Once integration happened, it was really no big deal to most of us. Some of our parents, however, never recovered.
The South in those days, at least in small towns like ours, was built a lot of unbendable, undefinable, unpublished, unspoken but completely understood rules. The two most prevalent ones were as follows:
- Thou shalt only consort with people just like thyselves.
- Never offend the neighbors.
My parents swore by those rules. My father’s main concern was not pissing off anybody for business reasons. He really didn’t give a damn about anything else.
My Mother lived for The Rules and to judge others by them. In her mind, if she had not known someone and their entire family for her entire life- and preferably their family background for several preceding generations-they really weren’t worth knowing.
She also assumed everyone else played by the same rules. Therefore, she assumed all Black people knew each other and later, all Gay people knew each other. I’ll never forget the time she said to me: “I hope you aren’t running around in public with that Harvey Fierstein person. I saw him on television and he’s just awful. I really don’t want to have to try to explain that to my friends.” It took me a while to figure that out, but then I realized she assumed, just because we were both Gay, we had to know each other and be fast friends. I wish…I have been in the same New York bar as Harvey, but that was many years later and does not prove her point…
In High School, there were a lot of Clubs. Being as I was pretty much like Tracy Flick in “Election” in those days, I belonged to a lot of them. Many of the clubs met in the Student’s homes in the evening.
We had the big, newly refurbished basement rec room, so I asked my parents if The History Club could meet at our house. I really should have known better. Any simple request could become an ordeal when dealing with “The Rules” which is why, admittedly over time, it was easier to just let them all go….My parents never did.
They said, they would consider it, but they needed some more information. My Father’s first question was if the History Club was integrated. My response was, believe it or not, some Black people are interested in History. He seemed to think all Black people in the 1970’s were concerned with was getting on “Soul Train” so that was news to him.
Then he said, “So they would want to come here, too? Socially? Be socially received? People do that?” I assured him that was the case and that it had happened in other homes already. He had to ponder this for a moment, then he said: ” Who has received these integrated groups? Are they radicals? I have to think about this and how it might impact my business. When you are in sales, you can’t afford to have people think you are a radical.”
My response was: “Jesus Christ, I didn’t know this was such a big deal. If I can bring letters from several prominent citizens saying it is acceptable to them and the damn Chamber of Commerce can we have the meeting here?”
He told me, in his most threatening way, to watch my mouth ….
Then my Mother jumped in…
“I just don’t see how you can ask us to do this. I know a lot of nice colored folks, but they wouldn’t be comfortable coming to my house socially. And what would the neighbors think? I don’t want the neighbors to think we are radicals. I’m on too many important committees and I have my organizations. What if the Negros decide, because they can come to my house, they can join my Majorette Corp in the Christmas Parade. I’ve put too much work into making the “Danville Dixie Darlings” a good training ground for young girls to present themselves in public to have to close it down because of race issues.”
Me: “What is good training about a bunch of over made-up little girls marching down Main Street in sub freezing weather? I just don’t think a lot of black people are going to be fighting to join into that…especially since you call it “Danville Dixie Darlings.” Jesus Christ. I should have known you people would make a big deal out of something that is so simple to normal people.”
My Mother responded “I don’t know what you mean. We are the normal people. You are watching too much television news and reading too much. Why don’t you go back to watching movies. You know what happened to Bette Davis when she wore that red dress to Cotillion in “Jezebel”. She lost her man, never got married and had to go live with the lepers. And that’s just for wearing a red dress. What if she had entertained a mixed race group? I bet she couldn’t have even gone to live with the lepers then…”
Me: “That was the goddamned 19th century! And a movie!”
Daddy: “Watch your goddamn mouth!”
Mother: “It doesn’t matter….That’s just how life is. You need to accept that…. You are just too young to understand.”
Mother: “Anyway….I know the neighbors and they wouldn’t like it. Even though I’m no longer involved with the Temple Terrace Woman’s Club, I know those women. I’ll never forget what Callie, next door, said to me when we first moved here. I was out in the front yard planting flowers and she came running over and told me to get in the house and get dressed properly. It was 90 degrees and I was wearing shorts, a halter top and a big hat. She told me proper young matrons did not dress that way in public and to get in the house and change before she called your Father. If a 25-year-old woman in a halter top causes that much of an issue, just think what entertaining negroes will do.”
She continued: ” Now the Johnson’s across the street are questionable. I hear he supports Black Power. He runs that tacky store downtown where they all shop, so I guess he has to…thank God Cathy sees things like we do. She saves that family from being total outcasts.”
“And Susan Langford. I heard something very interesting other day and it makes me understand why she acts like she does. I can’t stand her anyway. I mean she’s from Michigan. Not only is she a Yankee, she’s from Michigan. I never met anyone from Michigan who wasn’t really, really strange. She and her husband Harold both. They are strange even for Yankees. She was actually a lady Marine!”
“I think she’s a lesbian. Do you know what lesbians are? I need to be sure you- and your sister- know about them. I had never heard of them until this week and you can’t wait to be my age to find out about them. They are coming out of the woodwork!”
“Ari, one of the guys at the Greek Lunch place in Schoolfield, told me all about them. This woman I didn’t know sat down next to me when I stopped in for a hot dog while I was out shopping. She started talking to me, so of course I was polite. She was real nice and we started talking about movies. We both love “Gone With the Wind”. She said we should meet to go to the movies some time. That’s when Ari told me to come to the back.”
“He told me she was a Lesbian. Of course, I asked him what that was. I had never heard that word before. He explained it all to me. Lesbians are women who want to be men. I had never heard of such a thing! Well, I paid my check, got my purse and ran out of there! I don’t want some woman after me! ”
“Why would anyone want to be a Lesbian? You can’t get anywhere without a man and every one is going to know you aren’t really one if you try to pretend to be one. They should all move to New York or Charlotte or something and leave us normal people here alone.”
“That explains Susan Langford to me. I just bet she goes out in the middle of the street and burns her bra any day now. ”
“You know she cuts her own grass. No Lady ever touches a lawn mower. And last week I saw her up on the roof cleaning out her own gutters. No Lady does that….That’s why I bet she’s a Lesbian.”
My Father had had all he could take at this point: “Goddamnit Lou, Susan Langford has four children and there is no way she is a Lesbian. Besides, we are dealing with the goddamn negroes now, can we save the goddamn Lesbians for later? I hate to tell you, but you are no longer universally desired, so don’t flatter yourself.”
It continued along in this vein for a while. I left them alone to fight it out…I honestly don’t remember if the History Club ever met at our house or not. I do remember just walking away and going back to my room and turning on the TV. Blocking them out as usual.
Such was life in a small town in Virginia in 1976.
Funny thing….My Mother is in Assisted Living now. Her first concern, when we moved her there, was that it was integrated and had mixed sexes.
Then we suddenly discover an elderly Black man is her new Best Friend there. And she always asks about my partner, Steve. I think she likes him more than me because he’s nicer to her…
Maybe, in some cases, in some areas, vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are what makes a brain start working right. She still carries on with The Rules and the foolishness, but then acts completely contrary to them in her life at the Assisted Living place.
Of course, logic and consistency have never meant much to Southern Belles like my Mother….
But I guess it’s too hard to shake all that programming, even when the neurons start to short-circuit.
But it does amaze me that children and the senile don’t see these racial and sexual identification issues. Only some of us in those life stages in between still have the issues.
As Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in “South Pacific” that “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” to believe in racism, sexism and homophobia.
I think our natural state is just to accept each other and try to get through life with as much grace as possible.
The social programming is dying out and harder to successfully encode. There is too much outside information available to kids today for successful programming to occur. Different role models exist….
Maybe one day no one will be worried about Negroes, Lesbians and Yankees. Or Gay Men, Hispanics or Asians. Even the small towns have come a long ways- but still have much farther to go….
Maybe one day this will all be a part of history that no one remembers or can relate to…
(PS: I’m starting to change names and combine characters to give me more literary freedom, but the truth is still in the posts… These are very much rough drafts, but rough drafts based on reality.)