Thursday, March 29, 2012

In Louisiana, it's 'the some people's house'

The governor of my home state is as dark as its fertile alluvial soil. Lucky for him, he's not darkest Africa but instead kind of India inky, which is almost as good as white.

Otherwise, he might feel anything but at home in his own house.

In most states, they call the governor's mansion "the people's house." In Louisiana, where "old times there are not forgotten," make that "the some people's house."

If your name is Piyush, you get to make yourself at home. If your name is P'Allen, not so much.

You'd like to think that 12 years into the new millennium, the mere thought would be pure foolishness --
paranoia, even. I know I'd like to think that. I'd especially like to think that about the place where I was born and raised.

But I was, after all, born and raised in Baton Rouge, and even after all these years away, I know my people. This means I was not much surprised when I saw a
Facebook post Thursday from a high-school classmate about what happened when she, an African-American educator, took her students -- not a one of them white or even "almost as good as white" -- on a field trip to the governor's mansion.

I'LL LET her tell the story:
You ALWAYS remember how a person made you feel. . . .

Even if it was on a tour of the Governor's Mansion. And on THIS day, the tour guide made me and my students feel totally invisible.

We were the only group scheduled for 10 a.m. WE were 10 minutes early, but the tour guide was late. We had to stand outside in the heat until she got there at 10:17.

I was okay with that. It happens.

A lady arrived with her daughter and informed me that she was told she could take the tour with our group because she couldn't come this afternoon as scheduled. Her daughter's drawing was selected in a contest and was on display.

I was okay with that. I congratulated her.

When we were finally allowed inside, the tour guide was rushed, (as happens when you're late), and proceeded to imply that we should be "honored" to be in the presence of the little girl whose drawing was on display!

I smiled. I could tell that this was NOT going to be memorable for the right reasons.

I must have Democrat written across my forehead, because the tour guide placed so much emphasis on the accomplishments of the Republican governors that my students were left with the impression that the other governors let the mansion rot away!


We patiently waited while she took photos of the little girl whose drawing was on display.

The bitter pill came when our part of the tour was coming to an end. She brought out brochures, and I thought, "Great, the kids will have a souvenir of their visit to the Governor’s Mansion!” She politely placed a brochure into the hands of the little girl and her mother. Then, she walked towards me and casually tossed the other brochures onto the table!

I felt my left eyebrow lift (think Spock), and as I turned to my students, felt my heart drop, because their facial expressions showed that they KNEW she had slighted them . . . it was as obvious to them as it was to me. As I placed the brochures into their hands, I felt guilty that I brought them to a place where they were made to feel less than other people in the room.

Yes, unfortunately, you ALWAYS remember how a person made you feel. . . .
AS A SOUTHERNER of a certain age, I've always remembered what I saw when "integration" came to my elementary school in 1970. I know how the lone two black children were made to feel there. I know that when I befriended the little black girl in my fourth-grade class, a teacher told me I had crossed a line.

That I had broken a taboo.

That it just didn't look right.

Some things never change. Some people never change. Some places never change . . . much. Louisiana is at the top of the list -- again. And again for all the wrong reasons.

When I read the hours-old words of my old Baton Rouge High friend, a fellow member of the Class of 1979, I saw ugly scenes and heard ugly words four decades old. Sitting in my studio in Omaha, Neb., I again was that little boy standing on the playground at Red Oaks Elementary in Baton Rouge, La. -- the one who didn't know his proper place was with his own kind.

I was the crab who had tried to escape the bucket. Just when I was getting to know a black girl as a person and as an equal -- and liking it . . . and liking her -- I felt the pinch of a claw, and suddenly I was being dragged back into the whites-only bucket. Our bucket, even amid court-ordered "integration," was separate and more equal.

NO MATTER how "common" and working-class my background, the powers that be -- however grudgingly -- were obligated to politely hand me my brochure, just like the little white-girl artist and her mama at the Louisiana governor's mansion. For my African-American fourth-grade friend, it was good enough to snottily pitch hers on a table and walk away.

And they did, too.

Obviously, I noticed this as a 9-year-old white kid in Louisiana. Don't think that a group of black children -- my friend's students from her Christian school -- didn't notice the same, and more, Thursday at "the some people's house":
We had a brief discussion this afternoon, and the kids were able to express some of their feelings...mostly anger. They hadn't missed any of it. They even brought up the fact that she ignored us when she arrived . . . and we were standing next to the entrance waiting for her! I told them we would talk more about it tomorrow, after we've had time to calm down.
THERE'S YOUR "slice of life" -- Thursday, March 29, 2012 -- from the part of Dixieland where I was born.

Look away, look away, look away. . . .


Anonymous said...

This is sad. I applaud this teacher's courage to discuss it with the kids and help them to make sense of a situation that, frankly, doesn't make sense. It's 2012 for Heaven's Sake!

Carmen said...

This story gave me chills--and not in a good way. I saw things like this happen all the time growing up in BR. And sadly, it still happens thanks to the "that's just they way it is" attitude that everyone there has. Not just the old folks, but young people too.
So glad I got out ASAP....