AFRICAN AMERICANS DIDN’T EXIST IN THE 1960s
Across the road from Mee Maw’s house, gray mist rose above the cornfield. That cool mist covered my face on what normally became an unbearable July day. Now a city boy, it was something I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Nor had I been sitting in a rocker on a front porch a recent memory. Eyeing the dilapidation of my grandmother’s porch, the idea of rocking was just going to be a memory. No one had been in the house in at least ten years. Soon as Mama passed, neither my sisters nor I wanted to try to rent the place. Too much hassle with all of us living hundreds of miles away. I was there now to meet up with a real estate agent.
The smell of the rain’s ozone reminded me of a simpler time. A time when there had been no looking at my smartphone every five seconds. A time I could hear Mama softly gossip while Mee Maw rocked as they shelled crowder peas. Rocking in chairs my grandfather built with hickory and cowhide, they often got louder.
I remembered smelling the fresh green paint of Mee Maw’s porch. The porch that seemed like a vast expanse at twelve years of age seemed so narrow now.
The rockers were gone and the bright green had faded to a dusty olive interspersed with the speckled blackness of rotting wood. After fifty years, many of the wood slats were either buckled or vanished. I had to be careful sitting on a plastic milk crate probably left behind by the renters. I remembered Mama called them “trailer trash upgrades” before she passed.
I didn’t listen much because I didn’t know who they were gossiping about nor did I really care. I killed flies while they shelled peas. I got a nickel for every seven flies sent to fly heaven, using the metal grated swatter. I brought many a fly to its demise that summer of 1967. They don’t make flyswatters like that anymore. Everything is cheap plastic now.
I remember every so often, a pea bounced and rolled underneath a rocker.
“Ronnie Newsom’s wife caught him in bed with the colored maid.” Mama gazed my way to make sure I didn’t hear what my grandmother just said. Can’t say I cared much then, though for a soon-to-be hormone-driven teenager, it was one of a few gossip memories that stuck. I pretended not to hear while going about my business chasing flies.
Strange how something that put a one-red-light town in south Mississippi on edge appeared now to be nothing but a faded memory. There’s a good possibility the cuckolded adulterer and colored maid were now dead or in a nursing home. It’s an even greater possibility I’m the only one who remembers this shocking event that took place so long ago.
Time can fix the importance of all things. There is wisdom in the words my gay Black priest friend often said to me.
“This too shall pass.”
I met him where I work. Not sure if he ever made a pass at me. Didn’t matter. We soon became friends. He was a part-time priest and a full-time professor at Boston College where I worked.
“Betty shot Ronnie.”
Mama said, “Well, did she kill him?”
“Naaw, just a twenty-two in the butt.”
“What about the colored girl?” Mama again looked my way as she asked this.
“She didn’t get shot, but she sure won’t be doing any cleaning at the Newsom house anymore.” Mee Maw reached into the paper sack and brought out another passel of unshelled crowders for her bowl.
After bending back to start shelling, Mee Maw added, “Ronnie had the slug taken out of his ass at Doc Moore’s office within the hour.”
“Are they gettin’ a divorce?”
Mee Maw snickered. “Betty lives in Richtown, Mississippi. I’m not sure she finished high school.”
After more rocking, Mee Maw said, “She’s stuck with his sorry ass for better or worse.”
I thought it ironic—the idea of a white man loving a Black woman. But, in Mississippi during the 1960s, that kind of love proved impossible to consider. Neither Mama nor Mee Maw said anything else about the Black girl. I’m sure they just figured it seemed a repulsive and vulgar carnal act. Don’t think they thought particularly bad things about the girl. She just wasn’t important, apart from the fact Ronnie Newsom got a bullet in his ass because of her.
Time changes things, I repeated to myself. What were socially unacceptable mores in 1960s’ Mississippi are accepted today. I guess, at least for the most part. Looking at the cracked and busted sidewalk leading to the front steps, I noticed how shards of grass came through, continually widening the gaps. Made me wonder what my mother and Mee Maw might say about my second wife today.
College-educated Chelsea is a mixture of Irish and African American. Mama never met or knew about Chelsea. That’s probably for the best. Time changes some things but not all people. Sitting there hearing the now-steady rain hit the tin roof, I knew their meeting just wouldn’t have worked. My mama wouldn’t approve, and Boston Chelsea had no interest in ever visiting Mississippi.
A new memory hit me as a car rolled past the old house. When I wasn’t on the porch killing flies, my going to the movie house in Richtown became quite a racial experience. It was easy walking distance from Mee Maw’s house.
Every Saturday in the summer, my sisters and I went from Mee Maw’s house to the one-screen theater. After the walk in the hot Mississippi sun, it felt nice sitting in the cool darkness despite the musty smell that emanated from the concrete floor. I remember pouring Dixie straw powder down my throat waiting for the projector to crank up. You could hear the Black kids rustle as they sat in the balcony. It had been weird never seeing these beings while knowing they were behind and above like dark angels looking down upon whitey. We never saw them come in since they had a separate entrance. I suppose the idea was to make you think they didn’t exist.
But we knew they were there despite never seeing them. Popcorn, and every now and then a popcorn box, came down from above. We didn’t think much of it since we sat in the front row. Guess if a white patron got hit, the manager would have done something. But usually the place wasn’t crowded.
Sitting on this porch thinking about the past, the “how it has changed” became my epiphany. Sure, there were plenty of bigots in 1960s’ Mississippi. But I knew plenty that weren’t. And there may be fewer bigots today. Who knows for sure? But thinking about the way it used to be, I now believe a big change for many of the non-bigoted Mississippians is the realization that Black people do indeed exist.
They seemed to be nothing but a sidenote to many white people when I had been a kid.
When I flew into Logan from Mississippi, I was ready to be home. My priest friend picked me up, and my wife would be home waiting to love on her Mississippi boy.
I tried many times to convince Chelsea that Mississippi had changed. She wouldn’t believe me.
“So yow tryin’ to tells me ‘us colored folks’ didn’t exist when yow wuz a chillen?”
She knew I really hated it when she talked ghetto to me.
“Mississippi cracka boy had him some jungle feva!” Chelsea tried to rattle me after I told her the story of Ronnie Newsom getting shot in the buttocks.
“Just had to get him sum of that safari girl!”
Chelsea was an expert at sarcasm. I knew I was going to hear it, but it still made me uncomfortable.
“Guess I would get you really mad if I used the word irrelevant.” I knew I shouldn’t have said that as soon as I said it. The glare had been something to behold.
Finally she said, “Is that why you married me, Joe? Wanted to get you some safari girl?”
After quite some time, she calmly said, “So you’re trying to say the non-bigots in your cracker state didn’t know we existed in the 1960s?”
Chelsea interrupted, “Just answer the question, please.”
“Not sure I can answer the question without you getting madder at me.”
I think my voice seemed weak, and I know I cowered. Chelsea never got violent, but she had a temper when it came to race. I knew referring to racism in south Boston would not go over very well in this conversation. That had been my go-to defense, when defending my home state.
“I’m just trying to say as a child I was not very aware of racism or how African Americans were seen in that time period.”
“Not going to get mad at you, Joe. Not going to have one of those—what did your first wife call it—?”
“I wish you would forget that. She was just repeating what some doctor said.” Chelsea had been referring to my “nurse” first wife, saying what Black people had in the emergency rooms of hospitals, according to the doctors.
She muttered something I couldn’t hear.
“Chelsea, you know I love you, but when you get mad it makes me uncomfortable. And as you know, your daddy said it was your Irish temper that made you this way.”
She again muttered something inaudible.
Finally, Chelsea looked at me calmly and said, “What about your mama and Mee Maw?”
“I’m certain they were aware of things, but I also think they didn’t have feelings of love or hatred for another race.”
Pausing, I said, “I never heard them say anything derisive about Blacks. Certainly never heard either use the N-word.”
“You don’t think using the word colored is offensive?”
“Well, of course. Yes!” I knew I needed to emphasize that calling an African American colored seemed offensive. We had already gone there before.
“But, in that time frame, the term African American didn’t exist, and besides, there were a lot more negative words used other than colored.”
Chelsea kind of smiled as she muttered, “Nazi Germany.”
“What do you mean?” I knew where this appeared to be going; we’d had this conversation before. Playing ignorant wasn’t going to work.
“Come on, Joe, you know what I mean.”
Chelsea earned a graduate degree in sociology with a minor in history. She had a particular interest in what people do in crisis situations.
“I know good folk can become selectively blind.” I was glad she stayed calm as I said this.
“Yes…?” She wanted more from me.
“The real question—I guess—would be if these people could actually be deemed good people,” pausing I added, “if they ignore injustices?”
“The question out of all this is—what would you or I do in 1960s’ Mississippi?”
“Not me, Joe. I’d be up in that balcony throwing popcorn boxes at your white ass!” She smiled after saying that.
I had to laugh.
After a pause, Chelsea asked, “And what would you do, Joe, if you were an adult in the 1960s?”
“Well…I know what I’d like to say but, honestly, I don’t know. There were a lot of things, including the risk of your life, that were a deterrent to doing the right thing.”
I knew Chelsea would no longer be mad since I affirmed her beliefs. She understood human nature. Being a realist is one among many things I love about her.