It’s now been twenty years since I lost my Mom. Last year, I wrote a long, thoughtful post about the values she instilled in me, and all the words were true. Today, I look at the date and remember that it has another significance–it’s known as Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Galveston finally learned they’d been freed by the Emancipation proclamation over two years before.
I think the most difficult task for any person who truly loves their parents is to understand their flaws–even more so when they did everything in their power to make sure you had every opportunity in the world. But I absolutely did hear, growing up, that there were other people who were less than we were, and that we had moved to a “better school system” primarily to avoid some of them–the Black ones.
My parents believed Black people were more prone to crime, more likely to be on welfare. My mom believed that I should always be wary of Black boys, because they were always “after” white girls. She told me that during my sophomore year when a Black boy in my class phoned me a few times. I wasn’t interested in him–I was always wary of boys who I didn’t really know all of a sudden being interested in me because I always expected it was a setup to trick the nerdy girl into thinking she was “going with” someone. But I do think he was genuine. I was very nice to him, but distant, and eventually, he stopped calling. He was actually the last Black male I knew even casually for many years, but I have to admit my mom’s warnings did have an effect on me for some time thereafter, and sank deep into my psyche. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really started to examine the racist parts of my upbringing, and understood that good people–some of the best people–could also be racists unless they consciously rejected racism. I never really got a chance to challenge my mom on these issues like I had started to with my Dad. So those difficult family conversations so many white people are having to have? I cannot have them. I find myself in dialogue with a memory, not with actual people. And memories cannot change their minds.
I also am glad that my mom never saw Fox News. As she slipped into dementia, she obsessed about then-President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; I worry she would have been easy prey for all kinds of conspiracy theories.
I do think that both my parents, were they alive today (and not in the throes of dementia), would likely have been at least willing to talk. To be sure, they would have likely condemned the “rioting”, and they probably would have had a hard time with the idea of white privilege, given they came from rural and largely poor background and grew up in the Depression, but I think they would have at least listened to their daughter, who I know they both loved unconditionally. After all, they were the ones who always emphasized learning and education to me. But I am not sure I could have truly changed their minds. I’ll just have to settle for examining my own way of thinking.
So perhaps as I confront my own racist roots, I am, in a strange way, fulfilling a kind of legacy. Even as early as high school–that “good school” that we’d moved to attend–I had seen enough evidence, read enough to begin to know that not all stories were being told, and that perhaps I should seek out those which were being drowned out. That education gave me the tools I needed to be able to open my mind over the past fifty-plus years, and it gave me the humility to know that the more you learn, the more you know that you don’t know everything.
So maybe it’s fitting that the image that flashes to mind at the moment is one of my mom and me, in the summer of 1975, just before we moved, visiting the library–where she told me it was OK to read the books that were on the shelf for other grade levels, and that I should, in fact, check out any book that interested me. That was the year I finished first in the summer reading program at the library, because we kept going back for more and more books. I think it was that summer that I fell in love with reading, and learning without limits, and my world began to open up. She planted those seeds. And the flowers are still blooming.