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Monday, July 22, 2013
South Carolina in the ’50s was a mean place. My family on both sides had deep roots there. My great grandfather fought in the Civil War, or as my grandmother always said, “The War Between the States.” She was a proud member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, and I got to dress up in costume and serve cookies at their meetings. Wade Hampton was considered a saint by my grandmother. (Hampton was a Civil War hero and leader of the Red Shirts, a vigilante group known for violence.) Both my parents were highly educated and very prejudiced.
By the age of 6, I knew something was badly amiss with the Southern way of life. At that age, I was told that I was too old to play with the black children who lived nearby on my great uncle’s farm. Around that time, I asked my father if black people went to heaven. He replied that of course they did if they were Christians. I then asked, “Well, why don’t we all go to church together here?” His answer was that black people liked to be with “their own kind.”
I was fascinated by that forbidden culture. It seemed to me that black people had some secret I didn’t know. I found ways to hang around the black people who worked for my parents. I was told to address them by their first names while they called me “Miss Lila.” I was not allowed to address any white adult by her first name, of course.
Viola came once a week to iron our clothes. Since she ironed clothes in the basement, my mother didn’t hear our conversations. Viola taught me a lot, all about life. Conversations I never had with my too proper mother.
My father was proud of his treatment of the people who worked for him. As children we were expected to show respect to them at all times. My father often said that he “took care of his people.” To his credit, he did. He saw to it that the county, at last, ran electric lines to Viola’s house. When “Wheaty” got too old to work on the farm, my father bought a little house for him and gave him a life estate in the house. According to my father, it would have been too much to just give him the deed because he might sell it.
My father even saved the life of a young black man. One day my father was on his tractor in the field near the highway. He heard gunfire and was shocked to see a state trooper shooting at a young black man running across the field. My father immediately ran the tractor between the trooper and the black man. He yelled at the trooper to hold his fire. Then he yelled at the black man and said, “Son, get over here before that damn fool kills you.” He told the trooper that he expected no more problems. “I better not read in the paper about this boy being shot or beat up.”
My father was friends with a local policeman who had a billy club with notches on it, 13 in all, one for every head he had cracked open. It was a mean time.
I got to see the Jim Crow laws up close and personal. Years later, when I was teaching a history lesson to some middle school students, they did not believe that such times existed. “Black people couldn’t use a public rest room? Really?”
During my college years, I worked in a local department store. One day an elderly black lady approached me and asked to use the rest room, as she was ill. One of the older sales ladies overheard her and told her she just needed to “go on home.” Such was our daily life.
By the age of 12, I was having arguments with my father all the time. I was aware of what was going on all over the South, and I was delighted. I was an early admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King. If I had had enough courage, I would have joined a march in Selma or some place. To this day, I am sorry that I didn’t.
Some black people may not quite understand that today I feel that I, too, was a victim of that time. I never had any black friends growing up. A rich culture was all around me, but I only got minor glimpses of it.
In my parents’ circle, women never used obscene words. Period. Children didn’t either, unless they were fond of having a bar of lye soap shoved down their throats.
Only men were allowed to use racial slurs. Black people, poor white people, Catholics, most anybody who was different (not a white Protestant) were all targets of colorful slurs such as “cotton dolly.” A “cotton dolly” was a woman who worked in the cotton mills. She was probably also “poor white trash.”
So I refuse to say, “We are Paula Deen.” I never was. I grew up in the same sort of environment, yet I understood that the “Southern way” had to change. It was Deen’s responsibility to maintain the proper work environment at any restaurant she owned.
When she added “of course” to her response concerning her use of that particular racial slur, I saw red. I can condemn her for not seeing the error of her parents’ ways and hers a lot sooner. That word was not used by my mother ever. It was not the norm in every household. Deen should have just said, “Yes, I did. I’m deeply sorry.”
So am I.
Weather JournalEarly mix, then ice storm Sunday