Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student
The story begins with a uniform and ends with a uniform. I don't know about other females, but for me, there is just something about a man in a uniform. Maybe it's because it’s a virtual ingredients label that states that the man inside is made of: responsibility, reliability, and stability, or maybe it's just that the cut makes his shoulders seem broader, and no matter how tall he is to begin with, a uniform adds about five inches to any guy's height. Whatever the case is, I’d bury myself alive before turning one down for at least one date. This is why when my sister called to ask me if I would be willing to go on a blind date with a U.S. Marine for the 150th annual Marine Corps Ball, I promptly said, “Yes!”
What the heck was I going to wear to this thing? I knew the right person to ask would be my grandma. She knew everything about social etiquette. Over the phone, I could practically hear her die and go up to heaven when I told her where I was going (I think she has a thing for uniforms too). She said she would help me, and over the next few weeks we deliberated on accessories and contrasted fabric textures and colors of dresses. My grandma and I have always gotten along magnificently and we agreed on everything. Having her help me get ready for the date added immensely to the overall excitement of the occasion for me—until an unimaginably awful complication nearly turned the experience upside down.
When hell broke loose it was Christmas day. My family gets together every year for a big afternoon dinner, a few glasses of wine, and way too much dessert. That year was no exception. After we had eaten our fill, everyone found nooks around the house and settled down to carry on quiet conversations. I was working on a puzzle at a table on one end of the family room when my grandma approached the table and pretended to begin working on the puzzle with me. I had no idea she had a bone to pick with me. A few moments passed before she made her hand into a fist on the table and turned toward me with a look that almost burned my eyelashes off. She hissed, “SHHHAME ON YOU!” I responded with a half crazed look on my face that said, “Grandma?” She continued, “Why didn't you tell me your date was black!” I was completely confused, until a little lemming in my brain flicked on a neon light that read, “Oh, Grandma's prejudiced.” She was livid. My grandma is a force to be reckoned with when she's mad, and because of that I had never talked back to her, not once, until that day. The word “So!” flew out of my mouth before I could stop it. That was it. She erupted, “Shame on you! I can't believe you; you make me so angry! If I had known I never would have helped!” As she attempted to verbally dismember me, my heart started pounding, and my senses rose to a heightened state. I instantly knew where every other person in the room was, what they were doing, and whether or not they could hear us. I could practically hear their food digesting, but unbelievably, no one was even aware of what was transpiring between my grandma and me.
Initially, I really was going to hit her. All within the span of about two and a half seconds the consequences of each plausible sequence of events that could result, based upon my calculated response, flashed through my mind. I was outraged that this woman I had seen as a modern archetype for all things “woman” was acting so heartlessly. Sure, I knew my grandma had this thing for telling elaborate racial jokes from time to time, but she's the same woman who took me to Sunday school and helped me learn the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” There's a line in that song that says “red and yellow, black and white they are precious in his sight.” “What kind of hypocritical mess is this?” I thought. The tension between us was so thick as my mind raced. How could I be standing face to face, in such stark opposition, with my own grandmother? Time seemed to stop as I desperately grasped at anything. I began a mental journey, tracing back my family history to try to make sense of all this.
My grandmother, who is my father's mother, was originally from Texas. She grew up during times of intense discrimination against blacks. She was raised in a white family, right in the middle of it. Eventually because of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, her family migrated to Stockton. They left everything else they ever knew to start a new life, but they kept their racial bias. In contrast to my grandma, my mother's Caucasian father grew up in Mississippi, where oppression of blacks was also very prevalent, but he rose above racial segregation. After his mother died when he was two, he was sent to be raised by a black woman. She raised him like her own son, and he learned that love appreciates all colors. When he was seventeen, he took a stand against the foul treatment of blacks by his white family. Strongly disagreeing with their bigotry, he eventually moved away to California. In fifty-three years he's only gone back once. These two very different stories were joined in matrimony when my parents tied the knot in 1981. But the saga of conflict over race and segregation continued when my parents fought intensely about where we kids would attend school. My dad favored the then all-white schools that he had gone to, while my mom fought for us to break the mold of my father's side of the family by attending integrated schools. My mom won, and as a result I was bathed in a melting pot of color and culture. I was even amongst a minority of whites at the schools I attended. With all of this in mind, I quickly decided on an appropriate response to my grandmother’s racial assault.
The beauty of the division within my family is that it has provided me the opportunity to make a conscious decision about race. In my mind’s eye it's as easy as choosing between good and evil, or between love and hate. I choose love. There is something about the uniformity of love that speaks to an ingredients label of its own. It states that people of every race, color, and ethnic group deserve to be respected, understood, and treated equally. My family may be divided on the subject of race but I, however, would not fall. I looked at her squarely and said, “You know, Grandma. I don't share your opinion. I am not racist.” Right then, she shut up, and after an awkward silence, she drifted away from the table to rub elbows with other members of the family. I don't know if she became quiet because she had just given up on me or because I had held up a mirror to her face, a mirror that reflected her as more than my grandmother. She was my racist grandma.
The confrontation between my grandma and me forced me to face the reality that my grandma holds tightly to a bitterness that I cannot relate to. This racism is a poison that has contaminated her and other members of my family, too. Despite this I cannot help but continue to love them. Barack Obama described the same paradoxical feelings in his speech “A More Perfect Union.” He addressed the issues that arose because of his continued friendship with his former pastor Reverend Wright, who had made some very controversial racial comments. Mr. Obama stated, “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men as they passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
I didn’t let my grandmother’s prejudice stop me from going to that dance with Corporal Larry Bailey. I’ll never forget how handsome he was in his dress uniform or how I felt as we floated around the ballroom that night. I eventually found a way to patch things up with my grandma. I’ll always love her, despite her racial bias, but if I accomplish nothing else in this life, I will die happy knowing that racial discrimination in my family ends with me.