George and Louise Jefferson along with their son Lionel moved in across the street from my family on 81st in Lubbock when I was in high school. Do you remember George and Louise? They were introduced to us on national television, when they moved in next door to the ultimate bigot, Archie Bunker. Actor Carroll O’Connor was masterful in his portrayal of Archie. It was just poetic justice that Archie have someone of a different race living right next door!
Before I share the story about our neighbors, who moved in across the street from us in the late ‘70’s, I need to provide a little background on my mother. She was born in the Deep South in 1927. She grew up in a distinctly segregated world. She graduated from Florida State University long before the Civil Rights Movement got underway. Members of her extended family owned and operated sprawling tobacco farms in South Georgia. In listening to my mother’s description of that world, I concluded that very little changed after the end of the Civil War. Slavery may have been abolished, but every other aspect of their culture appeared to remain intact.
My mother was a racist. I hate be that blunt. She has been deceased since 1991, so she is not here to defend herself! She was not obnoxious about it like television character Archie Bunker, but nevertheless those prejudices were ever present.
When our African American neighbors moved in across the street, I was elated! I thought it was funny. (Those of you who know me well are not surprised by my warped humor.) I started poking her about her neighbors. Are you going to bake them a cake, I would ask? Are you going to show some of that good Southern hospitality that you would naturally extend to someone, if they were Angelo? She found none of my comments the least bit amusing.
As the months went by, she started making what she perceived to be positive observations about her neighbors. She would say: “The Blacks are sure keeping their yard nice.” I would grin to myself, but get a serious look on my face and say: “I thought their name was Smith.” “I don’t recall their last name being Black.” I was pushing my luck with such comments…Years went by and over time my mother slowly warmed up to her neighbors across the street.
Thirty years later I have a different perspective on that situation. I was so busy being funny that I failed to recognize that my mother had come a million miles in overcoming racist attitudes that were such an engrained part of the world that she grew up in. Her uncles that ran the tobacco farms in South Georgia would not have been as benevolent in their attitude toward that situation. The very presence of a family of a different race in such close proximity in her neighborhood softened her racist tendencies instead of exacerbating them.
There is a valuable lesson to be gleaned from this experience. It is important to give people credit for trying. I failed to acknowledge that my mother had come a long ways! I am very intolerant of racism today. In looking back on my teen years, there were ways that I could have prompted my mother to have been more open and kind to her neighbors. I chose instead to hone in on the areas where she still needed some growth! Learning the blend of being patient with each other and at the same time not tolerating bad behavior is a constant challenge. I hope I am better at it today at age 48 than I was thirty years ago!
Racism was a blind spot that my mother really worked hard at correcting during the course of her entire adult life. I hope I am equally inclined to address my blind spots with the same diligence! But it is a shame that my mother passed away before the movie, Driving Miss Daisy, was released. Oh..that would have been such great fuel to give her a hard time with! Woops…there I go again!