Tuesday, February 10, 2009
With the election over, I've been thinking a bit about the town I grew up in and how (if at all) Obama's election might have affected people there. I came up in a small town in North Louisiana... and when I say "small town", let me tell you what I mean: phone numbers still had 4 digits in 1985. The sign at the edge of town read "Welcome to Smallberg! Population: 1029". There were 57 kids in my freshman class, and only 135 from 7-12th grade. There were 3 gas stations, 2 stoplights, a general store (no seriously, a General Store) and 8 churches.
It was a small town. Out of the many memories I have from seventeen years living in Smallberg, three things will always stand out for me. Firstly, living there seemed to drive out all the teenagers it didn't kill. Out of the 57 kids I started highschool with, only 41 survived car accidents, suicide, or drug violence in the city an hour away. Of those who lived, only 27 of us graduated high school... the rest dropped out to sell drugs, raise kids, run away to the city, or all three. Only two of us went to college... but all that is a story for some other time. What I want to talk about is the other two things that stand out in my memories, and make me wonder what Smallberg is like now.
When schools in Smallberg were desegregated, the rich white families pooled their money, bought the white school, and turned it into a private academy. Basically, this meant nothing at all changed on the education front for thirty years or so... until my parents moved there from Maine. It didn't take them long to realize the private school was basically an excuse to keep things the way they were in 1940. Along with some other families, they took me and my brother out, and moved us into Public Education, starting in 4th grade. Of course at 9 years old I had no idea what this really meant. A lot was going on back then that I only recognized as an adult... restrictive housing contracts and various other inherently racist systems kept the entire town segregated as much as money could manage to do, but I didn't know any of that. What I did know was that all the kids on my block went to the white school, and I went to the black one.
Let me tell you, I was not welcomed. Shunned and ostracized actually, and I have very clear memories of not understanding why so many other kids hated me from the moment they saw me. I know my dad gained a lot of respect from the staff at the nursing home where he worked... 80ish people, from doctors down to janitors, all black. It was a statement, for him to pull his son from the academy and accept being branded a "n*****r lover" to do what he thought was right. The kids at school, though... I guess most of what they thought about "white folk" came from what their families said in private, and I heard it all thrown back at me, from day one. I have probably been called every insult ever thought up to use on a Caucasian, fuelled by God only knows how much generational bitterness and anger, not to mention good old universal childhood nastiness. I simply had no idea where all this came from, but it didn't take long to learn. White kids called the black part of town "the Quarters"... because that's what it had been in the plantation days. The more I grew up, the more old white racist attitudes I saw all around and the more I knew that because of how I'd been raised, I was as different from the kids on my block as I was from the kids at school. That sense of fundamental wrongness in treating anybody that way, white or black, has always stuck with me.
And that's how things were. I came up being frustrated and upset at how most of the whites in town acted, and increasingly bitter about being tarred with the same brush every day at school. Then again, I was literally the only white kid in my grade... back then, how else could it have been? And that brings me to the next clear memory... some of you might laugh at this, because I see politics in everything... I remember thinking when I was 12 "Why don't we have a black Mayor?". It seemed perfectly obvious to me that there should be, because there were only a couple hundred white people in town out of over a thousand... yet not only was there never a black person elected Mayor, none ever even ran. Why not?
As I got into highschool, I still thought of this now and again, and it just never made any sense. You might be thinking "anybody uppity enough to run woulda got shot by the cops or caught a beatdown" but it wasn't like that in Smallberg. In the next town over, definitely... when one of us found out that the cops in Next Town Up the Road were all KKK, I remember making sure the word got around, but the same didn't hold true in Smallberg. The Deputy Sheriff was a giant black guy that NOBODY effed with. Sure, the Academy was still open, still white-only, but there weren't more than thirty people there including the teachers. Over half the businesses were black-owned, black-run, or both. Things were different from when we were kids... music, movies... our generation didn't enforce the old color lines. Hell, I knew interracial teenage couples, and this seemed like a pretty big deal for backwoods Louisiana in 1990. Why was the town still run by old white men? I asked my friends in class, and the universal response was either "ain't no black man gonna run for Mayor!", or "I dunno, but I'm gettin the hell outta here the day after I graduate."
I never found out the answer... I haven't been back in fifteen years, but I do know that to this day, a black man has never run for town council, or for Mayor of Smallberg.
Questions: Will a black President inspire somebody from the majority to step up and try running my backwoods home town? Which would matter more to kids there today, still growing up with de facto segregated schools - a black President or Mayor? Have you ever lived someplace as openly segregated as Smallberg? How did you deal with it?