Not long ago, my mother told my children a story that I had heard many times growing up. It concerned the time that she—19 at the time—and my grandmother decided to take the bus from New York City to Miami, Florida purely out a sense of whimsy. My grandfather had just died and I guess they needed a distraction. One hundred hours on a Greyhound bus? I’d call that a distraction. My mother grew up in Brooklyn, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic enclave in the late 1950’s. I don’t have a clear sense as to whether the races and different ethnicities mingled all that much, but I do know that there was nothing like what she and my grandmother experienced on their way down to Florida. My mother told my kids that once the bus crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the bus driver stopped the bus and forced a group of African-American children to go to the back of the bus where they would sit for the rest of the ride. My mother and my grandmother were shocked; in New York, sure there was racial tension, but African-Americans, for the most part, had the same freedoms as whites. (Oh, except for that pesky right to vote without jumping through ridiculous hoops. That would come later.) Even further along the journey, some place in South Carolina, the bus driver stopped the bus so that the passengers could eat lunch before resuming the trip. My mother and grandmother headed down the street, saw a diner, and walked in, preparing to sit down to order lunch. The lunch counter worker sadly explained to them that he wouldn’t be able to serve them but helpfully suggested an all-white diner a few doors down where they could get lunch. The diner, you see, was “colored-only.”
The memories of seeing the faces of the kids forced to the back of the bus and the people sitting at the lunch counter—looking at my mother and grandmother as if they were crazy even to enter a “colored only” establishment—have stayed with my mother all these years. She remembers segregated restrooms: men, ladies, and “colored-only,”—unisex, obviously; she remembers “colored-only” water fountains; and she remembers other forms of discrimination that were foreign to her. My mother and grandmother were quite sure how to act or behave in this alternate world, this bizarre society. They made it to Florida, encountered their first palmetto bug, and went right back to the Greyhound bus station, where they hopped the first bus that would bring them back to New York.
Despite its problems, their hometown city didn’t seem so bad.
My mother got married a few years later and would have her bridal shower in 1961 at my uncle’s house in Brooklyn. Her pictures from that day show a diverse crowd of women—there was Nasha, a gorgeous opera singer working part-time at Gimbel’s in sales to make a living. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants. There as my beautiful Aunt Dorothy, a Julie Andrews-lookalike who had the most mellifluous speaking voice, touched with an English accent. And there was Birdie, a stunning African-American woman in a black sheath dress and a chignon, who to me—a girl growing up in a lily white town—looked like an exotic queen with her high cheekbones and wide smile. And there was a Blanche, another co-worker of my mother’s from Gimbel’s, who like Birdie, was a fabulously-chic African American woman, dressed to the nines, as women did in the ‘60s, for this festive event. In one picture, Birdie and Blanche are smiling and holding one of the ridiculously-constructed bow hats that many engaged women are forced to wear at their bridal showers. I remember looking at the picture, and not having met any African-American people at this point in my life—it was probably 1970—I was struck by the friendship that existed between all of these women, from disparate backgrounds. This was not a “whites-only” event; it was an event that brought a group of joyous coworkers together to celebrate the special event to take place in my mother’s life. And there is no color—except maybe yellow or gold, the colors of joy—to describe this event and how the radiance of all of the guests jumped off the page and out of that photo.
At the time of the shower, neither Birdie nor Blanche had probably never voted given the disenfranchisement that was rampant at the time.
I think that experiences like the ones my mother had south of the Mason-Dixon line and in the diner in South Carolina change you forever. Sometimes they change you for the good, sometimes not. I’ve heard people say that Barack Obama is really biracial and perhaps not officially African American. All I can say is that as a child, he would have been forced to the back of the bus once it passed into Confederate territory, and he would have been allowed to sit at the counter at the diner in South Carolina, probably watching my embarrassed grandmother and mother slink out of the establishment, ashamed of their ignorance, but moreso, ashamed by their country.
It has been a momentous week and I’m not sure that the magnitude of what we have experienced has sunk in yet. My children were surprised, horrified, and not at all believing in the story that my mother had to tell. And I’m glad for all three of those reactions. Their disbelief is understandable because the world that my mother and I grew up in is one that was vastly different from the one they are growing up in today. Their horror at hearing how others were treated may lead them never to malign or slight anyone again, I hope. But most importantly, their surprise is best of all. Because in their world, there is no reason that a woman, a Jew, a Muslim, or an African American can become president. Some day, maybe we’ll look beyond sex, religion, and/or race.
And look at that: we already have.
Let us with a fixed, firm, hearty, earnest, and unswerving determination move steadily on and on, fanning the flame of true liberty until the last vestige of oppression has been destroyed, and when that eventful period shall arrive, when, in the selection of rulers, both State and Federal, we shall know no North, no East, no South, no West, no white nor colored, no Democrat nor Republican, but shall choose men because of their moral and intrinsic value, their honesty and integrity, their love of unmixed liberty, and their ability to perform well the duties to be committed to their charge. (From a speech delivered in 1872, by Jonathan J. Wright, Associate Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.)