Jun 23 2005

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A Racist Memory


My first experience of racial hatred and violence was when I was in the second grade. I was eight years old. I went to elementary school in a small town in the state of Maine. To many the state of Maine is a land of forests and lakes and laid back lifestyles but to a child and adolescent who grew up in the fifties, sixties and early seventies in the small rural towns of Maine cruelty and racial violence was a way of life. American versus Canadian, black wasn’t even a word yet that described Negroes. Spic was the word for Latin Americans, wop was the word for Italians, Chink was the word for Chinese Americans, Japs were for Japanese and Gooks were the latest racial slang for Vietnamese. French were Frogs, British were Limeys. Most of these names are still heard in various corners of certain homes and bars around the world and in Maine. I have heard them all used in Connecticut as well.

When I was in the second grade I had a friend named Guy. Guy was, honest, funny, and full of energy and a very rare child. Guy was the only black kid in town. His parents were the only black family within 30 miles. I had never met a Black person before and my parents had met very few if any in their lives. That was the way it was in Maine. There just weren’t many minority people in the state. Without firsthand knowledge of different cultures and races, most people are likely to believe what they hear and see on television and in magazines. At that time during the early 1960’s the South was still segregated and the North was intolerant and racist in more subtle ways. Black and Hispanic people were not well received in most white cities or towns and were looked upon suspiciously by police. Indians in Maine were treated with little respect. Many tobacco stores still had the wooden Indian on display and Saturday matinees were slaughtering the dignity and respect of Indians every week. This is amazing when the majority of towns and states in this country have Indian names. Movies and television programs were depicting all minorities in harsh stereotypes depicting them as slaves or savages or poor boy Buckwheat, or one syllable Tontos, or wise cracking house servants to some white, celebrity comedian.

My family had just moved into town and it was my first week of school. I had made fast friends with Guy in a few days and we played together during recesses and had lunch together. Other kids warned me not to be friends with Guy because he was black. They said their parents didn’t want them playing with blacks. I didn’t know why. I didn’t ask my parents if I could play with Guy. I just played with him. I never thought they would object. I couldn’t understand why they would. Guy was one of my first friends in that new town and I liked him. That was all I cared about and I guess I’ve always been that way when it came to choosing my friends.

One sunny afternoon during my first week of classes, Guy and I had come in from recess and we were talking to each other as we sat in our seats when Mrs. Robinson our elderly rigid second grade teacher, became angry at the class for continuing to talk and singled out Guy who was sitting at the desk next to me as we were both talking to each other. I can remember the hellish hateful look in her eye and the shrill scream she directed at both of us. ” BE QUIET ! HOW DARE YOU CONTINUE TO SPEAK WHEN CLASS HAS BEGUN!” She picked up a large history book and charged over to Guy’s desk. She told him to put his head down on the desk and he did, then to my horror she smashed the book on the top of his head as his head bounced against the desk. Guy did not cry. He did not speak out. I thought he was dead or knocked out but he wasn’t. He remained quiet as though this had happened to him before and was his expected punishment. I must of had my mouth opened or said something and Mrs. Robinson looked at me with dead cold eyes and told me to put my head on the desk. I refused which angered her even more. As she moved to my desk I stood up and ran away from her toward the front of the room. I remember my classmates all laughing at me and Mrs. Robinson demanding that I sit back in my seat. I looked at Guy who seemingly recovered as he shouted, “Run, Run, Don’t let her hit you!” Then she grabbed Guy by the scruff of the neck and began to shake him. I ran out of the room down the hallway towards the principal’s office and banged on the door , ran in the office and told the principal that Mrs. Robinson nearly killed Guy and she was trying to kill me. She could see the real fear in me and told me to sit down. I told her that Guy was being killed by Mrs. Robinson and she better go to the room to save him. She tried to calm me down but I wouldn’t. I told her if she didn’t save Guy then I would and I ran out of her office and back to the classroom expecting to defend Guy but the Principal followed me.

As we entered the classroom Guy was standing near his seat refusing to sit down as Mrs. Robinson was threatening to hit him again. The principal shouted to them to stop, as she entered the doorway. They both stopped and were immediately summoned into her office. Another teacher was called in to our classroom to take over until they returned. I wasn’t called into the meeting. I remember Mrs. Robinson came back into the classroom shortly after but Guy did not return to the class for the rest of the afternoon. When Mrs. Robinson came back into the classroom she stared at me with stone cold eyes as if I were dead to her. She resumed the class as I sat quietly in my back row seat waiting for Guy to return but he never did. That was the last class Guy went to. The next day we were told that he would not be coming to school anymore . I was crushed , I remember crying from fear, anger and loss not knowing what happened to Guy. When I went home that afternoon I stopped by his house. It was a big brick house on top of a hill that looked over the town. I remember how big it was when I walked up the driveway and knocked on the door. I knocked several times but no one answered. Then I went around the house to the back yard but no one was there. I remember feeling sad that he wasn’t home but thought I would stop by again the next day. His house was on my way home from school. I remembered him saying that his family moved a lot because his father was in the Air Force. The base was some 30 miles away from town. I found out the next day that his family had moved. I guess they were in the process of moving before Guy got in trouble.

,That incident never left me it has always been an indelible memory that grows more horrid with aging perspective. As a child I only felt pain, sorrow and loss, as an adult I see it for what it really was hatred, racism, ignorance, cruelty and insanity.

Today I read that Edgar Ray Killen was found guilty for the murders of three civil rights workers who were beaten and shot in 1964. He received 10 years sentence for each death a minimum of 20 years without parole. Killen is 80 years old. He will spend the rest of his life in prison for their murders. After his sentence he expressed no remorse. Mr. Killen is a Baptist preacher.

I wonder if old Mrs. Robinson is still alive? She would be nearly 100 years old by now. I believe she was nearly 60 when the episode with Guy happened. I wonder if she ever realized what she had done to him and almost did to me. I remember that I went home that afternoon and spoke to my mother about what happened and she seemed upset at what I told her. Nothing more was ever said about Guy to me, but Mrs. Robinson stopped teaching our class and we got a new teacher for the rest of the year. I never saw Mrs. Robinson again and one of my friends said that she had been fired. I have always thought that was a good thing.

L.A. Steel

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1 comment

  1. Anick

    really a great post and valuable information.

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