My mother and father grew up in segregation. Mickey and Miami have fooled people into thinking otherwise, but Florida is and always was a Southern state. My father was born during the Baby Boom and lived in a shotgun house on the brother side of Jacksonville, the youngest of four siblings. His older brother, Julian, made a name for himself as a local swimming champ up at the Jefferson Street Pool, putting paid to the notion, at least in our neck of the woods, that black folks don’t know how to swim. Their father told them that they should grow up and become morticians and therefore make money in an industry with infinitely promising growth potential. None of them ever did.
My mother was born in 1938 and was a year old by the time Gone With the Wind debuted in Atlanta, Hitler invaded Poland, and Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit.” A convoluted family tree with French, German, Cherokee, and West African roots culminated in a pale-skinned, freckled yella gal born in Jacksonville with Negro listed as the race on her birth certificate, in accordance with the then-codified one-drop rule. An only child with a ponytail pulled by love-haters, both black and white, who thought she thought she was all that because her hair would blow in the wind, my mother tested the boundaries of the system by drinking from whites-only water fountains and putting things on layaway at whites-only department stores.
Jacksonville had simmering racial tensions, but not full-blown strife like in Lake City or Waycross or Saint Augustine. Black folks could do well-enough there. Three black universities in the region spawned a professional class only a few decades out of slavery, and the Negroes of Duval County, Florida, didn’t really care that they were banned from Jacksonville’s beaches; they had their own black-owned beach resort one county up at American Beach. The numbers were large enough to ensure relative safety and even some success. Believe it or not, Jacksonville was kinda live back in the day, so much so that Zora Neale Hurston sent Janie and Tea Cake to the city for work in Their Eyes Were Watching God and the original stage production of Carmen Jones was set at a local parachute factory during the War.
In fact, my father, a shade of brown I usually describe as coffee regular, while recognizing the nationwide struggles of black folk throughout his youth, doesn’t recall a single incident of racial profiling, police harassment, or even sly shade thrown his way by whites during the time before integration—afterwards being a different story. But then, he never ventured far beyond the boundaries of Blacksonville, which extended over to Tallahassee and down to Daytona Beach, where you’d go for college.
Jacksonville had simmering racial tensions, but not full-blown strife like in Lake City or Waycross or Saint Augustine. Black folks could do well-enough there.
It was my mother, with the ponytail that turned reddish-gold in summer, who had left Florida for college and had been called into the university president’s office to meet the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, who had been convinced the school had integrated without his knowledge when he saw her leading the marching band during a parade. She’d been the one who had to move to the colored car on the train headed home after visiting relatives in New York, once the train crossed the Potomac into Virginia. She’d been the one whose first husband, a dark-skinned preacher’s boy who taught math or chemistry or both at Jackson State, had been stopped and questioned by the cops for driving a white woman around in his car, until the white woman produced her ID card bearing “Negro.” Of course, then, the incredulous patrolman followed them home and waited outside their house for several hours just to be sure. She’d been the one who dined at Myrlie and Medgar’s house before Medgar ended up a martyr.
I asked her once how she didn’t become bitter in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. She said it had a lot to do with her upbringing. She was taught that if someone was nice to you, regardless of their color, then there was no reason not to be friendly back to them. And if they had a problem, it was just that: their problem.
And when integration finally came to Jacksonville, barely a decade before I was born and after much stalling and interference by state and local officials under the banner of “states’ rights,” both of my parents worked as teachers in a public school system strained from forced busing and forced integration.
They married shortly thereafter, my father’s father launching into an endearing and thoughtful treatise on the challenges that an interracial couple would face in the early 1970s, until Pops told him Moms was incognegro. They were the third black family to move into our neighborhood.
Soon, I came along, a Born Free, to borrow a South African phrase, unburdened with the ostensible legal shackles of segregation and with two parents who I never, ever once heard judging a group of people by the actions of an individual. It was these same parents who exposed me, as a young child, to James Brown and Johannes Sebastian Bach, to reading and languages and unconventional experiences and people of different shades, hues, tones, and colors.
By the time I was ten years old, all the white families in the neighborhood had moved away except one, and when the Johnsons finally left five or six years later, they sat with my parents and told them they were moving out west to be with their children, not because the demographics of the neighborhood had changed. I’ll always remember Mr. Johnson because he cut his hedges into geometric and animal shapes. Every Christmas, Mrs. Johnson would make her own M&Ms and give them to the neighborhood kids as presents.
As I grew older, I learned that it was society that called me nigger and followed me around in stores and stopped me for invented infractions. It was society that allowed my school to have raggedy facilities and second-hand textbooks, that defunded education, privatized health care, criminalized poverty. It was society that continued the extermination of young black men, now by bullet if not by rope.
How, Mama, in the throes of an unfinished Civil Rights Movement do I not become bitter?
Easy. By remembering Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. And Mrs. Fackler, the English teacher who introduced young black kids at a hood school to Faulkner and Hughes. And Cyndi, my blonde bombshell of a homegirl from Middle Georgia who gets crap from her family because she calls them out every single time they say nigger. And Benjamin, my former partner from East Germany who would ask me to bring bottles of Carol’s Daughter hair products for him to foist on his Afro-German friends who were ashamed of their natural kinks. By remembering the people in my life who don’t necessarily look like me, but who do more than just tweet and co-opt and appropriate and self-congratulate. The ones who fight, in ways big and small, through education, exposure, or just a humane gesture in a hostile environment. By remembering the people who listen with empathy, then do their part, even if that just means standing aside for a moment.
By remembering my upbringing and the example set by my parents and their parents. By remembering that together, we are better.