I was eleven years old before I understood that the N word was offensive. I’ve told this before to friends, and some have denied that this is even possible, but it was the 1970s in a small town in Mississippi. I had been punished for saying words like gosh and darn and even fudge in the wrong context. No one thought to punish me for saying n**ger. They were saying it too back then. I never heard my family use the word in ways they considered derisive. I never heard them say it to or about a particular person. I heard things like, “We don’t have money for a new one, so we just have to n**ger-rig the one we have and make do.”
I think that’s the phrase I used in the 6th grade when I wasn’t punished by a teacher, but worse I was shamed by friends whose parents had come to Mississippi from other places and who believed my use of this word made me bad. It was my first real encounter with the concept that it was considered to be derogatory. Maybe I’d been told by someone before that it was hateful, but I hadn’t understood that. This was my first time to speak to people who actually found it objectionable.
I have a friend and colleague who has been known to say, “Stupid doesn’t know it’s stupid.” So often racism just doesn’t know it’s racist. That doesn’t excuse it. It doesn’t diminish the cruelty of it, nor does it assume racism is always an act of ignorance. It’s merely a comment on how complicated racial divisions are in places like Mississippi.
I was in one of the first groups of public school children in Mississippi to go all the way through school in integrated classrooms. This is another detail I’ve sometimes had trouble getting friends from other states to believe. Brown vs. Board of Education was handed down in 1954, but the federal courts did not force Mississippi to comply until 1970. I went to 1st grade at Brookhaven Elementary in 1973.
I have no memories of any violence, tension, or conflict related to integration from school itself. I remember reading Flat Stanley and trying to understand what New Math meant at school. We were children, and we didn’t know we were supposed to be suspicious of each other, so we weren’t.
I say that, and I mean it, but at the same time I recognize the naivete of it. What if I had been a black child at the same school at the same time? What if I had been a Latino child or a Native American child? Would I still be able to say we didn’t experience overt racial tensions at school?
We were integrated. I know I went to school with black children. I was never in classes that were all white, but at the same time I don’t remember particularly being friends with any black children. I don’t remember avoiding them. I also don’t remember facing any conflicts over whether to invite them to my birthday parties.
Mississippi had other ways. White kids and black kids, peaceably as it may have been accomplished, separated somehow inside the integrated classes. We were also separated by the schools into ability rankings. I know I was in the top group because my mother made sure to tell me when I wasted my abilities by not always performing as well as I could have.
Ability tracks in schools might serve well-intentioned purposes, but they also serve to separate the children from disadvantaged households, the poor children, the children with less educated parents. In Mississippi in the 1970s the lines between educated households and uneducated households had been forcibly drawn along racial lines for generations. There was no black middle class to speak of. Not in a small town like mine. So while I can say that I went all the way through school in newly integrated schools in Mississippi, I don’t know what that really means. All I know is that I don’t remember witnessing racial conflicts at school.
I do remember racial conflicts in the town itself. I remember that going to the public pool became problematic after black children started going there. I remember that older kids, who were in grades that were supposed to go to school in the black side of town were sent to private school for those grades and then back to public school when they reached a grade where they went to school in the white side of town. I remember that there were sides of town divided by race.
We had a dog, a German Shepherd mix named Rex. We lived in the middle of town, and our dog ran loose. We didn’t know about leash laws then. Rex wandered the town, and that was just accepted. But then one day he went to the movie theater and stood at the door blocking black kids from entering. Someone called my father. He got the dog and brought him home. It didn’t cause an outcry. It just happened. It’s a story that was told around town as a joke. What can be funny, we wonder now, about a town in which racial divisions are so obvious the dog thinks it’s his job to enforce them? People didn’t ask that then. They told the story and laughed. Sometimes they speculated that the dog may have had a bad experience with a particular black person he was trying to keep out of the movie theater, but ultimately they just told the story and laughed.
It was only a joke. We gloss over so much with humor.
Later, I did encounter children with distinctly racist attitudes, but I didn’t meet them through school. I met them through church. One kid in particular believed that white people came from Adam and Eve and black people came from apes. Her parents taught her this. When she repeated it to me and my brother, we did what any self-respecting public school kids would have done. We mocked her shamelessly. Maybe we said the S word. The upshot of it was we were the ones who got in trouble, not for believing she was wrong, but for telling her so to her face in a way that had her running to her parents.
I was a teenager before I found out that I had a Choctaw great-great. This was fascinating information to me, much more interesting than claiming to be of Irish decent in Mississippi where everyone I knew had an Irish great-great. What I didn’t understand was why no one had talked about this before. I asked my mother. She had memories of her half-Choctaw grandparent that I did not. She said people just didn’t talk about it because people thought of Indians as dirty.
This wasn’t much deterrent to my fascination. I didn’t know any Indians then, but I did know that I considered her explanation to be a history lesson, not a current affairs lesson. I just thought she meant back during segregation before everybody got smarter about race issues.
Then one day I said to my grandmother that I was proud to be part Choctaw. She said, “The mixing of the races is an abomination of the Lord.” She had Cherokee blood, someone later told me. I don’t even know if that’s true, but I do know that she was hard core on this subject, but at the same time she was a living contradiction. She spoke up for civil rights issues in other places and other contexts. She just had such social/religious blinders on this subject that she didn’t even realize she’d called her own granddaughter an abomination.
Racism just doesn’t always know it’s racist. That’s what makes it so complicated and so damaging. That’s what makes it so hard to overcome.
I won’t say Mississippi is where it needs to be now; neither will I say it isn’t making progress. My hope is for the next generation after mine. The kids who were raised by people who don’t remember segregation. The children of white people from small towns who loved JJ Evans and Michael Jackson and never knew the kind of paranoia and fear that grows out of complete separation. Those are the people who have a chance at least of changing the world…if we give it to them.
There’s so much more I could say, so many more stories I could tell to show both good and bad memories of racial issues in Mississippi. This is where I’ll stop this time, though. I know you know what I mean. I know you too recognize something racist that doesn’t even know that’s what it is.