Tuesday night, November 4, 2008, I watched as Barack Obama was elected President. While returns came in from various states, there was television coverage of the crowds gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. There was an interview with Andrew Young and shots of the parishioners singing and praying. I was praying, too. I prayed that Georgia would go from White-Undecided, to Blue-Obama. I felt it would be redemption— of some sort.
Although I’ve lived in Chicago for 29 years, I’ve never been able to get past the shame of being a white daughter of the South, a granddaughter to the Klan— a daughter of the Confederacy. I am the great-great-niece of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was a General in the Confederate Army, famous for his brilliant military strategies— infamous for founding the Ku Klux Klan.
Unlike my brother who lives in Texas, I’m not proud of my great-uncle’s military expertise. Instead, I carry my mother’s shame and sorrow at the connection to a man who was such a powerful and outspoken proponent of hate. I, too, carry her vague memory of sheets found bundled in the attic when she was a little girl in Georgia.
In the South there is a tradition of giving daughters their mother’s, or some other female ancestor’s, maiden name as a middle name. My mother was named Sheila Davenport Forrest, Davenport being her paternal grandmother’s maiden name. My parents went all out and named me Sheila Forrest, a double honor, or double whammy— depending on how you look at it. Being a female “junior” was always awkward. I was Baby Sheila or Little Sheila for most of my life. So in addition to carrying my mother’s first name, I am burdened with the name Forrest. For me, it has always been a heavy load.
Although it would have been wonderful to see every state go Blue, I wasn’t personally invested in the returns from the other Southern states where I’ve lived. Not Tennessee or Kentucky, where I lived briefly as an infant. Not North Carolina, where I attended kindergarten and my little brother Joe was born. Not Mississippi, where I spent two years, or Alabama, where I lived as a young Army wife. Not even Texas, where I bounced around and accumulated 18 years before finally leaving for good.
But Georgia— Georgia still pulls me. I was born in Ft. Benning, Georgia and my grandmother’s house was at 1239 Mimosa Drive in Macon, Georgia. Mimosa, by the way, is the name of a tree. The mimosa has fern-like leaves and soft, pink, fuzzy flowers with the lightest, sweetest scent you’ll ever smell. Because I was an Army brat and moved around so much as a child, I think of my grandma’s house as my emotional home.
When I think about Grandma’s house, I’m flooded with short, random, sensual memories. I see her worn red armchair, the upright piano against the wall, her Singer sewing machine always set up. She made her living as a seamstress, the same as Rosa Parks. Grandma had a 50’s something Ford she called Little Henry. It was black with chrome on the front that looked like a bullet.
When I think of Grandma’s house I taste fresh peaches. I feel dirt like silt between my toes— dirt from the floor of the garage my grandpa built with his own hands— dirt where I squatted and twirled sticks in doodle-bug holes. Tall pine trees in the backyard cast deep shade, preventing grass from ever growing. In the middle of the hall floor was a radiator I had to step around to keep from burning my bare feet in the winter. There was peeling, thick green paint on the front porch and white metal chairs.
Georgia pulls me because all my closest relatives are buried there. Grandma and Grandpa are buried in Macon, as is my father. Daddy’s flat white stone is embedded in red Georgia dirt and always half-covered with a carpet of pine needles. Mama’s ashes are scattered here and there— some around the house at 1239, some around Daddy’s grave, and the rest in the Atlantic, near Savannah.
The sound of anybody singing “Georgia” will make me cry, especially Ray Charles. Georgia is rolling hills, red clay, kudzu, azaleas, magnolias, dogwoods, cherry blossoms, pine trees, mimosas, pecans, peaches, butter-beans, sweet-tea, the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat, red-necked bigots, and hate.
My first exposure to prejudice was at recess on the playground of an elementary school a few blocks from Grandma’s house. It was the fall of 1956 and I was in third grade. My grandpa was dying of cancer and Mama had brought me and Joe home to Macon to help care for him. Every afternoon I’d come home from school and visit with Grandpa before going out to play with my little brother. Joe and I played in the backyard under Grandpa’s window so he could watch us from what was to become his deathbed. We stayed in Macon until Grandpa sent us home, back to El Paso, Texas, because he didn’t want “Baby Sheila” to see him die.
Things I remember from that time were seeing the “Wizard of Oz” on the black- and-white TV in Grandma’s living room and dressing up like a gypsy for Halloween. I also remember learning about hatred. Eisenhower was running for re-election that year and one day a boy on the playground said if Eisenhower was reelected he’d let “niggers” go to school with us. While I must have heard that word before, that was the first time I remember hearing it. I knew what it was, and I had been carefully taught to say “Negro” or “Colored” instead. But I didn’t know what the boy meant and I didn’t understand why it was a bad thing to go to school with them. Because I was an Army Brat, I had already gone to school and lived in Army housing with African-Americans. One of my friends and classmates in El Paso was African-American. He was also the only boy who was almost as fast a runner as I was. Being an Army Brat, I already had an understanding of what rank meant, but not color. I had my first taste of hate that day on the playground.
Mama was born in Atlanta, but grew up in Macon. She hated bigotry and was deeply ashamed of her roots. Mama instilled hatred in me, alright, but it was hatred for any kind of racism. I don’t know where she got it— she always said she just never, ever, fit in. And because of what Mama taught me, I also learned about another kind of hatred. In the South there were names for people like us. Whispered, spat out with contempt, even hatred, “nigger lovers.”
Even growing up in the South with the horrible legacy of the Klan, I never heard anybody in my family say “nigger,” except for my daddy one time. And Daddy was from Chicago. I’m even ashamed to write this now, and have to resist the urge to leave it out, or to question my own memory. But I do remember, because it shocked me so much when he said it. I was fourteen and I said that I loved Ray Charles. Daddy said, “That nigger?”
That’s it. I can’t remember what I answered back. I think we must have both been shocked. Mama didn’t hear him and I never told her. We never spoke of it again. Years later Daddy took me to Dixieland clubs and the Preservation Jazz Hall in New Orleans and shared with me his love of jazz. All those musicians were African-American. The psychologist in me wants to think it had something to do with his daughter reaching puberty and his unconscious fears as a father— a knee-jerk reaction to something more primal. But I’ve never forgiven him, and I could never forgive myself if I tried to just analyze it away.
I loved my grandmother with all my heart. But as an adult, I realized that she was racist in the horrifyingly casual way of people of her generation in the Deep South— as if it had never occurred to her to do it any differently. It was just the way it was. Not unkind, just unthinking. Grandma always had “girls” working for her. They were just part of our lives. Like my Jewish mother-in-law Caroline is with Easter, the African-American woman who worked for her family for a million years. There was never any thought about the different “stations” in life— they just were.
That is ignorance in the most dangerous sense. Like the casual remarks I heard so many times in my life while driving through the rural South, past barely standing shacks like you’ve only seen in documentaries— chickens and half-naked kids running around in dirt yards. There would always be a comment on the ubiquitous television antennas.
“They can’t afford a decent house, but they can afford a TV.”
It was always said with a contemptuous, self-righteous smirk and shake of the head. As if, it implied, having whatever little money it took to have a TV actually equaled any sort of real power to remove themselves from the circumstances in which they had been placed. Or, as if it was wrong, somehow, for “them” to have the power to connect to a world in which they weren’t even allowed to exist. Whatever the implications, it is the kind of ignorant statement you hear all your life— that insidiously becomes part of your own thinking— until one day you WAKE THE HELL UP. Problem is, most the population of the South has not yet woken up.
Before Daddy was transferred to Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, we lived in Jackson, Mississippi where we had a maid and babysitter named Eva Keyes. Mama worked and Eva was there all the time to take care of me and Joe. I attended all of first grade and half of second grade in Jackson, then we moved away from Jackson and Eva, and we never moved back. But we always visited Eva when we went back to visit my aunt and uncle who lived in Jackson. The last picture I have with Eva was when I was 19.
Eva lived in an area of Jackson that many people have only seen on movie sets— dirt-poor, broken-down cars, litter. No sidewalks, just dirt. Eva lived in a crumbling, wooden, shot-gun house in a row of others just like it. My parents loved Eva, and Mama told me once, after both Daddy and Eva were long dead, that they had helped take care of Eva and her family for years— sending money on a regular basis. Even now, I don’t know much about Eva. I know she had kids, but I don’t think she had a husband.
Joe was only 2 when we left Jackson and moved to El Paso, too young to realize what was happening. I know Joe remembered Eva when he saw the Aunt Jemima pancake-mix box after we’d been in El Paso for a few months. He looked up from the box with an alarmed expression and asked, “Where’s Eva?”
Our family eventually ended up in Mesquite, Texas, a small town east of Dallas. Early in the summer of 1963, my brother and I were sent on a bus trip from Dallas to Macon, to visit Grandma. I was 14 and my brother was 9. That was just crazy to send the two of us kids on a bus across the South by ourselves, and I have no one left to ask why it even happened. But it did. I have memories of our bag of oranges breaking and oranges rolling down the aisle and out the door. The gassy smells on the dark, swaying, quiet bus. Following the lines of other passengers off the bus at the rest stops and being turned away from “Colored only” bus station diners.
“Honey, your door is over there.”
I remember the sympathetic look on the African-American woman’s face, and can only imagine the look of bewilderment on mine. There were Whites- and Colored-only water fountains, bathrooms, and diners. For the rest of the trip I stayed close to that woman on the bus. I felt safe with her.
Mesquite High School was integrated for the first time my senior year. Two African-American twin girls entered sometime that year and graduated with me in June 1966. I don’t remember any kind of reaction at all, but I also don’t remember seeing them in any of my classes or at any extra-curricular activities. It would be interesting to me now, to hear what their story was then. I wish I had been aware enough to have asked, but I simply was not. I was too self-absorbed in my own misery and feelings of being an outsider, a misfit. After graduation, I married and left Mesquite as quickly as I could.
My young soldier-husband was stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and I went to work at Southern Bell as a telephone operator when I was eighteen. Because of all the riots in Selma the year before, I was afraid of Alabama, but things had settled down by the time we were living there. Being a telephone operator was a low- status, low-paying job, with long hard hours and demanding, constantly changing, shifts. But it had an upside. Most of us working the switchboard were young women. We were either Army wives, or local girls. And because of the long hours of sitting next to each other, it was easy to make friends. Three of my four best friends to this day are women I worked with on the switchboard in Huntsville.
However, it was there in the break-room of Southern Bell where I became even more aware of the profound ignorance of bigotry. The telephone company was integrated, and, while most of us were white, there were also a number of young African-American women working as operators. One of these women was named Beverly Hill. Beverly was smart and funny and we sat next to each other on the switchboard whenever we could. Beverly’s husband was a cook in the Army and an excellent baker. He sometimes brought home whole leftover pies or cakes or dozens of cookies from the mess hall. Beverly brought these goodies to work, leaving them on the table in the break-room for everyone to share.
I was astounded and appalled when I saw looks exchanged and heard women refusing to touch the baked goods because “a nigger” had made them. This particular ignorance was especially mind-blowing in the Deep South where African-Americans were pretty much the only people working in the kitchens of every restaurant, diner, café, and bakery. Not to mention those women known as “the girls” or “the help” who worked in the kitchens of the homes of the very women refusing to eat the food Beverly brought us. I always ate extra at work and took whatever I could home. Not only because it was delicious and I was poor, but also in the hope Beverly wouldn’t find out it was being boycotted. These many years later I realize she must have known all along.
Beverly and I were friends at work, but never spent time together when we were off. Except, I did give her rides home whenever she needed one and our shifts ended at the same time. Those times we talked and laughed— until we were stopped at a red light next to another car. More often than not we were immediately aware of hard, angry, suspicious looks from the occupants of the other car, regardless of their race. We stopped talking and the air between us went thick and heavy with fear. Only after the light changed and we were safely out of range would we exhale and begin to relax. It was that fear that kept us from being true friends, and I grieve that loss. I’ve often thought about Beverly and wondered how her life turned out. And I believe we would still be friends if we had met at a place and time where hatred and fear hadn’t been such an obstacle. Beverly could very possibly have been the fourth of my five best friends.
It was not until I was in my mid-twenties and discovered James Baldwin that I found words for my own pain and pervasive sense of alienation. I don’t remember which book I read first, just that it had a frayed, yellow, linen binding and brittle pages, and I had never read anything like it. James Baldwin was the first author who impressed me with his words, passion, and authentic voice. I remember feeling connected, understood, and heartbroken. I remember holding the book to my chest, rocking and crying. And, I remember feeling an empathy born of circumstances far beyond my control, complicated by guilt and sorrow. I went on to read everything James Baldwin ever wrote. The connection was so powerful that somehow, sometimes, I still feel like Black blood rages through my veins, and my penance for all that happened before me has played out in my pain and shame and passion against injustice.
Even now, as I write this, I imagine a burning cross in my front yard. I hear footsteps thundering up the wooden stairs of my porch— angry fists banging on my door. But there is redemption in telling my story. And when Barack Obama was elected President I was ecstatic. I wish Mama had been alive to see it. And I’m very, very sad that Georgia never went Blue. I can never go home again until it does.
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