During a recent online conversation with my beautiful, brilliant and graceful mother, she reflected upon the America she grew up in. Born in the mid-1950s, she came of age in the 1960s in rural Central Texas. Both of her parents were educators with a combined 77 years of teaching experience.
Her parents demanded excellence from her and her younger brother both inside and outside the classroom. They told their children that in order to compete in the world, they would have to be twice as good as white people in everything they did. In those days, America was quite degrading to my mother, to her family, and to countless blacks across the nation. She recounted some of the degradation in vivid detail:
She recalled the "White Only" drinking fountains in public spaces.
She recalled the old, rickety, structurally unsound staircase off to the side of the main entrance which she and her friends had to climb in order to find a seat in the "colored" balcony at the movies.
She recalled that the textbooks her parents had to drive over two hours to pick up from the now infamous School Book Depository in Dallas each year were never up-to-date.
She recalled that the chairs in the "Colored" doctor's office waiting room were old and wooden, but that the chairs in the "White" doctor's office waiting room were plush and upholstered.
She recalled that the streets north of the main road -- which divided the town in half -- where the white people lived were paved streets. Yet, the streets south of the main road, where the black people lived, were dirt roads made muddy and, in sections, unnavigable when it rained.
Even after integration, degradative words and actions were almost constant towards her, her family, and many blacks in her community.
My mother recalled that after integration, her white teacher openly spoke to her father and new colleague, marveling at how suddenly smart the "Nigra" children had become after only six weeks of learning beside the white children.
She recalled how baffled her English teacher was at her extensive vocabulary. The previous spring, my mother had delivered a speech while campaigning for yearbook editor. That fall, when my mother was a student in the teacher's class, the teacher expressed with awe that my mother used the same vocabulary in her daily conversation as she had in her speech. Her teacher was then convinced that no one had written the speech for my mother.
She even recalled the unfortunate treatment her father received after integration. My grandfather also came of age in Central Texas at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was hyper-active. Still, he became a learned man with earned degrees in biology and education. He integrated the graduate program in geology at Iowa State University, and he presented his research on monogenetic trematodes before the Texas Academy of Sciences. Still, his white colleagues shunned him.
Adding further insult to injury, my mother recalled the time my grandfather set the plans to have a new home built for his family. He had the money for both the land and the down payment on the home. Yet, when it was time to discuss the model of home he had selected for his family, his choice was denied by the contractor. A white family had also selected that model, and it had been determined that it would not be proper for a black family and a white family to reside in the same modeled home.
My mother recalled the looks of utter shock she received while working the cash register as a teenager at the local five and dime. Previously, blacks were regulated to stocking and bagging items. Towards her, she overheard a customer say to another, "Yeah, they's even on T.V. now."
As an undergraduate student at a state university, when she received the highest score of all students in all of her professor's sections, the professor constantly brought up her grade before the class. This recognition made her feel very uncomfortable, especially since she was one of only 300 blacks on a campus of 20,000, and quite often she was the only black person in her classroom. When my mother inquired as to why the professor continued to bring up her grade before the class, the professor responded, "Your fellow students have been taught that they are smarter than you because you are black." Rather than being used to make the case for equality among intellects, her achievement was used to motivate students who were told they would never be outperformed by a black person.
Once before, my mother recalled that when she entered the professional workforce as a recent divorcee with a graduate degree in hand and having recently purchased a new home, a co-worker offered to her this failed compliment: "You are not like I was told black people are. You don't have a bunch of babies by a lot of different men. You're educated, and you don't smell."
Then my mother told me, "I am not excited by the rhetoric of making America great again."
"Neither am I, mom. Neither am I."