Before Ferguson

I grew up in a small Missouri town about 2 hours south of Ferguson, and when I was little — I mean really little, as in Kindergarten little — my grandfather put the fear in me about black boys.  He would kind of smile and poke me with his elbow and half-whisper, “You know what little black boys do to little white girls, don’t you?”  And though I had no idea what he was talking about, I got the message.  And the message was, be afraid.

I’ve tried to write about race so often.  And I’ve failed.  I’ll find that I have something to say but have such a hard time finding my voice, of finding the small details and wrestling so much with how to tell the story and where to start and what words to use or not use, that I usually set down my pen and give up.  Because there are just things you don’t talk about; because no one wants to hear it.  Because I’ve gotten the message too many times to  “keep your white guilt to yourself.”  I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since Ferguson, and I see it’s not my voice or guilt or the details or the story.

It’s just me.  Me and my fear.

Locust_Street

I was raised in Southeast Missouri.  My town was, and is, 89% white and 8% black and in my earliest memories, I’m sitting on the front porch in Summer with my grandparents and praying that no black kids walk by.  My grandfather, I later learned, was known in the neighborhood as Slingshot Man because he would sit out on the porch every afternoon and shoot BBs from his slingshot at the little black kids who dared to step on his perfectly manicured lawn.  I remember being both afraid for the kids and relieved I wasn’t one of them.  Sometimes the kids ran away and sometimes they stood their ground and taunted my grandfather.  I was so afraid for those taunting kids that I would run and hide behind the house, praying for them to go away, just go away go away go away, before somebody got hurt.

Within days of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, I noticed that some of my family members were already posting their support of Officer Wilson on their Facebook pages.  One person even posted a mocked-up police badge that read:  I stand with Officer Wilson.  I saw this badge and thought my head would explode, just fucking explode, with how can you?, it’s only been 3 days, none of us have a clue what happened.  I saw this, this badge, and I don’t think I’ve ever, ever in my life, felt more ashamed.

I’m trying to write.  Trying not to be afraid.

Not long ago, my little niece started Kindgergarten.  I heard she came home that first week so excited about starting school, about riding the bus and about all of the kids at her table, including one little black boy, and she told everyone all about her teacher and her art project and her new friends.  Her daddy kind of smiled and poked her with his elbow and said, “You know what little black boys do to little white girls, don’t you?”

She got the message.  And she was afraid to go back to school.

______________

I’ve been following @WesleyLowery and @mattdpearce on Twitter because I’ve found their reporting from Ferguson to be the most accurate and timely.  I’ve also been following young journalism student @BradleyRayford because he’s a local and because, during the first riots, he produced this heartbreaking video with the best view from the inside.

http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/inside-ferguson-322559555507?cid=sm_m_main_1_20140828_30591366

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17 thoughts on “Before Ferguson

  1. Catherine

    I hear you Teri. And this is so beautifully written. Keep saying it, keep writing it. There is something truly wrong when our heads fail to explode about all this twistedness. I still think it is better to express white guilt than nothing at all. Xcat

    1. Teri Post author

      Thanks, Cat. And by the by, every time I try to comment at your place it disappears into the cyber-air!!! No idea what I’m doing wrong. 😦

  2. joplingirl

    I remember hearing my mother and aunt and grandmother dismissively talk, using catch-all words for a flesh and blood persons, and thinking how wrong they were. And how apart from them I felt. And how vulnerable and alone. That may have been the moment I became a writer in thought and conviction if not in action.

    You are a wonderful writer.

    1. Teri Post author

      I know you know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember knowing what my grandfather did was wrong, and I also knew that the name-calling was wrong and was not ever funny. This is the kind of thing that makes me believe in some kind of reincarnation — otherwise how does a small child raised in this environment “know” to go another direction?

      (and thank you…)

      1. joplingirl

        Exactly. Where does that innate morality come from. I certainly did not observe a humanistic or inclusive code nor was one taught me. Yet from early on I questioned any consensus which devalued people base on… What? The comfort of the clique? As you can imagine junior high was hell.

  3. Paul Lamb

    My racist training was more subtle. I can remember NOT being allowed to write an essay in grade school about MLK because my parents thought he was a “trouble maker.” So I did one on Indians instead. Now my father is gone and my mother attends the black Catholic church in her town because they were more welcoming to her than the white Catholic church was.

    1. Teri Post author

      Here’s to your mother, Paul, and to the black Catholic Church in town.

      There was nothing subtle about race in our house. Unless outsiders or the priest stopped by, then everyone was on their best, most charming behavior.

  4. donnaeve

    When I was growing up, no one in my family ever mentioned race, or point out blacks in any certain way and say anything derogatory. The matter of race just wasn’t talked about – and it was as if they didn’t exist at my all white school and in my all white neighborhood.

    Until integration.

    It was 1972, and I was bussed to a predominantly black school, on the other side of town during my junior high (now called middle school) years. At first, I didn’t understand my mother’s reaction, or what the big deal was. She read the assignment one afternoon in late summer and she sat down and cried. Then she got on the phone to my aunt, and it was “Oh my God this, and oh my God that. And then she waved the paper frantically at my father when he got home from work, finally exclaiming, “she’s got to go to a black school! She’ll get beat up!”

    That’s when I became afraid. Of course I can’t explain why some things happened. Did I get beat up – I did. Did I do anything to deserve it? Not unless looking like a major little nerd made me some sort of target – which it probably did. IDK.

    Fear can certainly be taught, and bad things do happen that shouldn’t, for no apparent reason except mistakes and bad judgement – on both sides.

    Great post, as always!

    1. Teri Post author

      True enough. But as I watched a black businessman describe this week what happens when he gets pulled over, I was thankful that at least I don’t worry that I might die because my tail light was out.

      I went to a mostly black school while living with my grandparents, and the legendary Slingshot Man. And everyone knew where I lived. I can only describe 5th grade as hell on this earth.

      1. donnaeve

        Oh Lord, true enough. I’ve come to the brilliant conclusion that we’re all afraid – some more than others with every reason to be – and we’re all fucking up at some point in time. And now…we have two more horrible incidents, in SC and Moore OK. I mean, honestly, what else?

  5. donnaeve

    Sheesh. When I change my post as I go along, I need to go back and re-read, so I don’t look like a complete idiot. I was editing and changing stuff as I wrote this comment, and didn’t double check myself. That first sentence should have been, “When I was growing up, no one in my family ever mentioned race, or POINTED out blacks in any certain way and SAID anything derogatory.”

    There. Now I feel better. 🙂

  6. Averil Dean

    I grew up in an urban environment. My next door neighbors (a black family) had two boys a little older than my sister and me, and they were our buddies. Very protective, very sweet, and totally accepted by my parents, as were all our black friends at school. I’ve dated black men, I have black children in my family. So in theory race relations should be simple. Yet even in an inclusive environment, the peace always seems a little tenuous, dependent more on a mutual decision to promote goodwill than the easy familiarity I’d feel with someone like you, for instance, who shares the same race and age and gender. Still, the unfamiliarity is exciting, inspiring, and more than welcome. I’m grateful to my parents for helping me see the world that way, and grateful to Al and Nora next door for the gift of those boys.

    I wish I’d asked my dad more about his upbringing in Arkansas. I wonder what role race played in his childhood. Maybe he simply rejected racism as he rejected religion, as a consequence of rational thought. It would have been like him to decide for himself…

    Sorry. Wandering off-topic again. This is a beautiful post, by the way.

  7. evelinamarie

    I’m curious about your husband’s remark and how you responded to spare your daughter the same fears that so frightened you as a child. Did you also have a private discussion with your husband on (I’m assuming) raising your child in a non racist home environment?

    We were fortunate (in this aspect of our childhoods at least). I come from a traditional immigrant family. Everyone was welcome at our home. We had Jewish friends, Latino friends, African American friends. As we got older, we had gay friends as well and they too we’re welcome at the family table. Maybe because my parents understood what it meant to be foreigners and marginalized.

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