This is a series in which you help me learn about America.
Barry is a 50 year-old African-American man who was born Jackson, Tennessee and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. Today he lives in Brighton, Michigan (about 40 miles west of Detroit), and works at Ford Motor Company as an Engineer with his wife of 21 years and 13 year-old daughter. He was kind enough to tell me about his take on race relations in the US, and I hope you find his stories as interesting as I did!
You almost caused a riot when you gave up your seat for a white lady on a Greyhound bus. What happened?
It must have been around 1972 or 1973, so I was ten or 11. I was headed to Jackson, Tennessee, from St. Louis, to spend the summer on my grandparents’ farm. We’d pulled into a stop in Illinois, shortly after leaving the terminal, and the bus was already packed. The remaining seats filled quickly and then this white lady got on last. She looked to be in her mid-50s, which, to my pre-pubescent mind, was ancient.
Nobody else made a move, so I offered her my seat. Immediately there was a reaction from the black passengers: “We don’t have to do that anymore!” and, “Your mama paid for that seat!” (As if my Daddy wasn’t around, which he was.) Or: “You got here first, she can stand!”
I was very surprised. I’d seen it as merely giving up my seat for a lady, just trying to make a good showing for my gender. And I realized the racial implications—we weren’t that far out of the 1960’s—but that had nothing to do with my action.
One woman was particularly strident in her opposition. She kept bringing my mother into it, reminding me that my mother paid for that ticket and that I had as much right to the seat as the white lady.
Finally I told her, “I’d have done the same for you, ma’am.”
That shut her up.
Ironically, the crowd never said a word to the white lady. Like I said, we weren’t that far out of the 60’s.
The bus driver saved me by having me come up and sit on the top step behind him. It was probably against the rules, but he had taken the temperature of the bus.
At first, I was thrilled. I got to see the road from his perspective and I geeked out, seeing all the dials and buttons on his dash. But eventually, I got incredibly sleepy. My head started lolling about like a rag doll’s.
Another white lady, who was sitting to my left, offered her lap. At first I declined, fearing further accusations of “tomming.” But eventually, I gave in. I heard an audible gasp from the back but nothing else came of it.
Within the hour, the bus made and another stop, and enough passengers got off so that I got my seat back.
I immediately dove into the huge lunch my mother had made for me and shared with the folks at the back of the bus. I don’t remember what she’d made that day, but it was probably fried chicken, since it traveled best. I then buried myself under a stack of comic books. My favorites back then were Spider-Man, The X-Men and Green Lantern.
The white lady tried to pay me for my trouble. I suggested she “put it in church.” She let it be.
Wow! Was that experience as transformative as it sounds? For example, did you worry about “tomming” (to use your term) years later?
I don’t know if “transformative” would be an accurate characterization. It was what my parents would have expected. I was taught that racism and classism were realities that had to be dealt with head-on. But I was also taught that you had to deal with people on an individual basis. I was taught to live by the golden rule, which makes no allowances for race.
You also mentioned you were with your family when a waitress told you that she “wouldn’t serve niggers.” (I feel really weird typing that word, by the way…) Do you mind telling me more about that?
That must have been around 1969 or 1970. My dad and I set out one Saturday morning to pick up my mom. She’d gone down to Jackson, Tennessee, to take care of her father, who’d been sick. It was a nine-hour drive in those days, taking us through southern Illinois.
After sunup, my dad pulled into this roadside diner near Cairo, Illinois, for breakfast. The only people in the place were a waitress, an old man holding vespers over a cup of coffee, and a cook in the back. We waited a considerable time before my dad finally caught the waitress’s eye and she came over to our table.
My dad was famous for being charming, especially to women, in that overblown way that was so obvious yet charming all the same.
“Madame,” he said, “We’d like bacon and eggs and biscuits please, and don’t spare the coffee.”
The waitress was unimpressed. “We don’t serve niggers here.”
My dad immediately dropped the charm and shot back, “Well that’s good bitch, ‘cause we don’t eat ‘em. Now bring me my fuckin’ bacon and eggs.”
Not the response she expected.
The old guy at the counter focused on his coffee. The waitress looked back into the kitchen and I guess the cook, deciding on discretion, gave her the OK, because she served us.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But the eggs were stellar.
Did you feel awkward eating? Did you understand that it was her problem?
I was a kid and I was hungry. I also trusted my father implicitly, so if he said it was okay to eat, I ate. You have to understand that the waitress’s reaction was a fairly common occurrence. My father’s reply wasn’t.
Also? I don’t think you should feel nervous about using the word “nigger” in this context. There’s a difference between referring to the word and “using” it for nefarious means. Ultimately, it’s just a word. Clearly a loaded one, but a word all the same.
It’s crazy to me that you could have experienced this as late as the 1970s.
Again, it was fairly common.
I know we don’t live in a post-racial world, but it’s alarming that as late as the 1970s you experienced such hostile racism. Has your experience improved?
I think my experience of race is pretty typical. There has certainly been progress. Laws and public policy can change with the stroke of a pen. Attitudes can take quite a while longer.
Frankly, I never thought I’d see a black president in my lifetime. On the other hand, the marcabre and contradictory lies that are very publicly thrown at him are extremely disappointing. So it’s a mixed bag.
What do you make of the Trayvon Martin case?
I think that there only two people who will ever know what happened between Martin and Zimmerman and one of them is dead. My issue has always been the way the police handled (or didn’t handle) the case.
I’m glad that there is finally additional investigation going on. But it’s highly possible that Zimmerman will eventually go free based on the evidence available and the current laws in Florida.
I’ve been profiled on many occasions. I’ve been accused of stealing my own car, pulled over for being too black in a white neighborhood. Fortunately, in my case, the officers involved weren’t inclined to escalate the situation. They wanted to send me a message, and once it was received, they moved on.
With the advent of a more “empowered” and heavily armed citizenry, coupled with national rhetoric that takes pains to highlight differences between cultures and encourage suspicion of the “other,” I am not inspired.
You mentioned that you moved to St. Louis from Tennessee. What did you think of St. Louis?
I hated it for a very long time. St. Louis was, to my mind, “the big city.” Which is a huge joke now. St. Louis is a big “country town,” to use my dad’s description.
I felt constrained. I couldn’t just “go” as I had down south. And the people weren’t nearly as friendly. But in time, I grew to enjoy it, especially after “discovering” girls. It seemed that I was related to everybody back in Tennessee, which would have made dating a problem.
What brought you to D.C.?
I attended college in D.C. at Howard University in the 80s. By then, I had learned to appreciate the advantages of city living, especially the arts, which made living in D.C. an absolute blast. Ironically, I’ve lived in the suburbs for the last 15 years.
Why did you move there?
Opportunity. My wife had the opportunity for a job that would allow us to start a family. Simple as that.
What are race relations like in the suburbs?
What race relations? I believe the percentage of blacks in my community is less than half a percent. So there is no real reason to confront, or consider, race relations. Having said that, we have been fairly well received. I do wonder what the reaction will be if and when the percentage of black people (or non-whites in general) reaches some critical mass. I will say that the racial views of my neighbors in the aggregate pretty much scan with the views of white Americans in general. Make of that what you will.
Also, I “self-identify” (lord, I hate that term) as “black” instead of “African American.” Black people have been virtually schizophrenic about how we identify ourselves (Colored, Negro, Afro-American, Black).
I don’t make a big deal about it because it’s part of the common language now. But I will occasionally point out that Charlize Theron is “African American,” (assuming she’s a citizen now), but she’s certainly not black. I’m an American. I am also black. They aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re just descriptors.