A change is gonna come

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  January 18, 2006

I was raised in the south.

It was the 1950s. The civil-rights movement was just getting started. Nobody in my fourth-grade class considered it unusual when our teacher told us racial segregation was the “natural” state of humanity. “Colored people are happier among their own kind,” she said. I believed her. I had no reason not to. After all, there weren’t any “colored people” in my class. Or my school. Or the middle-class suburb where I grew up.

I was raised in the south.

Black people lived in run-down neighborhoods in the nearby city. Of course, back then, we didn’t call them black. In polite conversation, we said “Negro” or “colored.” In less-genteel settings, such as when my friends and I were talking among ourselves, we used a different word. It was our most common insult. And even among adults who wouldn’t have considered uttering that particular epithet in public, polite conversation could take a nasty turn. A neighbor once told my mother she and her husband had moved their family to our town because “there’s no chance of coloreds moving in next door.” And there wasn’t.

I was raised in the south.

It wasn’t as if we never saw any black people. They came on the bus from the city every day to clean our houses, mow our lawns, empty our garbage cans. Then, in the evening, they went back to where they were happier, among their own kind. My mother was what passed for a liberal on racial matters, so she insisted our cleaning lady eat lunch with us. The cleaning lady never spoke unless spoken to. Even when addressed directly, she rarely uttered more than a word or two. Once, I asked her if the reason her palms were pink was because she’d worn the color off scrubbing our floors. That time, she didn’t answer at all.

I was raised in the south.

There were poor whites in my town. Some of them lived in run-down houses without electricity, plumbing or glass in the windows. Their kids came to school dressed in rags. They had lice. They hadn’t had breakfast. They were white, so we were embarrassed by them for failing to meet the minimum standards of our race. We weren’t embarrassed by poor blacks, because they were the way they were supposed to be.

All that was long ago. Things have changed. There was a march for civil rights in the city during my junior year in high school. I didn’t march. Nobody I knew did. Nobody I knew even went to watch. There was another small protest my junior year in college. A high school in the city was holding its senior prom at a whites-only club. A black student objected. Her mostly white classmates voted overwhelmingly against changing the location. The NAACP organized a picket line outside the prom, a move the local newspaper termed “excessive.”

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