There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, March 4, 2007

When We Were Colored: A book report

Finished up my fourth book since I started using Sacramento Regional Transit to commute to work a little over a month ago.

"When We Were Colored: A Mother's Story" is a reprint of a book originally published in 1964 under the title "The Trouble with Being a Mama."

The author is Eva Rutland, who is the mother of Ginger Rutland, a Sacramento Bee editorial writer.

In the introduction to the new edition, Eva Rutland explains, "Back then as a 'colored' mother, I was seeking common ground with the white mothers, a way to let all mothers know that we had so much in common."

Eva Rutland accomplishes her goal with folksy humor:

Another thing about being a mama is you have to be rich. Only it doesn't always work out that way. Regardless of the Rockefellers and Fords, it is true that the rich get richer and the poor get children.

I'm the children type myself. And it worries me a little that the only people I know who can afford four bathrooms don't have any children at all. What can you do with four bathrooms if you don't have three girls who constantly have to put their hair up in curlers and a boy who constantly has to brush the curls out? You just don't have the pressing need.

Much of the book, like the section quoted above, speaks of family things that know no race. But other parts of the book speak of the unique experience of being "colored" between World War II and the early 1960s.

Living in Sacramento, Eva Rutland tells of the time her daughter came home screaming, "This house is so dirty."

She had a point, I thought, as I collected the books and crayons and rescued the cracker box from one of the twins.

"Not dirty, just a little cluttered," I defended myself.

"Dirty, dirty, that's what Janey's mother said. She said Negroes were all dirty and they kept dirty houses, and Janey can't play with me, even at school she can't, and she can't come over and . . ."

"Well," I hesitated. What could I, the world's worst housekeeper, say to that? "That's not true. Our house isn't really dirty and neither are ..." I mentioned a few of our friends who were immaculate housekeepers.

I wondered later why I was defending myself. Why should I try to prove to my own daughter that we were as good as anyone else and solely through the automatic, superficial process of keeping our faces and houses clean, of putting up a front? What of our hearts and minds? I determined the next time the subject came up I would place it on a higher plane. ...
Eva Rutland tries to distract her daughter, who is waiting in vain at the window for her friend to come over. But her daughter won't be diverted.

"Janey says Negroes shouldn't be in this neighborhood, anyway. Her mother is very careful about here. She can't play with Chinese or Negroes or . . ." Here the bottle-up tears spilled over, and she cried plaintively, "Oh, I wish I wasn't colored!"

"Elsie," I said, "don't, don't ever say that!"

"But I do, I do!" she screamed. "I hate Janey!"

No, I thought, please, Janey, don't infect Elsie.

"Elsie, listen to me," I implored. "You mustn't hate Janey. Just feel sorry for her. Her mother isn't very understanding. She doesn't know the real values. She doesn't yet know how to judge people on their character, so she bases her judgment on false values like color of skin or cash in their pockets or something like that. Do you see?"

"Yes, I see," she said.

Then, "Mama, who can't I play with?"

"Why, Elsie," I answered, "you can play with anybody."

"Anybody? You mean real black people too?"

"Anybody," I said firmly.

"Oh, Mama," she asked, anxiously, "aren't there maybe some Indians that don't speak English that I couldn't play with?"

I folded her in my arms then, and my tears came too.

"Oh, Elsie, baby, look. You mustn't be silly because other people are. That isn't the American way. We judge people by the kind of people they are inside, whether they are kind and good, not how they look or speak." ...
I heartily recommend this book, especially for anyone who was born after 1960. It's important to understand that we are today just one generation removed from legal segregation. Eva Rutland's grandfather had lived as a slave. It hasn't been a long time.

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