Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Guest Blogger: David Breeden

How Do Sidewalks Work?

I discovered the concept of portable privilege in New Orleans. It was the summer of 1963 and my parents and I were visiting my great-aunt or something who was dying or something or other. I say “something or other” to reflect that I was a little kid and a whole lot of things didn’t make much sense to me.

My mother, father, and I were a rag-tag group. People still dressed up to go out into the streets in those days, and my father had one black suit, my mother made all her dresses, and the trousers of my suits were generally well up my white socks. My dress shoes always seemed to be made of the same material as the box they came in.

But enough of setting the scene. Suffice it to say my family did not present a grand procession through the streets of New Orleans. We had been living in small towns around the mid-south. I found the big-city crowds fascinating and couldn’t stop being amazed at the blinding sparkle of what I suppose must have been quartz in the sidewalks, blinding in the summer sun.

It took a while to notice something else—Blacks pushed to the side of buildings or got off the sidewalk into the street as Whites walked by. This happened again and again.

Why were they doing that? I had certainly experienced ostracism for being poor, but this was a very different thing. It wasn’t just us; actually, it was as if the Black people didn’t even see Whites. Yet a very odd dance was occurring all up and down Canal Street.

We were of course experiencing one of the constructs of Deep-Southern Jim Crow: even the lowest caste White had to be deferred to by every class of Black. Even my family, the children and grandchild of sharecroppers.

This was, I think, one of the evil geniuses of Jim Crow: it encouraged many Whites from the lowest class to buy into a grassroots terror campaign to perpetuate the one “privilege” they got from White Supremacy, a feeling, a superiority based solely on skin color. It is what killed Emmett Till.

The image of well-dressed Blacks stepping aside remains firmly in my mind forty-some years on. In my case, the fact of it had the opposite of the intended effect, convincing me that hierarchy of any sort is inherently evil.

I do wish that I believed that the Civil Rights Act changed things. I wish I believed that. Yet, forty-some years on, whether we call it “post-legislative racism,” “neo-racism,” or whatever, I still see power and privilege walking themselves down the sidewalks. I live in south Chicago, twenty-some blocks from the house where Emmett Till lived for his fourteen years on the earth. I can’t walk there.

—David Breeden


Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

As a little boy in the early 1950s, my mother took me on a visit from our home up north to the Deep South state capital where she had done much of her growing up.

One blazing hot day, we were downtown and passing the bus station when I spotted a water fountain on the side of the building. I made a beeline for it, only to be yanked back and tugged along.

I asked why I couldn't get a drink.

"There's a sign above it. It says 'coloreds only,'" my mother explained, in a matter-of-fact way.

Over the next several minutes, I did the kid thing of trying to find out what the problem was by asking one question after another.

The answers came one by one, along with clear signs of annoyance.

It's a tradition. . . That means it's always been done that way, separate fountains. . . . No, the water's the same. . . . I don't know, maybe they're worried there might be diseases or something. . . . Well, yes, white people get diseases, too. . . . If there's another fountain where white people can get a drink, what does it matter? . . . Hush now, that's enough questions.

Shortly, we went into a drug store, sat down at the counter and I quenched my thirst with Coke drawn from a fountain tap.

A decade later, I was in that city again. The civil rights conflict was raging across the South and feelings were running strong on both sides. It filled the newspapers, broadcast media, small talk in the barber shop and so on.

While downtown, I happened to walk past the bus station. I noticed the water fountain was gone from the side of the bus station. Out of curiosity, I stepped inside the terminal and looked around.

Over at one side there was a single water fountain. There was no sign.

Later that day I mentioned this to a relative (not my mother) who, although not a hater, was nonetheless a staunch segregationist. He was certain that lone fountain was being used exclusively by negroes and traveling yankees who didn't know any better.

A few years back, I was in that city on yet another visit. One night that same relative and I went to a pancake house for a late snack. The place was nearly full. Along with plenty of whites there were a few blacks. A pleasant-looking middle-aged black couple sat across from us. In the booth behind me, two truckers, one white, one black, swapped jokes and shared laughs.

My relative and I drank coffee out of cups that prior to their last washing may well have been in the hands and pressed to the lips of people who couldn't have entered that place as customers when I was a kid.

Like our fellow diners, my relative and I had a good snack and a nice time enjoying each other's company. Racial differences and who had drank from what, when, didn't come up.

Times change and progress happens. There's still some distance to go, but it's reassuring that we're on our way. I know because I've seen it.

12:10 AM  
Blogger d. breeden said...

Thanks for sharing that. I've had the same feeling. I suppose those of us who saw segregation will always have a visceral reaction to integration. A feeling of amazement and hope.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous Brad said...

D. Breeden, I hope you come back again. That was a great post.

It's funny how kids sometimes see things more clearly than the world around them.

S.W. Anderson, I read your whole comment. Wow. Like D. Breeden said, thanks for sharing.

It doesn't feel like it some days when I pick up the newspaper but maybe a few things do change over time.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Always enjoy your writing DMC Breeden, although I've never known you to wear white--socks or otherwise.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Carlo said...

Good Job! :)

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shopping the cheap battery,you can see from here.

3:02 AM  

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