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Inner Peace

2002-2003 Kris Rosenberg: Recalls being a self actualized child with an internal locus of control.

Trent Lott says: "You are who you are by virtue of where you were born." He grew up, he explained, in a racist atmosphere. He describes himself as a "product of time and place." I will tell you about my time born in 1931 and place, Birmingham, Alabama. My extended family were fairly typical, medium poor, Southerners: treat the "darkies" you know as people with kindness, although you fear the "inferior race."

Of course, there were those who had malice toward Black people, but my folks were mainly not malicious. If there were those who might have realized the awfulness of this legalized prejudice, they never said a word in my presence about their feelings. On the other hand, I recognized the coin of the realm: The man who came to put up the wallpaper was referred to (although not spoken to) as "Nigger George."

My father, a little boy in Prattville, Alabama small town, very poor, never said a word to me about race, nor did I ever hear him utter a foul word about anyone of color; I would remember. He climbed power poles for a living [as an electrician] and helped to start a union. He had never finished elementary school; his father had cut his own throat in the presence of the children. His mother, left with tuberculosis and five children, had to have the help of her kids to eat at all. My Dad had delivered milk with a horse-and-buggy driver.

My mother, who also did not finish elementary school, tended to rewrite history as she went. In her last years she didn't remember that she had ever been a racist. In our house there was a Dictionary, a Bible, and a novel which was hidden from my sight, about a White man and a "dark" woman.

When I was a little girl I was puzzled about the separate restrooms and drinking fountains in stores. I liked the little girl I talked to every morning our paths crossed as we went to "separate-but-equal" schools. Even at seven or eight I realized this separation was very odd; after all, Black people cooked food for White people, tended White babies, and hugged and kissed me when they came to work in our house. So what was this contamination thing?

When I was big enough to ride the bus, I saw people, including the drivers, moving the sign that said "Colored in the Rear" so far back that there were empty seats in the front, standing room only in back, and the bus could pause for only a second at bus stops as the driver quickly opened the door on the fly to tell some wet and freezing woman waiting to go to her $1 a day job that there was "no room."

When I was 9 or 10, I decided to move the sign myself; it had long spikes and fit into slots on the backs of the seats. So one day I picked it up (a little heavy) and moved it a few seats forward. I can still see the bus driver's eyes as he looked in the rear-view mirror. He was solemn and said nothing. No one stirred. The folks in back looked uneasiest of all. Why would anyone fear these beaten-down people? There was no Rosa Parks yet on that bus.

I loved them. As scarce as money seemed to be, we apparently could afford the low wage for a woman first Dorothy, then Leonato do laundry (no washing machine) and some cleaning. So could my cousin (whose helper was Zora) and my grandmother (like Lott, from Pascagoula Mississippi). These Black women loved me, too. My parents had to tell me there was no Santa Claus when I was five years old, because I realized what I got on Christmas was more than their poor children got certainly through no merit of my own. I felt guilty for it, and embarrassed.

Behind my grandmother's house were the houses for "Niggers," who later became "Negroes," with an accent on the first syllable 'Knee,' and spoken in half-joking, half-sneering tones; then "Colored people" (although the signs had always said "Colored," the people didn't) before they ever became Black. They lived in pitiful little shacks on the alley. One did hair in her house and I loved to sit leaning against the chain fence to listen to these interesting well, to me, fascinating women. Their conversations were so much livelier than the ones inside my grandmother's house. And they laughed more.

(Lest you think I am casting myself as some kind of saintly little girl, I am not and was not. I did all manner of naughty things, ranging from outright lying to shoplifting. No halo on that head.)

What I really want to tell came as an adult initiation rite. Registering to vote when I turned 21, I stood in the White line, which was short and swift. The separate Colored line was interminably slow those standing there were studying hard and quizzing each other, because of the hold-up that came at the end: they had to answer questions about the Constitution! And many had never had the advantage of learning to read. We "superior" ones were just asked for our identification. That shocked me, even living as I had all my life in segregation.

But the worst was the day of voting, where, in a booth (yes, we had booths then and there), I had to pull a lever imprinted with "White Supremacy" before I could cast my vote. This time I was stunned. How could I? And how could I not? I breathed a prayer for those Black people who had to face this humiliation. But nothing would have stopped my vote: I was mainly there to do something about their intolerable situation. I voted passionately for Adlai Stevenson. Maybe he could do something about this discrimination. He lost, of course.

But I carried the compassion these humble people brought forth from me and I have rejoiced always in the triumphs of their progeny. And I do still.

You don't have to grow up surrounded by right to understand the plight of people. Even a child can do it.

Publisher's note: Kris was a perfect example of an Internal Locus of Control. She could think for herself and act for herself.


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