I Learned Racism From My Mom

Mothers are elevated to a deity status in the South. I don’t know when it started or what precluded taking the Mother worship to the next level, but there it is. It is an immutable fact of life in the South. Elvis Presley’s famous relationship with his Mother was the most public example I can remember of a powerful man becoming a little boy again when in the presence of his Mother.

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”. That’s 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. No one wanted to always 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. At age nine I remember the field being as big as Soldier Field and the grade being like Everest.

Offense always went uphill, whether we were batting or receiving a kickoff. We would take on the persona of our favorite athletes and we 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 ask 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. 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 which was our cue for the end of the game. Both sides were dirty, sweaty and thirsty.

As I headed to my house, a bunch of the guys asked if they could get a drink of water before heading home. I said “sure” and was leading a procession through my front door when we were blockaded by my Mom. She promptly shooed us to the spigot on the side of the house. Since we did not have a hose on the spigot, you had to get on your knees and turn your head sideways under the spigot to get a drink.

Communally using the spigot while on hands and knees in the mud was not exactly an ideal situation. The gang demanded that I get a glass from the house. Once again I was blockaded by my mother who delivered the instructions loud enough for everyone to hear that I was 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. Furthermore, if I snuck off and associated with “that gang” again I’d get whipped.

I was given a racist anthropology lesson and confined to my room for the rest of the day. The confinement was fine because I was worn out. Unfortunately, the lesson started me down a wrong path that I continued to follow for a long time.

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 change with it.

Mom passed this past Saturday. RIP, Mom.

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