From the battleground, by Rich Paschall
My father’s parents, my grandparents, were from rural Tennessee. They lived in Weakley County and their town was Martin. They were farmers but after World War II life there was hard and they moved to Chicago. When my grandfather retired from the Appleton Electric factory, they moved back to Tennessee and bought a house at the very edge of town. By that I mean there was a cornfield across the street.
I had been down there when I was little but don’t remember a lot about it. When I was a little older I would go to visit my retired grandparents, perhaps early to mid-1960s. I would walk with my grandfather into town. It was a mile to maybe a mile and a half to get to the start of Main Street. It could not have been more stereotypical small southern town America.
These walks were more to exercise my aging grandparent than anything else. We rarely stopped anywhere. On one trip as we walked down the street, we saw a couple of black guys coming from the other direction. As they got near us they stepped off the sidewalk to let us pass. I thought this was rather strange. On the next block, it happened again. “Grandpa, why do those guys get off the sidewalk when we come by?”
“Oh,” my grandfather said rather sadly, “it’s just what black folks do.” I was rather naive and I just didn’t get it. I thought something was wrong with us that these people did not want to share the sidewalk with us. It would take a few more years before I got it. I am not sure why, but that is a strong memory that stays with me.
When my grandparents lived in Chicago, I guess I spent as much time with them as anyone. My grandfather read the Bible every day and took the lessons to heart. He saw everyone as the same and never said a bad word about others, so I didn’t consider the idea of different races. He was the most decent man I have known in my life. He was a real Christian and believed in the Golden Rule. I am sure he would not know what to make of all the fake Christians today.
When I was older, a book was recommended to me entitled, “Black Like Me.” It is the true story of John Howard Griffin. In 1959 he got the help of a dermatologist to temporarily turn his skin brown using drugs and ultraviolet light. When he could pass as a black man in the south, he set out on his journey.
He solicited the help of a black shoeshine man he knew in New Orleans, who did not recognize him at first. He needed an introduction in the community and had to confide in someone. The journey is at times sad, at other times harrowing. When you have finished the book you have a better understanding of just how hard life could be for black people in the south prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, you could never really know. Yes, this 1960 book is dated now, but it had a big impact at the time of release. The author had to move to Mexico for fear of his life.
There is a 1964 movie starring James Whitmore that dramatizes the book. It has been decades since I have seen it so I can not explain how much it sanitizes the story for the viewing public. I am sure they did not capture a lot of what he was saying. The movie can still be found online. I ran across a free version on YouTube.
You may have seen the social experiment where a teacher asks an assembly of white people if they would prefer to be treated like a black person. Without getting even one response, she repeats the question, but there are no takers. Then she explains the facts to them:
I have lived in the same house for 41 years. It is a diverse neighborhood of mostly white, but black and brown and yellow too. I have never been afraid to walk down the street before, but it has been a rough few days. People are on edge. Businesses are closed. The post office and the bank are closed. Stores are boarded up as merchants large and small fear for their businesses. I worry about going too far from the house that I might get beat up or killed in a neighborhood that has always been home.
It is no secret how I feel this has happened. I have seen “The Making of America” and it has not been great. If Donald J Trump, the master of divisiveness, is not the anti-Christ, he is doing a good impersonation. But I digress.
With the boarding up of stores from Lincoln Square to Albany Park to Lake View to downtown Chicago, and with the threats to the gay business to Boystown, it has terrified many folks I know. Since the city has successfully cut off downtown with the police and the National Guard, protests have moved to the neighborhoods. A friend of mine commented on Facebook how frightening it was to live like this. He mentioned how there were sirens through the night and people were killed over the weekend. Another friend replied:
“Scary isn’t it. That fear is what many black people feel all the time”
See Also: “The Making Of America,“ SERENDIPITY, teepee12.com, June 2, 2020.