Thursday, January 19, 2012

Encountering Hate

(Continued from Tuesday . . . )
As I remember, Missouri didn’t have segregated public transportation when I was growing up. That is not to say that racism didn’t flourish here. It did. I just wasn’t aware of it until fifth grade, when I was ten.
            Mom emphasized in every way she could that all people were created equal. Sometimes I’d tell a story that indicated I thought I was better than someone else. Immediately, my mother would set my thinking straight.
            “Dolores, don’t brag about your gift for numbers. What about Barbara June? What’s her gift?”
            “Playing the piano.”
            “And Bobby?”
            “And your brother?”
            “Figuring out how to do things.”
            “See? Different gifts. Noticing that makes all the difference.”
            Arrogance wasn’t tolerated in our home. And anything smacking of intolerance was even less accepted. My mother believed in the “brotherhood of man.” At school, the nuns seemed to think that only Roman Catholics and a few other “saintly people” would go to heaven. Mom quashed that idea.
            “Dolores, do you think God’s prejudiced?”
            “Probably not. It’s not right.”
            “He’ll welcome anyone who helps others. Just concentrate on that.”
            Given this background, I was ill prepared for the blatant hatred of racial prejudice when I encountered it on a Kansas City streetcar.

            I was taking the streetcar to my grandmother’s house. All the seats were filled. In the aisle, children, women, and men stood packed together. My father would have said, “like sardines.”
            I stood pressed against two young women, one of them pregnant. I was turned toward the right side of the car and spent my time reading the ads posted above the windows. I looked up, not down.
            At the next stop, the man sitting in the seat next to which I was standing stood up, excused himself, and began edging his way through the crowd. I’d been taught that pregnant women and women with young children were always to be given special consideration. So instead of simply sitting down, I turned to the pregnant women and said, “Mam, would you like this seat?”
            She glanced down, and her pretty, white face twisted. She frowned. She grimaced. Her lips thinned. Her eyes became fierce. She glared as if in disgust.
            I followed that glare downward and saw, sitting with his hands clasped and pressed between his legs, a young boy, no more than my own age. I looked back up at the woman, her face so ugly now, and asked, “Mam, do you want the seat, being pregnant and all?”
            “I’d never sit down next to that n-----boy if you paid me. He’d contaminate my baby,” she hissed.
            So I sat down. I wanted to reach and take his clasped hands from between his legs and shake them and say, “It’s alright. My mom’d say she’s just ignorant. But that’s no excuse for being mean.”
            But I said nothing for he was staring fixedly out the window, his right shoulder turned away from me. I said nothing, but I thought lots. I wanted to know if that happened often. I wanted to tell him how my classmates used to laugh at me. And how I cried because of this. I wanted to know if he felt like crying. I wanted simply to know that boy.
            Where did he go to school? What subject was his favorite? Was he good in arithmetic too? Did he have a little brother? What would his mom say about that pregnant white woman? How often did someone treat him like that? How scared was he?
            I asked nothing. We sat in silence, riding the streetcar. By the time I got off at the corner of 39th Street, the aisles were empty. No one had to make the choice about whether to sit next to that ten-year-old black boy. No one had to choose whether to be contaminated.
            I never forgot. That hate-filled, ignorant woman will always be for me the face of racism and that shuddering young boy, his hands clasped between his knees, will always be its bitter fruit. On Saturday, I’ll share with you how that one incident led to my first foray into civil rights.
            Before you leave this story today, please click on the following link to read Rita’s story of her encounter with God on the bus.
                                                                        (Continued on Saturday . . . )

Photo of streetcar from Wikipedia


  1. I'm always amazed at how ignorant people can be. There's no way that little boy would have contaminated her baby. I pray that the little baby she was carrying grew up a different person than its mother.

    1. Dear Alicia,
      Like you, I hope that her child grew up differently and became open to the possibility of good in all people, everywhere.

      Thank you for commenting today. I'll come over to your blog this evening to discover what is happening in your life.


  2. Dear Dee--I was deeply moved by both your & Rita's stories. I am white & Jewish by acccident of birth. That doesn't make me better than anyone. (It certainly wouldn't have in Hitler's Germany.) To me, it would be like saying I'm better than you because I live in a white house. There are beautiful people living in many different colored houses--& skins!

  3. Dear Fishducky,
    I'm glad you read Rita's story. I think I met God on the streetcar that day just as Rita met the Oneness in which we live. That Oneness--God if you will--reaches out to us daily in all our encounters. I believe this. I need to believe it or life just wouldn't make sense.

    And my house is white with black shutters! What's yours?


  4. A most interesting read Dee, what does the colour of the skin make or what faith one has, we are all God's children at the end of the day.

  5. Dear Dee--My house is a creamy beige--& do you REALLY believe that life makes sense?

  6. I am so happy that your mother taught you not to be prejudiced. I am also really sad that you were confronted with both sides of racism in this way. That poor sad woman with a heart full of hate and that poor boy condemned for something he had no control over. Here in Australia there certainly was racism but it was better hidden. Which probably made it worse because it was harder to confront and address.

  7. I'm shocked and dismayed at the blatant racism of the SC audience at that presidential debate the other day. The other day!!! 2012!!! I fear for my adopted country now. Dee, I'm letting off steam on your blog, because I want to keep a lighter tone on mine. Hope you don't mind.

  8. Very moving and thought-provoking post -- especially the whole conversation in your head with the young boy sitting next to you. How terrible and profoundly sad that someone filled with such hate was poised to pass on her ignorance to the child she was carrying. Talk about contamination!

  9. Wow! Some people and their prejudice, hate, and ignorance. It's so sad for everyone involved.

  10. This is so hard to hear, and to remember. I am glad it's different today, but that was just the way people thought back then. Have you read (or seen) "The Help"? I thought it was very well done and reminded me once again of those days.

  11. That's so sweet of you to link my experience, Dee. :)
    I kept thinking how that woman was contaminating that baby every day, everywhere she went...all that child's life. I pity her and her child, too. What a negative place to live. Fear is a contamination...that spreads. So sad.
    The first time you see that kind of vile hatred you never forget it. I know I didn't. And it was over the same issue...visiting in Florida when I was a kid. It's an ugly, dark, flashing, dangerous thing.
    Great post, Dee. :)

  12. To All of You Who Have Commented About the Pregnant Woman in This Story:

    Do you remember the musical South Pacific? The nurse and the Frenchman who had married a Polynesian woman? The two of them had two children. The mother had died when the Frenchmen met the nurse during World War II. When she realized that he had married a woman of color and that the two children were "mixed race," she turned down his offer of marriage. She could not get beyond her own upbringing. And do you remember the song that the man--I think his name was maybe Emil, but not sure--do you remember the song he sang, "You have to be taught to hate. You have to be carefully taught."

    That woman I met 65 years ago must have been taught to hate any member of the race she called n-----. Did she teach her child that? Or perhaps did the child meet a teacher or a friend's family and learn a different way to relate to people. I'll never know. I'll also never know what happened to that young boy. But I'll never forget him.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And Inger, I'm not a Newt Gingrich fan, but I wonder if his words have been misinterpreted. He might have been saying that all children--no matter what color (white, black, brown)--could work cleaning the school and making extra money. I don't know what he meant. Has he offered any explanation? I haven't heard one. Despite my own political bias in favor of President Obama, I'd like to give Gingrich the benefit of the doubt. I need to know more. Is Gingrich a man of integrity? I don't know that either.

    And Rita, your wonderfully written story touched me deeply when I read it and it fit so well with this posting of mine that I couldn't help but link the two.


    1. Re South Pacific -- It was sung by Lt. Cable when he fell in love with the young Polynesian girl ... Sometimes it seems as if things haven't changed very much...

    2. Dear Broad,
      Thanks so much for getting this right. I remember now that it was Lt. Cable. He was a handsome actor! And yes, sometimes it does seem that things haven't changed much. Especially given what Inger is writing about the Republican debate this past week. If what she fears is true than racism is alive in well her in the United States.

  13. I've never understood racism either way. Yes I do believe it goes back and forth and it's not just one race discriminating.
    I was always taught that you judge a man by his actions not his color.
    I've tried to teach that to my children also. Color is just God' artistic way of creating. What people do with it is what makes it pretty or ugly.

  14. I'm so glad you mother taught you well. Heartbreaking, you and that little boy on the streetcar.

  15. Dee, your goodness shines through here, please give Mr. Gingrich the benefit of your doubt. I was not that upset about cleaning the schools, I was upset about the way he spoke to Mr. Williams and the crowd's reaction to that interaction. All you had to do was to look at the face of Juan Williams, a black man, who decided to become a Fox News commentator, and see the pain. He made his choice to go to that network, but he is still a black man, and the way Mr. Gingrich talked down to him, his face showed the pain and it disclosed to me what it means to be a black man in America in the year 2012. I am no fan of Mr. Williams, but when the audience cheered and gave a standing ovation for the way Mr. Gingrich spoke to Mr. Williams I became very, very angry and concerned. It was scary for me to watch. And I am concerned for this, my adopted country that I love.

    1. Dear Inger,
      The truth is that I didn't watch this debate and so I didn't see Mr. Williams and the exchange with Gingrich. I found out about what he said--not how he said it--only from what friends told me and the newspaper. So I missed what does sound like racism. And yes, I can see why you are concerned. We still have so far to go.


  16. What mindless cruelty and hate! That woman did so much damage that day.

  17. Dear Dee,
    I don't remember who said it, but it's true that hatred is taught. I don't believe anyone hates naturally. That woman was ignorant, that's true, but she was only doing what she must have been taught.
    It's hard to imagine people being that hateful, but they are everywhere.

    I'm looking forward to Saturday's post.

  18. PS ~ Thanks for linking to Rita's post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and hope to read more of her writing.

  19. I do believe certain groups of people, left to ruminate & theorize, ignite binding pathologies. ~Mary

  20. Oh my, Dee! What an emotionally searing story! I can really imagine how decades later this is still a very painful memory! The experience probably set you on your path for years ahead of championing and supporting causes instilling equality and challenging discrimination. To that end, this horrible incident contributed to something strong and meaningful. Thank you for sharing such a piece of literal history! And i did read Rita's story, too. Wonderful! Debra

  21. Horrible. It's a world I have little experience of.

  22. Dee, I'm popping in right in the middle of your story; hope to have time soon to read all the posts; I sure love this telling. My mom is the same way; both my parents, in fact. Their flaws have always seemed small, due to their kindness and respect for others (and their willingness to learn where their prejudices show up), something they learned from their parents and grandparents. What a legacy to receive. We who've been entrusted with such have a great responsibility and blessing to carry on. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Oh, my. I knew I had to wait to read this series of posts until I had a good long quiet time to ponder them. First of all, let me say that your writing is so clear and descriptive, so grounded, that I love reading your words.

    But the story you tell makes me so sad. I know in my heart that that woman's words were founded in fear and that made her think it was hatred. I am sad for her, but I am more sad for that little boy who probably knew exactly what was coming. I hope that he had people at home who loved and cherished him in the way he deserved and that he lived to see this world where acceptance and love can exist.

  24. I suppose this is why the All-Knowing They say we should be grateful for even the most unpleasant (evil?) people we encounter, because of the lessons they teach us. I am thinking of the Buddhist monk on the over-crowded boat (remember the boat people?).

    The boat is in danger of sinking and a burly man begins throwing people overboard in hopes of saving himself. People try to reason with him, to no avail. Finally the monk gets up, kills the man, and throws him overboard.

    The people are appalled. How could a man of compassion and peace, a man they knew to have achieved enlightenment, risk his soul and thousands of years of reincarnation as the basest of beings in such a way.

    The monk replies, "I had to do it. I could not bear for him to accumulate so much bad karma. He would have killed many more. I had to kill only one. What is ten thousand years for me compared to a hundred thousand for him?"

    Then, I might have hurled invectives. Today, insulated by space and time and not having the body memory of that incident, I can give gratitude for the ugliness of that woman for what she may have taught, not only to you, but to many others on that bus that day. I pray that, in time, her heart was healed and she discovered that love knows no race, no color and no bounds.

    I pray too that the boy was given a generous heart, one that healed quickly, and the wisdom to find a way to live freely and beautifully in a world that is so often unkind and unjust.