Change and My Grandmother

Forty-nine years ago, my grandmother wanted to go to a movie. She had given up driving because her vision was going away, so she asked my mother to find a good movie and take her. She also said, “Don’t take me to that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” with the explanation, hardly needed, that she didn’t want to put up with such an infamous exploration of race issues, that she was “too old to change.” That in itself was quite an admission, namely, that, despite her, change was occurring. She just wasn’t up to being a part of it.

    If she’d left well enough alone, there might not have been any problem, but this preemptive restriction got my mom’s back up. She brought me into it: I was to go along, and she said “I’ll show her.” Mom had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement since at least 1950 and didn’t identify with her mother’s concern about “that movie.” So she took us to see In the Heat of the Night,  which was farther along the road grandmother didn’t want to go. It deals with themes of murder, rape, seduction, beating somebody with a big ol’ pipe, and shooting people. It’s not a fairly sappy romance among people who occasionally jet off to Hawaii and Europe, like that other movie. It is set in Mississippi, geographically and culturally close to home — that is, to Memphis, where both mom and her mom were born — not in San Francisco. And Sidney Poitier plays a self-assured and uncompromising cop (“Call me Mr. Tibbs!”), not a soft-spoken physician, as in that other, more genteel but unacceptable movie.

    Both grandmother and mom were fairly proper southern ladies, and we sat all the way through that movie. I was fifteen years old and — I remember it this way, but it may just be in retrospect — I was thoroughly entertained watching my grandmother. As we got up, she smiled sort of crookedly and said “Well, that was something!” Later, mom and I laughed about it. She probably told me not to say anything to grandmother about it.

    That’s all terribly disrespectful, and I’m glad grandmother lasted another four years or more to see that mom and I really did like her. We were impatient about racism, at least of such a forthrightly conscious nature. But both of my grandmothers took that sort of thing, wide-awake racism, for granted. Neither of them were crusaders, however, and they knew, I guess, that nothing they could do would stop change. Neither of them, by the time of the sixties, had anything to do with people who tried to stop the changes and used violence and its rhetorical and political allies to resist change.

    The changes have come in at least some ways. History gave us Americans some hard tasks, and, among them, we white people had to get rid of the taken-for-granted language of racial supremacy. Read some novels written a hundred years ago. See some movies made eighty-five years ago. That language is there in the broadest popular culture in ways it couldn’t be now. Those who engage in such talk are hold-outs on the defensive. Sorry, folks: you’ve lost.

    Given that task by history, it’s no wonder that, for instance, some of us can feel disgusted by any sympathetic appraisal of Gone with the Wind.  I’ve read that great big book. It asks the reader to care about people who built a life of wealthy and moralistic leisure on slave labor and a collection of self-serving lies that we’ve had to work hard to shake off. It’s no wonder that some of us have been angry at the holdouts. Well, let them marginalize themselves. We still have plenty of hard work to do.

    Thirty-odd years ago I moved from the Los Angeles area to Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of the most perceptible differences was in the height of the people, but that comes partly from having hung around the Grand Central (produce) Market in downtown L.A. It was always stiffly crowded when I was there, and I could always see over the heads of almost everyone there. I’m not so tall, six foot zero on a good day, but they were almost all Central American and East Asian, a good proportion of the adults under five feet tall. Now if I get in a crowd, there will be people with Dutch names and shoulders at my eye level.

    Another difference was in how ethnic/racial groups relate to each other. There were a lot of factors at work, including what sort of situations I was located in in L.A. and G.R. There sure seemed to be less conscious separation by race and ethnicity, though most neighborhoods in G.R. do still preserve their racial identities to a degree. But I was surprised by the willingness and ease with which I saw lines crossed.

    Part of it is size. Thirty years ago, if you went five miles in L.A., you might see a change of ethnicity, but five miles in G.R. would likely take you out of town altogether. Part of it is history. It would take a long time and a better-informed person than me to tell about the history of race relations, good, bad, and ugly, in G.R. Or about the patterns of migration that shaped the L.A. area into what it was in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. But, whatever else you may know about Michigan, you’ve probably heard about the holdouts for racism and anti-Semitism here. So have I, but I haven’t met them. People here have just seemed farther along and more at ease with saying that we white people can’t afford racism any more.

    This isn’t a lead-in to any Scripture-quoting, though you can look at my post on Immigrant Connection if you want some. It’s just, I hope, a reminder of one of the jobs we’re working on, of part of what our sanctification as a (white) people entails.