Tearing at the Fabric of Racism
by Karuna Poole
Sreejit began his poem, A Couple of Brats, with the line “A political statement until they had us,” referring to the births of his sister and himself, kids with a white mother and a black father. While I knew that line was true, at least to some degree, his poem still gave me plenty to reflect on. Recently, I have been thinking of the events that occurred throughout my life that led me to make that particular “political statement.”
The earliest memory I have of experiencing racism was when I visited Florida during my early grade school years. I grew up moving place to place in an Army family, but my mother’s home was in West Palm Beach, Florida. When we visited there one year, probably about 1955, we had occasion to get on a city bus. As a kid, it had been my experience that the best seats were at the back of the bus so, as always, I rushed to that prized area. Once seated, I looked towards the front of the bus and saw the look of horror on my mother’s face. She gestured me to come to the front of the bus, NOW! I couldn’t imagine what was wrong but obeyed her command. When I discovered the reason behind her demand, I was FURIOUS. How could they treat black people, known as coloreds or Negros in those days, in such a manner? I also remember during that time whenever we drove through the black part of town, it was referred to as N*****town. I was disgusted, but to the southern whites of that era, it was just the normal way to speak, they knew no other.
My parents retired to West Palm Beach just before my Junior year in high school. The following Summer, 1965, our church youth group took a trip from WPB to Seattle and back studying “Beliefs Men Live By.” The youth minister, who was pretty revolutionary, had arranged for two black teenagers to participate in the journey. During that period there was never any mixing of races, so that type of trip was a really big deal for both the white and black teenagers.
The minister had a difficult time finding a white family to host the black teenagers the night before we left West Palm Beach. The white families were afraid, knowing their neighbors would have strongly disapproved. Luckily, my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ted stepped forward to provide the necessary shelter.
The next morning we began our adventure. I believe it was the first night, when we passed through Americus, Georgia, we glimpsed a Klu Klux Klan meeting through the trees. That was frightening for everyone. The van driver ordered the black teenagers to lie flat on the floor until we could get way out of town. I remember having a strong sense we were being followed.
One of the nights early in the trip, we stopped for the night at Tougaloo College, a black college in Mississippi. It was the first time any of us had experienced what it’s like to be in the minority in a racially divided group. During the evening we met with a group of the college students and had an interesting dialogue.
A year later, I moved to Seattle to study Nursing. After I graduated from college in 1970, three female friends and I decided to spend the summer working as migrant farm laborers. We would start in Florida, work up the east coast (Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania) and then head back to Washington State. We had a multitude of experiences that summer.
We had serious car trouble on the way to Florida, so it took us more than a week to get there. After having more car problems once we arrived in Florida, there was no money left to take our trip. We spent a week washing windows, cleaning houses and porches and selling flowers. Next, we found a job picking oranges in Belle Glade for a few days. At night, we stayed in a heavy canvas tent. In Florida heat, the temperature inside the tent was intolerable, so the tent went no further with us.
Each morning, we left the campsite at 5 a.m. and joined the bus taking the farm workers to the orchard. We were the only white people on the bus, but everyone was so nice to us. Once at the orchard, each woman was paired with a man. The men used a 20 foot ladder to pick the oranges high in the tree; the women picked the lower ones. During the days we worked in Belle Glade, the four of us earned between $17-31. We figured it took 30 oranges to earn 1 cent. We came back to my parents’ house in West Palm Beach, exhausted but feeling successful and ready for our big trip.
Our first stop was Byron, Georgia where we attended the Atlanta International Pop Festival, along with more than 200,000 other people! We had to park 3 miles away and hike in. There was no shade to speak of and it was 104 degrees. We ended up 30 feet from the stage! The artists I remember most were Jimi Hendrix, Chambers Brothers, Richie Havens and the Memphis cast for HAIR. I remember waking up to Richie Havens singing “Here Comes the Sun.”
After the festival, we drove 60 miles north. We stopped at a state campground and went to pay our fee. The ranger said we could not camp there unless we had an adult chaperone. I was flabbergasted as our ages ranged from 19 to 22! He said that would be true of any campground in the state. He added, “Lady, this is Georgia!” We got back into the car drove to a campground 20 miles away. They accepted us without question.
The next day, we started looking for work. The white farmers refused to let us work with black pickers. They suggested we ask for work at the farmers’ market in Atlanta. We did find a job there. It was tough work, made harder by the fact that the white farmers treated us like we were prostitutes; why else would white women be doing this kind of work?
We were advised that we could get farm labor work in Fort Valley, Georgia. One of the first things we did when we arrived in town was to go to a laundromat. A 13 year old white girl told us the hippies who went to the rock festival stripped naked in the car wash, in the grocery store, in the back of trucks. The things she said were outrageous. While we were there, a black man walked in and put his laundry in the washer. She was furious, grabbed her wet laundry from the machine she was using, saying N**** to him and rushed out. I had the feeling if we had talked to him our lives would have been in danger.
We were able to get some picking work in Ft. Valley, but it was not to pay our expenses so we decided to work in a peach cannery as well. The woman who hired us said she bet her husband $5 we wouldn’t last more than 2 days. We definitely intended to prove her wrong.
We were assigned the night shift. The workers on that shift were almost 100% black. The day shift was nearly 100% white, the exception being some hard labor jobs. To keep the job, we were required to work 7 days a week, 8-10 hours a day with one 10 minute break and no dinner. If we didn’t show up for work, we would be fired. If the machines didn’t work, which happened a lot, we didn’t get paid, but if we left we would be fired. After several weeks the night shift was laid off. By then we were very happy to leave.
Our boss, whom we liked a lot, gifted us with an empty peach can labeled Pride of Georgia. (It was many years before I ate another canned peach. The machine we had been running was overflowing with lye that hadn’t been completely rinsed off the peaches before they sealed the can.)
Next we went to South Carolina. We easily found a job, but finding a place to stay was a problem. The farm had an area for black workers to live and a separate area for the white workers. They wouldn’t let us stay in the black camp; saying we wouldn’t last 15 minutes there. I asked how that could be since the black camp was full of families. The farmer said there were no families in his camp. Then he thought a moment and said, oh you mean the N******. To him black children didn’t even qualify as “children”. Once again, I was outraged.
They gave us cattle truck to stay in, but staying there one night was more than enough. I decided to talk to the black crew boss, Leroy, and ask if we could sleep in their bus. He offered us that chance to stay in their kitchen. I asked if he would get in trouble with the farmer if we did that and he said no, there would be no trouble. We spent our first evening in the camp singing late into the night with the kids.
It turned out that the black workers’ kitchen was in the same building as the white men’s quarters. During the night they were drinking and we heard them saying “They want to see what a migrant camp is like; let’s show them what it is like.” Several times, white men came into the kitchen and it was only by our quick talking and shaming were we able to get them away from us.
After talking with Leroy, our plan for the next night was to have his wife lock us in the kitchen so that the white men couldn’t get in again. However, around 11:00 p.m. when we were singing with the kids and a little girl was brushing my hair, someone spoke up behind me. We turned around to find three policemen standing behind us. They said the farmer wanted us off his land, NOW. We were shocked. The farmer hadn’t said a word to us about it during the day. We asked if we could go to the packing shed to talk to him ourselves and they said gave us their permission. When we arrived at the shed, we discovered that three black workers and one white worker had beat us there. They had told the farmer that if he kicked us out in the middle of the night, every worker he had would be gone by morning! Luckily, he relented and let us stay the night.
I will mention only one other experience from that summer; and that happened in Maryland. We had no trouble finding a job or a place to stay there. The labor office said we were welcome to stay in the farm workers’ camp as long as we realized everyone else would be black. That camp consisted of 54 buildings. Each building was divided into three rooms, and each room held a separate family. Our room had two beds, a light that wouldn’t turn off and a few shelves. There were huge holes in the plasterboard between our room and the room on the other side. There were showers in the camp, but they couldn’t be turned on. The only source of water was a spigot several houses down.
I came back to Seattle after that 1970 trip with lots of positive memories, but also angry about the racism I had witnessed. I decided that I was going to make a difference. In my young mind, the best way to stop this nonsense was to blend the races through interracial marriage. I started pursuing Al, who by that time had been my best friend for several years. A year later, we were married in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The morning of the day we were going to be married, we attended Glide Memorial Methodist Church. Roberta Flack sang during the church service, and Quincy Jones played the piano. While their appearance had nothing to do with our wedding, it made for a great memory! After our wedding service in the park, Jane Fonda came up to us and wished us well. What an awesome beginning to our new life!
While the mixing of races as a political stand against racism might have been a naïve way for me to look at solving racism, it always felt right to me. When I told my father of my plans, he vowed to never speak to me again, and he didn’t. Still my resolve never wavered. He told my mother that she could never see me again, but she wasn’t willing to stand for that and started visiting Seattle regularly.
So, was marrying Al a Political Statement? I’d have to say “yes”, at least in part. More than anything, it was a decision to walk my talk, to make my life a testimony to my beliefs.
As a result of the union between Al and me, two very beautiful, very talented, very loved and loving individuals were brought into this world. Three years after our marriage, Sreejit was born, and nearly three years after that came his sister, Chaitanya.
Did our marriage and having mixed raced children end racism? No it did not. But certainly, between then and now, mixed marriage has gone from unacceptable to much more widespread and “acceptable”. As individuals in each generation have more contact (of all kinds) with those of other races, we gain more understanding of each other. Every step forward makes a difference. I am happy to have participated in an active way in the journey.
Karuna Poole is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is author of, Getting to Joy: A western householder’s spiritual journey with Mata Amritanandamayi and Letting Go of Suffering. You can find more information on her at www.karunapoole.com or on her blog Living Learning and Letting Go