The past isn’t dead

It’s lurking behind every casual interaction

Every time I visit Memphis, where I lived for nine years before being tricked into moving up north, I am shocked to see Black people and white people socializing together. That does not happen in Wisconsin, at least not that I see.

Yes, I will see Black people and white people at the same political events, but that’s about it. Not at restaurants or plays or festivals – not to the extent that I saw it in Memphis.

(And it probably goes without saying but I will say it anyhow – these political events? They are Democrat events. Not Republican. I can’t say for absolute sure that Black people don’t go to Republican events in Wisconsin but I can be fairly sure.)

The first time I went back to Memphis for a visit, Mr T and I went to my favorite restaurant. As we were waiting for a table, I was trying to figure out what was different.

Then I realized: I saw both white people and Black people in the restauarant.

I had not seen that in Milwaukee.

When my friend Leigh and I went to Clarksdale a few months ago, I was heartened to see Black people and white people not only socializing together but dancing together. In Mississippi! Mississippi! Home of the original racists!

Perhaps we actually can overcome our horrible past and move forward together with everyone enjoying equal rights and the police not killing Black suspects at twice the rate they kill white ones. Perhaps we as a country can actually fulfill our dream as a land of liberty and equality.

Did you know that the concept of race is actually a social construct, not a biological one? When I was a kid, I was taught that there are three races: Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasian.

Guess what?

It was all a big fat lie.

There is no such thing as race – at least, not biologically.

It doesn’t exist. It’s just something people with power made up as a way of – I don’t know – maintaining their power? That seems about right. It explains the patriarchy as well – it’s all about keeping power.

In the grocery store, Leigh, who is a very pretty, petite blonde, accidentally bumped into a Black man.

“I’m SO sorry!” she said. “Please excuse me!”

“Oh no ma’am,” he answered as he backed away and held his hands up. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“No!” she laughed. “I bumped into you! I’M sorry!”

He shook his head as he continued to back away from her, hands held in the air. “Excuse me, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t figure out why he was apologizing to her. She had run into him. There was no doubt about the facts.

And then I realized.

He is not optimistic about the future.

He has not forgotten about the past.

He has not forgotten how many Black men were lynched after white people got angry that a Black man dared to look at or even speak to a white woman.

He has not forgotten that nothing has ever happened to Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who (falsely, but even if it were true, none of the outcome would be right) accused Emmett Till of grabbing her. Emmett Till is dead, but his accuser – the prime mover in his death – lives.

He has not forgotten and neither should we.

5 thoughts on “The past isn’t dead

  1. Such a loaded subject and so much I want to say.
    Background: born in Virginia, raised in Tennessee; father arch racist, mother not so much. Liberal to the core.

    So…. my stepmother was from Wisconsin Rapids and the only person I ever knew who was more racist than my Dad (they were very happy, I’m sure). When I tried to learn more about that, I realized that she did not even know any African Americans … they were just “other” and therefore not important, not good, not worth appreciating in any way – unless they cleaned the house well. I also learned that Wisconsin has a very small Black population – percentage wise. I think this is the experience of many of the most racist “they’re getting pushed to the front of the line” folks. It’s just so easy to hate people you don’t know.

    Growing up in/living in Tennessee and Virginia, I always knew Black people. Schools were integrated in high school – without protest, thank goodness – and while I was very aware of Jim Crow (water fountains, restrooms, poll tax, etc.) I never heard any of the level of hatred that is common now. It was more ignoring each other. It’s certainly a bad form of benign negrect, but never rose to the level of hate speech or just simple hate. I think that is the experience of many Southerners. Black people were “other”, but not evil. And, in those days they weren’t working jobs that many white people wanted. That has led to a lot of discrimination in hiring, tho.

    My hope springs from the young people who seem to be way less judgmental that their elders – more inter-racial dating and marriage, more genuine friendships, and more going out to eat and dance in Memphis!

    I think you were seeing that despite the Great Migration of the early/mid 20th century, there is still a smaller percentage of non-white people in the colder (more northern) states, so that people do not mix as much. In some ways living closer together MAY cause us to see “others” as more like us, and folks to be feared. But we have a long way to go yet.

    Good post.


    1. Yeah, there are almost no Black people in northern Wisconsin, which is where my relatives, several of whom are racist, live. To them, race has never been a factor, so if your life goes off the rails, it’s your own fault, not because of any larger systemic issues.


  2. A few years ago, my ex and I were Pokemon hunting and walked to a local library’s parking lot. There was someone else there, also looking at his phone while walking in various directions so I approached him and said, “Pokemon Go fan, too?” He said Yes and we started chatting about the game, since I had only been playing for a few weeks by then and had no idea what I was doing.

    My ex strolled up next to me and joined the conversation. The man, who was Black and maybe 5-10 years older than us, immediately tilted his gaze down and started ending every sentence with “Sir”.

    My ex is a 6’3″ white man.

    I thanked the guy and said I hoped to see him around again.

    On the walk back home, I asked my ex if he’d noticed anything odd about the conversation. He said, “Nope, other than that you cut me off when I was still talking to him.”

    I asked if he noticed the man’s body language change and if he was bothered by being called “Sir”. He looked at me like I was nuts. The ex hadn’t even *registered* that the man was being deferential. To him, it was natural for Black people to call him “Sir” and shrink themselves in his presence, even though he loves to think of himself as a progressive ally.

    It was gross and pissed me off.

    And it’s one of the many, many reasons he is now my ex.


    1. Holy smoke. That makes me think of a guy I dated for a very short time in Memphis. We were sitting on his porch when his gardener, a Black man much older than the guy I was dating, asked the guy something. The gardener addressed the guy as “Mister Guy,” not “Guy.”

      After the gardener left, I looked at Guy and asked, “MISTER?”

      Guy looked startled. “What do you mean?”

      “He’s much older than you but he’s calling you ‘mister?'”

      Guy shrugged. “It’s always been like that.”

      Not only did he not notice it, but when it was pointed out to him, he thought it was a reasonable system.


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