"What I Tell My Child About Color": Black and White Fathers in Atlanta Try to Explain Race Relations to Their Sons
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“What I Tell My Child About Color”: Black and White Fathers in Atlanta Try to Explain Race Relations to Their Sons

In 1954, the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education dramatically changed American society. The Court reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that racially segregated public facilities were not inherently discriminatory. After the 1954 ruling, states could no longer apply “separate but equal” to public schools, in part because of segregation’s psychological effects on children. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the Court’s decision that the separation of Negro children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” In 1955, the Court ordained that desegregation of public schools should proceed “with all deliberate speed.” As the South reacted to these rulings, two Atlanta fathers, both professionals, related for a popular magazine their experiences discussing race relations with their young sons.

"What I Tell My Child About Color"

James W. May, Assistant Professor, School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta

“That’s a nigger house. The bathroom’s outside.” Our son Jamie, almost six, was identifying a sharecropper’s cabin by a sandy road in South Georgia. My wife and I were not ready for this. We had wondered when and how our son would first express his awareness of color differences. We knew, of course, that it would come, just as surely as sex awareness.

Well, here it was, and my first play was a fumble. “Son, ‘nigger’ is an ugly word. A colored person is a Negro. Don’t let me hear you say ‘nigger ’any more.”

My wife, as usual more alert to the subtleties of emotional tension, helped us both by changing the subject.

So began our discussion of color almost two years ago. Today, we encourage discussion, on the level Jamie can manage. Our concern is to keep him from embracing uncritically the familiar rationalizations based on color.

Every day brings its cliché: All Negroes drive second-hand convertibles. (That one is from the playground.) All Negroes say “ain’t.” (From school?) All Negroes “talk funny.”

Some we by-pass. Some we discuss.

We hadn’t planned to discuss segregation in the schools until we thought Jamie could understand the complex issues. We wanted our son ready to face change, but we didn’t want to make him a conspicuous rebel among his friends. One evening at supper, however, I decided to bring up the subject.

“Jamie,” I probed, “how would the kids at your school like to have colored children in class?”

The answer was ready. “Why can’t they go to their own schools? Why do they have to come to ours? Besides, I don’t like to hear their voices. I heard them on TV.”

I would have let that one pass, but his mother reminded him of the church nursery school in New York. “You liked to play with the Negro boys and girls there.” She spoke of “the nice lady from India” who was one of his teachers.

It was well to remind him; but we were close to argument, and argument, we should have known, does not help.

Jamie was prepared to surrender, but not yet with conviction. So I did not press the point. Our own attitudes tell more than our moral lectures. We do want him to be spared some of the emotional excess baggage we have lugged about. But we do not have all the answers. We want him to learn to find answers for himself. Jamie, now a seven-year-old, learns about people and issues from the feelings we express. He appreciates the people that we appreciate. This is where he gets his principles of sportsmanship and citizenship.

Of course, the ideas and phrases that Jamie picks up from his playmates are just as superficial as his pontifications on jet planes and Navy frogmen. Yet there is a difference. Whereas his everyday experiences will correct many of these other misconceptions, he has no normal contacts to correct his prejudices about color.

If Jamie had Negro playmates, he might react as he did when he met the Korean chaplain in the university cafeteria line. Jamie was so moved by young man’s friendliness that when we came to our table, he inquired if the Korean could eat with us.

“Sure,” I said. “You go ask him.” Jamie darted off through the crowd with his invitation and was back almost as quickly with his guest. For a week afterward, he was parading his three-word Korean vocabulary before the kids on our block and explaining how he gained such proficiency.

So our next step, already overdue, is to provide normal boyhood experiences shared with Negro children. How do we arrange it? Will Jamie like it?

“Jamie,” I inquired the other day as we left the barbershop, “how would you like to have a colored boy come to play with you Saturday afternoon?”

“How old is he?”

“About eight,” I guessed.

“Sure, if he can play baseball!”

“What I Tell My Child About Color”

William Gordon, Managing Editor, Atlanta Daily World

“Daddy, why can’t I get a drink, from that fountain?” I shall never forget that day, my kid standing there, looking me straight in the eye. My first impulse was to snatch him away from the fountain and proceed without an answer. Instead, I said, “Colored folk don’t drink from that fountain. Can’t you see the sign says, ‘White Only’?” I walked on, hoping he would forget the matter. But he persisted: “Daddy, what do you mean by ‘White Only’?”

Questions like those haunt every Negro parent who wants to bring up his youngster without fear and the crippling stigma of inferiority. My son Bill Jr. was only five when he became conscious of color.

Our neighborhood is all-Negro, but still there are many children of varied shades.

“Mother, why did Henry get angry with me when I called him black?” Bill asked.

“Some children don’t like to be called black,” his mother replied. She told him about the different races, stressing the point that “God loved them all,”but explaining that every person didn’t know the story of creation.

“But, Mommy,” Bill broke in, “is black bad?” His mother pointed to me. “Look,” she said, “Daddy is that same color as Henry. Daddy isn’t bad.”

The kid stood there for a while, studying our faces. Finally, he slowly walked away to join his friends at play again.

My wife and I looked at each other. The problem had finally come. And now, our task was to teach the child how to have respect for himself, how to mingle with others, how to account for human differences without developing a complex; in short, to guide him through the maze of race relations in the Deep South and, at the same time, give him a healthy outlook on life.

Very few whites realize the trouble to which some Negro families go to avoid hurting their children. Some buy automobiles, even at a sacrifice, to take their children to and from school—just so they won’t have to ride in segregated buses. Others, who can afford it, send their youngsters off to the North or East to visit with friends at vacation time.

“When my boy was younger, I frequently took him to Grant Park to visit the zoo,” said one of my friends, a former schoolteacher. “I literally dreaded the place, because we could not sit on the benches or buy popcorn or soft drinks. I always had to make excuses to my kid and I feel ashamed of it to this day.”

Our own son had his first direct experience with prejudice while visiting the park with his teacher and a group of youngsters.

“Daddy, I went into the restaurant to get a sandwich and the man yelled at me,” he said. “There was a policeman there also. He was nicer than the man behind the counter. He just told me they couldn’t serve me.”

I was fearful that our child would become embittered, as did a friend’s eight-year-old son. One day, when this boy saw some white people driving through our neighborhood, he cried, “Stop them, Daddy. They won’t let us go through their street—don’t let them come through here!”

Bill Jr. is now nine and we are glad that he has acquired no hostile feelings toward whites. We realize that all his questions pertaining to race have not been asked; that there are many situations he has not encountered. And we hope that when we are asked additional questions, we can answer in such a way as not to destroy his confidence.

For almost every day now, we get the feeling that more humane elements are at work, all over the South. For example, at the big supermarket near the state capitol, the young white boys who assist us with our groceries are courteous to all. They surprise us with their “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.”

Such experiences make us feel that white parents are also trying to raise their children without bigotry. This is encouraging, for children are born without prejudice and it is every parent’s job—white or Negro—to see that they don’t acquire it as they grow older. Let’s hope the day is not far off when none of us will have to explain color to our kids.

Source: James W. May and William Gordon, “What I Tell My Child About Color,” Look, 18 October 1955, 38–39.