(An earlier version of this post was published at Daily Kos on March 29, 2015)
How often have I heard or seen this phrase, “I want my country back,” used over the years since I was born in 1956, in Raleigh, North Carolina? I can’t give you a precise number, but I can tell you that, though I’ve seen liberals employ these words on occasion over the six decades of my life, most of the time it has been the mantra of white male conservatives.
What do they mean when they say that? To which supposed golden age of America do they want to return? Who can say what is in the hearts of such people? But I have some ideas based on my experiences over the years.
As a child born in the middle of the Fifties in the South, I knew at an early age that some people were considered inferior to me. The signs were all around – literally. I remember once, when I was three or four, a white woman stopped me as I approached a drinking fountain, thirsty after being dragged around on a hot summer day by my mother on one of her shopping trips to Raleigh’s downtown. The woman, politely, but sternly, took hold of my arm, and told me I couldn’t use that fountain because it was for “colored people.”
My memory is a little vague after that, but I do recall talking with my mother about it later. She must have been embarrassed, for she had a hard time explaining why there were different water fountains for people based on the color of their skin. It didn’t make much sense to me as a child, and I imagine she had difficulty understanding how to explain the concept of racism to her incessantly curious little boy.
Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mom grew up in a place where such things did not exist, probably because there were so few black people living in the Northern Plains states, both then and now. She and my father moved to Raleigh the year of my birth because of his acceptance into North Carolina State University’s graduate program in statistics. To them, Raleigh, NC, was not only the biggest city in which either of them had ever lived, but it, and the entire state, were also, for all intents and purposes, a foreign country. People spoke differently, their manners were different, and most significantly, there were far more African-American people living there than either of them had ever seen before. Of course, no one used the term African-American back then. They were either called “coloreds” or “Negroes” in proper speech, or more informally (as one the neighbor kids I played with explained) simply “niggers.” ( I learned how to sing eeny, meeny, miney, moe, catch a nigger by his toe …” from the same children, no doubt because it was the version their parents had taught them).
What was most disorienting to my mother and father were the vast number of unwritten rules regarding how the two races were supposed to relate to one another, and the assumption that everyone, black and white, implicitly understood these rules, rules of which my parents were ignorant. For example, thanks to the poverty of so many “colored” folks, even my parents could afford to hire a maid to help clean our house twice a week after we moved to Cary, NC when I was three. Our maid, Annie, was about as light skinned as one could get and still be recognized as not white enough to pass. My mother had trouble from the get go with her, because while Annie knew the boundaries of what constituted acceptable behavior between a black maid and her white employer, my mother did not.
My mom was constantly wrong-footing herself with Annie, trying to do things like eat lunch with her or help Annie do her work, things Annie understood would be taken the wrong way had they been observed by other whites. She did her best to explain to Mom that such things just weren’t done, but my mother was stubborn, and didn’t see why she should treat Annie any differently than she would treat anyone else. To Annie, my mother was her white boss, a somewhat clueless if well-meaning one, but her boss nonetheless. To my mother, Annie was her friend, one to whom she felt closer to than many of the native white Carolinian housewives that lived all around us. Yet, even my mother had to face the reality of Annie’s situation at times.
Usually, after Annie finished her work for us, my mother would drive her to the closest bus stop where she could catch a ride home. Occasionally, Mom even drove Annie home, though my mother only learned to drive a car after she came to North Carolina (her father didn’t believe in women learning how to drive) and always felt a little anxious when she did so. What I remember most vividly from those visits was the difference between Annie’s home and mine.
I lived in a nice three bedroom one story brick home with a carport located in a new subdivision surrounded by similar homes where none of the mothers worked. Annie and her family lived in a hovel, a shack really, where every adult that could work did work, man or woman. We had a nice big yard with lots of grass, a pond out back and a gorgeous pine forest that backed up against the homes across the street from us. The yard Annie’s kids played in was bare dirt with a few weeds and a small flower garden near the front stoop.
Annie didn’t like having us stay very long when we dropped her off, but my mother usually insisted, believing it the courteous and friendly thing to do, and so I would play with Annie’s kids out in the dirt while my mother talked to Annie about her garden (they both had a passion for flowers) or sit on Annie’s stoop and drink a glass of water or iced tea, chatting away, oblivious to Annie’s own anxieties about our presence there.
One day, Annie missed her bus and she walked the two miles or so back to our home and asked if my mother could drive her instead. By this time the sun had set, and my mother, always fearful of driving in the dark – “It’s so easy to get lost out here,” she would say – suggested that Annie call her husband when he got off work to pick her up, as my father was working late at one of his part-time research jobs, and therefore unavailable. Annie did her best to explain why that wasn’t such a good idea, but my mother insisted she call him anyway. When she did, Annie’s husband asked to speak to my mother. He finally got the message through to Mom that a black man driving in a white neighborhood after dark was, shall we say, verboten. It was simply too dangerous. He was very nice about it, because by this time I’m sure Annie had explained my mother was a Yankee lady who didn’t know any better, but he made it clear that he would be risking arrest or worse if he came to pick up his wife from her job. So, my mother called my father, and he came and drove Annie home, instead. That day my mother learned a lesson about the life of her friend and other African-Americans in North Carolina – that segregation and racism were not merely minor annoyances for black people, that they could literally be matters of life or death.
One year, before our family moved away from North Carolina forever, the NAACP and other civil rights groups circulated a petition in our neighborhood. It contained a simple statement asking the state to dismantle the numerous legal barriers that prevented most blacks in the state from exercising their right to vote. My parents signed the petition. What my parents failed anticipate was that their neighbors would see my parents’ names on that list when the volunteers seeking signatures for the petition knocked on their doors, and what our neighbors’ reaction would be.
Within a day, my parents were shunned by all their so-called friends in our little development in Cary, and their children were prohibited from coming to our home to play with my siblings and I, and we were not allowed to visit our friends in the neighborhood at their homes. Eventually this “shunning” subsided so that once again we could play with the other kids, but the my parents’ relationships with our neighbors never really recovered from the incident. My folks had broken the single most important rule in southern society back in then – never, ever do anything to show support for the rights of colored people. In other words, never do anything to oppose the doctrine of white supremacy.
Since that time, over the course of my life I watched as the Civil Rights movement worked hard to end discrimination and enshrine equal treatment under the law for all races in voting, employment, housing and so forth, but that came only after years of arrests and brutal mistreatment of non-violent protestors and a major arm twisting effort on Congress by LBJ (one that he was not all that keen about). And despite court orders and the myriad laws on the books, and the acceptance by most whites that black people have the right to eat at the same restaurants and work at the same jobs as whites, de facto discrimination against African-Americans still exists. It’s in our schools, which are more segregated than ever, in our neighborhoods, in lending and banking practices, in employment, and most cruelly in the way the criminal justice system disproportionately treats black defendants vs. white defendants. So, while some things have “changed” for the better that improvement does not run very deep. Certainly, it’s been far less significant or ground-breaking than many people like to think.
We see the same situation played out in the other major civil rights struggles of our times, such as those for women and for LGBT people. A great deal of change in societal attitudes and in the law, but not as much real change as we like to believe in how people are treated. In fact, if anything, I have consistently seen a backlash year in and year out, over the course of my lifetime, regarding each advance in human rights for any group regardless of what color their skin is, what religion they practice or who they chose to love.
Many of you have grown up in an era where equal rights is assumed to be the norm, but let me assure you that for most of the history of our country, and I would argue, this includes the present time, that has not been the case. Feminism as a movement did not exist until the late 60s and early 70s. The movement for “Gay Rights” originated in the seventies, but really only began to see significant progress over the last 15 years or so. And the right to vote for all intents and purposes did not exist for black people when I was born, and schools all over the South were still legally segregated despite the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
So, when I hear someone say that they want to take their country back, I cannot help but look at the person making that statement and wonder, which country do they want? The one where corporations used police to bust up unions? The one where a lynching was a celebratory outing? The one that preached a woman should be happy staying home, raising the kids and catering to her husband’s every whim? The one where homosexuals hid their sexual orientation from all but their closest confidantes out of fear their careers and lives would be destroyed, and that they would be disowned by their families? The one where black people could not eat in the same restaurants at which white people ate, or drink from the same water fountains, or attend the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods or ….
I don’t want my country back. I want a better country. One that truly provides liberty and justice for all people. And I certainly don’t want a country where anyone can discriminate against anyone else of whom they do disapprove and escape liability for that immoral and otherwise unlawful act under any pretext, be it freedom of religion, racial superiority or traditional values.
I never want to go back to the country that existed when I was born. The one that exists now needs far too much improvement as it is.