Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 11

north into Kansas well before my grandparents were born, but at least around Wichita it appeared in its
more informal, genteel form, without much of the violence that pervaded the Deep South. The same
unspoken codes that governed life among whites kept contact between the races to a minimum; when black
people appear at all in the Kansas of my grandparents’ memories, the images are fleeting-black men who
come around the oil fields once in a while, searching for work as hired hands; black women taking in the
white folks’ laundry or helping clean white homes. Blacks are there but not there, like Sam the piano player
or Beulah the maid or Amos and Andy on the radio-shadowy, silent presences that elicit neither passion nor
It wasn’t until my family moved to Texas, after the war, that questions of race began to intrude on their
lives. During his first week on the job there, Gramps received some friendly advice from his fellow furniture
salesmen about serving black and Mexican customers: “If the coloreds want to look at the merchandise,
they need to come after hours and arrange for their own delivery.” Later, at the bank where she worked,
Toot made the acquaintance of the janitor, a tall and dignified black World War II vet she remembers only
as Mr. Reed. While the two of them chatted in the hallway one day, a secretary in the office stormed up and
hissed that Toot should never, ever, “call no nigger ‘Mister.’ ” Not long afterward, Toot would find Mr. Reed
in a corner of the building weeping quietly to himself. When she asked him what was wrong, he straightened
his back, dried his eyes, and responded with a question of his own.
“What have we ever done to be treated so mean?”
My grandmother didn’t have an answer that day, but the question lingered in her mind, one that she
and Gramps would sometimes discuss once my mother had gone to bed. They decided that Toot would
keep calling Mr. Reed “Mister,” although she understood, with a mixture of relief and sadness, the careful
distance that the janitor now maintained whenever they passed each other in the halls. Gramps began to
decline invitations from his coworkers to go out for a beer, telling them he had to get home to keep the wife
happy. They grew inward, skittish, filled with vague apprehension, as if they were permanent strangers in
This bad new air hit my mother the hardest. She was eleven or twelve by this time, an only child just
growing out of a bad case of asthma. The illness, along with the numerous moves, had made her something
of a loner-cheerful and easy-tempered but prone to bury her head in a book or wander off on solitary walks-
and Toot began to worry that this latest move had only made her daughter’s eccentricities more
pronounced. My mother made few friends at her new school. She was teased mercilessly for her name,
Stanley Ann (one of Gramps’s less judicious ideas-he had wanted a son). Stanley Steamer, they called her.
Stan the Man. When Toot got home from work, she would usually find my mother alone in the front yard,
swinging her legs off the porch or lying in the grass, pulled into some solitary world of her own.
Except for one day. There was that one hot, windless day when Toot came home to find a crowd of
children gathered outside the picket fence that surrounded their house. As Toot drew closer, she could
make out the sounds of mirthless laughter, the contortions of rage and disgust on the children’s faces. The
children were chanting, in a high-pitched, alternating rhythm:
“Nigger lover!”
“Dirty Yankee!”
“Nigger lover!”
The children scattered when they saw Toot, but not before one of the boys had sent the stone in his
hand sailing over the fence. Toot’s eyes followed the stone’s trajectory as it came to rest at the foot of a
tree. And there she saw the cause for all the excitement: my mother and a black girl of about the same age
lying side by side on their stomachs in the grass, their skirts gathered up above their knees, their toes dug
into the ground, their heads propped up on their hands in front of one of my mother’s books. From a
distance the two girls seemed perfectly serene beneath the leafy shade. It was only when Toot opened the
gate that she realized the black girl was shaking and my mother’s eyes shone with tears. The girls remained
motionless, paralyzed in their fear, until Toot finally leaned down and put her hands on both their heads.
“If you two are going to play,” she said, “then for goodness sake, go on inside. Come on. Both of you.”
She picked up my mother and reached for the other girl’s hand, but before she could say anything more, the
girl was in a full sprint, her long legs like a whippet’s as she vanished down the street.
Gramps was beside himself when he heard what had happened. He interrogated my mother, wrote
down names. The next day he took the morning off from work to visit the school principal. He personally
called the parents of some of the offending children to give them a piece of his mind. And from every adult
that he spoke to, he received the same response:

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