Everyday people

I love that my 5-year-old grandson, Jude, classifies people as brown or peach, the names of the crayons he uses for skin color. To him, we’re all just everyday people, which make me hopeful that race relations are getting better a relationship at a time.

But race has been on my mind lately for several reasons. One is my Diversity and Oppression class. Of course it comes up a lot there.

Another reason is because some people seem to despise President Obama for having the audacity to be president while (half) black. Come on, people, aren’t we past that yet?

And recently a group of friends and I went to see The Help, which generated some discussion of our pasts. I didn’t have much to add to that conversation, really, because we never had any “help” or nannies (though Mother did hire a very nice lady named Juanita to do her ironing for a short time when she was having back trouble – Cathy and I barely remember it).

Call me strange (go ahead, it won’t be the first time), but I remember being proud and relieved to learn as a kid that I was part Cherokee and therefore not a WASP. I was very relieved to learn that neither side of my family had ever owned slaves.

The Cartwrights came to Illinois via Liverpool, England, so they were Yankees. My mother’s branch of Tacketts were town-dwellers in Arkansas and had at least one Cherokee in the mix. No slave-owners there (though the original Tackett, an indentured servant from France, ended up owning a large tobacco plantation in Virginia after he worked off  his indenture).

Mattie Ross, of Yell County, Arkansas

My mother’s mother was from Yell County (just like Mattie Ross of True Grit), and not only were her people dirt poor and co-mingled with Cherokee, but at least one of them fought for the Union.

In our household growing up, race was just never a topic. We knew the “N-word” was unspeakable and unforgivable and not used by educated people, but until North Little Rock schools were integrated my seventh-grade year, Cathy and I really didn’t know any black people (other than Juanita, who was more of a passing acquaintance). It was the Jim Crow south; I know that now, but we really were oblivious to what was going on.

We weren’t racists, and we weren’t colorblind. I guess we just had blinders on. But we had no preconceived notions, so I’m grateful for that.

Russellville, where my parents grew up, was a “white” town, and my mother’s father did think he was prejudiced, until he actually got to know black people. Corliss Williamson’s family moved in across the street, and Papa loved watching him growing up shooting baskets on the driveway. And Corliss used to mow their yard sometimes, just to be nice to the old folks.

People are never too old to change. You’ve seen Gran Torino, right? (If not, rent it. Now.)

I barely remember anything about this, but Mother says I came home from seventh grade crying one day because a new friend, an adult-sized black boy, had no jeans. His family was poor, so he had to wear overalls (hand-me-downs, I’m sure) and was so embarrassed that he wore his shirts over the overalls to try to blend in. She says I begged for my parents to buy him some jeans.

Somehow Mother found out his size and quietly took them to the school. Most of our own clothes were homemade (Mother, my grandmother and I all loved to sew, fortunately), but my parents were glad to do it.

I’m glad I’ve blocked who it was we gave them to.

And I’m glad Jude sees people as peach and brown.

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