Tag Archive | The Help

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.

For what it’s worth …

John F. Kennedy came across my radar twice yesterday – once at the Peter Mars lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service at noon (he was incorporated into a piece of pop art) and the second time at the Riverdale 10, when some girlfriends and I watched The Help. JFK’s picture was on the wall of one of the maids in the movie and unforgettable footage of his funeral was shown on an old television in another part.

But the Kennedy who’s been on my mind lately – all summer, really – is Bobby.

Bobby Kennedy captured my heart and hopes.

RFK was the great hope, the dreamboat civil rights activist who was going to lead our country to greatness, someone I was excited about campaigning for, even though at 12 I was much too young to vote. I’m sure I was idealistic, but Bobby seemed heart-driven, not ambition-driven, and heart-felt in his passions about equal rights.

The night he was killed is indelible in my memory. Had I been at home, I’m sure I’d have been sound asleep, since the shooting happened just after midnight, California time. But it was the summer of ’68, back in the days when school was long out by June 5, and I was spending the night with my classmate and Indian Hills friend Debbie Rivers (and her sister Kim, who was a year younger than us), and we were up late horsing around in their den in the basement.

Our mothers were friends and our younger siblings were very close (my Cathy, Debbie’s twin sibs Robin and Rusty), but Debbie and I were still really getting acquainted. I remember that Kim was jumping on what we used to call a hassock and we were all in general acting like idiot kids when the news broke in – I can’t even imagine what would have been on at that time of night in the pre-cable days. There in “living color” (we only had black-and-white TV at home) was Bobby Kennedy on the floor amid pandemonium.

It was horrifying, heart-wrenching and frightening. I think we might have gotten Pat (their mother) up. I remember wanting to call my mother, but she tells me I didn’t, and it would have been the middle of the night.

My youthful political activism died the next morning with RFK. I switched my loyalties to Hubert Horatio Humphrey (such a nice little man) and was as excited as I could muster about the Happy Warrior.

HHH, the Happy Warrior, was slaughtered by Tricky Dick Nixon in the 1968 election.

Richard Nixon gave me goose pimples of revulsion, and I remember a screaming match at Ridgeroad Junior High right after my 13th birthday that fall with a boy in an army jacket covered with Nixon buttons. (I think surely it must have just felt like screaming or we’d have been hauled into the principal’s office. Mr. Miller did not mess around.)

I don’t remember his name or exactly what I said to him (or what names I called him), but I remember his freckles, his stocky build, his buzz cut and his increasingly redder face the longer we argued. Nobody won; we just both walked away and voted our consciences in the school mock elections.

I haven’t quite figured out why Bobby’s been so much on my mind, except perhaps because of all the political ugliness of late.

As for Debbie and me, though we were always friendly, we never became besties. But we’re forever bonded, in my mind, at least, by a great tragedy. She’s part of my life for that. And Bobby Kennedy is captured in time forever as the young knight of civil rights who should have been president.

Innocence died with RFK.

I miss him.