Reading Jim Grimsley’s book earlier this year about growing up in North Carolina surrounded by racism in the 1960s has prompted me to reflect on my own south Georgia childhood, and beyond.
- Two of my best friends had black maids. I recall seeing small groups of black women walk through our neighborhood, going to the waterfront shrimp factories. That was it in terms of my consciousness; I came to understand many years later that half of Brunswick was African American.
- I can name all of the white elementary schools: my own Sidney Lanier, and then Ballard and Goodyear. There must have been a black one. In 2000, I talked with a black woman who told me she and her classmates got used Sidney Lanier textbooks that often had racist scribblings in them.
- Six black students from Risley High finished their schooling as part of my 1965 graduating class of over 500. I vaguely recall seeing a black girl in the same row as me in the auditorium. I’m pretty sure I didn’t make an effort to speak to her or them. None have ever come to any of our reunions, and I’ve only begun to think about what it must have been like for them.
- I recall no African Americans at Georgia Southern or at UGA in the early 70s.
- I didn’t work with a black person until 1980; she was the news director at the Atlanta radio station where I was an announcer. I did voiceover work throughout the 1980s and took classes; not one black competitor at that time.
- I defeated a black incumbent in a city council race in Acworth in the mid-1990s. For me, it was all about development issues, but I know for a fact that I won with votes from whites who simply voted for the white candidate.
- As part of a chamber leadership class in Anniston, Ala. in 2008, I rode around late one night in a police car. The several cars that were pulled over, and the pedestrian who was stopped and asked for identification, were black — all of them.
- And just this summer in researching the Globe story, I came to understand that my own high school got a new science building and equipment in 1963 from federal funds. Did Risley get a new science building? I’d guess not.
There’s a name for my experience; it’s called “white privilege.” My point in making an effort to remember my individual life in a societal context is that I have, without doubt, benefited from white privilege. And I think, in this troubled time, we, as white people, need to do some work. Our generation didn’t fight “The Good War,” of the 1940s, but maybe, just maybe, we can be remembered as the generation that worked to acknowledge and overcome its own white privilege. To that end, I asked for some guidance on books you and I might read that would enlighten us.
Freda Scott Giles, UGA associate professor of theater and African American Studies emerita, recommended Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. Valerie Babb, UGA professor of English and director of the Institute for African American Studies recommended a book she wrote titled Whiteness Visible, and The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter.
I would add two that I discovered at the library recently: Negroland by Margo Jeffries and Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America, by Calvin Trillin.
Abraham Heschel said, “In a democracy, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Those of us who have lived through both systems and who have some maturity are called on to think as deeply as we can and do our best not to add to the current despair and divisiveness.
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