My grandmother told me lots of stories while I was growing up. As a history major in the making, I soaked them all up, never tiring of hearing about the same adventures of long-ago relatives over and over again. I could picture my great-aunt’s outrage when she found that one of her students at the little country school where she taught had locked her in the outhouse. I could hear her say later that she’d always known that Clyde Barrow would come to no good. I could picture three little girls riding in the rumble seat of their father’s Model A, hanging on for dear life as he made his way over the rutted dirt roads of their farm, giving them their very own roller coaster ride. I later laughed, around the time I learned to drive myself, about one of the older girls in the family confronting her father over his poor driving skills. He dared her to show him how to do it better. And she did, teaching herself to drive without help from anyone–a fact that was very evident years later when her less-than-stellar driving skills led my brother and male cousins to put up the “Need Help, Please Call Police” sign in her back window whenever they rode with her.
My great-grandfather figured prominently in many of the stories. Having been born to her parents late in life, my grandmother always mourned the fact that she’d lost her father when she was only 19. Those stories helped bring a man I’d never met alive for me, and I know now that they kept him alive for her as well.
But one of the stories she told me over and over again centered not on his life but on his death. Fortunately for her family as our country suffered through the Great Depression, my grandmother’s father owned his own farm outright. As did many Southern farmers, he let out part of the land to sharecroppers. Sharecroppers whom he evidently treated fairly and with whom he worked day in and day out in the fields, planting and harvesting the cotton that brought in what little income any of them made and the foodstuffs that kept their families fed.
My grandmother told of her father’s fairness and of the respect he garnered from the men who worked for him. And she always ended the story with an account of my great-grandfather’s funeral, telling me that when the family came out of the church to drive to the cemetery they found the sharecroppers and their families had lined both sides of the road to pay their last respects.
And for years it never occurred to me to ask an important question. Finally, though, it happened. “Mimi, why didn’t the sharecroppers just come to the funeral?” And by now many of you may have guessed what I never had. The answer? “Well, honey, they couldn’t come into the church!” “Why not?” “Oh, it just wasn’t done. Don’t you realize? They were all Black.” I was shocked not only by having to completely rethink this familiar chapter of my family history but also by the realization of how deeply segregation and prejudice had been woven into my grandmother’s childhood.
And, yet, today it’s exactly that realization that gives me such hope for the future. Because a few days ago, my 90-year-old grandmother went to the polls. And there, the granddaughter of Confederate soldiers–the young woman who watched African Americans denied their civil rights and thought little of it at the time–there, that same woman cast her ballot for Barack Obama.
And if she can do it, I firmly believe that many, many others will as well–turning the world my own children are growing up in into a place where anyone truly can aspire to hold the highest office in this great country of ours. A place where no one is left standing on the side of the road.
Thanks to Oh, The Joys! for this post on Friday. It’s had me thinking all weekend and inspired me to get this post out today.