When Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was 13 years old. We lived in a white rural area far away from the South, but I knew about him. On TV and radio stations, at church and at home, I heard grown-ups talking. People did not like him. My father and others made comments about rabble rousers not knowing their place.
At that point I had known only two Negroes in my life, even though we lived less than 30 miles from a major Underground Railroad terminus. One was Lulu, the kind and comforting woman who helped take care of us when we were little, and the other was Penelope, who sat next to me in the sixth grade. Lulu I knew only as a large presence in our house when I was very small. She wore a white uniform and laughed a lot, she cooked things I liked to eat, and she could handle my tantrum-throwing brother, who was uncontrollable with everyone else. She ironed my father’s starched white shirts so perfectly, that I liked to stand on a stool and watch her do it. Lulu had grown children of her own, and I knew that she was raising some more that she adopted, but I don’t think I ever met them. They were in another world, far away. It didn’t occur to me then to ask her who was taking care of them while she was taking care of us.
Our rural elementary school was all white, but it went only to the fifth grade. After that I had to go “to town,” which is what we called the small village a few miles away, where a junior/senior high school was located. Thanks to Mrs. Metzger’s alphabetical seating system, I sat next to Penelope for a year. Hers was the only black face in our class, and she was taller than almost everyone – she had to tuck her long legs around her chair. She was quiet. When called upon to read aloud, her small voice hesitated over words. I could tell she didn’t like to stand up and read, and neither did I. I too was alone that year, coming from another school, and maybe that’s why Penelope and I ate our lunches together every day, laughing and being silly. One time she was gone from school for a long time, and I heard she had whooping cough, and then at the end of that year they moved away. I missed her. I called her my best friend, although I realize now I knew almost nothing about her. I cannot remember her last name.
Crystal clear in my memory, though, is the day of the assassination, when my father came home from work late. I asked him, “Are you glad he’s dead?” I will never forget the look on my father’s face, standing there still in his raincoat, a look that I now understand was shock and realization. “No,” he said. “I didn’t agree with him, but killing someone is wrong.”
I was confused. My father loved watching people shoot each other on television shows. He loved watching men jump on each other during football games, and yelled “Get him, get him!” at the TV screen. He owned guns and loved to hunt, never hesitating to kill even the most beautiful creature. I heard many times how disgusted and angry he was at the people fighting for civil rights. The message I received was that black people were somehow lesser than white ones, that they had a place defined by white people within which they must remain, and that if they strayed outside it they were subject to wrath and violence. No one overtly told me that, but at 13 years of age I had absorbed it, as my father’s stricken face suddenly understood.
I’m sure my father did not think of himself as a racist. He was the first in his family to receive a college education, and was a rising young executive with a strong Catholic upbringing. He had a degree in public health and cared about issues like poverty and hungry children. He thought of himself as generous, a nice man. And so, in many ways, he was. He was also a racist of the most insidious, unconscious sort, and what was passed on to him was passed on to us.
I can thank the extraordinary, brave souls in the civil rights movement for shining a fine light not only on overt injustices, but also the flecks of assumptions and judgements that lurk like viruses within my family and me. Decades later, even after fighting my own battles against misogyny and homophobia, I still question whether I can ever be fully free of the poison of racism. To be white in America means that we inherit it, deeply embedded in our mental DNA, hidden from view and still shaping everything, from policy to personal relationships, law, reproductive and gun rights, elections, immigration, world peace. Everything. It is important to acknowledge it – racism drives us still. And we must break the transmission or we will never be fair, or just, or free. As Stephen Sondheim so wisely put it: “Careful the things you say, children will listen.”
Photo credit: National Education Association
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2018. Reuse with permission.