My mother’s people came to America from England. They sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamestown, Virginia during the first years of the Stuart Era. They wound up in eastern North Carolina.
My father was a Marine. He enlisted when he was fifteen because his father had died; someone had to support his family and he couldn’t get a job in Laredo that matched the twenty-one dollars a month plus three hots and a cot Uncle Sugar paid trigger-pullers the summer before Pearl Harbor.
He met my mother when he was stationed at Camp Lejeune just after the Korean War. Her brother, a civil servant on the base, introduced them. She was a college student in Greensboro.
They got married during Christmas break of her senior year in Micro, North Carolina where her people had lived since before anyone ever thought of the United States. I was born eleven months later in Port Arthur, Texas where my father had Jesuit duty with a reserve unit.
I grew up on Marine duty stations from an island off the coast of Maine to Oahu in the Hawaiian chain with three years in Caracas when my dad was part of the military advisory group teaching Venezuelans our way of war. And when he went to Vietnam, I lived in that small town in North Carolina where my mother’s people lived in during the War of the Rebellion.
I thought I was an American kid, but outside the gate in the land of the big PX, I was something else.
I had a pretty good drawl after fourth grade in Micro when my dad was in Vietnam with the Fourth Marines. I said “yes’um,” “y’all” and “reckon.” So, I was a Southerner to my fifth grade teacher in Kittery, Maine: uneducated, uncouth, backwards, lazy and racist.
There was one black girl at that school. Her father was a submariner on the base where I lived and she was the first “negro” any of those curious lobster-eaters had ever seen. They were constantly feeling her hair and rubbing her skin, but she wasn’t any two-headed unicorn to me, just another anchor clanker kid.
When the girl’s father complained about the harassment to the school, every class had a little meeting about tolerance and respect. I was singled out during mine. My teacher said that I had just moved from that place on television with the dogs and the cops and the fire hoses and the clubs and she was sure I was the troublemaker who’d instigated the situation.
I told her my mother’s people weren’t out marching with Martin Luther King, but they weren’t in the Ku Klux Klan either. I never heard my grandparents use any racial slurs, and my grandmother told me that black people had a hard enough lot in life without folks in hoods making it any worse.
I told her my dad lectured me many times that I wasn’t any better than anyone else. I was as good as anyone, but not better. (Of course, that was just part of the “I’m the colonel, not you. Don’t be an officer’s brat” speech, but he also covered more than the military pecking order.)
But that fifth grade teacher didn’t want to hear any of that. She said she knew how Southerners were.
After college, I was a logistics analyst and a human guinea pig for some biomedical experiments at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And I learned a good deal about how some folks felt about beaners, taco benders, greasers, spics, and pepper bellies.
I was at a luncheon for blood donors and a lady at my table expressed her frustration at immoral white trash breeding with lazy wetbacks and creating mongrels who didn’t know their place. I wasn’t wearing a sombrero, so I reckon my eastern North Carolina drawl made her comfortable opening up to me.
Some people were more polite. My wife worked in display for a department store and invited one of her co-workers and her husband to go out to dinner and a movie with us. Her co-worker declined because her husband couldn’t stand Mexicans.
Years later, after retiring from the Marine Corps, I met Ruth Stone, the poet laureate of Vermont, when she was teaching at Binghamton University in upstate New York. I was the manager of textbook sales for an independent book store and one fall afternoon she came in to discuss an order she had placed for her classes after they began. She looked like a crazy old bag lady standing at counter, but you can’t judge writers, or people in general, by their appearance.
So, I walked up to the counter, smiled and said, “Good afternoon, ma’am. How can I help you?”
“Well, boy, don’t call me ‘ma’am.” It sounds like something a racist southern cop would say.”
“Thank you very much,” I smiled. “That’s very considerate. Now what can I do for you?”
It turned out that all she wanted was to know was when one of the books she’d ordered was going to arrive and added another. Showing a racist know “how it feels” was just a reaction to my Southern accent.
I thanked her again, and she left smiling.
Six years ago, I took my two younger daughters to a black Baptist church in Greenville, South Carolina to hear Al Sharpton speak. After the television news crew took some footage of the choir singing and left, we were the only folks there who weren’t black.
During his speech, Reverend Sharpton said it was time to stop blaming white people for all of black people’s problems. He said that if he came down from the pulpit and knocked someone out of the pew that was bad on him, but if he came back two weeks later and that person was still laying on the floor, that was bad on them. He said young black people needed to take off their doo-rags, pull up their pants and study in school. He said they should reach out to people of goodwill who didn’t necessarily look the same and work together for a better world for everyone.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of folks all over the land of “all men are created equal,” including right here in upstate South Carolina, who aren‘t operating on that frequency. Just a few weeks ago some retired white guy from New York was out on the streets of the county seat, shaking his fist and carrying a sign that read, “Where are the jobs, President Negro.”