My grandmother’s demanding voice came from behind me.
“Don’t drink out of that fountain!” Remove the word ‘that,’ add ‘the’ and the term we euphemistically call ‘the N word’ and you’ll have the actual quote. As a curious 5 year old, I wondered what the water tasted like.
Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, racial dynamics in my hometown almost always revealed themselves in the Leonard Brothers department store. A trip to the store involved a trip downtown, and once through the revolving doors, the aroma of garlic bread coming from the store’s cafeteria wafted around the shoppers who stepped inside. It was there my grandmother stopped me from drinking from the water fountain and there where for the first time I saw African American women in the same restroom that I used.
The Martin Luther King holiday always brings back those memories. I’ve written before of the racism in my home growing up and seeking my mother’s approval by responding to a news story of Dr. King’s assassination with, “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Several years ago as an adult, when there were still pay phones at the mall, I once found myself faced with a decision to choose between two phones located side-by-side. I could choose to stand next to the older white man, what my brain told me was the ‘safe’ choice, or the one next to the younger black man. I chose the latter as a rebellion against my subconscious self, that soft voice that acts as a cheerleader for my prejudice.
Even though I know much has changed over the decades, stubborn prejudicial attitudes still persist, and I recognize them in myself. Aware or not, most of us grapple with these impulses that can impact the lives of people who don’t deserve it. This year we found out that even our literary hero Atticus Finch wasn’t exactly who we thought he was.
Our prejudices provide fertile ground for inspiration. I sometimes find myself mining that area in my writing, not to create strident stories to lecture the reader but as a way to consider where these attitudes arise from, how characters grapple with their ingrained beliefs and how those beliefs and attitudes affect the lives of others. I once wrote a story from the viewpoint of a female character, a character drawing from the fictional Mayella Violet Ewell, who accused Tom Robinson of raping her in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the real Carolyn Bryant, the woman who in 1955 maintained that 14-year-old Emmett Till whistled at her, provoking his brutal torture and death at the hands of her husband and his half-brother. Their culpability in these murders—one real and one resembling actual acts of false claims—merges with their own second-class status as women in that society. The results of their actions were tragic.
I try to keep in my thoughts all year the spirit of courageous people like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the multitude of other women and men of the civil rights movement. They put their lives at great risk, and sometimes lost them, taking on the challenge of overcoming these ingrained prejudices to claim the rights. We need more than one day to honor that legacy, and maybe the best way is reflect each day on how we can all do better identifying those micro-prejudices and rooting them out of our brains and our community as a whole.