me: (confused but feeling very uneasy about this new word) Kiss a what?
Him: That nigger woman in your house!
Me: I don't know what you mean, you mean Mama's friend Miss Ethel?
Him: Our nigger maid isn't allowed to sit down and watch the TV at my house.
Me: (incensed that he called her a "maid", this other strange and new word, and climbing down the treehouse ladder) You shut up, I'm gonna tell my mama what you just said!
He followed me down and ran home, clearly scared of getting in trouble and clueless that what he said was somehow offensive. By the time I made it back into our den I was in tears and both Mama and Miss Ethel were eager to find out what happened and console me. Then it happened.
Me: (wailing) "____ said that Miss Ethel was a nigger and called her a maid!"
I'd never seen the face that either of them made back at me and it scared me and hurt my feelings. The remainder of the afternoon was spent with each of us in tears periodically, sharing stories and explaining such things as racism and intolerance and how evil it all was. It was completely alien to me, but I was beginning to understand. To this day I cannot hear the "N" word without my skin crawling. I remembered all of this again when Miss Ethel died when Mama, so grief stricken she could barely get out of bed for two days, recounted this all to me to make sure I remembered and understood.

I cannot be anything other than what I am, and I will never apologize for it - EVER.

On an unrelated note, it is probably time to get something straight for the readers of this blog. In the past several months or so I've received several emails from people who read here and truly get something out of what I write, it somehow resonates with them. If that is the case, then I'm glad that my public posts have found heart in others. I post a lot of news and political subject matter, some snark and some humor. Some things personal, some totally frivilous. What I deem too personal, which is a good 45% of what I post generally, is posted privately as I write it for myself and no one else - and no one else reads those things, nor will they. That's the great thing about LJ's security feature, you can decide yourself how you want posts to be viewed - or whether to make them public at all. So the things that are public are meant to be posted for your consumption, whether to hopefully inspire, incite, amuse, or even go unnoticed. Comment as much as you like, link or repost. Like I've said before, I never really know who reads it or what they get out of it, but I'm grateful to all that take the time.

I made a post on MLK day last year about rasicm and one not long ago about Ruby Bridges, so I thought I'd stay in that same tradition. I felt this post would only be appropriate on a day like today were it ended with a quote from a man whose work I admire greatly in spite of any alleged fallibility that might have marred his reputation in life, the legacy for good that remains is far more substantial and imminently more sustaining. So I thank you, Dr. King, for not only being who you were born to be, but for being an inspiration to myself and many to be a voice and to use it loudly and unapologetically.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."



Current Music: Sam Cooke - A Change Is Gonna Come
Tags: racism
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