This excerpt from Rachel's book, Confessions of an American None: A Credo of Sorts, sets the stage for the exploration of the topic Humanity & the World as she explores growing up in late-century, racist Louisiana.
I used to go cane pole fishing with my grandmother on my grandparents’ lake. But I had a problem. I was deathly afraid to bait the hook. I don't know if it was the wiggliness of the worms or the actual piercing of their gelatinous bodies that bothered me most. I wanted to make my grandmother proud but couldn't bring myself to commit wormicide.
Every time... every time she would hook the worm for me and assuage my conflicted emotions. We would then sit with our lines in the water and just be together. And on a rare occasion, I would catch a little bream and how we would both delight in the marvel of it all.
She was a true Southerner who had the imprint of aristocracy with the no-nonsense ethos of a pioneer. Almost parallel to Scarlett O’Hara, her family lost its amassed wealth in the Great Depression and she was forced to recalibrate to the reality of scarcity.
Her life took a material turn upward throughout her 70-year marriage to my grandfather, who rose from being dirt-poor to a successful oil man. But this didn’t change her ethic. She was never impressed with material things, loved Jesus so much that my grandfather should have been jealous, and spent a lifetime extending care and attention to many of the poorest children in our hometown.
Another thing that never changed about my grandmother was her Louisianian drawl. We didn’t open windows. We opened windahs. We didn’t drink water. We drank whorter. My grandfather wasn’t in the oil business. He was in the awl business. No one ever had an idea. We had idears.
We didn't drink water. We drank whorter.
One time over lunch, my grandmother earnestly asked my brother, “Paaaaaawl, do you like jalapenis??” Uproarious laughter ensued.
My grandmother made me feel loved. She was a teacher and inspired me to be the same. She taught me to marvel at nature and to care for those who are hurting. I cannot imagine how bleak my life would have been without her.
Oh, there is one more thing she had in common with Scarlett O’Hara.
She was racist.
If religion was like mud in your veins in late 20th century Louisiana, racism was the coronary heart disease. I had no appreciation at the time but my generation straddled the remnants of one era and the painful birth of another.
Like many cultural waves that are slow to gain traction in the south, desegregation in public schools had a very slow start in Shreveport. By the time I began elementary school in the late ‘70s, busing had finally become normative. I was a little kid with virtually zero awareness of the horrific history of institutionalized racism and bigotry that founded our nation. And I was entirely ignorant of the grave fight that was currently underway for human equality.
At the time, all I knew was that my two best friends were Vizita and Tara. I never even thought about the fact that their skin was darker than mine—until Tara and I wanted to play together after school and it was treated like some forbidden request. Only once did I go to Tara’s house and she came to mine. The unspoken feeling was that we were breaking some sort of law by going into each other’s neighborhoods. I remember Tara’s mother being a beautiful, gracious single mom. I can only speculate that it was racist fear that prevented my parents from letting me see Tara more.
Not only were there leftover attitudes and mores from the antebellum south in my hometown, there were also tangible cues that our culture was still steeped in racism over one hundred years after the civil war.
Before my mother married my stepfather, she was an industrious single mom herself. As a reprieve to her hard-working life, she would drive my little brother and me out to visit my grandparents who had several acres south of town. In order to get there, we had to cut through hundreds of acres of cotton fields. My mother’s little butterscotch Nissan zipped along the country road as I watched the rows of southern snow whip by me at a dizzying speed. Cotton as far as the eye could see in any direction.
The physical beauty of this sight was ominously undermined by what it represented. Shanties punctured the landscape as a stark reminder of generations of labor force who used to work those fields. Even when I was a child, there were still some families living in these tiny, thin-walled cabins that looked like they would collapse with the slightest gust of wind.
Shanties punctured the landscape as a stark reminder of generations of labor force who used to work those fields.
By contrast, my grandparents’ sprawling estate included pasture land with cattle, barns, a workshop for my grandfather, and a levee with a lake and tennis court on the other side. My grandmother had a tiny “museum” where she collected bird and wasp nests, insects, and butterflies (who had met their demise naturally), snake skins, and other curiosities. The main house hearkened a plantation home with its pale yellow hue, white columns, and green shutters. A miniature version served as a playhouse for us kiddos. The black tar driveway ran parallel to rows of pecan trees, remnants from a former orchard.
When our little car approached, my grandmother would be waiting for us at the end of the driveway, smiling radiantly and waving enthusiastically.
My brother and I would amuse ourselves by seeing who could go the highest in the tire swing that hung from a giant Southern oak tree. We climbed the hay bales in the barn and hoped we’d never see a mouse or a snake. We chased each other around a fig tree that had a girth wide enough to win a prize at the state fair if there were a contest for such a thing. Granddaddy’s beehives were often buzzing with activity, a signal to stay away. So we would redirect and ride our Big Wheels down the side of the levee and then go pick wild blackberries. If we were feeling brave enough, we’d visit the family pet cemetery up on a little hill and pretend we weren’t spooked. The sound of my grandmother clanging a giant cast iron bell would momentarily freeze us in our places and then we would head back over the levee for some of her mediocre cooking.
Unless it was Eloise who had done the cooking. Eloise was a maid who worked for my grandmother for decades and we quietly admitted she was a much better cook. My grandfather employed a man named Beau who did manual labor for him for nearly the same duration of time. Eloise and Beau seemed like a part of the fabric of our family. I don’t know if they felt the same way though. That was easy for us to say because they were making our lives easier but they had to return to their own lives, which I can only imagine included much hardship.
I never had race relations conversations with my grandfather but my grandmother definitely made her views known. She was the kind of Southern woman who considered herself evolved on the issue but that wasn’t saying much because the bar was abysmally low. I’m certain she would not have thought of herself as racist. She would have denounced the KKK and similarly related hate-based behaviors.
Rather, my grandmother exhibited latent racism that came in the forms of attitudes and beliefs. She would communicate things to me that suggested that *some* black people were good people. Or that “he was nice, even though he was black.” She used the Bible to somehow corroborate her belief that black and white people are not meant to live next to one another, much less marry one another. And I remember picking up on the idea that if we (white people) did something nice for them (black people), it was a huge act of generosity on our part and they should be really grateful.
My southern childhood was replete with racist children’s songs, jokes and antics. It was as if it was the “OK- not-OK” thing to joke about. I had dolls and books that were caricatures of African-American slaves. When I was a young girl, I used to play dress up in my grandmother’s attic. She had some costume makeup and one time I darkened my skin and dressed like a maid to everyone’s rapt amusement. None of this was ever called out as being racist.
The jarring paradox is that at school many of my best friends were African-American but at home, they became “the other” or “those people” as evidenced by the attitudes of my family. Living in this duality was normal for me. The gravity of this grievously errant cultural duplicity from my childhood sickens me to this day.
Quiet racism is still racism. It is based on fear and ignorance. In essence, it pits one group against another. It divides, not unites. It deals death, not life. There is no Love in racism.
Quiet racism is still racism.
I started this chapter with a story about my grandmother and how she was the greatest source of safety and love that I felt as a young girl. I also exposed the raw truth that she was not immune to the vicious disease of racism. How can the two extremes be present in the same person? Do they cancel one another out? Was one side fake and the other side the real person? Or is it possible for a person to possess contradictions—the best and worst of what makes us human? And if you are a person who has inherited or otherwise possess such noxious beliefs, is it possible to wholesale change?
Check out Rachel's book to see how she extricated her racist childhood from her being and committed her life to help heal such fractures in our world.
Rachel Roberts is the founder of American None. Every now and then she's known to have a deep thought, usually in the most random places– like shopping for IPA and gummy bears.