Tearing at the Fabric of Racism

A year or two ago, my son, Sreejit, wrote a poem called A Couple of Brats.  The first line stated: “A political statement until they had us,” referring to the births of his sister and himself, kids with a white mother and a black father.  While I knew that line was true, at least to some degree, his poem still gave me plenty to reflect on.  Recently, I have been thinking of the events that occurred throughout my life that led me to make that particular “political statement.”

Karuna and Al

The earliest memory I have of experiencing racism was when I visited Florida during my early grade school years.  I grew up moving place to place in an Army family, but my mother’s home was in West Palm Beach, Florida.  When we visited there one year, probably about 1955, we had occasion to get on a city bus.  As a kid, it had been my experience that the best seats were at the back of the bus so, as always, I rushed to that prized area.  Once seated, I looked towards the front of the bus and saw the look of horror on my mother’s face.  She gestured me to come to the front of the bus, NOW!  I couldn’t imagine what was wrong but obeyed her command.  When I discovered the reason behind her demand, I was FURIOUS.  How could they treat black people, known as coloreds or Negros in those days, in such a manner?  I also remember during that time whenever we drove through the black part of town, it was referred to as N*****town.  I was disgusted, but to the southern whites of that era, it was just the normal way to speak, they knew no other.

My parents retired to West Palm Beach just before my Junior year in high school.  The following Summer, 1965, our church youth group took a trip from WPB to Seattle and back studying “Beliefs Men Live By.”  The youth minister, who was pretty revolutionary, had arranged for two black teenagers to participate in the journey.  During that period there was never any mixing of races, so that type of trip was a really big deal for both the white and black teenagers.

The minister had a difficult time finding a white family to host the black teenagers the night before we left West Palm Beach.  The white families were afraid, knowing their neighbors would have strongly disapproved.  Luckily, my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ted stepped forward to provide the necessary shelter.

The next morning we began our adventure.  I believe it was the first night, when we passed through Americus, Georgia, we glimpsed a Klu Klux Klan meeting through the trees.  That was frightening for everyone.  The van driver ordered the black teenagers to lie flat on the floor until we could get way out of town.  I remember having a strong sense we were being followed.

One of the nights early in the trip, we stopped for the night at Tougaloo College, a black college in Mississippi.  It was the first time any of us had experienced what it’s like to be in the minority in a racially divided group.  During the evening we met with a group of the college students and had an interesting dialogue.

A year later, I moved to Seattle to study Nursing. After I graduated from college in 1970, three female friends and I decided to spend the summer working as migrant farm laborers.  We would start in Florida, work up the east coast (Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania) and then head back to Washington State.  We had a multitude of experiences that summer.

Migrant worker- me!We had serious car trouble on the way to Florida, so it took us more than a week to get there.  After having more car problems once we arrived in Florida, there was no money left to take our trip.  We spent a week washing windows, cleaning houses and porches and selling flowers.  Next, we found a job picking oranges in Belle Glade for a few days.  At night, we stayed in a heavy canvas tent.  In Florida heat, the temperature inside the tent was intolerable, so the tent went no further with us.

Each morning, we left the campsite at 5 a.m. and joined the bus taking the farm workers to the orchard.  We were the only white people on the bus, but everyone was so nice to us.  Once at the orchard, each woman was paired with a man.  The men used a 20 foot ladder to pick the oranges high in the tree; the women picked the lower ones.  During the days we worked in Belle Glade, the four of us earned between $17-31.  We figured it took 30 oranges to earn 1 cent.  We came back to my parents’ house in West Palm Beach, exhausted but feeling successful and ready for our big trip.

Atlanta festivalOur first stop was Byron, Georgia where we attended the Atlanta International Pop Festival, along with more than 200,000 other people!  We had to park 3 miles away and hike in.  There was no shade to speak of and it was 104 degrees.  We ended up 30 feet from the stage!  The artists I remember most were Jimi Hendrix, Chambers Brothers, Richie Havens and the Memphis cast for HAIR.  I remember waking up to Richie Havens singing “Here Comes the Sun.”

After the festival, we drove 60 miles north.  We stopped at a state campground and went to pay our fee.  The ranger said we could not camp there unless we had an adult chaperone.  I was flabbergasted as our ages ranged from 19 to 22!  He said that would be true of any campground in the state.  He added, “Lady, this is Georgia!”  We got back into the car drove to a campground 20 miles away.  They accepted us without question.

The next day, we started looking for work.  The white farmers refused to let us work with black pickers.  They suggested we ask for work at the farmers’ market in Atlanta.  We did find a job there.  It was tough work, made harder by the fact that the white farmers treated us like we were prostitutes; why else would white women be doing this kind of work?

We were advised that we could get farm labor work in Fort Valley, Georgia. One of the first things we did when we arrived in town was to go to a laundromat.  A 13 year old white girl told us the hippies who went to the rock festival stripped naked in the car wash, in the grocery store, in the back of trucks.  The things she said were outrageous.  While we were there, a black man walked in and put his laundry in the washer.  She was furious, grabbed her wet laundry from the machine she was using, saying N**** to him and rushed out.  I had the feeling if we had talked to him our lives would have been in danger.

We were able to get some picking work in Ft. Valley, but it was not to pay our expenses so we decided to work in a peach cannery as well.  The woman who hired us said she bet her husband $5 we wouldn’t last more than 2 days.  We definitely intended to prove her wrong.

We were assigned the night shift.  The workers on that shift were almost 100% black.  The day shift was nearly 100% white, the exception being some hard labor jobs.  To keep the job, we were required to work 7 days a week, 8-10 hours a day with one 10 minute break and no dinner.  If we didn’t show up for work, we would be fired.  If the machines didn’t work, which happened a lot, we didn’t get paid, but if we left we would be fired.  After several weeks the night shift was laid off.  By then we were very happy to leave.

Our boss, whom we liked a lot, gifted us with an empty peach can labeled Pride of Georgia.  (It was many years before I ate another canned peach.  The machine we had been running was overflowing with lye that hadn’t been completely rinsed off the peaches before they sealed the can.)

Next we went to South Carolina.  We easily found a job, but finding a place to stay was a problem.  The farm had an area for black workers to live and a separate area for the white workers.  They wouldn’t let us stay in the black camp; saying we wouldn’t last 15 minutes there.  I asked how that could be since the black camp was full of families. The farmer said there were no families in his camp.  Then he thought a moment and said, oh you mean the N******.  To him black children didn’t even qualify as “children”.  Once again, I was outraged.

They gave us cattle truck to stay in, but staying there one night was more than enough.  I decided to talk to the black crew boss, Leroy, and ask if we could sleep in their bus.  He offered us that chance to stay in their kitchen.  I asked if he would get in trouble with the farmer if we did that and he said no, there would be no trouble.  We spent our first evening in the camp singing late into the night with the kids.

Singing with KidsIt turned out that the black workers’ kitchen was in the same building as the white men’s quarters.  During the night they were drinking and we heard them saying “They want to see what a migrant camp is like; let’s show them what it is like.”  Several times, white men came into the kitchen and it was only by our quick talking and shaming that were we able to get them away from us.

After talking with Leroy, our plan for the next night was to have his wife lock us in the kitchen so that the white men couldn’t get in again.   However, around 11:00 p.m. when we were singing with the kids and a little girl was brushing my hair, someone spoke up behind me.  We turned around to find three policemen standing behind us.  They said the farmer wanted us off his land, NOW.  We were shocked.  The farmer hadn’t said a word to us about it during the day.  We asked if we could go to the packing shed to talk to him ourselves and they said gave us their permission.  When we arrived at the shed, we discovered that three black workers and one white worker had beat us there.  They had told the farmer that if he kicked us out in the middle of the night, every worker he had would be gone by morning!  Luckily, he relented and let us stay the night.

Living conditionsI will mention only one other experience from that summer; and that happened in Maryland.  We had no trouble finding a job or a place to stay there.  The labor office said we were welcome to stay in the farm workers’ camp as long as we realized everyone else would be black.  That camp consisted of 54 buildings.  Each building was divided into three rooms, and each room held a separate family.  Our room had two beds, a light that wouldn’t turn off and a few shelves.  There were huge holes in the plasterboard between our room and the room on the other side. There were showers in the camp, but they couldn’t be turned on.  The only source of water was a spigot several houses down.

I came back to Seattle after that 1970 trip with lots of positive memories, but also angry about the racism I had witnessed.  I decided that I was going to make a difference.  In my young mind, the best way to stop this nonsense was to blend the races through interracial marriage. I started pursuing Al, who by that time had been my best friend for several years.  A year later, we were married in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  The morning of the day we were going to be married, we attended Glide Memorial Methodist Church.  Roberta Flack sang during the church service, and Quincy Jones played the piano. While their appearance had nothing to do with our wedding, it made for a great memory!  After our wedding service in the park, Jane Fonda came up to us and wished us well.  What an awesome beginning to our new life!

WeddingWhile the mixing of races as a political stand against racism might have been a naïve way for me to look at solving racism, it always felt right to me.  When I told my father of my plans, he vowed to never speak to me again, and he didn’t.  Still my resolve never wavered.  He told my mother that she could never see me again, but she wasn’t willing to stand for that and started visiting Seattle regularly.

So, was marrying Al a Political Statement?  I’d have to say “yes”, at least in part. More than anything, it was a decision to walk my talk, to make my life a testimony to my beliefs.

Sreejit and ChaitanyaChaitanyaAs a result of the union between Al and me, two very beautiful, very talented, very loved and loving individuals were brought into this world.  Three years after our marriage, Sreejit was born, and nearly three years after that came his sister, Chaitanya.

SreejitDid our marriage and having mixed raced children end racism?  No it did not.  But certainly, between then and now, mixed marriage has gone from unacceptable to much more widespread and “acceptable”.  As individuals in each generation have more contact (of all kinds) with those of other races, we gain more understanding of each other. Every step forward makes a difference.  I am happy to have participated in an active way in the journey.


Advertisements

55 thoughts on “Tearing at the Fabric of Racism

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I got a chance to think back on my own experience with Racism when you originally shared this story and now once again with it your very own blog.

    Like

  2. I’m proud to be the product of a political statement. Growing up it seemed like there were only a few of us biracial kids, but now they are everywhere. Guess that makes you a trend setter! Great article.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. My own mixed family didn’t happen until my fifties, and I only have stories from my honey about what it was to grow up black innDC then be hired after college as an EEOC officer in the South. But even today, I recently had to leave a choir where Darwin was officially welcome but emotionally not so much. It is worse since the ugly sentiments towards our beautiful first family, they scare me and make me sick to my stomach. I am 72 years old and surely thought we solved everything back in the 70’s. I was right in many ways, but in others I guess it will take more generations.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is an absolutely amazing story of trail blazing during the civil rights movement. I’m convinced that your marriage and those of others courageous enough to enter into mixed marriages helped pave the way for me, a hispanic who can be married to a white girl and have no one even think twice about it.

    Thank you so very much.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. This is a wonderful story and even if your marriage was a “political” statement it doesn’t matter. You and your husband and your children are representations of what this world needs to be. I have my own stories from that time, but I will tell them on my own page. I don’t want to detract from your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your story brought back many memories. Given the dates you cited, I am considerably older than you; but, I was subjected to the same type of racist acts when I visited my grandparents every summer in Mississippi. While there was racism in Chicago where I lived, it was not as overt. My grandparents schooled me on acceptable behavior by saying things like, “girl you ain’t up north remember to always say ‘yes mam’ or ‘no sir’ to these white folks.” Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I thought I read this on Sreejit’s blog a while back. I love this article and your openness to new experiences traveling like that. The laws in Quebec were 21 as well up to 1972, then it came down to 18. That’s why so many Americans love crossing the border here to party but our beer is very strong compared to American brew. You tell a lovely story recounting history as I remember it but you lived it which makes this reading all the more special.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it was the post I wrote as a guest author on his blog. I think it is the most powerful post I’ve written so was eager to have it on my own blog!

      Thanks for rereading it. I’m glad you also consider it a special one. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Karuna – you’re right I love this post too, very powerful. It sounds like you need to write your autobiography. It sounds fascinating and the pictures you add to it really help with the story telling. Well done for making your stand.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. An amazing story… just amazing. I know I’m late in the game on this, but I couldn’t stop reading. I was just perusing through and … wow. This makes me want to call my mom up and ask her about her stories from that time. She’s White and Native American (multiple mixtures of both) and she grew up in Denver in a racist environment in as well (against Blacks). Her family cut her off when she ran away to California to marry my dad. His grandmother looks White (story goes that her mother was raped by an Irish man), but to look at my dad, you wouldn’t know there was anything else in him (maybe the high cheek bones give away the traces of Blackfoot). I’m just so fascinated with the stories of our heritage. Unfortunately, the only part of my family I can trace back beyond grandparents (except my Nanny who was still alive when I was little), is the French side of my mother’s father. All the rest stops due to the lack of records before slavery wards and Native reservations were accounted for. Well, love your story. It’s an appreciated view from a different window. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed reading it. It was such an important period of my life.

      I just looked through a lot of your blog on my phone. I’ve been feeling like sewing again. I haven’t made anything that way for decades. Your blog has inspired me to make it a bigger priority than I might otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Dear Karuna,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of the Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through true, personal stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled “Tearing at the Fabric of Racism.” It’s honest, beautifully written, and incredibly compelling. I think it would make a wonderful youshare, because it offers a personal glimpse into a time that younger generations only hear about and usually through the lens of third party history books and documentaries. It’s always important to look back in time as a means for moving forward, and I think your story is especially important in today’s racially tense climate.

    If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to share your story with the project. You have my email address and website. I hope to hear from you soon.

    Best,
    Ashlee
    http://www.youshareproject.com
    ashlee@youshareproject.com

    Liked by 3 people

  11. A pleasure to read your blog. What an interesting life you lead. I am also an ‘army brat’ haha. Loved reading your sons poem. And I found your advice for new bloggers very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Gosh, it’s really something to read about how things were. I’m a Thai girl, grew up in America and moved to Paris. And I’m a feminist. Believe me when I say I’ve felt my fair share of….just…ugliness in this world. But to read about a different time, when my sisters and their mothers were fighting the good fight is really something else. Courage!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we are seeing that a whole lot of the racism is still present, at least in America. It’s just been covered up. Things can’t be healed unless the muddy waters are stirred so that we can see what’s at the bottom….. so seeing what still exists is for the good even if it is uncomfortable. Hopefully it leads to healing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I have felt guilty that I wasn’t involved in marching and protesting but a higher part of me knows that we all have our own way to contribute and all ways help take us to the goal. I don’t think one way is better than the other. They are all needed.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Talk about LATE to the party! However, I am fairly new to the blog and both the photo and the title caught my attention — especially timely in context with the many racist and sexist comments from the POTUS of late. We have MUCH work to do still to fashion a world that works for everyone – and our currently elected man/child will certainly make positive change more difficult to bring about.

    I simply had to leave a comment to let you know I read this incredible story. WOW! I am not only amazed at your journey, but that your parents didn’t lock you in your rooms to keep you from it. As others here have noted, those were certainly different times, and girls weren’t given a lot of latitude.

    How sad for your father – and for you – that he never got to meet his grandchildren. And how wonderful that your Mom had the guts to “defy” him.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only went back there a of couple times after I left at 17. I do admire that my mother defied him in that way.

      You might find it interesting to read this series https://livinglearningandlettinggo.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/1970-my-summer-as-a-migrant-farm-laborer-series-intro/. I also was a formative time in my life. There is a bit of overlap between what you read and these but the series has many more details.

      Thanks so much for reading the post and sharing your reactions.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I just checked the article again. There is actually a lot of overlap between the post you read and the series but the series has a lot more pictures and is based on the diary I kept that migrant farm labor summer.

      Liked by 1 person

I would love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s