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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Chapter 2 and Race Relations

Abandoned gas station in Greenfield, MO

Chapter 2

Moves, Watermelons, & Rabbit Traps

Vancouver, Washington, and Arcola, Missouri were only two of the seemingly endless series of moves while my father searched for a living for us.  The years between 1928 and 1933 are a bit hazy, but I know that we moved often enough that us kids sometimes went to two different schools during the same school year.

                After Arcola, I am not sure if we went to Kansas City and then to Greenfield or the other way around.  Doesn’t really matter I guess, but I know that in Greenfield Rex was still pretty small.  That was when Dad ran a small service station beside the highway that runs from Greenfield to South Greenfield, Lockwood and on to Lamar.

                We lived in a house that was attached to the service station, such as it was.  It was just two tall glass-topped gasoline pumps—one for low test and the other for high test ethyl.  The Model T Fords used the low test (regular) and Chevrolets, etc., used ethyl.  On the side of the house there was a little room for oil, grease, fan belts, and the like.

                It is at this point that my father’s memoir becomes uncomfortable for me and I found it necessary to consider options of dealing with the place and time in which he was raised and the use of the “n-word.”  Missouri was a border state during the Civil War. Brother fought against brother.  Jim Crow and segregation lasted well into the 20th century.  Most Black families tended (and still do) to live in metropolitan centers, not rural Missouri.  Those who did are described as caricatures, not average people.  I fully support free speech and am four square against the banning of books.  Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn need to be viewed from the lens of the time in which they were written so I wondered if my father’s use of that word and his memories of two Black men who lived in his community ought to be so viewed.  The issue came up in the summer of 2013 when Paula Dean used the n-word conversationally.  I don’t believe that any white person using that term means anything good by it and she has nothing of the same excuse.  At best it is paternalistic.  At worst it is outright racist.  My father’s little sister responded to my outrage by reminding me that my father had had a Black babysitter, “N-George” and my father liked him fine.  That was just what everyone called him.  Everyone?  Now I am pretty sure that George had a last name; probably the surname of whatever master had owned his forbearers, but it seems that it is lost to history.  I am sure that no white in Dade county wondered if George minded being called the n-word.  They may have assumed that he wasn’t intelligent enough or felt enough self-worth to mind.  After all, he was just a Black man. 

                I cannot lay claim to a Black experience in America, but I do know what it is like to be the mother of a special needs child and hear the word “retard” bandied about.  It doesn’t matter what you MEAN by the use of a word.  What matters is how it makes the recipient feel.  As a high school employee I would admonish students for calling each other or a situation “retarded” and remind them of my beloved daughter.  “I didn’t mean anything bad by it,” would be the response to which I said, “You didn’t mean anything good either.”  Calling George N-George may not have been intended to be hurtful, but that does not excuse the nastiness that goes along with the use of the n-word.  It is time that Paula Dean and her ilk owned their behavior and put themselves in the place of those for whom that word was intended to keep marginalized.

It mortifies me to say it, but wonderful man that my father was in many ways, he was a racist. As I said, he was a product of the time and place he was raised.  Later, extensive travel broadened his mind on many things, but in his memoir he does not mince words in describing the “negroes” that were a part of his childhood or their station in an already poverty stricken community. I believe in the power of words.  Therefore, when quoting my father’s memoir I will use “N-George” to suit my sensibilities if not my father’s.

                In the yard at one side, Dad built a wooden grease rack.  It was just two ramps to get the cars off the ground so he could get underneath and change the oil.  He painted the rack red.

                One reason I remember that grease rack is because of an old negro handyman everyone called “N-George.”  No disrespect was intended—that was just George’s name.  Everyone liked the old man.  He was a wizened Black man with snow white hair who did odd jobs for folks around town.  He did not work in the fields for two reasons—he was too old and he was deathly afraid of snakes.  Even a little garter snake like I sometimes carried around in my pocket would send George up the nearest tree.

                Sometimes the younger men would tease old George by throwing a piece of rope down by him and yelling, “SNAKE!” just to see him jump.  I thought that was pretty mean of them.  N-George was as good hearted and, so far as I know, as honest as any man.  He was always kind and gentle with us kids.  Could be that he was a mite lazy, but it did not show much as no one in the Ozarks moved around very fast.

                Well, to get back to that grease rack, when my mother needed someone to mind two-year-old Rex while he played in the yard.  If Rex started to go out into the road George would say, “Now yo’ come back here, boy!  You wants me to take this here switch to yo’ britches?”  Then old George would turn to anyone nearby and with a twinkle in his ancient brown eyes say softly, “Y’all knows I wouldn’t lay a han’ on that boy for nuthin’ in this hyere worl’l.”

                There was another negro in Greenfield that us kids liked real well.  I do not remember his name, but he was the fat old boy who was the local barbecue cook.  For want of better, I’ll just call him “Sam” because that may well have been his name anyway.

                Near the filling station there was a vacant lot.  Once in a while Sam used a pit there to barbecue a big piece of meat—I suppose for some doings in Black town (yes, it was commonly known as “N-town”) which was not far away across the highway and the railroad track.  Us kids would go by there and pester Sam when the meat was almost done.  He would pretend to chase us away, but we would always wind up with a slice of the outside brown part between two slabs of white bread with barbecue sauce and mustard.

                I do not remember if the meat was pork or beef but, if there turns out to be manna in Heaven like the preachers say, it will probably not taste any better than Old Sam’s barbecue did then to hungry boys.  I can still visualize him standing there with a white apron over his fat stomach threatening us with a barbecue fork in one hand and handing us a sandwich with the other.