Thursday, January 13, 2011

The New South

We pull into a gas station off the highway. The green sign at the corner reads Sweetwater City Limit.

We have been driving for hours and my mood seems to be dropping with the thermometer read out on the dash. The view from the passenger side of the minivan window since we left our home in San Antonio surrounded mostly by neon signs, rolling hills and Mesquite trees has gradually changed to a flatter, drier landscape. Even the junk food in the gas station is unfamiliar. I sit stubbornly in the car as my husband stands shivering while pumping gas. When my three boys return noisily from the convenience store, they grumble about the dirty bathrooms and their vain search for Takis Fuego, Lucas Palucas or tamarind candy covered in chile powder, complaining that the counter display boasts only bins of fresh dried beef jerky.

I look again at my cell phone and I silently pass the hand sanitizer to the back seat. The display shows that the text messages I have sent over the last thirty minutes or so are still pending. I receive another error message from my phone company that the texts will be waiting until we reach a coverage area, making me feel even further away from everything comforting and familiar.

We are headed to Lubbock, to spend the Christmas holiday with my husband’s family, but the Sweetwater sign has taken me to a darker place in my memories than even the usual stresses from last minute shopping and family holidays can evoke.

Before my husband pulls the van away from the gas station, I ask him to stop so that my children can see the sign. They read the sign aloud and wait patiently as they stare at me with three pairs of eyes in varying shades of blue, so different from my own brown ones. The eyes come, most directly from their father, but also from my mother, Sylvia. Only my oldest son has met my mother, and even he was too young to remember her. My father died when I was 12, and a tight budget has prohibited a family trip to my childhood home in New York, so they have never met his family. They know only because I tell them often that their broad shoulders, deep laugh, full lips, creativity, and gentle spirit come from my father and his brothers, tall handsome black men, descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who were raised in my grandfather’s Baptist church in Harlem.

The story of Sweetwater is their story, and as I sit in the car staring at the sign, I share it with my children. I tell them about how my parents drove through this town, on their way from California to New York in my Daddy’s brand new Cadillac. When they got to Sweetwater, they were warned that my mother should sit in the back seat, and pretend that my father was her chauffeur. I know that for my three sandy haired, vanilla latte boys raised near a military base in the “New South”, the version of reality in my story is more distant and harder to imagine than Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

Obama will be the first president in the conscious memory of my six year old. Hip Hop is the universal language of music for my preteen and his peers. My high school son’s friends think his dreadlocks are just a really cool hair style. The Civil Rights movement is something that happened a long time ago, even before their mom was born. Beyond the fact that no one they know actually attended a legally segregated school, they have no idea what it is like to be the only child of color in their class. Forget about “Whites Only” signs. They have never experienced the stares and the weird feeling like we got from the waitress when my brother and I went to the “wrong” restaurant with my mother. I have never had to play Nina Simone and explain why they weren’t invited to a birthday party sleep over. I have never had to warn them why it’s not a good idea to stop and get gas in certain small towns. Although I am eternally grateful for this, and for the fact that my family can without thought stop at any gas station along the highway, even in the smallest of Texas towns; I am also thankful for the gentle reminder that came with that Sweetwater sign.

i am also thankful

1 comment:

rahkyt said...

Amen. I no that part of the country well, n things have definitely changed a lot there since we were children. I remember going to visit my cousins n the small town of Paducah during the summer time, n going swimming n a pool where the water was totally n milky white, from the excess of chlorine, n, of course, no white children. it was 'our' day. blessins, fam ...