I Learned Racism From My Mom

In the South, Mothers are elevated to a deity status. I don’t know when it started or when we decided to take the Mother worship to the next level, but it is a fact of life in the South. Probably Elvis Presley’s famous relationship with his Mother was the most public example of a powerful man becoming a little boy again when in the presence of his Mother.

As a boy growing up in the 1950’s in the South, I remember that the important things in my life were sports and my friends. The emphasis on sports came from my Dad, who I think was trying to insure that I didn’t become “light in my loafers”, which is a story for another time.

My friends were a collection of kids from the neighborhood, all within four or five years of me. I was the youngest and smallest, but I tried extra hard so I wouldn’t be the last one chosen in our pickup games. We recognized two seasons, football and baseball, both to be played in a little park across the street from my house. The park was about forty yards long and twenty yards wide and was built on a slight grade of about 15 degrees. At age nine I remember the field being as big as Soldier Field in Chicago and the grade being like climbing Everest.

Offense always went uphill, whether we were batting or receiving a kickoff. We would take on the persona of our favorite athletes and did the best we could to emulate Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas in our play. The games were always hard fought, for the “championship of the world”, and were only broken up by lunch or the inevitable sunset.

We were an isolated community, and it was quite shocking to have a group of black kids our age show up one fall day and asking to play in our pickup game. I think David Livingston aka Liberace, knew the eldest black kid, and that may have been the connection to this improbable scenario. As there were less of “them” than there were of us, we were forced to choose mixed teams, preventing the desired “whites vs. coloreds” called for by some of the older boys.

What transpired was my introduction into how a game could become a sport. The play was faster, the hitting was much harder and the intensity was at a level I had never experienced in our daily pickup games. There was blood, but there was athleticism and respect. I have no idea whether I was on the winning side or not, I just recall be called for lunch and that that was our cue for the end of the game. We were dirty, sweaty and thirsty.

As I headed to my house across the street from the park, a bunch of the guys asked if they could get a drink of water at my house before heading home. I said “sure” and was leading a procession through my front door when we were met by my Mom who shooed us to the spigot on the side of the house. As we did not have a hose on the spigot, to get a drink you had to get on your knees and turn your head sideways under the spigot, not exactly an ideal situation. I was asked to get a glass from the house, where I was refused by my Mom and told to get rid of everyone as soon as possible.

When I returned inside I was berated for bringing coloreds into the house (stealing the family silver) and asking for a glass (transmission of disease). I was let known I was to never associate with those boys again and if I snuck off and did it I’d get whipped. I was given a racist anthropology lesson and confined to my room for the rest of the day, which was fine because I was worn out.

This racist world view was my dictum until 1967 when I made my first black friend. Fortunately for me the world was changing, and I was able to understand why it needed to change.

Today is Mom’s birthday, Happy Birthday Mom.

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