Thoughts from the ammo line

Ammo Grrrll casts questions ASSUMPTIONS, including her own. She writes

I remember an outstanding episode of The Odd Couple in which Felix ended up in court over some minor incident. Naturally, he acted as his own attorney. When a hostile witness used the word “assume,” he pounced. “Aha! When you ‘assume,’ you make an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me,’” he said triumphantly.

And nowhere can one go further wrong, or make a bigger “ass” of “u” and “me” than in the complex realm of “racism,” real or imagined. I offer but three examples.

Many years ago, I was in a restaurant with my best friend enjoying a hamburger in a tall booth. The subject of my weekly housekeeper came up and – not for the first time – I said, “I really have to find a way to let her go. She has no common sense. She shows up late or not at all and never the same day of the week. She wants to spend the first hour of her time telling me her problems. She hangs her coat in the back hall and it reeks of cigarette smoke which permeates the whole house. And she is so relentlessly depressed that she brings me down for days. But she needs the job. What can I do?”

To leap ahead in the story just a bit, she solved my problem by quitting on her own without notice not too long after that. But, as it happened, our conversation was being eavesdropped upon by a thin blonde busybody in an adjacent booth. She got up, looked daggers at me, and said, “I heard what you said about your cleaning woman and I think you should be ashamed of yourself for your racism.”

Stunned, I could only say, “I’m sorry you had to overhear that. It may have sounded kind of mean. But my cleaning woman is as white as the driven snow. My own mother is a cleaning woman. Do you think that all cleaning women are black or that all black women are cleaning women?”

She opened her mouth several times like a baby bird and then shut it again and (slinked? slank?) slunk out.

The second incident happened in the early ’80s in Macon, Georgia. It was my first time in the South, other than making a connecting flight in either Memphis or Atlanta.

The event at which I was entertaining wasn’t until evening. I got up fairly early to go for a walk in the lovely town, which still had a functioning downtown. I could smell some kind of awesome flowers, jasmine and possibly magnolias. I wandered for several blocks enjoying the beautiful homes and feel of the place.

And then, like a movie unfolding, I saw trouble up ahead. Imagine two perpendicular streets coming together to form a corner. Down one side came two young white men wearing feed caps, jeans, and t-shirts. They were muscular guys, laughing and punching each other in the shoulder as they joked around. Bubbas! Rednecks! Run!

Down the other side came an old black gentleman who looked like something out of Central Casting as an Old Black Gentleman. He quite literally even had a handkerchief on his head and overalls with just one strap. He shuffled with what looked like arthritis.

The buildings were tall enough that neither party could see the other party coming.

My heart stopped. I thought, “Well, this is where the rubber meets the road, girl. You’ve marched for civil rights, you’ve tried to speak up when it mattered. If there’s trouble, are you willing to put your body on the line?”

The two parties met up at the corner. The young men removed their caps and stood respectfully and said, “Morning, Mr. Johnson. Please say hey to Miz Johnson.” And he allowed as how he surely would and asked after their families. They exchanged a few more pleasantries and then the boys put their caps back on and they all walked away and went on with their lives. By a miracle, no superhero help whatsoever was needed from an ignorant Northerner who felt she had made an ass of herself even if only in her own head.

And I remember quite clearly thinking, “Well, THERE’S a scene that will end up on the cutting room floor in a Hollywood movie about the South.” I didn’t know the phrase yet, but it would never “fit the narrative.” We didn’t have “narratives” yet, just reality.

It was a life-altering moment that blew away a lifetime of assumptions.

About a decade later on a brief January getaway to Barbados with the same best friend, we were walking back to our hotel from a restaurant, and we may even have imbibed sufficient Bajan rum such that we were not exactly in fighting form. We noticed three young Black men across the street and saw them purposely cross over to meet up with us. Uh-oh. (Just ask Jesse Jackson if that seemed a little worrisome…)

They stood a non-threatening distance away and said in that delightful sing-song island accent: “Our island and our jobs depend on tourism. We just wanted to thank you for coming and hope you enjoy yourselves.” We all shook hands, they crossed the street again, and my friend and I wondered aloud if we had dreamed the whole thing.