Me and Russia, we go way back

[Written in response to, “How come you old farts are so pissed off about Russia?” asked by a younger friend whose political awareness bloomed after the Cold War.]

My stormy relationship with Russia began benignly enough in my front yard on an October night in 1957.  I was three years old, so it’s a bit fuzzy, but I recall sitting atop my dad’s shoulders as he asks excitedly, “Do you see it, son? Do you see it there!”  His forefinger punches skyward.  But all I see is a massive splatter of stars against inky darkness.

Fearful of disappointing Dad, I say I see “it.”

“That’s Sputnik!” he shouts. He tells me it’s a Russian satellite.

What’s Russia? What’s a satellite?

“Russia’s a huge country on the other side of the earth, and a satellite is something that goes round and round the earth.”

I have no clue what he’s talking about.  In time, though, I will learn that he could’ve more accurately said a Soviet satellite because, thirty years earlier, old Russia had morphed into the U.S.S.R. and was called Soviet Union on newscasts.  But still, pretty much everyone I knew called the Soviet people Russians, or, in their  more animated moments, Godless commie bastards.

But I wasn’t bothered.  So the Russians have shot a little star into space that goes round and round the earth. Big deal! Let ’em do whatever they like, as long as they don’t stop me from watching Captain Kangaroo.

A few years later, however, in 1962, the Russians started seriously messing with me. Nikita Khrushchev, their pudgy bald-headed boss who vaguely resembled Curly from the Three Stooges but was meaner than Moe, put missiles in Cuba and aimed them at me. (I’ve written a little bit about this HERE.) Civil Defense films at school revealed that I, along with Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear, were all in mortal danger of incineration.

The so-called Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, but my deep-seated fear of Russia had only begun. Other Russian missiles, even if farther away, were still pointed at me and my friends and remain so to this very day.

If you weren’t around for the 1960s, I get your confusion about us old farts and our Russiaphobia. Be grateful you didn’t experience the 24/7 existential terror that, at any moment, a massive solar flash would permanently switch off the lights on you and everyone you loved.  Such fear has a way of burrowing into your skull.

At some point in the 1960’s, I first suffered the nightmare that recurs even in my present old age.  A howling Civil Defense siren stirs me out of bed. I run to my parents’ bedroom but they’re not there. The siren continues. I run to wake my brother and sisters, but they’re gone, too. Frantic, I dash onto the front porch to find the sky awash in blood. The siren moans down to silence, and there’s a second or two when I hear only the wind. Then—the flash.  To this day, I wake up clutching the bed in terror.

My terror was nourished by conversations with friends and their parents, by newscasts, even by my education. Back then, the 9th-grade history curriculum required one semester of Alabama history, and the other of Communism. This was not an objective study; this was a know-your-foe course as evidenced by the textbook’s title, Communism: America’s Mortal Enemy.  It revealed the atheism, oppression of liberty, and unabated evil that composed the cancer we called communism.  And it strongly stressed that this demon disease had been loosed by the Russians.

As I stumbled toward high school graduation there came racing from the other direction the menace of Vietnam where raged a war between Russian-backed Communists and U.S.-backed Good Guys. Older brothers of friends were drafted, armed, trained and shipped across the Pacific to protect us from Communism. Fifty thousand Americans, a few of whom I knew, died there—fighting Communism. And by 1970 I sensed I might die there too, with the fatal flash this time bursting from a Russian-made AK-47 or landmine.

Mercifully, the War in Vietnam wound down in my senior year.  But still, the fact that America had essentially lost the war made my generation’s terror and hatred of Russia all the more intense. Again, much was made of the missiles Russia continued to aim at us. The fatal flash was back—bigger and badder than ever.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president and convinced us to create a “coalition of peace through strength,” which meant that we needed to aim so damn may of our own missiles at Russia that they would come to their senses and quit this Communism nonsense.  Having been a Hollywood film star, Reagan loved movies and from them got the idea that we should put missiles in outer space aimed at the Russians.

Finally, in 1989, the iconic Berlin Wall—symbol of Communism’s stranglehold on the world—was sledge-hammered to pieces. For decades—perhaps centuries—historians will debate who deserves more credit for the fall of Communism: Reagan, with his I-got-more-bullets-than-you approach, or Gorbachev (another bald-headed Russian ) with his Frankly-I’m-just-tired-of-this-shit approach.  In any case, the Soviet Union disintegrated, melting away like Oz’s Wicked Witch.

I wept for joy because I was naïve enough to think that America’s problems were solved, that the existential threat was slain. Over the next couple of decades I studied a great about the so-called Cold War, and saw where a lot of what I had been taught about Russians was panic-born propaganda.  I met Russians, taught some Russians, shared drinks with Russians (not the ones I taught), and saw that in most respects that they’re folks like me, despite their origin.

But…the pale of Communism still hangs noxiously over Russia, especially where its leaders are concerned. And while much of my indoctrination about Communism was steeped in propaganda and hysteria, what remains indisputable is that Russian leadership is still opposed to freedom of speech and freedom of choice. President Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent. His DNA still runs toward communism as he brashly undermines the freedoms of his Russian subjects. It is a fact that the Russian government kills journalists and others courageous enough to voice disagreement with Putin.  It is a intelligence-based fact—agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats—that by Putin’s order, Russian operatives tried—and quite likely succeeded—in manipulating U.S. elections in 2016.

So, you ask, if Communism has fallen, why am I still afraid of Russia? Because I see the Russian government as playing the role of the bogeyman in every great scary flick I’ve ever seen.  Who remembers Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, the final scene, where you’re sure she’s dead at the bottom of the bathtub but suddenly rises up slashing with a butcher knife?

Call me crazy, but I’m convinced that in this scary flick of communism, Vladimir Putin and his cronies play Glenn Close’s character. That bogeyman ain’t dead. And he’d not think twice about taking that butcher knife to me, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Green Jeans, and all the rest of us.

I know, cuz me and Russia, we go way back.

Eulogy for Ensley High School

Last Tuesday around 2:30 a.m., a call came into the Birmingham Fire Department that a large, vacant three-story building at 2301 Avenue J was on fire. TV cameramen arrived shortly after the firefighters and filmed thick flames shooting like cannons from the building’s third-floor.  Against the night sky, the scene was especially lurid and would have left any viewer thinking, “Geez, that place is a goner!”

But for several thousand of us, sprinkled across the city, state, and even the nation, this conflagration was particularly painful, for we are Ensley Yellow Jackets, and this building was the walls, halls, floors, stairs that enveloped us from our fourteenth through our eighteenth years. For as many generations as can be counted from 1908 to 2005, this building was “dear ol’ Ensley High, her colors black and gold.” Our alma mater.

Half a century ago, in a classroom on the backside of the building’s second floor, my Latin teacher, Miss Hortenstine, taught me that alma mater means “kind mother.” Ensley High School was indeed for so many of us a kind mother—and, when she needed to be, a stern and disciplining mother, as when Mr. Lott espied me whispering during an auditorium assembly and called me up front where the spirit of our “kind mother” urged him to whip my ass with a boat-oar paddle (a very painful lesson learned).

For more than a few of us, Ensley was a “kind grandmother,” for she had nurtured and disciplined our parents whom we followed, by only a generation, through her doors, up her stairs, and into her classroom desks where Mom and Dad had learned math, science, history, and literature—and, in some cases (my own, for example), where Mom and Dad had started dating and had fallen in love.

For us, the kind mother’s grandkids, stories of dear ol’ Ensley High came to us well before our freshman year. During my early childhood, my parents repeatedly told tales of their Yellow Jacket days—for example, Mom’s daily fear of hearing Señorita Pace call her name in Spanish dialect, ¡Sarah, a la pizarra! [Sarah, to the chalkboard!] And so nearly twenty years later, even though I didn’t take Spanish, I would occasionally use a restroom pass to lurk outside the Spanish classroom to hear the very same Señorita say “a la pizarra!”

There was comfort in this generation-to-generation continuity, in knowing that you were occupying space that had been filled for decades before by families you knew and loved. I recall mornings, for example, standing in a herd outside the lunchroom, waiting for first bell to ring, when, from boredom, I would scan the memorial plaques of alumni  who had fallen in World Wars I and II, and I would recognize many of the names as being from families in my church, my neighborhood, my parents’ circle of old friends. In the late 1960s when the world outside seemed like an express train to hell—what with racial violence, assassinations, and the Damocles’ sword of Vietnam hanging over us—there was some shred of confidence in knowing that your parents, aunts, uncles, and other dear ones, had walked here before you.

So for thousands of us, those flames that leapt last Tuesday from that empty building’s roof felt like a personal assault. A friend and fellow alum wrote, “We have lost the Mother of our family that united us one.”  And I get that, because, at first, I felt that way, too. But  if you stop and think about it, you will realize that memories are amazingly fire-resistant. The tens of thousands of stories  that we in Yellow Jacket nation could tell are beyond the reach of any flames.  And so long as these memories live, so does our kind mother.

So let’s take comfort that she is alive and well, because somewhere right now, Señorita Pace is calling out “¡Sarah, a la pizarra!” and Mr. Lott is whipping my ass.

Go Jackets!

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Conclusion)

[This concludes a five-part series that begins here.]

As I grew older, my experience of the world around me increasingly contradicted the stereotypes in which I’d been indoctrinated. I began to notice that the exceptions were overwhelming the rules. Italians were not all connected to the Mafia. Greeks were not all in the restaurant business. Blacks were not all—not by long-shot—lacking in intelligence or ability. But according to my indoctrination the world should have been a neater and simpler place, a set of rank-ordered dresser drawers into which every category should be stuffed with its own kind. According to my experience, it was not that.

The rank-order part had been immensely strong for a long time. And we in the white drawer had for centuries been told that we were top drawer, making us supreme. The Italians, Greeks, and other derivatives of Europe descended beneath us.  And, finally, on the bottom, the African-Americans. The U.S. Constitution in its earliest form helped perpetuate this, allowing for slavery and totally dis-empowering slaves. Later, in the South, Jim Crow held the ranks in order by keeping African-Americans dis-empowered. And so for generations, children of all races were indoctrinated to believe these stereotypes.

Did this mean that the variety of races and ethnic groups didn’t get along?  It didn’t mean that at all.  If everyone appropriately behaved within his/her rank order, then everyone could get along quite well.  And until Brown v. Board and the civil rights movement, everyone pretty much did.  But, by the middle of the 20th century, those folks down there in the bottom drawer had had enough. And so they began to get uppity, meaning they dared climb out of their designated slot and insist on moving higher.  Let me tell you a story to illustrate this . . .

My maternal grandfather was, to my early-childhood eyes, perhaps the most wonderful creature God ever made.  I was his first grandchild and he swaddled me in love and affection. He was also a vehement racist. I recall Sunday afternoons watching pro-football broadcasts with him—a peaceful experience until…Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (one of very few blacks then in the league) made a phenomenal play over which the commentators effused, thereby launching my grandfather out of his chair and screaming, “Get that [n-word] off the TV!” And he would switch off the game.

Decades later, after my grandfather had died, we would lament, “It’s painful to think Granddady was such a racist.” And, though, none of us condones his behavior, our love of him impelled us to make excuses. “But Granddaddy was kind to black people individually. He even had black playmates as a child.”

This is true. But here’s the rub: So long as an individual black person dared not look my grandfather eye-to-eye, dared not presume to approach him on equal footing, my grandfather was kind and benevolent. But the minute a black person asserted himself or herself as equal to, or more able than a white person, Granddaddy went wacko.

My uncle tells of an exchange, overheard in his own childhood, between my grandfather and a friend.  The friend, referring to a black man, said, “He’s a good [n-word].” And my grandfather responded, “Yes, he’s a good [n-word] because he knows he’s a [n-word].”  And there you have it: so long as the black man knew his place and stayed in it, he was good, but the moment he started to move up (e.g., daring to set an NFL record for touchdowns), he was not good and showed himself to be unbearably uppity.

This rank-ordering was built, of course, with stereotypes that put whites at the top merely by the notion of innate superiority indicated by skin color.  By twelfth grade I just couldn’t make the stereotypes jibe with the world I was looking at. I’ve already mentioned my black classmates, Shirley and Derrol, better students than I. (I could name more).  I’ve mentioned certain of my black teachers, not only able and competent, but more so than many of my white teachers.

So, being a 17-year-old in 1971, I was naturally in a state of rebellion. At dinner table, and in chance conversations, I began suggesting that the grownups had got it all wrong about the races.  I was summarily dismissed as being young and naive. I was a liberal as most young and ignorant people are. When I grew up, I was told, I would return to the conservative ways of my elders and see things as they did. Here’s a line they loved: “You’re young, but you’ve never been old.  We’ve been both young and old.”

Decades later, and too late, I stumbled on a rapier retort, attributed, I think, to Margaret Mead: “True, unlike me, you’ve been both young and old. But also unlike me, you’ve never been young in the present world, nor will you ever be.”

And it was, indeed, a profoundly different world than the one my parents and grandparents had grown up in. In that world, values that had actually been present all along—in the Declaration of Independence, in the amended U.S. Constitution, and, above all, in the biblical tenets of the Christian faith—had been twisted and perverted in order to support the age-old stereotypes. But now, America was gettin’ woke.

My contact with people of color (on a more level playing field), put a bright light on ironies and absurdities that had for so long been obscured.  Here’s one: Moments after my third-grade Sunday School teacher had told us, “We must pray for and forgive the Negroes for they know not what they do, bless their hearts,” we sang a song called “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” the refrain of which is:  “Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” On the wall was a lithograph illustration titled “Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me,” depicting children whose skin and features represented all races. Jesus was sweeping them into his arms, all at once—not white kids first, then others, but all together.

These values had been all around us all along—in our revered government documents, in our Bibles—and, I like to believe, they had also been somewhere deep in our hearts, but buried unfortunately beneath the indoctrinating stereotypes.

My elders were wrong. I have not come back round to where they were. Instead, the America I live in has moved in great measure away from the way they viewed the world. We have come a long way. But we’ve still a long way to go. Racism is, as I said in Part 1, like a stain that must be scrubbed.  And one should never stop scrubbing.

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” my student asked.

“Yes, I was.”

And, honestly, I worry that I still am, insofar as my indoctrination may yet lurk in the shadows.  A few years ago, upon meeting my colleague and friend Carl, an African-American teacher, I asked where he was from. He told me he came from a family of farmers.  And I heard myself blurting in great surprise:

“Wait! What? Your people are farmers?” Somewhere inside me the old stereotype had bolted its coffin and was telling me: Blacks are farmhands, the white guys in John Deere hats are the farmers!”

I was mortified at myself, but Carl was gracious. (He’s used to it, sadly.)

So I have to keep scrubbing the stain.  And here’s what scrubbing is: putting my beliefs under a bright light, examining them thoroughly, and mustering the humility to admit when long-held beliefs are wrong, even if taught to me by people I love.

Don’t stop scrubbing, America. We’ve still got work to do.

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 4)

[The fourth installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

“Why did you come to our school?”  I asked my 7th-grade classmate Shirley, one of only two black students in our 800-student school. She had been writing but stopped at the sound of my voice. She didn’t look up. Long seconds passed, and I was sure she was making a show of  ignoring me.  Then…

“My old school,” suddenly she was talking! “is about four miles from our house. This school is less than a mile.”

“Did you wanna come here?”

“My parents wanted me to come here.”

“Are they communists?”

She dropped her pen and turned toward me with a look that suggested I was covered in poop. “No! They’re not communists!”

“Well, then, why did they want you to come to our school?”

“It’s not y’all’s school, Gerald!” She said my name! She sort of spat it out, but she said it, nevertheless!  Until then, I’d not heard her say anyone’s name. To my amazement, this made me feel ecstatic, even honored, as if a celebrity had uttered my name!  This thrill greatly confused me.

“It’s everybody’s school,” Shirley continued. “My parents’ taxes pay for this school just like yours do.”

I had no comeback to that and figured our chat was done, until she asked what I had made on our history test. She plucked a mimeographed sheet from her binder on top of which was written in red ink “100 / A+”

“Not that,” I said.

Shirley smiled and returned to her writing.

That exchange broke some ice,  and not only between me and her.  It broke a bit of the ice that had frozen shut my ideas about race, about who black people were.

A couple of years later, in my first week of high school, another memorable moment would bring Shirley to mind. This was Algebra I, and the teacher was an old white man called Mr. MacArthur. The first thing he did was pick up a stick of chalk and etch a complicated problem on the blackboard.

“I want somebody to come solve this,” he said, extending the chalk toward us. In retrospect, I think his plan was to impress upon us our ignorance, our inability to solve hard problems, and then, perhaps, to announce that when he was done with us, we would be smarter.  But his plan was immediately derailed.

Seated in front of me was a black student named Derrol, who raised his hand, tentatively.

“Oh, you think you can do it?” Mr. Mac smiled condescendingly.

“Yessir, I think so,” said Derrol.

Mr. Mac beckoned Derrol forward and handed him the chalk. Derrol proceeded to solve the equation step-by-step-by-step without pause.

He looked plaintively at Mr. Mac who looked frowningly back at Derrol.  Mr. Mac stepped slowly toward the blackboard, read through the problem, scratched his head, and muttered, “Well…uh, yeah, that’s right.”  Derrol showed no sign of superiority or haughtiness, he just humbly handed back the chalk and returned to his seat.

He would prove to be way, waaaay smarter than anyone else in the room, maybe even in the school. (Four years later Derrol would be studying at Northwestern University on full scholarship, after which he would attain a medical doctorate in pediatrics.)

Now here I must confess something of which I am deeply ashamed. Like all racists, I had built my worldview with the straw-bales of stereotypes. Among the white grownups I knew and respected, the general consensus was that “colored folks” were mostly alike—not as bright as us, not as good as us, but useful for subservient jobs (e.g. yard workers, house cleaners (maids), farmhands, cooks, janitors, etc.) or, occasionally, as athletes or jazz or soul musicians, dancers and singers.  This is what I was taught, this was my indoctrination.

Increasingly, however, my experiences, my observations did not jibe with my indoctrination.  Looking around me, I saw smarter-than-me black students. Moreover, there was the matter of my black teachers, many of whom I still carry lovingly and respectfully in my heart to this day. I’ve already written (here) about Mrs. Todd, to whom I must add Mrs. Hanks, Mrs. Lassiter, Mr. White, and Mrs. Brown, my biology teacher who, with twinkling eyes, referred to her students as organisms:  “I see organisms in the back,” she would say, “who must either cease talking or get 20 demerits.” (I was one of ‘em.) These were professionals who ably and passionately taught me, and, more importantly, opened my mind to the world around me.

And so, for the first time in my life, I began to seriously doubt that the grownups who had raised me knew what they were talking about. I had given them a pass on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But now I began to suspect I had been Santa-Claus-ed and Easter Bunny-ed about a whole lot more.

So I began to ask pointed questions, which led the grownups to label me with one of their most disparaging terms—liberal.

[to be concluded tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 3)

[The third installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

In 1954, the year I was born, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared, in Brown v. Board of Education, that racial segregation of public schools violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and that American schools must desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Short version: “Segregation of public schools is a federal crime, so stop it—now!”

But white folks in the South—at least 95% of them—didn’t take kindly to Brown v. Board.  Nearly a century earlier “Jim Crow” laws had rooted and spread like kudzu across the old Confederacy. These local and state statutes forbade the mixing of races in nearly every public and commercial space. Jim Crow brought us the now infamous “Colored” water fountains and restrooms, the back-of-the-bus rules, and much, much more.

Above all, Jim Crow worked as a wickedly effective tool for indoctrinating children into racism—an indoctrination that had been applied to the childhood of my generation, as well as to that of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Consequently, in the minds of nearly all grownups in my world, any federal law that sought to change our Southern way of life was an invasion carried out by godless Yankee communist agitators and was tantamount to treason.

This explains why it took twelve years for my K-8, 800-student elementary school to slowly, foot-draggingly obey U.S. law by enrolling two (only two, mind you) black students: Andre and Shirley.

Andre came to us in either 1st or 2nd grade. Roly-poly chubby, always smartly dressed, this “little man” was equipped with a personality that never met a stranger. Andre created laughter—his and others’—wherever he went, and among his white classmates, he probably did more than any chart-topping soul record, to bring positive attitudes toward his race.

Shirley, in my 7th-grade homeroom, was decidedly different. Slender, shy, of studious demeanor, she, too, dressed in style—Sunday dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, hair usually worn in a ribboned ponytail.  On the first day, Shirley was assigned a desk in the back next to mine. For the first few days, our teacher was kept busy, shooing away students from other classrooms who clustered at the door to “see the colored girl.”

In a sense she was a phenomenon. I myself felt impelled (repeatedly) to turn and look at her.  About the fifth time, she crinkled her forehead and glared at me, as if to say, “Stop it!” Still, I couldn’t help sneaking glances at what she was writing or looking at. In the lunchroom she ate alone for the first week or so, until our teacher begged—maybe bribed—two or three of the less popular girls to sit with her, which they did, mostly in awkward silence.

One day, several weeks later, when our teacher was called out of the room, I mustered the courage to ask Shirley a question that had been needling me since I first saw her.

“Why have you come to our school?” I asked

And the brief conversation that ensued planted in my mind a seed that would (very) slowly bloom and contribute to a change of my heart and mind—eventually.

[to be continued tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 2)

[The second installment of a five-part series that begins here.]

16thBaptistHeadlineThe church my family attended had sought long and hard to find a minister who would state openly that he was in favor of segregation.  And find him they did.

Racism imbued our church as it did almost all white congregations in the South, and the civil rights movement and the crises it (rightly) forced, made “integration” (as we then called desegregation) the topic of conversation in every place.

It became the subject of  my Sunday School lessons. (Mind you, I was in the third grade.) My teacher, the minister’s wife—a short, round, and, in my eyes then, most lovable lady—taught us: “We must pray for and forgive the Negroes, for they know not what they do.  Bless their hearts.”  All the trouble, she said, was caused by Yankee communist outsiders.  So we prayed for our local Negroes, that they would not listen to evil and go back to being the good Negroes God desired them to be.

After Sunday School was worship, and on the third Sunday of September, 1963, worship was cut short.  Outside the church men clustered round cars whose radios blared deep, somber male voices—and talk of a bomb.

Suddenly the minister and others began to shout, “Everybody! Get in your cars and go home and lock your doors!” My dad stuffed us into our car and drove faster than usual. On the way, it befell my mom to explain what was happening: A bomb had gone off at a black church downtown. Some people were hurt.

“Who would bomb a church?” asked one of us kids. Mom didn’t know. Dad didn’t say.  We just had to get home quickly because there could be more violence.  (And there was.)

Sometime that afternoon, word came that the bomb had killed four children—girls—and had injured more than a dozen.  I was too young to wrap my head completely around what had happened. But I remember several times shuddering in sorrow and horror. Those four young girls who died couldn’t have been Yankee communist agitators. They were just children, like me. Why them?

But I remember this, too: The “black community” was still held responsible.  We learned from grownups in school and church that none of this would have happened and those four little girls would still be alive if local Negroes hadn’t invited communists like Martin Luther King to town to stir up that church, thereby provoking bad men to bomb it.

Here’s what I wish I could tell you: that I called bullshit on that explanation.  But, instead, I tried to embrace it because, again, it came from the mouths of those whom I’d been raised to trust.  I actually yearned to believe it: All of the evil was being caused by “outside agitators” who had come to Birmingham to stir up our Negroes. We white folk were in no way responsible.

I tried hard as I could to believe it, but some feint notion beyond my mind’s reach, something I could sense vaguely but couldn’t name, poisoned my ability to fully believe what I was being told.

And that something drew a little closer a few years later when the first-ever black girl enrolled in my school and sat in a desk only a few feet from my own.

[to be continued tomorrow]

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 1)

LittleRockJeeringThe eighth-grade curriculum I teach requires students to read and write about the American civil rights movement.  Truth be told, our school district starts covering the movement from fourth grade onward. So, by the time students reach me, most are worn out by the topic.

But, abracadabra! I have a magic wand that reanimates their interest: I lived not only through, but to great extent, in the arena of the civil rights movement. Born 1954 in Birmingham, AL, I remember the events of the movement.  I remember the desegregation (or “integration” as we then called it) of public schools, even of the classroom in which I sat.

Because I’m older than most teachers, because I grew up in a centrally significant site of the movement, the kids take me as a sort of interactive museum exhibit. They pepper me with questions, and the very hottest of those peppers is this one:

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?”

First asked several years ago by an African-American boy, it caught me totally off guard. Frankly, it panicked me. I tried to calm myself by noting that the student had at  least put the question in the past tense. Next, I had to stifle the answer I wanted to give—“Of course not!”—because, I’m sorry to say, that’s a lie.

Before I tell you my answer, let’s take a timeout to define the word racist. Merriam-Webster says: one who holds a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

So, recalling that in 1963 I turned nine years old, I confessed to my students that I was indeed infected with racism.

Like almost all children of any era, I mimicked the views and opinions of the adults around me. My parents, the parents of playmates and classmates, my church’s minister and Sunday School teachers, all stood strongly opposed the mixing of white kids and black kids in school, and opposed to whites and blacks mingling in restaurants, movie theaters, parks, waiting rooms, swimming pools and most other places.

“The races aren’t supposed to mix!” was the grownup doctrine in my childhood. “God means to keep the races separate!” went the credo. And it was no great leap to infer this meant my race was superior.  Why?  Because we had all the better stuff, the better opportunities, and, I was told, “That’s how God wants it.”  So, thus did I fit—as did nearly everyone around me—the definition of racist.

I would like to excuse myself with “I was just a kid, I didn’t know!”  I would like to say, “It wasn’t long before I threw off all that racism!”  But, again, that’s not true. The indoctrination of children—be it religious or racist or, in my case, both—isn’t easily and quickly removed like a coat or hat. It’s more of a stubborn stain on the skin.  And it has taken me years to scrub it away, and I’m not at all certain it’s gone.

But —  I can tell you when I first began (ever so slowly) to work on it,  or, as my students might say, when I first “started to get woke”:

Sunday, September 15, 1963.

[To be continued tomorrow]