Thursday, March 17, 2016

REYNOLDS FAMILY: The Color of Friendship

      It wasn’t until my first husband and I sold the house in Long Beach in which we had lived for ten years that some of our friends showed us their true colors. Neighbors who had shared recipes with us, given us tips on gardening, exchanged anecdotes about parenting, now warned us not to hurt their property values.  Suddenly there was a gulf between us. I was angry—and disappointed to realize we hadn’t known them as well as we’d thought.
     My parents went through the same thing before I was born. Dad had gone all the way through medical school at the University of Chicago with a close friend named Walden. Years later, he and Mum visited Walden in Visalia and reminisced about old times.
     They were both interested in writing. Dad told Walden that Jose Ferrar had taken him to his place in upstate New York so they could work on Dad's play Bite the Dust. He told him Ferrar had signed a contract promising to produce it and was paying him $100 per month as a retainer while he was out in Hollywood. Walden was impressed. Then Dad started telling him about the plot.
     "These American Indians go to downtown Manhattan and demand their land back," he said. "I chose Indians because they're less controversial than Negroes but I can still make a point about discrimination."
     Walden stiffened. He made some tight comment about "niggers." Dad was caught off guard.
     "Come on, Walden. I've known you for years--" Dad tried to say it lightly. "You're not against Negroes, are you?"
     The man's voice was cold. "Earle, you'd better just leave."
     In stunned silence, Dad and Mum got up and walked out the front door. They got into their car and Dad pulled slowly away from the curb. They drove in silence around the corner. When the house was out of sight, Dad stopped the car. He was shaking.
     "I never knew--" he said. "All those years--"
    That was the last contact the two men had with each other.
     But it wasn't the only time Dad and Mum were kicked out of a house for refusing to discriminate. With my elder brother Tim only six months old, they drove down to Mississippi where Dad resumed his old job with the Mississippi flood control for the U.S. Army Engineering Corps. They rented a flat and hired a black woman, May Belle, to wash Timmy's diapers in a cauldron of boiling water over an open fire, stirring them with a stick. They paid her the going rate: 50 cents a week.
     One day Mum invited May Belle in and they sat at the kitchen table and talked. That night when Dad came home, the landlady met him, furious. Mum could hear her screaming from upstairs.
     "Do y'all know what your wife been doing while you was away? She had that nigger gal inside the apartment!"
     "We're paying rent," replied Dad. "Doesn't that give us the right to have any guests we want to?"   
     "Get out!" yelled the landlady.
     Dad and Mum packed up the baby and all their belongings and moved out that night, with nowhere to go. Eventually they ended up in a small town near Dayton, Ohio. Dad started teaching anthropology at Antioch College. Across the street from us lived one of the few black families in Yellow Springs. Walter Anderson was Professor of Music at Antioch. Their daughter Sandra and I, both soon to be born, would someday be best friends.
     Most white people would have denied--sincerely-- that there was prejudice in this "enlightened" college town in a northern state in the late forties. But when the Andersons attempted to transfer their membership from the Presbyterian Church in Cleveland to the one in Yellow Springs, the church's board of elders balked. The Andersons "wouldn't fit in," they said. They would be happier with "their own kind." The minister, Herbert Schroeder, insisted the elders abide by the church rules regarding transfer of membership and said that he, for one, would welcome the Andersons. Several members left the church in protest.
     Reading this in the local newspaper Mum was so indignant she joined the church to support the pastor.
In the arena of issues, you can't always choose your lions, as she did then. Sometimes you find yourself attacked not so much for taking a deliberate stand over an issue as for refusing to see it as an issue. But the wounds can be just as deep.
     At about this time Tim, now five, joined the Cub Scouts and Mum became a den mother. She didn't think twice about it when Tim brought Philip Artyce to the meetings or when Philip, like everyone else, brought his parents to that month's dinner and program. But the next day one of the other mothers called, very upset. She said Mum had shown "poor judgment" in having the Artyce family to a social function.
     "We don't think it's appropriate for a Negro boy to be in this troop," the woman said.
     "All the boys are in school together," Mum pointed out.
     "Let him join a den for his own kind."
     "That's silly," said Mum. "Besides, I don't think there is one."
     "Then they should start one."
     Mum told her primly that it might be a good idea if she would start a den for her own boys so they could be with their own kind. Philip stayed.
     Two years later Ted was finally a Cub Scout. He came to Mum and said, "A boy in school wants to join."
     "Okay," said Mum. "Bring him to the next meeting."
     Ted hung his head so all Mum could see was curly brown hair and he poked at something with the toe of a Buster brown shoe. "There might be trouble like there was with Philip."
     "Why?" Mum asked amiably. "Is he a Negro?"
     "No. Not exactly." Ted swallowed hard and licked his lips. "But he's got--red hair."
     So simply do children point up the inscrutability of the prejudices of adults.


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