Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois

Jim CrowHere’s a chunk of memory that bubbled up when Facebook friend Dre Morell posted on The Old Jim Crow Etiquette.

In 1950s Texas, when and where I was born, pretty much all of the Jim Crow stuff was in effect. Of course what you’ll read in the linked article was in addition to the separate white and colored drinking fountains, separate white and colored restrooms, the No Negroes policies at “white” swimming pools and schools. I remember several conversations among adults where a black teenager was shot and killed for crossing the corner of a white person’s lawn. This action was widely admired and the story passed back and forth for weeks. One visitor remarked that in Alabama, to shoot someone legally they had to actually be in your house, or at least fall inside the doorsill. The conclusion was that if you shot someone in Alabama, you’d better drag him into the house to make it legitimate.

This section here reminded me of a local black woman, Bessie, who took in ironing:

Never assert or even intimate that a White person is lying.
Never impute dishonorable intentions to a White person.
Never suggest that a White person is from an inferior class.
Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.
Never curse a White person.
Never laugh derisively at a White person.
Never comment upon the appearance of a White female.

None of that stuff applies directly to Bessie, but when she came to the house, she would not step up onto our porch, or knock on the door, but would stand on the front walkway and call out — not too loud — “Miz Fox! I’m heah with th’ ironin’!” My mother would step out onto the porch to pay her — 10 cents per shirt — and hand over a bag with a new bunch of laundered, wrinkled shirts.

Standing at the foot of the stairs was considered respectful, and I heard Bessie referred to many times as “a good nigger.” Carrying a load of shirts, she walked at least six blocks to our house, which was just over the dividing street in the “white” part of town. On the other side of that street was a section referred to as “them Messcans,”  with the more distant area where Bessie lived casually called “Niggertown.”

It’s interesting looking back on that part of my life, I can’t remember a single actively racist act on the part of either of my parents. I played with “them Messcans” — in their yards and ours — with full approval of my parents, and nobody in my family went out of their way to hurt any black or brown person. One of my father’s favorite places to eat was a deep-pit barbecue shack — the stone pit in the middle featuring meats grilling over glowing coals and surrounded by tables and folding chairs, with a broad roof over it but no walls —  where black and white people mingled somewhat casually.

Yet we lived in that time and that place, and we accepted the race rules — rules of language and behavior — without thought or complaint.

Bessie was, as near as I can make out from the few memories I have of her, serious, hard-working, honest and prompt. In her small way, she was a good businesswoman. The few times we drove over to drop off shirts, I remember her kids being clean and well-dressed, and her house and yard immaculate. In values and lifestyle, she was more like my own family than we could have ever thought about admitting.

On the other hand …

My mother had a friend named Lois that lived a few miles away, and we often went to visit her. Lois and her husband Smitty lived in a house that had a TV repair shop on the front of it, and there was a tomboyish daughter about my age (Dorothy? Dotty?) to play with. Their house was right next to railroad tracks, and trains came through often enough that I never went there without taking a nail or a penny to put on the tracks for flattening.

Their back yard was a clutter of rusted autos and hulking piles of random junk that must have been dangerous as hell, but that we ran and played in without a care.

As to the house … I hated going inside Lois’s house because it STANK. The back door opened into the kitchen, and the first thing to catch your eye if you went through that door was a sink full of filthy dishes that might have been, for all I know, weeks old. A reeking garbage can stood nearby, and sink and garbage both were attended by flies and roaches — in plain sight, in the daylight, and completely outside the notice or care of Lois, Smitty or Dotty. The floor was sometimes so nasty your feet would stick to it, or grind on it with a sandy crunch.  The few times I was offered food or drink at Lois’s, I quickly said “No, thank you.” (I have a weirdly vivid remembrance of being handed a glass of water there, but then not drinking it because of greasy fingerprints on the supposedly “clean” glass; after that, I drank out of the hose.)

Lois was huge and shapeless and sometimes came to the door with casual smudges of dirt on her face or arms. She wore tentlike dresses with bra straps showing, and was never without a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. She had a face like a bulldog and a braying voice that would have pricked up donkeys’ ears.

I remember Smitty slouched in a rump-sprung couch somewhere deeper in the house, just inside the doorway that led into the TV repair shop. Both Smitty and couch were shiny with dirt, and the smell of the place was a wall-like solid to my sensitive nose.

I hear all the time “You shouldn’t judge people” but I would disagree emphatically in this case.  Living in filth and comfortable with it, Smitty and Lois were the worst sort of White Trash. Even at the age of 5 or so, I thought they were repulsive. I liked playing with Dotty on the railroad tracks, but her family, and their house … yuck.

The point of all this is that the Skin Color Line that determined who associated with who placed gross-as-hell Lois, who was white, on the near side of the line and hard-working, self-respecting Bessie, who was black, on the far side.


I understand the historical dependence on race — after all, skin color is an easy feature to see and react to — but damn, I would really like for us to get the heck over it, to understand that, if anything, we’re separate by culture, by values and aspirations, and not by color.

At the same time — right this second, I’m thinking mainly of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in France by Islamists, but the point is a broad one — I would like for us to HOLD each other to those values and aspirations, whatever we choose as the signature values and aspirations of decent people, and understand that it’s possible to not measure up. Coexistence makes us neighbors, yes, but only shared values and aspirations — things that take some effort — can make us fellows.