I'm very pleased to introduce Jonnie Martin to you. I invited some other writers to share their race and culture experiences, and Jonnie is the first. If we cannot view our experiences through the lens of honesty and forthrightness, we cannot begin to heal our shameful history of racism and look forward to a new unified America.
They say that fish do not know that they live in water – it surrounds them, cradles them, feeds them -- it is all that they know. Growing up in the south in the 40’s and 50’s was not so different. We white southerners lived in a segregated world that cradled and fed us and it was all we knew. It was all I knew until I was 16 and a brave man challenged me into awareness.
The year was 1955 in Arlington, Texas; I was a sophomore studying history and current affairs under one of the most popular teachers, a freckle-faced sandy-haired man we all lovingly called “Coach” because he also taught P.E. and managed the B-team in football. He never berated or punished – only his encouragement led the boys to resounding victories on the gridiron.
The year prior, the Supreme Court had issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling calling for the desegregation of schools, but there was resistance throughout the south and a raging debate to maintain the “separate but equal” worlds of black and white. On this particular day, Coach opened civics class with a counter to this popular notion: “There is no such thing as separate but equal,” he softly drawled.
Most of my fellow sophomores reacted silently with a shrug – whatever – and continued passing notes or exchanging playful jabs. A few were concerned with the threat of busing, but most of the heat of this issue was generated by parents. Most of us did not even know a Negro, the common term for African-Americans in that era.
My reaction was different, however. I had been known for my strong opinions and my sometimes-unpopular editorials as a teenage journalist and I was a force on debate teams. Like any good debater, I could unemotionally take either side of an argument, but on that particular day I found myself taking the side of the “separatists” and with a vengeance that surprised and confounded me.
From my front row vantage point, I began to pepper Coach with separatist views. Perhaps as a child of the south, these were the only views I knew, or at least the ones that echoed most loudly in my ear. They were the words I had heard many a time, from friends, neighbors, family – even preachers. They felt right and righteous as they spilled out with energy.
Coach responded to each salvo in a slow, tranquil manner, each answer well-reasoned. I immediately punctured each peaceful response, mutilating the air with a barrage of sharp-edged retorts and piercing accusations. “Negroes will be happier with their own kind, their friends, and we with ours. Isn’t social development a part of our education?” I heard myself say in a snarky tone. “Wouldn’t your children want that?” I added.
The class fell into a rapt attention as the debate heated up. No one stirred; ears tuned to the strange war; eyes frozen on Coach, sitting immobile at his desk. His voice continued in gentle registers but his pale and freckled complexion began to reflect inner pressure. Red seeped from shirt collar to receding hairline.
“Equality means treating people the same,” he said. “Negroes are the same as us. We cannot pretend that separate schools, separate neighborhoods and restaurants and water fountains compare to any form of equality,” he intoned. Calm. Still. No outward show of animosity. Softness in his gray eyes.
Even though I had a scrappy personality, I normally respected my elders so I am not certain what caused me to ratchet up the debate with such vehemence. My encyclopedic mind sifted through all that I had been taught in my 16 years of southern living and with the debater’s keen sense of the kill, I unleashed the mortar: “If you believe Negroes are your equal, would you marry one?”
Coach began to slowly nod his head and through pursed lips expelled some of the growing pressure. “Yes,” he said. “If I loved her, I would marry her.”
A gasp escaped the room. In an instance they all knew, my fellow teenagers – whose parents ran the community and the Baptist Church. The PTA and the School Board. Whose parents decided the fate of Coach. They all knew that this most gentle of men had taken a dangerous stand for what he believed in.
And I knew. Other things as well – more than I could sort through quickly. Somehow we went on with class that day but my mind absorbed none of it. I do not even remember leaving the room or getting through the rest of my schedule. I do recall that my life was upside down and it would be a long time before I sifted through the teachings of that day in 1955 and righted myself.
I do remember deep feelings of sorrow that I had placed Coach in such a precarious position and that I had the greatest of admiration – adoration-- for a man of such deep and unswerving goodness. I felt a deep and abiding shame. But the overwhelming emotion was one of confusion for I was certain that I did not believe a single word I had said in the debate. I was fairly certain I was not prejudiced but unforgivably ignorant.
Certainly I had been programmed to bigotry in those first 16 years and by some of the people I loved most dear. I recalled an incident just two years prior. I was 14 and in that era it meant I could not car-date, and one of my joys of life was to accompany my grandfather and his fiancé to “family” dances – held in simple halls with broad-planked floors and fiddlers music—where other families knew ours and I was treated as a princess. It was my weekly joy.
That same year I had a crush on a 9th grade boy named Mike Lopez and asked him to go to a church hayride with me. He accepted – but when my grandfather learned about this he forbade me to go. “No granddaughter of mine is going to date a Mexican” he declared and threatened to withdraw my dancing privileges. I went to the hayride with Mike – maybe it was because I was stubborn; maybe I knew it was the right thing to do. And I gladly suffered the consequences.
What difference did it make that Mike was Mexican, I thought at the time, and that incident flooded back to me in 1955. Then I realized I did not care what color a person was, or what religion, or what country of origin. All I cared about was the goodness in their heart, and was that not the lesson I had learned in church?
The fact that I had argued the wrong side of a moral issue came quickly into my understanding, but it took much longer to forgive myself for not seeing the truth sooner. Yes I was only 16, and an imprint of the south, but how did I pass by those black-or-white-only water fountains hundreds of times in the department stores and not wonder aloud or ask questions? How could I have sung in church that Jesus loves the little children. . . yellow, red, black and white . . . and not questioned the status quo, the culture, the laws that were very different than the song.
Eventually I had to stop berating myself and move on to a new challenge – bravely revealing my opposition to racism, my tolerance and liberalness, to those people who had not gone through the same epiphany. The challenge of living with and loving people whose views were so different than mine. And the challenge of trying to do my small part in eliminating bigotry.
Fifty-eight years later I am still surprised and disappointed that as a people we have not erased racial prejudiced. I am shocked when someone speaks out at a 2013 CPAC meeting and defends the benefits of slavery, and the room does not explode with objections.
And though I abhor bigotry in its every form, by my very background I understand the challenge of pulling ourselves away from the biases of our culture. It is hard for us to be a rogue fish, to see what is going on, to say “hey, I am surrounded by water – fetid water – and I’m going to change this.”
It does seem that progress has been made in the years since my school experience, although not nearly fast enough for those who are the targets of prejudice. Of that I am sure. But it seems to me more fish are doing this now, more than in my day, and for that I am thankful.
Jonnie Martin is a former journalist, now a novelist and blogger at www.jonniemartin.com. She holds a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Marylhurst and an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Queens of Charlotte.