Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What Is Race? Part Two: My Mother, Race Relations Adviser

Littie Nash
Littie Nash

My mother was my most effective race relations adviser. 

"Do your best at what you do you," my mother said. "You are responsible for that. If you don't do your best, you can only blame yourself. Doing your best may not change the way some people treat you, but doing your best goes a long way toward the way you feel about yourself. And you are the only person you really need to impress."

My mother did not lavish me with compliments and I do not fault her for that. She  believed compliments and accolades should be reserved for special achievements. She reserved celebrations for real accomplishments and occasional birthday parties. My mother loved me even if she didn't compliment my every move. As an adult, I understand that she was teaching me independence and confidence in my own abilities. 

"You know what you have done," she always said. "Let that knowledge--be it good or bad--serve you. Good and you can repeat whatever it was. Bad and you can cease with it."

I admit, when I was a little girl listening to all her wisdom, I was mostly confused. But I realized early in my life that compliments were not to be thrown around because I dragged myself out of bed before noon on Saturday or because I made straight-A report cards. 

"Some things, like making good grades, you have to do," she said. "And those things pass, not without notice, but without an all-day hullabaloo. I notice," she said."Do you?"

Not that I really wanted to do all the things Littie insisted I do, my mother sponsored my piano, ballet, tennis and swimming lessons, dance performances, recitals, literary and classical music club memberships, summer camps, school trips and science fair exhibits, still managing to squeeze out of our tight budget money for the dentist to install braces on my teeth. She did her best with little to start with; I was not a prize! 

Rosa Parks Arrest Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955
Rosa Parks Arrest
Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955

It took courage and imagination during the Jim Crow era for my mother to give me what I needed. 

My mother schooled me about life in the American South and made me read about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I could tell by looking around the neighborhood that jobs for African Americans were scarce and good jobs were mostly nonexistent for them. Black men were economically and politically marginalized.

Black women were publicly disrespected on a routine basis. I'm not at all sure how they got along back then. I was there and I have little memory of a day-to-day routine. 

"Look what Rosa Parks is doing for you," my mother told me when I was six years old and in first grade. "What are you going to do?" 

I had no idea what the right answer to that question was, but I didn't have to wait for very long to find out. 

"You are going to go to school and do the best you can. And I don't mean kind of your best or just good enough! I mean your best! You are a little colored girl and you are going to have to do everything better than just good enough, better than good! You are going to have to do very good! Better than very good! The best you have in you!"

Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-56 - Woman Hitchhiking
Woman Hitchhiking
Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-56
I wonder sometimes how I would have dealt with racial humiliation indefinitely or if I would have learned to fight the system like Rosa Parks and other women of her time. My mother had her own way of fighting the Jim Crow system. She was fighting it with me as her primary weapon. 

By the time I graduated from high school, it was against the law to do to me what was customary treatment for black women only a couple of years earlier when I was a child and people stared at my mother and me in department stores and shook their heads when we asked to try on a garment. In the cheap stores, we were not allowed to try on apparel and discouraged from touching it. I couldn't understand why those shabby dresses were considered so precious that we couldn't try them on or even touch them without sneers from the sales ladies. 

"The policy does not state you can't try on the dress," my mother explained, pulling me out of a store on day. "The policy is that you can't use their fitting room."

"If we can't use their fitting room," I asked. "Where are we supposed to try the clothes on?"

"One old sales biddy suggested I strip down in the store and try on the bad-cut suit because she knew no self-respecting lady would do that," my mother said. 

"What?" I was shocked.

"And if you buy their sheeny mammy-made outfits," my mother said. "You can't bring them back!"
Former Edges on the Corner, Bryan, Texas
Former Location of one of the Better Stores

My mother shopped a lot through mail-order catalogs. Our postman, Mr. Walton--the first black U.S. Postman in our town--was not fond of our shopping habits, having to carry all those packages in all kinds of weather, but he was always nice, not because his wife and my mother were good friends or because his wife was my first-grade teacher or because I was best friends with his son, Charles, but because Mr. Walton had a job to do. 

Mr. Walton knew, being our town's first black postman, he had to do that job better than anyone else would have. Being the first meant that his superior performance could open doors for the next black postman. 

When the money situation in our household improved, my mother was able to shop at the more expensive stores, where there was no fitting-room policy. In the better stores, we could try on clothes like other human beings, although we couldn't buy as many items as we could have at the cheap stores. My mother said, the better stores didn't have a fitting room or no-return policy because they didn't expect to have a black clientele. 

"The good stores don't mind taking our money," she said. "As long as we conduct ourselves properly and do not come in hooping and hollering, pulling all the garments off racks, dragging them floor, stepping on them, destroying the displays, leaving the store wrecked and acting like...well, you get the idea. Let's go shopping!"

Our shopping habits changed when my mother started her little food business in our kitchen providing meals for some ill older patients she cared for as a practical nurse. She made healthy ingredient substitutions so the dish tasted like the dish to which the patient was was accustomed. Eating well, they thrived. Doctors saw improvements in their health and began requesting that my mother make special foods for their other patients. My mother took an idea and her talent with food and changed our lives. 

"Good enough is not good enough for me," my mother said. "And if never learn anything else from me, learn that!"

My mother taught me what race was and what race was not.  

Be sure to read other conversations with my mother: