Racism on the Train

Growing up as an outsider in Charleston, South Carolina, cut two ways: into myself when I recognized how divergent I was, how odd, how embarrassing, how ultimately unrecognizable. But also outward, toward the movers and shakers, toward the society that couldn’t exactly place me except by my father’s Citadel uniform. As I grew older and ranged beyond the Old Citadel, I began to recognize ironies and tiny rebellions; catch rueful resistance from the back of the bus; spy the loneliness of a doctor’s wife in her splendid house, “South of Broad.”

Charleston was one of the oldest cities in North America, founded in 1680 by English planters who’d originally stopped in Bermuda, then moved up the Atlantic coast, bringing their slaves. But they weren’t the only settlers: French Huguenots seeking religious freedom, Jews with ancient Sephardic Spanish history; Scotch-Irish and Germans from Catholic/Protestant wars, and plain unadulterated Puritans, with their stiff uprightness going soft in the Southern heat. One of my best friends from grade school at Ashley Hall could trace her mother’s family back to early planters: she was as blond and willowy as a sea nymph. She proudly sported four names.

My awareness of the fissures and ironies in Charleston life began when I started walking to school. Accompanied by an older girl and her sister, my age, we left the Old Citadel on King Street and took perpendicular Vanderhorst (Dutch, I’m guessing), past the lovely columned Baptist Church (I think that’s right), into a broken-down neighborhood of formerly fine, three-story dwellings now inhabited by impoverished black people. Our voices hushed as I eaves-dropped on a dialect I couldn’t understand. Under a huge tree in one grassless yard sat a turbaned old black woman in a over-stuffed chair. The ground around her was littered with orange peels. From the third-floor porch of another house–picture these houses with their narrow ends to the street, so that as we approached along the cracked and up-heaving sidewalk and glanced into the side yards, the three stories of porches faced us. As I say, over the railing of a third-floor porch hung a row of small black children, some wearing torn undershirts, and some without diapers of any kind. They stared at us, and for a few moments, we stared back. Even now I catch my young amazement that they were allowed to appear in public so unclothed, so untended. But the porch was relatively safe, like a playpen high in the air, and if they peed, it would drip off onto the ground. The conclusion I soon drew from these encounters wasn’t stamped with ideas of race and social class so much as with a prickling discomfort at the difference between us walking to school and these apparently idle black people. Somehow I felt they offered a criticism of my existence; somehow because of them, I was able to be what I was. I was too young to understand racism, and my father hadn’t begun his relentless rant against giving African-Americans equal rights. But walking through these neighborhoods, and later drinking the water from the “Whites Only” fountain in Sears made the effects of racism pretty plain.

Until later, racism didn’t seem to belong to us, since we were outsiders. It was part of the Southern landscape into which we’d moved, and I was starting to intuit. That was all. Then, probably when I was in fourth or fifth grade, my mother, sister, and I took one of our frequent summer trips across country by train to North Dakota. We had spent six weeks in the quiet streets and fields around Papa Max’s large, shadowing home in Hankinson. Now we were coming home. Probably we’d accomplished the first two legs of the journey–from Wapeton to Saint Paul, then Saint Paul to Chicago. On our way into Cincinnati, an altercation developed between my mother and the black porter. They stood in the aisle, all eyes (I imagined in my embarrassment) boring into them. She with her up-flipped side hair and trim traveling suit, her blue eyes flashing; he with the uniform hat with a narrow bill and white jacket. I have no idea what started the argument, but her voice rose and sharpened from its usual quiet modulation into nagging, dismissive tones. Under its “lash,” he became ever more placating, shoulders drooping slightly, with his “Yes, Ma’am, yes Ma’am” bowing toward the floor. Her behavior deeply troubled me. She was so clearly abusing him with her voice, while his obsequious demeanor attempted to soothe and quiet her. That she took advantage of his subservient position, treated him not with dignity and kindness but with scorn and humiliation shocked me, and I intuited, though couldn’t have put words to this, that racism could coarsen those in power, even someone like my mother who hadn’t been born to the system. It was a profound and life-long lesson.

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