Thursday, September 8, 2011

The 60s and the South

We've been married 39 years as of a week ago last Saturday.
We had planned to attend an outdoor concert to celebrate, but it was canceled, so we didn't have any big ideas, though we thought maybe we'd have dinner and see a movie. But as it turned out, we had a trio of unexpected guests. Two were welcome, because they are our grandsons. But the third, not so much.
Her name was Irene.
With our son and daughter-in-law riding out the hurricane with friends, we asked to take the grandsons with us, thinking a brick hotel building might offer both a little more room and a lot more safety as the storm roared through. And for the most part, we enjoyed our 30-hour anniversary celebration with Cyrus and John, though I couldn't help thinking that someone like Norma Blewitt, who once edited a society page for the Star Courier, would have written it this way.
"Activities for the anniversary celebration included a number of unnecessary baths for the fun of playing in the tub, and several trips up and down the four-story stairway to burn up excess energy. At the lavish anniversary meal, guests were served Chef Boyardee ABC's & 123's and toasted cheese sandwiches, while the happy couple shared a frozen microwavable pasta dish obtained from the hotel convenience store that was of unknown origin and age. The evening concluded with the screening of a dramatic children's movie borrowed from the hotel's video library that caused the grandsons to shout in alarm at all the scary parts, the grandmother to cry at all the sad parts, and the grandfather to doze intermittently through all the parts."
I figured I still owed her one after that, so I offered to take her to the movie of her choice after we returned home to the beach. I knew in advance what we'd be seeing, as the book that preceded the film was one she enjoyed and shared with several of her friends.
"The Help" is a book about a book, telling the story of a young southern white woman who wants to be a writer. She decides to tell the "inside" story of black housemaids in early-1960's Mississippi, a process that would put both her and the ladies who helped her at great risk at times. According to my spouse, the film follows the book pretty closely, which would, I guess, make it a movie about a book about a book. I was expecting sort of a chick flick, but quickly found myself engrossed in the tale of the unlikely friendship that develops between the writer and the women she interviews. The film has some truly funny moments. But it was the description of the insidious kinds of prejudice that existed at the time, along with the horrifying outbursts of violence that marked that period in American history, that hit me right between the eyes. It was a disturbing, unwelcome memory of a time when segregation still ruled in the south and murder was a not-uncommon means to a cruel end.
We were, I know, both rather stunned by the memories and didn't have a lot to say as we walked out of the darkened theater.
As we started to leave the building, my wife discovered she had a voicemail message on her phone, so she stepped to a quiet corner to listen to it and return the call. Knowing it would be a few minutes, I took a seat on a bench near the exit and settled in to wait. Seated on the same bench was an African-American man about my age and a young boy of 10 or 12 or so, who looked to be his grandson. It soon became obvious they had just seen the same movie as me, as the grandson began asking questions.
"Who was Medgar Evers?" he asked, referring to the activist leader whose 1963 murder occurred in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for the movie and a part of the storyline.
The grandfather and I exchanged the first of several glances that seemed both knowing and a bit uncomfortable.
I imagine it's like that sometimes in the south.
There's a lot of history.
Not all of it is something to be proud of.
While son Patrick notes that the high school kids he teaches and coaches nowadays seem quite unconscious of race, it was not long ago that skin color was the absolute defining factor in the lives people led and the opportunities they received. Surely, that grandfather lived through a time when Jim Crow ruled the south, and schools, restaurants, and other so-called public places were separate and far from equal.
I listened as the grandfather began to recall some of the horrific events surrounding the civil rights movement of the early 60s. Part of me wanted to join in; to tell the man and boy that It wasn't my family or friends who held slaves and made rules and laws that kept a whole race of people subjugated for generations.
"No, It wasn't me," I wanted to say. "Not me."
But I didn't say anything.
It wasn't my conversation.
They weren't my memories.
Finally, the boy asked the essential question.
"How could people do that?" he asked. "Why did they act like that?"
The grandfather glanced my way again.
"There was just a lot of hate back then," he answered.
Again, I wanted to speak up. But I didn't know what to say, so I just nodded, mostly to myself. It wasn't until we were in the car and on our way home that I remembered the best thing about his conversation with his grandson telling about the prejudice and hate there was back then.
At least he said "was."

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