Summertime 1953, Josie, Ala., the farm village named for my great-aunt Josie. We’d moved away from the farm to town and I’d come back for a couple of weeks’ stay. Benny Goshea and I were spending the morning in a peanut field up the hill from the ancestral dogtrot house that had been my home.
Benny was seated on a horse-drawn cultivator, busting up the red-clay soil and killing weeds between the rows as he plowed four rows at a time. I walked behind, talking to him, watching how he skillfully guided the cultivator along with its set of four triangle-shaped steel plows, avoiding damage to the fledgling crop of peanuts.
I kept bugging him to let me plow. He kept saying no. I kept bugging. Perhaps half an hour had passed when Benny halted the horse in frustration, jumped off the cultivator seat, handed me the reins and showed me which plow to keep an eye on so as to not uproot peanuts with the cultivator.
I’d plowed a few minutes, Benny walking behind, supervising, encouraging, when I saw my uncle pull up in his Pontiac, get out and trot toward us while unstrapping his belt. It should’ve been but was no shock to see my uncle grab Benny, not me, and whip him.
My maternal family, which had worked this land since not long after Andrew Jackson routed its natives, had brought me up with the notion that I was superior to anyone with skin the color of Benny’s. Be good to them, but don’t forget that you are their better. Something had told me otherwise. To watch my uncle that day gave me more reason to question such wisdom.
Benny and his brothers, Fred and Junior, had taught me to swim nude in a fishpond, as well as how to perform the half-moon, where one dips underwater and exposes nothing save his naked rear to the Alabama sky. I went to one school, they to another. I ate collards and cornbread with them at their sharecropper shack. They never ate with me in our kitchen. I attended their mother’s funeral. I don’t recall them at my father’s. We lost track. Years later I heard that Benny had died in a car wreck in New Jersey.
Here I sit, contentedly retired, healthy for an old man, dwelling in an upscale part of town, social-distancing and watching what an evil germ is doing to people everywhere, disproportionately so to folks of color from Birmingham to Brazil. And now I see a white cop’s knee on a black man’s neck and pent-up outrage spilling across the land.
My mother, a widowed public health nurse with five children, could hire black maids to watch after us and clean house for $40 a month. The maid I remember most was Mrs. Mary Lou Hamner, wife of a minister. One day while I was working the garden I somehow caught the garden tractor on fire. As I fought the blaze she spotted me, ran out the front door and screamed: “Mister Bobby! Mister Bobby! Throw dirt on it!” I did. The fire died, disaster avoided. Yes, she called me Mister Bobby. I called her Mary Lou.
We sometimes rode along as Mother drove Mrs. Hamner home toward evening. One day, just as we’d topped the hill up the dirt road leading to her house secluded in a stand of pines, there stood by her front porch an 8-foot wooden cross.
Mother told me to get out and check. Mrs. Hamner, who always rode in the back seat when we drove her, told me to sit still. She got out, went into the house and came back to the car to tell us it was all right, to go on home. As Mother drove away, she speculated that Rev. Hamner had been preaching civil rights.
I did work hard, honed any talent passed to me to get to where I got. I take some comfort in having striven beyond less than ideal beginnings to a level of success and security enjoyed by too few.
I can pat myself on the back for having recruited and overseen appropriately integrated news staffs at papers in Atlanta and Waco. I can take pride in watching how some careers have turned out. One woman of color, for instance, now heads a college journalism program. Another retired as opinion editor of the Atlanta Constitution.
And yet I never answered to a man or woman of color. I realize that had I not been a white male coming along six decades ago I’d not have received the breaks I did. I understand there’s no way for me to know how it feels to be judged based on my pigmentation.
I saw too much of it. Police dogs nipping at children. George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door at my university. When a man of color moved into the Oval Office, one could hope times had changed. Naively so, it now seems.