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Writer’s Island: Time Travel

February 16, 2008

Having a childhood in the 50’s and 60’s, the thought of time travel provoked images of outer space and the great unknown. Now, being in my mid fifties, the thought of time travel takes me back to 1969, the year man made the first giant leap for mankind by stepping onto the moon. I still feel the anticipation watching the highly promoted televised event, all the while remembering that I had just moved back home from a five month lesson that contradicted the giant leap for mankind statement.

I should begin by stating as a teenager, I was not the sharpest tack in the box. I was raised in the sheltered white environment of Holmes County, Ohio. It would be the 1980’s before the first black residents of Holmes County would be permitted to remain residents. It’s not that I was completely unaware that people of color existed; I had history class in high school after all, although it was not one of my favorite subjects and thus never really learned too much regarding all the citizens of our country. I can honestly say, the terms of coloreds, black Americans, negro, or niggers were never used in my home. So, basically for me, black Americans did not exist. That is until at age 17, when my husband of seven months (like I said, not the sharpest tack) and I moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He was given the opportunity to attend the National Hardwood Lumber Inspection School, a five month program that provided quite an adventure for two very naïve teenagers from lower middle-class families in a lower educational-class community.

John and I packed up our 66 Ford Falcon and left for Memphis on Valentine’s Day 1969 in the middle of a winter storm. I still remember the excitement of driving through Columbus and Cincinnati. What huge cities they were! The further south we drove, I began to notice the people were different. They talked funny at the restaurant where we stopped to eat and some had very dark suntans. At one point during our drive, I asked John about why some of the people down here were so dark. His comment was a simple, “They are niggers, just don’t look at them or ever talk to them.” And that was the end of the conversation. I had come to trust his judgment (definitely not the sharpest tack) during our marriage and my interest in the color of people’s skin changed to how warm the weather had gotten. Yes, I was going to like living in Memphis!

We located our small duplex apartment on Faxon Avenue and met our landlady, who lived in the house next door. Mrs. Goolsby was a very friendly southern lady eager to help us get settled in, and who would prove to be very a formidable, if not knowlegible, teacher in the social studies lesson I was about to learn. She introduced us to the two boys living in the adjoining apartment, also students at the lumber inspection school and also to a new found treat, Kentucky Fried Chicken! Yes, I was definitely going to like living in Memphis.

We had been living in Memphis about a week or so, when the need to do laundry finally reared its ugly head. I had never gotten used to going to the laundromat the past seven months, after having a washer and dryer “at home,” and I put off going until the last pair of underwear was taken out of the dresser. I bagged up the dirty laundry and stopped by Mrs. Goolsby’s to get directions to the nearest laundromat, which as luck would have it, was only two blocks away. As I entered the laundromat, I noticed it looked a little different from the one I used back in Millersburg, Ohio. There was a laundry attendant, as in 1969 the coin changing machines were not invented yet and every laundromat had an attendant to change dollar bills and sell laundry soap. It also had the same basic setup with two rows of washing machines, back-to-back down the center of a long room with a row of clothes dryers across the aisle from each row of washing machines. However, on the wall at the end of each aisle was a sign. One aisle had a sign which said, “Whites Only” and the other aisle a sign stating, “Coloreds.”

Hmmm. . . this was different I thought to myself, but being the law abiding person that I was, I went to the ‘Whites Only” side and proceeded to load my white clothes into a washer. After adding the detergent and the coins into the machine, I picked up my bag and went to the other side of the laundromat and put our colored clothes into a washer. As I was beginning to load our towels, the laundry attendant came running over and promptly demanded, “Honey child, what are you doing on this side of the laundermat?” “You tell me!” I answered back in a huff (like I said, I hated going to the laundromat), “I do not understand why I can’t just use the washers on one side for all my laundry. What possible difference can the color of my clothes make to a washing machine?” The laundry attendant took a step back and proceeded to look me over, as if I had two heads or something. “You’re not from around here, are you?” she asked, in a much lowered voice. “No, I am not.” I assured her, “And, in Millersburg, Ohio, we don’t have to use different washing machines for different colors of clothes. Are the dryers particular too?”

I could hear a chuckle coming from the attendant as she began to unload my colored clothes from the washing machine, “Let me help you here,” she began, “You need to understand something. The signs,” pointing at the wall, “are not for the color of the clothes but for the color of the people. White people like us need to use that side. This side is for the niggers, you know the colored people.”  Ahhh, I thought and followed her back over to the “Whites Only” side and began reloading my colored clothes. After a few minutes of pondering this new and very curious information I asked, “What difference does it make to the washing machines what the color of the people are?” Now the attendant was barely able to contain her amusement of my naïveness and proudly enlightened me with, “It’s not the washing machines who care, but the people. We white people don’t want the niggers using the same things we use.” she said pointing to another sign I had not yet noticed:

restroom1.jpg

  I finished my laundry, using the “Whites Only” washers and dryers and headed back to our apartment. I stopped by Mrs. Goolsby’s to share my new found knowledge and was given an in depth lesson in social studies. Being true to the old south, Mrs. Goolsby shared how we, the real Americans, did these colored people a favor by taking them out of their jungles of Africa and brought them to America and all we asked in return was for them to be our slaves. We gave them good homes, food to eat and clothes to wear, which was more than they had in Africa. Now it seems, after a hundred years or so, the colored people didn’t like this arrangement and have been making “a fuss” over having rights. “Rights!” I can still hear her exclaim, “Rights are for Americans, they are niggers, they don’t have rights. They didn’t even have clothes until we gave them some. They couldn’t read or write until we taught them how to. Now they want rights! They need to learn to be grateful for what we have done for them.” Mrs. Goolsby went on to suggest it would be best if I did not venture too far from the apartment without John as she was concerned for my safety since I didn’t seem to fully understand what she was telling me about the coloreds. About six weeks later, on April 4th, when John came home from school, I told him about how it had been on television all day that white people were to stay in our homes and to not go outside, even to sit on our front porch. It seems there was some kind of a big rally downtown about some guy getting killed a year ago. We ate our dinner and continued to watch the news on television. At some point, we got the bright idea to drive downtown to see what the big deal was all about. Who was this Martin Luther King, Jr. guy and why couldn’t we take a drive if we wanted to (absolutely not the sharpest tacks)?  Needless to say, two white people in a white car driving down Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee in the middle of the rally on the anniversary of the murder of the pivotal leader of the American Civil Rights movement to end segregation and discrimination of black Americans was not well received, by the colored people. Our ignorance was perceived as belligerence. Our car was surrounded and pounded upon. We were lucky to have gotten away from the extremely hostile crowd. I was scared to death and John’s, “See, what did I tell you? You got to stay away from those stupid niggers.” began to make some sense.  At that point, I was beginning to see what John and Mrs. Goolsby had been saying, and made sure to keep my distance from the coloreds throughout the remaining months as residents in Memphis. I did not completly accept the distorted view of the coloreds. It just never made sense to me that the color of a person’s skin automatically made him a good person or a bad person.  For someone who had never been aware of a whole group of people for 17 years, the next eight years proved to contain nothing but negative information and further distortions. Then in the winter of 1977, I gained an entirely different perspective after watching the miniseries, Roots. What Mrs. Goolsby had presented as a welcomed relocation and career move for the Africans, was actually a kidnapping and forced slavery, among other horrific acts. And as moving as the miniseries was, I had also come to realize that my husband, of now nine years, was not the all knowing and all trustworthy person I had originally thought him to be. In fact, I had come to distrust many of his opinions. And now, almost thirty years later, I see that it wasn’t that I wasn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but that I had never been allowed out of the box – the box of ignorance and silent bigotry, which was the foundation of child rearing skills in Holmes County, Ohio. Throughout the time travel of prejudices these past thirty years, I have questioned what was never spoken in my childhood and what has been regurgitated as racial discrimination ever since, and I have come to the conclusion that I was right in the first place. There is no difference to the washing machine as to the color of the clothes or the color of the people washing the clothes, because there is no difference. There are good and bad in all colors of people. We white Americans just need to cleanse ourselves of the filth of bigotry.

For more interesting views on the prompt, Time Travel please read:

JustJen      Keith Hillman       Crafty Green Poet       Selma in the City   Gautami Tripathy        Linda Jacobs     Anthony North     Tumblewords      preethi   UL   Jeques   Constance   peepakthe assassin   Little Wing

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2008 3:41 pm

    This is fantastic! You could get this published in newspapers, well everywhere!
    What a terrific perspective of both sides of the issue. I grew up in a small farming community and my first black friends were straight from nigeria. hubby and I went over and said hi and they were so happy they practically leaped at us. Apparently, not one white person had said hi to them in months and they always seemed uncomfortable and to think, this was in the 90’s! Now, we live in a rich multicultural city and nobody thinks anything of anybody…the washing machine doesn’t care….
    I so loved this insightful story! thanks for sharing!

    ~Thank you Jen for your kind words of praise. And it was so good of you to offer a hand of friendship. We need more people like you in this world.

  2. February 16, 2008 7:48 pm

    What a fascinating and thought provoking piece. I cant speak for the US, but here in England ‘closset’ racism is very much alive and kicking. It has no public voice, in fact in certain circumstances it’s illegal. But I work in a pub where a black person would look out of place, and racist talk, racist jokes and genaral intollerence is a discussion topic nightly. It’s worrying to say the least.

    ~ Thank you Keith, it is interesting to know racism is alive and well across the ocean. Even today, after all I have seen, I still do not understand how one person can dislike another simply because of the color of their skin.

  3. February 16, 2008 8:51 pm

    I think this was a great piece as well. I live in Savannah, and down here the roles are reversed. The white people are the ones that are being treated differently, and I understand that there were things that happened in the past that weren’t right, and racial stuff, but I get kind of upset when people treat me unfairly because of something the idiots I call “ancestors” did. Can’t we all just get along? I mean, really. 🙂

    But, that’s just my .02!

    ~ You present a very good point Morgan. As bad as our “ancestors” were, and they were beyond bad when it comes to slavery, it is equally as bad if not more so to have the reverse happening today when everyone knows better. We have all seen and know the effects of racism, when does it stop!

  4. February 16, 2008 9:05 pm

    I love this story, Finally I get to see it in print! Very well written! When are you going to tell us about Elvis? I am waiting…BTW, I did think of you in Tombstone, you would have loved it! I can’t wait for you to come out for a visit so you can she all the pictures and literature!……….HUGS!

    ~ I considered trying to work meeting Elvis in this story since this is the time frame of our meeting, but I thought it would ruin the effect I was going for. I am also considering talking to John to see if he will give me one of our pictures, or at least copies, after all these years. Of course you know how hard that is going to be for me to ask him for anything, but I think I am ready to bite the bullet (better bite on it so I don’t shoot him with it LOL). I loved the pictures on your blog of Tombstone. I do have 4 days of vacation this year so I am hoping to get out your way over a long weekend. Are you visiting Tim’s kids while you are out and about? Blessings, Cricket

  5. February 16, 2008 10:54 pm

    What a wonderful story, and lesson you share here.

    I’m moved by it even more so having had a great conversation with my 11 year old Niece just the other day. “I don’t understand,” she told me. “Why would people choose not like someone just because their skin was a different color?” I hope that all people will ask this question with the innocence and wisdom that she did. “You’re right not to understand,” I told her. “It makes so sense at all.”

    And it brings me to a great quote I heard a few years back…when it comes to issues of race and bigotry..it all stems from ignorance “but if you’re ignorant and ENJOYING it….now THAT’s stupidity!”

    Blessings!

    ~ Thank you for visiting today. And how wonderful about your neice. Your quote on stupidity is right on target – it is one thing to not know better and a whole different thing to know and do it anyways. Blessings, Cricket

  6. February 17, 2008 3:49 am

    Very interesting story, with lots to say, also so well written. Racism and bigotry are still alive unfortunately, and lots of people are shut up in little boxes, not allowed to see things for themselves.

    ~ Thank you for visiting today and for your kind praise. Yes, thinking out of the box is very rare.

  7. February 17, 2008 7:20 am

    This was a brilliant story and proves that racism/bigotry is a learned response. It is such a shame racism exists, it causes such misery and suffering. I think you write really well and I am very much looking forward to sharing more of your experiences. Thank you.

    ~ Thank you for visiting and for your words of praise and encouragement. Yes, because of my personal experience I know racism and bigotry are learned. I absolutely loved your fiction account for this prompt. It was exciting to read.

  8. February 17, 2008 10:35 am

    One very strong post. I would say, people like you are needed in this world who know right from the wrong. Segregation dou to colour, caste, creed is nothing new. In my country, that is India, casteism plays a major role. And politicians play the religion card.

    I fight for the rights of children who are the most ignored in India.

    ~ Thank you for visiting. How sad to learn the USA does not have a market on segregation. And good for you for standing up for the children. Blessings, Cricket

  9. February 17, 2008 12:43 pm

    Is this story copyrighted or anything because I’d love to use it as supplemental material when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird. It is so well written! Thanks!

    ~ Thank you so much – for you to want to use my writing for teaching the youth of today, would be such an honor for me. I would love to talk to you about using this piece.

  10. February 17, 2008 12:44 pm

    This is a brilliant post. The race issue is complex indeed, if we allow it to be. Yet commonsense, and a sense of oneself with all, cuts straight through the crap.
    Loved it.

    ~ Thank you for visiting and for your words of praise. I am becoming so inspired by all these compliments!

  11. February 17, 2008 2:20 pm

    Excellent writing and wise post! Many people haven’t a clue about that part of history – it’s still being distorted and carried forward. Thanks!

    ~ Thank you for visiting and for your words of praise. The interesting part of my story is it happened in 1969. To read history books today, one would think segregation ended many years earlier, but I know different, I was there and I saw it with my own eyes. It makes me wonder what else has been altered in our history books.

  12. February 17, 2008 2:39 pm

    What an incredibly powerful essay you’ve written, even more so because it comes from the perspective of someone who lived through it and didn’t just read about it.

    The times and target group may change, but sometimes ignorance and intolerance just jump up and scream to be heard. Just today another mother at the playground saw a somewhat effeminate teenager and went off for 20 minutes about homosexuals in a shockingly ignorant way very reminiscent of your Mrs. Goolsby. I stuck up for tolerance and diversity, but I doubt very much she heard a word I said.

    Sigh…

    ~ Sadly, you are probably correct. Those with closed minds can not hear, they can only talk.

  13. February 17, 2008 7:43 pm

    Very interesting and thought provoking…racism is so shocking.. and it is all the more powerful to read a first hand essay on it. Brilliant!

    read my take I live on…

    ~ Thank you for visiting and for your praises. I did read your poem on the creature who spans all the years of travel. Very interesting.

  14. February 18, 2008 2:36 pm

    Thanks for stopping by my blog which in turn brought me to yours and this wonderful post. ..you have voiced your opinions so beautifully, racism still exists, applause to you to point it out and make a stand…thank you for sharing.

    ~ You are most welcome, and please, visit again.

  15. February 19, 2008 4:15 am

    I, too, am colored having brown skin being an asian. It is great to know your perspective being white reading this post. I am an immigrant and only a year and 4 months here in Chicago when I moved in 2006 from the Philippines. My stay so far is great, I have few encounters with racism but not as worse as it used to be as you told them in this article.

    I wish you well.

    ~ Jeques

    ~ It genuinely pleases me you have not encountered the racism our country is noted for.

  16. February 19, 2008 1:46 pm

    A wonderfully heartfelt piece! I enjoyed this very much. Great job. 🙂

    ~ Thank you for visiting and for your kind words.

  17. February 20, 2008 12:44 pm

    Well written piece, and interesting. Thanks for sharing this piece of your life, time traveling!

    ~ And thank you for your visit and very kind words.

  18. February 20, 2008 5:22 pm

    memphis, right in the thick of things.. just recently saw a tv program called banished… blacks kicked out of their own homes, leave or be killed..lost everything..including their land… it was in harrison county arkansas… i think… and reading this today… it is a sad, sad day that it continues

    ~ I must point out this story happened in 1969, hopefully it is not the norm of today.

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