A Southern Childhood
I grew up in segregated Virginia in the 1940s to mid-1950s, a child of parents whose ancestors were 17th and 18th century Virginians. The last family immigrant was a Corsican in 1830. My grandparents’ old Bible had the names of six slaves written on the flyleaf. My parents were liberal Southerners, and we talked about the wrongness of segregation at home. My mother worked to have all Williamsburg children attend Saturday matinees. When in 1st grade, the only Protestant in my Catholic School class, I asked my dad if heaven was segregated. his look of horror preceded his “NO, no, no!” When I asked him the worst thing he’d ever done as a kid, he said “Linking arms with my friends and forcing a Negro man off the sidewalk.” In our segregated church we sang “Remember All the People,” but they were the people that dwelt in far-off lands, not our neighbors, barred from entering. As a kid, I was obsessed with the idea of the parallel world, black and white, in my town. Somewhere across town, there was another Katharine Sidney, going to school, being teased by her brothers, having her hair ouched when her mother combed it. When I met her, we would be friends. Would she get the kind of whippings all white children I knew received? I always wondered if, having lost slavery, white Southern parents vented that loss on their children, or if it was just that Southern cultural lag. Racism was all around me. I could see that African Americans had a harder life, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. I had no idea that was, in itself, racist.
But I was brought up to feel entitled. My people, my tribe, had founded this country. My uncle many times back was Clark of Lewis & Clark. We weren’t rich, because to be rich “After the War” (meaning the Civil War), meant you were on the wrong side, or a carpetbagger. One grandmother bragged that when Richmond was ordered into mourning at Lincoln’s death, all her women kin dyed their underwear black, and hung it out the windows. When a friend told me two years ago, that my ancestors were traitors, I was furious. It took me a year of chewing it over, to realize that he was right. My mother’s family, the Clarks, had moved to Kentucky after overworking their Virginia land, and fought on the Federal side in the war, but the ones who’d stayed in Virginia were not only Daughters of the American Revolution, but Daughters of the Confederacy.
One thing we were aware our white entitlement brought us, was the possibility to flout both law and custom. My mother and I were criticized for eating lunch with the maid in the dining room. I called her “Miz Mason.” We had African American houseguests, illegal in Virginia at the
time. My dad invited John Hope Franklin, author of From Slavery to Freedom, to speak at the American Historical Association, and to stay with us, as the Williamsburg Inn wouldn’t house him with the other delegates. He said he did it for mixed reasons, to shake up the old guard AHA, to honor Dr. Franklin’s learning, but also so his children might meet a wider range of black people than we normally would in that time and place.
We moved to California when I was 11, to a town so closed to African Americans, that when Mrs. Medgar Evers moved there in 1970, there were only two other African American families in town. I missed seeing black people. Mexican Americans didn’t resonate with me in the same way.
The most baffling experience of racism in my southern childhood was connected with the ceremony of “Flying Up” from Brownies to Junior Girl Scouts. This was called Bridging. After the ceremony, some slightly older scouts led us across town to the railroad tracks, the dividing line between the black and the white part of town. There we took our stand and started yelling the forbidden version of “Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo.” Almost immediately the African American Girl Scouts rushed from their homes to face us across the tracks. They shouted, “Po’ white trash! po’ white trash! Rather be a (N-word) than po’ white trash!” After a few rounds, back and forth, both sides picked up small stones by the tracks and threw them desultorily at each other, aiming for the feet. Scattered hits on both sides, nothing serious it seemed to me. Then we stopped. Both sides simultaneously reached across the tracks to give the Girl Scout handshake. Then we all turned around and headed home. For almost seventy years I have wrestled and gnawed on this memory. What did it mean? At the time it seemed to me we were on equal terms, though now I realize we whites were the initiators, and we chose the location of the encounter on the border of the two worlds. It was clearly a ritual that had been enacted before, though I’d never heard of it, nor saw it again. Each girl apparently knew her role. Were we enacting a future world of cooperative enmity or one of friendship within the strictures of white supremacy? Or something else I still can’t tease out? In the scouting literature, Bridging was described this way: “Think of it like this: a bridge is something that crosses a gap and gives us access to new and exciting things to be discovered on the other side. Girl Scout bridging does the same thing. It gives girls the opportunity to make the leap from one level to the next!”
I’ve been slow to realize the peculiar gifts white privilege has given me: a family with access to good education for generations, mostly safe neighborhoods, advantages of travel here and abroad, decent healthcare once we reached California, moderate faith that the legal system will work for me rather than against me. And finally, a church that was slow to prompt me to acknowledge our manifold racial sins and wickedness. And now, as I read this over, I see I am introducing myself as a good, “progressive,” Christian racist.