Two bites of a Little Pig Barbecue sandwich would come to seem a nice dinner compared to the occasional none at all we’d experience over the next 18 months or our father’s picking dandelion greens from the field across the street, stirring them into a pot of Van Kamp Pork & Beans ’til the mixture heated through, and not only calling that dinner but, adding that we were ungrateful little bastards for not appreciating this “southern delicacy” he’d prepared for us.
One of the first things I remember us doing on one of our first Memphis days together as a family was, my father driving us along Beale Street — Home of the blues, he said proudly; Home of jazz, he beamed –and then, driving through/amidst, a Civil Rights protest of segregated lunch counters in downtown Memphis.
This was Fall, 196o; prime-time in the era of Civil Rights, and this was Memphis, Tennessee.
Me, I was a white girl from south-central Wisconsin and I’m not sure I’d ever even seen a black person “in person” before. I was definitely not familiar with what I was seeing in Memphis on the tour our father took us on that day: Negroes were being arrested for, simply sitting on stools in the so-called “wrong section” of these restaurant areas in Walgreen’s- and Woolworth’s-type stores.
Sit-in at white-only Walgreen’s lunch counter in downtown Nashville, Feb., 1960; photo from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashville_sit-ins , accessed Apr., 2014. (Originally published with the article “Negro Sit-Ins Resumed Here” in The Tennessean, Mar. 26, 1960.)
To me it was all too bizarre, and at my complete disbelief at what I was seeing, my father decided to take the tour further, inject a little “hands-on learning” into it. “Here, let me show you,” he says, parking and leading me in to the store being picketed/demonstrated at.
“Go sit there,” he said, pointing at a stool, smiling. I complied, curious where this was going. “Can I order something?” I asked, and he said, “Sure.”
Fast enough to startle me, a policeman scurries up to me and near yells in a sinister tone, “You can’t sit there!” My face, the kind that likes to emote all over the place, registers confusion and a little fear and he softens just a bit, pointing sternly to a sign: “Colored.”
My father steps up and says to the police officer, “She’s from up north, she doesn’t know this stuff. I was just teaching her.”
The officer regards my father with a mix of, Well aren’t you a stupid idiot, and, what could only be called, Warning, and my father gets humble, apologizes, and removes me from the scene/establishment.
This is a real Land Of Savages, I think.
Chattanooga Police unleash high-pressure water jets on peaceful student demonstrators in downtown Chattanooga, Feb., 1960. Photo from Chris Brooks blog, “History, Politics And Commentary From a Social Justice Perspective, at http://chactivist.com/post/51391103703/the-chattanooga-roots-of-the-black-power-movement ,
accessed Apr., 2014.
At first we lived in a private home with an elderly woman and her grandson? nephew? who rented rooms to our father. My sisters & I shared one room, my father & Pete & Phil, another.
It was nice. I liked that the old woman’s presence put a major damper on my father’s molestation of us. I did not like that in the mornings in public school we had to stand and say the “Our Father” together — I was feeling a bit miffed with God for letting our mother die, not to mention the fact that we were then left to be raised by a man who rivaled any troll or goblin from under the bridge in any faerie tale I’d ever read — nor was I real comfortable with what followed that morning prayer every day in school: a rousing group-sing of “Dixie,” aka the anthem of the Confederate States of America.
“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
“Old times there are not forgotten,
“Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.
“In Dixie Land, where I was born in,
“early on one frosty mornin’,
“Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.
“I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
“In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
“to live and die in Dixie.
“Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
“Away, away, away down south in Dixie”
I was genuinely confused at references to “The War of Northern Aggression.” I was familiar with The American Civil War, but this one of northern aggression I’d somehow missed and, I was a good student. When I realized it was all one and the same, I felt like such a stranger in a strange land. (What would the Blessed Sacrament nuns of my 1st & 2nd grade years have to say about all this?)
These people are scary, I decided: they made poor farmers mostly Negroes live in teeny houses with holes in the walls & roofs; they celebrated pre-Civil-War days of slavery as if those had been the best of times; they separated people by skin color at lunch counters and arrested anyone defying the custom. What the…?
But like I said, it was okay, nice where we were living and, I did like that the old woman’s presence put a major damper on my father’s molestation of us.
Then one day our landlady inexplicably? chased two of my siblings around her kitchen with an iron skillet, and, we moved.