We got you from a colored family
I grew up in the civil rights era. I am white and lived in the north, so I didn’t see the struggle first hand. In 1960, I started kindergarten in an integrated school that was probably 90 percent white. The first time I remember noticing skin color was when my 3-year-old little brother pointed out a “chocolate baby” in the grocery store. My mother’s put her hand over his mouth.
I don’t know if those terrifying images of gushing fire hoses knocking black women and children off their feet, sending them sliding down sidewalks, crashing into buildings and each other were in real time on the family’s black and white Zenith or from subsequent news footage. The same with the police sending their vicious German shepherds to snarl, bite and attack black people. Those deeds are permanently stuck in my brain as a reminder of how cruel and heartless it all was.
My only eye witness account of discrimination happened at Twin Lakes, Michigan, in 1965. My mother took me and my three siblings there often to swim and play. I’m not sure where its twin was, but we frequented one small lake with a nice sandy beach, a big slide on the shore to deliver us into the drink and a raft anchored by big barrels about 300 feet out. The beach was privately owned, and my mother paid by the head for us to get in. There was a little refreshment hut as you entered, but we could barely scrape the entrance fees. So instead, we brought our own cooler packed with cold bologna sandwiches and bottles of Orange Crush soda.
One Sunday that summer, Mom brought along her younger sister, my Aunt Kathy, and Kathy’s friend, Betty – who happened to be black. I was 10 that summer. Aunt Kathy and Betty were 16, and I thought they were very cool teenagers.
When we walked up to the entrance, the same woman who always took our money was sitting inside the hut. She slid open the little screen hatch and stuck out her chubby hand to take mom’s cash. But she quickly pulled her hand back inside and slammed the door shut. The woman said sternly, “You can’t bring her here.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. But I could tell she was angry with my mom. I remember it well, as I had never seen anybody be so rude to my mother. Mom instructed the six of us to go sit on the picnic table. Not to worry, I thought. I’d never won an argument with my mom, and I was pretty sure we’d all be splashing in the lake in no time.
A minute later, Mom walked over to us and calmly said, “Get back in the car; we’re going to Water Tower Park.” I didn’t get it at the time, but Twin Lakes was an all-white beach. No coloreds allowed.
It wasn’t the racism that made me remember this day. That came out later. But rather it was my mom’s actions. She was only 32, a widow since she was 25. She worked full-time and, as a single parent, she never really had the energy or desire to play with us. But she acted like a kid that Sunday in our neighborhood park. We played baseball, with Mom as pitcher, and we had a nice picnic. We had so much fun none of us missed the beach or even remembered the incident that got us thrown out. Nice job, Mom.
Afterwards we piled in the car to take Aunt Kathy and Betty home. But the fun wasn’t over yet. Mom took us to the A&W for root beer floats. My God, this was the best day of the summer!
Of course as I got older, I understood Mom’s motives to make it up to Betty. To show her not all white people felt like that fat lady who owned Twin Lakes Beach. I love what my mother did that day.
Later that summer, my older sister and I got into a fight. Nothing new, siblings have fought since the caveman days. But that summer I was 10 and Sue just turned 12. We recently outgrew hitting and hair pulling and elevated our exchanges to verbal, more hurtful, warfare.
“You’re ugly,” I told Suzie.
“You’re stupid,” Suzie told me.
“Your teeth are crooked,” I slammed. She was very ashamed of her teeth. And we both knew there was no money for braces. Who knows what we were fighting about? But I went straight for the jugular.
“You’re adopted,” Suzie said.
She had used that one before but it still stung. I really had to dig deep to come up with an appropriate counter attack. I had nothin’. Suzie saw her opening and went in for the kill.
“We got you from a colored family,” Suzie trumped.
And there it was. The ultimate white kid insult of the ‘60s. And she said it with such conviction, I thought it might be true. Suzie saw that it got to me and repeated the “secret of my birth” every time she was mad at me. I heard it often.
Never mind that my skin was as white as Suzie’s or that I had smooth hair and looked just like my little brother. For some reason I thought she might be right. I remember thinking my colored parents must have been too poor to raise me. How poor were they to think a widow bringing up four kids on a waitress’ salary and drawing Social Security was a step up? I remember thinking I would love to have a dad and sometimes hoped the “Coloreds” would come back for me. But of course they never did, because they didn’t exist.
My sister wasn’t then, and isn’t now, a racist. She was just a child of the times.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the March and the Dream, I am so disheartened that the Supreme Court turned the fire hoses on the Voting Rights Act earlier this summer. Just hours after Section 4 was beaten down, North Carolina and Texas went into action, wearing their “voter fraud” white robes and hoods to cover the faces of racism.
They say they want to eliminate voter fraud, but that doesn’t exist. It’s a lie. Underneath this pretense is pure evil. They want to eliminate as many African American voters as they can so a black man is never again elected president. Barack Obama is being judged NOT by the immense content of his character, but solely by the color of his biracial skin. Aren’t North Carolina and Texas’ mad scrambles to disenfranchise people of color, the elderly, students and the poor proof enough? And it won’t stop there.
The best way to honor Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Rev. George Lee and all the others is for us to demand Congress pass a new Civil Rights Voting bill. We need to mobilize – call Congress, organize community and church meetings, stage sit-ins, write letters to the editor. This isn’t a black thing. This is a human thing. We need equality for everybody. No matter their color, religion, absence of religion, gender, ethnicity or whom they love. I want to do my part. I want to do right by my pretend colored parents.