Was raised several hours east of the Prime Meridian and well south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Would have been born there but Mom and Dad were away from what was then the family homestead for education reasons. So was actually born closer to, but still south of, the Mason-Dixon Line. If you know your geography and have followed any of this blog, you know that this was at the time of my birth a time and region of strong racial tensions between white and black America. But in my home, and quite frankly, in my daily life, at least as a young child, I did not experience the tension.
A bit of background. Paternal grandfather was from Wiltshire stock. Actually born near Waterford. Yep, as Ireland as there is. I will return to that later, it is another part of this story. Never totally understood the whole story of the location of his birth. His family home was north of Belfast. Great-grandfather was a ship captain. While Granddad spent most of his youth in Northern Ireland, I always knew him as English by background. Grandmother likewise. To make a long story very, very short, we have Irish Linen, Canada, horse-drawn sleds in winter, officer in the War to End All Wars, oranges, and my father in the Sunshine State several weeks old. Maternal side is also distinctly not Old South. Maternal grandfatherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s background includes Gen. Lew Wallace down the street (he wrote Ben Hur), U.S. Cavary, chasing Pancho Villa, show jumping, retiring to Sunshine State after Second World War just because he and grandmother had met someone there. GrandmotherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s family had been Pennsylvania-New Jersey so many generations back they stopped counting. So if anything, by background and genetics I am a Yankee-Brit. And this is the environment in which I was raised.
Somewhere around the age of six to eight I first really became aware that I lived in a segregated society. There were African-Americans all around. For various reasons I knew some of them. There were African-American children I would play games with. The fact that they were not in school somehow had not registered. But I was starting to read. Picking it up pretty quick. Mom took me down to the ice cream stand (sure wish my body wasn’t starting to react to sugar like it is - really like ice cream!). On the side of the stand - it was the old style walk up window, no place to sit inside - there were two white porcelain water fountains. Well I could now read the black painted words written above the water fountains. I remember to this day my confusion. I had to ask my mother why they would call one while water fountain “White” and another white fountain “Colored”. Being the gentle, open person my mother was, she completely explained to me what this was all about. I have never been able to accept the Old South the same way since that day. Every time I see some fool flying the Stars and Bars in front of their house, or on the back of the truck, I feel a fair amount of disgust.
Not too many years after the water fountain incident, my paternal great aunt came to visit from London. Wonderful lady. But she said something, in total jest I fully believe, that taught me a lot about national biases. In the middle of an extended family gathering my grandfather’s sister turned to him and called him “the Irish side of family”. I had never seen such a look from my grandfather and never saw it again from this very distinguished gentleman. His back straighten, his face became very stern, his voice deepened, and he said very slowly, “English to the backbone.” He said nothing else but there was no missing the message even at my very young age.
As you might guess from my background, I really am not part of any group that is the normal target of slurs, discrimination, the like. I probably should be considered one of the privileged. No matter my intensions it is so easy to accidentally say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing. So about all I can promise is that I will not wear orange six days from now.
Is Still Here