She got up in my face, her hands on my shoulders, and said "Jeremy is a little negro boy. You must always be nice to him and never say anything about him being negro or about how he looks. Do you understand? You must promise me."
"Yes Ma'am. I promise."
I later learned that Jeremy was a Herald Tribune Sunshine Fund child. That now defunct New York City newspaper sent low-income inner city kids to Vermont every summer, to give them a vacation out of the city. Another reason for incessant niceness - on top of being disabled and having some kind of skin condition, Jeremy was poor.
Polite, genteel racism was the custom in Vermont in the fifties, at least on the rare occasions a person of color appeared among us. Everyone was nice. Vermont did at least have a long history of support for civil rights. The house I lived in was over a hundred years old, and was believed to have been a station on the Underground Railroad. It was said that, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, black persons on their way to Canada were hidden in our coal bin, down in the cellar. I often went to the coal bin - I dreamed of finding a piece of coal that would still have the lacy imprint of a fossil fern. While I was there I would lie full length in the coal and imagine that I heard the dogs of the slave traders baying in the distance. I would tremble and pray to be delivered, and compliment myself on my incredible courage. By this time I was eight and knew that being black was not a disability or a skin condition.
In June 1963, after I graduated from high school, my grandmother, who had raised me, sent me to Oklahoma to live with my mother and her new family. Oklahoma was a shock. My first day there I picked up a copy of the newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman. On the front page was a story reporting that the Oklahoma State Legislature was having a formal debate on whether or not Heaven is integrated. Much like our own legislature here in Florida, this deliberative body was not made up of rocket scientists. This debate was occasioned by civil disturbances in Oklahoma City, by black teenagers who wanted to be allowed to go to the city's amusement park, where they had ferris wheels, a roller coaster, whack-a-mole games, cotton candy.... Black kids were not allowed to go in and enjoy these delights. They formed groups, described in the newspaper as 'mobs', who tried to rush the gates of the park, described by the paper as 'riots.' I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to keep kids of any color out of an amusement park. More evidence that I was growing up on Planet Crazy, a place run by the inmates.
I got a job that summer working for a temp agency called Manpower. They sent me to a textbook publishing company to run their office copy machine. This was shortly after the U.S. Congress had passed a fair employment act, stating that companies could not discriminate in hiring based on skin color. That first day of a grownup job in the grownup world, I walked in to a large room filled with desks. On the wall over the rows of desks hung a sign:
WORK WITH VIGOR
OR YOU'LL BE REPLACED
BY A N****R!
The sign didn't have asterisks in the final word.
It was a lousy summer. My home life was fairly questionable, and the temperatures stayed over the hundred degree mark for most of July and August. The District Attorney offered to give a medal to an old white man who defended his convenience store by shooting a Native American boy, a sixteen year old, in the back, because this child was trying to steal a 6-pack of beer. I hunkered down, like a person who finds herself behind enemy lines, and got through that summer of 1963.
In the Fall of 1963 I enrolled at the Unversity of Oklahoma. That first semester I joined the Students for A Democratic Society, and started doing actions to integrate clubs and restaurants around campus. I particularly remember one blind date I went on, to a popular bar called "Louies.'" The owner, Louie, looked like a classic Oklahoma redneck, straight out of central casting. No one had ever seen a black patron at this bar. I was assigned to go there on a date with a black kid from OU's basketball team. I am a horizontally challenged person, at barely over five feet tall, and Bernard, my date, was well over six feet tall. We looked like Wilt the Stilt and Shirley Temple out for a night on the town. We were served beer and fries just like everyone else. Either Louie recognized a set up when he saw one, or maybe he wasn't such a bad old boy. I was disappointed that we didn't get thrown out. I loved drama.
Maya Angelou once said that racism is like a cobweb that you walk into, or more that you are born into. You keep pulling it off, this strand and that strand, but you can never get all of it. Over the years, since my debut as a civil rights activist, I found out how true that is. My first lesson was in an English class. The black guy sitting next to me slipped his hand under my skirt and stroked my knee No worse than that, but still unwelcome. He stared straight forward as if I didn't exist, and I sat frozen. If he had been a white guy I would have decked him, but I didn't dare risk an incident where I would come off as a racist white girl accusing a black guy of something. I just never sat next to him again.
When I started dating black guys, I was amazed to discover that they could be jerks, just like their white counterparts. I had bought into positive stereotypes about how all black guys are deep and full of soul and poetry. Even in my thirties, when I moved to the south, I remember meeting my first black nerd, with the black shoes, white socks, thick glasses and a pen protector in his shirt pocket. I was surprised. Even black guys who are jerks, are cool, or had been in my limited experience.
I joined the coalition of artists who ran the Acrosstown Repertory Theater, a grassroots, cross-cultural theater where I found myself working along side black artists from the community, as well as in theater projects based in the gay and lesbian community. I found out that there's a lot more to integration than wearing slogan t-shirts and marching in parades. It's in actually working with people that the old resentments and old stereotypes - strands of the cobweb - come to light and can be eradicated. It also takes accommodation. When Kathy Freeperson and I put on large shows involving straight and lesbian women, black women, working class women and single mothers, we discovered that having onsite child care was a necessity. Also, providing transportation to those who didn't have it. Far too many amazing artists go unrecognized and unchallenged because of such barriers to participation. If you do what it takes to give these artists a chance, the results are rich and various.
It is no different in the business of providing services to homeless and hungry people. At 68 I'm still pulling off strands of the cobweb. Racial profiling seemed so outrageious until the day I found myself doing it. I realized that - all unconsciously - I thought a young black homeless guy was more likely to sell a donated tent to buy crack, than other demographics. In reality, I could name a couple of old white homeless women who have sold tents for cracks. That experience, of me doing racial profiling, horrifed me into raising my consciousness. I discovered that to stay out of the cobweb I have to be with another human being in the moment, tuned in to the individual they are, a snowflake like no other in the universe.