Across the Racial Divide

When I was growing up in South Carolina–before contemporary civil rights, before Martin Luther King, Jr., before busing, white fight, and the recent police violence against black people in many U.S. cities–I lived in a block-long, castle-like fortress that was built to house the military academy that became The Citadel. My father taught at that college, which had moved north of downtown Charleston, to a lovely site on the Ashley River. Charleston, in its amusing sense of self, used to brag that its two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, came together to form the Atlantic Ocean.

I was a kid who walked to school, to an elite, all-white-girls academy called Ashley Hall. But I walked through neighborhoods where many black people lived. An old granny sat every day in her yard, her hair in a turban, a pipe between her lips. Above, on a long porch, little black kids, too young for school, looked down solemnly at me, as I looked up solemnly at them. It would never have occurred to me, or I suspect to them, that we might speak to each other. But we saw each other every weekday, and I wondered why they didn’t have shoes, and why the old granny sat outside and smoked a pipe. I’d never seen a white woman smoke anything at all. As I say, I was very young.

My parents had come from the north, my mother from a tiny town in North Dakota and my father from Pittsburgh, where they met. Initially when we arrived, they had nothing to say about the dark-skinned people we called Negroes. I didn’t grow up with a black woman who cooked or cleaned or took me and my sister to the park. My parents knew nothing about the intensely connected ways of Southern blacks and white. But first in my walks to school, then from our Old Citadel custodian, Shorty, and later from riding the city buses, and arguing with my father as civil rights heated up, I learned quite a bit about the complicated, often disheartening, and infuriating, and sometimes simply human ways that black and white people interacted.

Let’s say I gathered a satchel of images and voices, attitudes and surmises. Only a few black people actually spoke with me–Shorty came by our apartment to fix a water faucet. He doffed his soft fedora, and with a polite, “Yes, Mrs. Fortunato, yes, ma’am,” he entered our kitchen with his tools and stopped the drip. He also took our colored Easter chicks down to his farm on Johns Island when they lost their pink or blue down and began to grow white pin feathers. “Can’t have a chicken crowing in the house,” my father informed us. Shorty touched the brim of his hat and kindly carted the growing chickens away. We considered it a favor. He probably did too.

Later when I was allowed to go home with some schoolmates from Ashley Hall, I met their “colored maids.” These were uniformed women with strict requirements for hand washing and sitting at the table to eat our snack. They bustled like my mother in our Old Citadel kitchen, and they corrected my friends when they got boisterous. Their voices had authority, and my friends obeyed.

Even later, I sat in the back seat of my girlfriend’s car while her boyfriend drove us to visit her former cook, now too ill to work. She and her family brought this woman boxes of groceries and, if I remember right, paid for her doctoring. They treated her almost like family, thought she clearly lived a different life, in a small house with a dirt yard, and her daughter’s children swarming in and out with questions and childish troubles. This was not the lovely, serene house near the Battery at the end of Charleston where my friend lived. In fact, other than the slew of kids, the old cook’s house was more like our own rather cramped dwelling, now that we had moved across the Cooper River to the small town of Mt. Pleasant.

Recently, I’ve begun to harbor a theory about race in north and south. It goes like this. In Southern towns where white families hired black men and women routinely, where these daily experiences of interacting taught them a range of shared emotions, from irritation to appreciation to obligation and resentment, it was harder to categorize the other race as the enemy, or as hateful. Daily interaction proved time and again that individual connections were rich, valued, and human. Yes, of course, there was racism. The city buses were segregated, and the same black women who worked hard in white kitchens were forced to trudge all the way to the back of the bus, passing me with an empty seat beside me, ashamed and baffled at a system that could extract such indignity from decent, hard-working women.

White people in many Northern cities, like Ferguson, and more recently Baltimore, and including Minneapolis/St. Paul, have systematically moved out of contact with black people. The phenomenon is called “white flight” and it accounts for the acres of white suburbs, while the core cities have become increasingly black. The race divide that did not exist in the Charleston of my childhood has fostered several generations of white people, including many police, who have not grown up knowing black people in a regular, everyday way. The teachers in schools are mostly white, and though they teach black students, they do not understand how their students’ extended families work, how clan systems and churches take care of what in white culture is managed within a tighter family circle. I venture to guess they can’t “read” black behavior, nor fully understand what black students say.

What they do know is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear engendered by racism, hardened by their black students’ poverty. It is very hard to be comfortable when you’re teaching students who are intractably poor. You can’t grasp some of the essentials of their lives–the fast moves, the shifts from a parent to a grandparent, the ways black boys and then men make up for their degraded status via violence. Because along with “white flight” have gone jobs. Companies have moved from the center of cities to the peripheries.
It is harder and harder for black people caught in poverty to make their way out.

A very clear example is what happened in Minneapolis. About twenty years ago, I began hearing that when the steel towns in the east went bankrupt, leaving black men without the good jobs that had made it possible for them to support families, single black women moved with their children from Gary, Indiana, to Minneapolis, because there were generous public services here. That may have been true, but the communities they created, in North Minneapolis, for instance, have not been able to support their children and grandchildren. There is growing poverty and anger. Growing distance. It makes me sad and troubled. It makes me wish we could reclaim some of what was generous and interactive about southern life when I was growing up, what is now, an increasingly long time ago.

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