Monday, August 19, 2002
A Better World

I was born, born in the 50s. In a small town in middle Tennessee. That means I got to live through most of the Civil Rights Movement. Like a lot of other people around my age -- hey, maybe your age, too -- I got to make mistakes and choices when I was fairly young about race relations. It's a matter that's still very much a part of me.

My mom had a maid. A "colored girl" as I guess polite white folks woulda said back then. She was smart and someone I really always liked. She helped raise me: After my mom took to golf and I became a golf orphan, Jennie effectively babysat me a lot during the summers when school was out. She and her husband worked hard: she had two jobs, one of which was working in a little shack of a beer joint in the black part of my home town (known to the white folk as "Nigger Ridge").

I never screwed up, at least as far as I can remember, with Jennie. Never said anything stupid like "Nigger Ridge" in front of her. I don't think I really used it at all, although I'm sure I must've said it at some point. Usually it was just "The Ridge". But I did screw up with her sister.

Her sister, Louise, was a registered nurse who worked at the local clinic. Louise sometimes really did babysit us. She may have turned me onto professional wrestling: my memory is cloudy about that.

One time when Louise was babysitting us, my mom gave us some money so that Louise could take us to dinner. She gave us the money and reminded us that we would have to eat in the car, because Louise couldn't go into the local drive-in restaurant, Pete's, to eat because she was black.

How many of you reading this understand that this was really, no shit, the way of life that many of us in the southern states of the USA grew up with in part? That black people couldn't eat inside some restaurants just because they were black. This is where part of our nation was in, say, 1960? With very real and very visible evidence of race discrimination against black people, a legacy of slavery in the USA.

So, when we got to the restaurant that night, what did little five or so year old me do? That's right, I blurted out: "We have to eat in the car because you're black and can't go into Pete's to eat." Or something like that.

I knew immediately that I had said something that didn't need saying. That I had hurt Louise's feelings by saying it. I don't recall how the episode unwound -- she likely said something sweet and reassuring to me -- but I remember the awfulness of it to this day.

The last incident along those lines that I recall happened when I was in high school. I was working in the kitchen, and one of the dishwashers, another student, said something smart-assed to me and gave me the finger. I shot back with the old, "What's that? The number of white people in your family?" line.

Immediately after I said it, I noticed that one of the cooks, a black woman named Kate -- one of the sweetest souls you could ever meet -- standing there. I apologized to her immediately, and she was nice about it. But it was just so awful.

I hope that's not the world that kids in the American south grow up in today. I see evidence that it's not.

While we were in San Antonio, at The Alamo (hopefully more about that later), there were three -- count 'em, three -- mixed raced couples with kids there. Two of them were of the white guy with black woman variety that's received recent attention in the press, and one the more frequent black guy with a white woman couple.

I don't think that's something you'd've seen a lot of back in 1960 or in 1973.

I've even seen -- this was close to fifteen years ago in New Hampshire -- a white-guy/black-woman couple where the guy had a tattoo of the Stars and Bars on his arm. (And I still haven't seen "Monsters' Ball".)

There's still room for growth, though. The next day we encoutered two examples of "homophobia". Some a-hole at the table next to us at the Tower of the Americas at the HemisFair Park was yapping about the "faggot artists" who had moved into some neighborhood there in San Antonio. Later, that night, our waiter at Dick's Last Resort -- hey, it was late, and we needed food, so it really was a last resort -- said, "Y'all don't look like the faggoty types."

Still, when I walk down the beach here in Daytona Beach and see the sheer diversity of the people playing here -- and contrast that with what a whitebread spot it was when we'd vacation here when I was a kid -- I know the world has gotten better. And I believe it can and will continue to do so.