As parents, we go about our daily duties without a thought until a disturbing news event gets our attention and we turn to watch and listen. We are visibly moved and stop to ask— why.
A few people are tired of hearing about Trayvon and want people to just “get over it.” For me, this is not just about Trayvon – it goes much deeper than that. Everyone reading this knows I write about parenting issues— racism and prejudice are not my genre. Racism is intertwined though, with parenting and religion, deep down into the roots. We learn how to parent from our parents and we learn about racism in the same way. I always try to approach each article from my own perspective, from what I know to be a fact for me. I believe this is relative to both parenting and racism. A portion of this may disturb some of you; if you are uncomfortable with that then I want you to stop here. I hope though, that you will take the time to read the entire piece and I welcome your questions and your comments. I have nothing to hide or fear.
My introduction to racism came while having Sunday dinner in my grandparents’ kitchen; I was so small that my bare feet did not touch the floor. The doorbell rang and a dozen heads turned— a dark face peered through the screen door. In walked Bell Kanipe – my introduction to colored people. Bell was a very friendly woman with big shiny cheeks and she sat in a chair against the wall, apart from everyone else. I told Mur, my grandmother, that there was an empty chair at the table and Bell could sit there. Glances darted back and forth… Mur giggled and said for Bell to pay no attention to me because I didn’t “know anything.” There was no mistake though; Mur valued Bell Kanipe and her friendship.
The reaction of my family puzzled me more than Bell Kanipe showing up at Mur’s for Sunday dinner. I never knew why Bell was there, but I do know the strange feelings did not come from Bell, they came from my family. I knew there were black people in the world but Bell was my first up-close experience since we did not have much television back then. I never forgot that secretive hushed feeling— and I never forgot Bell.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~Maya Angelou
We all have similar memories from our pasts— we can change this now, thanks to Trayvon.
The early 1960s were a blur for me; I was busy with many things a ten-year-old girl did in those days: collecting rocks, I loved horses and my grandfather had died right after John Kennedy was assassinated. Racism did not affect me because things like that were only on television. I remember coloring a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the tiled floor of our trailer and asking Daddy about him; he shot back that he started all the problems in America— and he was a Republican! I asked Daddy about slavery and what exactly did that mean. Daddy said our family never had slaves but they were all well taken care of, in fact, they never knew how good they had it. Now they had welfare and we were paying for it.
The white and black schools in our area were desegregated and combined with little problems that I remember. There were no busses burned and nobody was beaten up or hung. The kids in my class looked scared as rabbits sometimes but they were not much different from me; their skin was darker than mine and their hair was wooly and often braided into pigtails. They gravitated to their groups and I had friends in my groups.
Walking home from school was different; I became friends with Drucilla and her older sister, Cynthia. It’s not that our walking together was planned; the bell rang and we went home, we happened to live on the same road and there were no white kids who walked that way. Drucilla and I would talk about teachers and things that happened at school. That is till the day Daddy saw me and called me over to his shop— I knew I was in trouble. Dad did not beat me for that but the threat was enough to end my friendship with Drucilla. After school I hid until she and her sister had gone ahead. Once they were out of sight I’d gather my books and walk alone. When I did see Drucilla during school I made up a story and told her I had errands. It was much easier to lie to a friend than for me to tell her how scared I was of my father.
Racism does not have to continue this way— Trayvon has given us the perfect opportunity to grow beyond it.
The church I attended for as long as I could remember sat on an idyllic hill with woods on both sides of the highway. Preaching was on alternate Sundays and we had Sunday school every week. We had the usual lessons but after integration arrived, the Sunday school teacher harped on familiar, repetitive themes. When I close my eyes, I can still see her face, chin dropped and furrowed brow and with red lipstick used to make her cheeks pink.
“The birds of the air do – not – mix!” she would say, separating every word.
I was surprised the adults did not hear her. When the teacher repeated those commands she would look straight at us girls; two were her daughters and the other was me. Naturally her daughters would never do such a thing— she was directing her words to me. I always felt ashamed afterward as if I needed a bath.
Genesis 1:21 (KJV)
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Not mixing: With a Hispanic husband I am probably doomed for all eternity but I think I will not be alone.
As my older brother went to high school and joined the football team things heated up a bit. There were a few threats and innuendo about KKK but nothing concrete. Daddy and a few other fathers threatened to pull their sons off the team but that didn’t happen until a black homecoming king and queen were elected at our school. Oh well, my brother didn’t like football practice anyway. My father owned a heating and air conditioning business for many years. When I heard him interact with his customers who were black he was respectful and eager to help them with their furnaces. That was business but I could never reconcile my father’s two faces; the public face he showed the world and the face he showed his friends and family.
How does a mere child sort out what is real from what is false? By not talking about it at all, we sweep it under the rug.
Home economics in high school was not a class I enjoyed; I hated cooking and sewing and the teacher did not like me. It was always difficult to follow after a relative in school who did so well. One afternoon the teacher was giving demonstrations and told us to get into the half-circle. I liked being in the back row because the teacher asked the ones who were seated in the front row questions or to help demonstrate. Those in the back stood to be able to see. The teacher would have none of it and parked me squarely in front of her to keep an eye on me. During the demonstration I felt stings in my back; I thought it was bees or something. I turned and saw the girl who was using straight pins to stick me in my back. I was so angry that my cheeks were tingling.
When the teacher told me to turn around I replied, “Then you better make this darkie stop sticking pins in me!”
I am not proud of what I said but it hurt and the teacher had jumped on me. (I have always detested the N-word!) The girl stopped and began whispering threats to me. I told her to leave me alone and that I did not want trouble. I was scared. I took my time gathering my books and I thought she left so I headed up the stairs. There were three girls in the stairwell, two in front and one behind. I did not know what to do— I pulled my pocket knife out of my pocket and opened the blade my back to the wall. I repeated what I had said earlier – I did not want trouble – and stood in the corner of the stairwell.
“I’m a telling!” she said excitedly.
The girl ran to get the principal and I waited, knife drawn. When he did arrive I was very relieved, everything would be alright. Instead of dealing with the three girls who cornered me in the stairwell, he asked for my pocket knife. I couldn’t believe it, he was blaming me! I refused to give him my knife; I carried it to peel and cut apples, to clean my fingernails and to clean the horses’ hooves – no way was I giving up my knife. To me it was not a weapon it was a tool and I was not handing it over. I told the principal to call the police or my dad and I would wait. The principal let me go that day and I never had another problem from the three girls or him. I also don’t ever recall using the word “darkie” again either. I did not cause trouble but I never backed down.
Even without Trayvon, life does not have to be ‘us’ and ‘them’— it can and should be ‘we.’
In church one Sunday the service was interrupted with the opening of the door. A man holding a hat asked if he and his family could join the congregation to worship— they were black. One of the men said they must be looking for another church and this was not it. I looked to my mom and dad for a sign. After the services were over I remember Daddy laughing with the other men.
The Bible gives us Ten Commandments and tells us to love one another; following this, Trayvon would be alive today.
When I left home with my first husband I found a different world as a military wife and mother. Military families seemed to be more open and caring of each other no matter what the race. We were sent to Germany and I discovered reading and writing since there were few Americans where we lived. Each month I would budget an amount of money to be spent on books in the Stars and Stripes Bookstore. I read more books in the two years I spent in Germany than I had in twelve years in school. I read about history, world events, social issues and everything else that I could get my hands on. The world opened up to me and my questions; things that did not make sense before were suddenly crystal clear. I had been brought up in a closed-minded, racist family in the south. I cannot tell you how sad that struck me; even sadder is that racism still exists in every state in America.
“No wonder black people are so mad! Do you know what they did to the women?” I wrote to Daddy.
No response ever came to my question. Where I once viewed my father as bigger than life itself, I now saw him as something quite different. The father who talked to me about ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘wearing the Saulmon name proudly,’ had shrunk to the size of an ordinary man. The fact that remains for me is that I had to leave the U.S. and home in order to learn the truth. Not everyone has that opportunity in life.
Parents have the power to change what they teach their children about racism for a better outcome; we owe it to our kids and we owed it to Trayvon.
As a human being I felt cheated and lied to by my parents. That is why nothing made sense to me. At our church we were told to follow the “do unto others” mantra – unless they were black. My Bible commands us to love one other; for me there is no gray area. The Ten Commandments are not a pick-and-choose menu; it’s all or nothing. My church, my community and my family all lied to me so it was up to me to make decisions about my beliefs and my choices for myself and my children.
Mom got an idea once to take a group to the old church I grew up in. We were announced in church as “the five generations of Saulmon women;” there was Mom, Mur, my two daughters (Emily from first marriage, Katie wasn’t born yet), Emily’s baby daughter, Carrie and me. People stared and whispered among themselves and spoke the usual welcomes and good to see yous and shook hands. Had they never seen a Hispanic toddler? The nicest people though, were the ones I knew little about. My thoughts were spinning as I fought a panic attack. I felt nauseous and I was happy it was not the Sunday for preaching; I could not wait to leave. A person shouldn’t feel that way about a church, especially one they grew up in. I have never been back to that church and my mother and other relatives are buried there.
Racism is not only reserved for blacks like Trayvon; it’s shown to my husband and daughters.
When Chelsey and Katie were younger I took them both down south to visit my mother one year. Riding in my mother’s car, she pointed out the new changes from one year to the next: The grocery store went out of business, there was an influx of fast-food eateries and over there is “Alien Park.” Alien Park is the bigot’s term for the new soccer field; they never had soccer till the “illegals” (Hispanics, legal or not) showed up. I looked over my shoulder; the girls did not notice her disparaging remarks. I decide not to take it to task because you cannot argue with stupid; someone who has lived their entire life in a stupor of double standards. The sad thing is that my mother was not unique.
The older generations had muddy thinking; our children can create a society where Trayvon would not be afraid or be in danger.
The girl who led the attack on me in high school had many issues with her home life. I found out years later that the men in her mother’s life used and abused her. I forgave her a long time ago even before learning that; she was not attacking me as much as she was hurting inside. Like many bullies, this girl would have stuck those pins in who ever happened to be sitting in that seat. It’s much easier to forgive someone when it’s not personal.
Below are a few off-the-wall thoughts on racism and also about my name:
Racism exists with every group: black, white, Asian, Hispanics and so on.
Racism is an ugly animal; if it had a flavor it might be a blend of alum and sulfur.
Parents are making a difference, but we need it to happen sooner.
When a parent says “be nice” and the say bad things about someone only because their skin is dark (or white) they are sending mixed messages that confuse children.
Children are watching a parent’s every action; just like smoking, you can tell the kids not to smoke but if you light up, you’ve already lost the child. Children can also do math so if you were pregnant before you were married, don’t tell them “no sex before marriage.” It is the same way with racism.
If your children gave you a grade on your racism (1 being the worst and 10 being least racist), what do you think you would earn?
Let us not shut the door on this opportunity; we owe it to the next generations and especially Trayvon.
Who knows what Trayvon might have done with his life, he might have gone on to college or gotten married and had children.
Was an innocent boy’s life worth Stand Your Ground? We must fix this law.
With so much change from my father’s generation to mine, I have hope that it can eventually disappear completely.
My father was proud of the Saulmon name and so am I. Daddy told me that when I got that name it was a well-respected name and to take good care of it. As a warning he said if I did anything to bring shame to the family name that I would regret it for the rest of my life; once a name is ruined you can’t get it back. I use all three parts of my name – I always have and I always will. If I do something bad I expect my name will be ruined, just like Daddy said. So far, so good.
Jackie Saulmon Ramirez has served as a volunteer with Parents Anonymous® of New Jersey, Inc. for more than twenty years, giving and getting support. Find her at her contact page.