Decades Later, Old Racial Wounds Still Ache

Listen To The Conversations

To tackle the complexities of race deeper than the election polls, NPR hosts Michele Norris and Steve Inskeep periodically travel to York, Pa. In a series of conversations, voters — black, white and brown — discuss their experiences with race and how they will play into choices at the polls.

Read Norris' Previous Essay

Michele Norris writes about why she wanted to explore the issue of race in this presidential election and why NPR chose York, Pa.

In all candor, this election year has dredged up some very strange and potent emotions for me. I all but wept at a film screening the other day. It was The Secret Life of Bees, and the moment came during the scene in which Rosaleen is confronted by a group of menacing racists. That scene snatched me back to Birmingham, Ala., where I used to spend summers visiting my grandparents.

My grandfather was a huge man. Very tall. Very dark. Very proud. A former steelworker who wore suits every day once he retired.

"Dress for where you're going," he used to say.

I'm not sure he ever got there, but I guess that dark suit and skinny tie signaled where the grandkids were supposed to head. He drove a big car. Really big. Shiny and dark with what they called suicide doors that opened from the center. It made it easer to pack people and packages inside.

This was important because he rode jitney when he retired from the steel mills. If you're wondering that that means, here it is.

Few people had cars in the Ensley neighborhood near Birmingham. My grandfather was a saver, and he had six sons who all worked as early, as long and as hard as he did. He waited until he could buy a car with cash, and when, he did it was a big one — not a big one just to enjoy — but a big car that would help him earn money into retirement. He ferried people to and from the grocery store or the doctor or wherever they had to go. That's called jitney.

Summers In Birmingham

During my summer stays in Birmingham, my grandfather usually carried me into town with him on trips to Bruno's, the big grocery store. I would have to get dressed up for the day in starchy little pinafores and patent leather shoes. And since this was before the days of car seats, I would sit next to him in the massive front seat, the two of us in what most people would call Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.

Some days when we headed into the business district, my grandfather would be approached by men in work uniforms. They lived in a section across a creek that I later learned was home to Irish and Italian families. They always looked kind of rumpled. They had dirt on their faces and their hair always seemed wet. They called my grandfather "boy" and "nigrah," which is slightly less offensive and confrontational than nigger. Slightly.

They asked him who he "thought" he was, driving a big car and dressing like a preacher. They would walk behind us, barking and sneering and spitting on the sidewalk. They would step in front of us as we tried to pass. My grandfather said little. He knew them by name. I remember that he would sometimes tell them to pass greetings on to their parents or ask after someone he used to work with at the mills. I remember that because those questions seemed to be the thing that got the men to pipe down or back up and let us move on our way — a man with hands the size of oven mitts holding onto an overdressed child.

That scene in The Secret Life of Bees touched off my emotions because it reminded me of those trips into town with my grandfather. All these years later, I had an epiphany. I am not sure it is correct, but with 47 years of life at my back, I now think that the little girl in the lace socks and patent leather shoes provided a measure of protection.

I'm almost sure of it. I can't imagine putting my own kids into a similar situation —dressing them up, sending them off with their grandparents as fashionable armor.

I ran this by my mom. I wanted her to say, "You're crazy," or "You've always had quite an imagination."

You know what she said?

"We lived in different times. People did what they had to do."

Taking Heed Of Where You've Been

Our conversations in York have me wondering about those men on the sidewalk. I wonder what they would say about this election year if they were included in our conversations. So often, discussions about race are driven by people who chaffed under restrictive laws or customs. The "success despite oppression" narrative is quite common in politics and film and business. Less common — or perhaps more muted — are the contemporary viewpoints of people who enforced, enjoyed or evolved past the point of assumed white privilege.

There is a certain amount of heroism associated with overcoming strife. People who stood against integration may have been seen as heroes to their compatriots, but that's not the way they're portrayed in history books. In journalism, those labels are irrelevant. But those stories are important, and those viewpoints are essential, as we try to explore and explain the election and the outcome.

I'd like to think America's most painful chapters on race are now history, and thank goodness for that.

But it's not ancient history.

It's important to remember that, because navigating the road ahead is much tougher if you don't take heed of where you've been.

It's true for an individual — and true for a nation.

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