Excuse Me, Sir

Street Huckster – Charleston by James Augustus McLean, Greenville County Museum of Art

I recall as a boy my daddy complaining about how television news stereotyped Southerners, the correspondents constantly trotting out before the cameras a series of Bull Connor belligerents, grammatically challenged podunk politicians, and/or dentally deficient racists whose lack of front teeth made pronouncing the n-word problematic. 

I didn’t know enough back then to explain that they were the ones making the most noise, the ones cracking Blacks with baseball bats, unleashing snarling German shepherds, that they were newsworthy, that his own nuanced, quiet racism wouldn’t be all that interesting to viewers.[1]

And if you were born and raised in the South in the first or middle portion of the 20th Century, you were bound to be racist because bigotry was inculcated, abundant in the air you breathed: segregation included not only movie theaters, restrooms, and water fountains, but even doctors’ offices.  Even if your parents didn’t explain to you as a child that Blacks were inferior, you would sense that they were because of their forced separation. It went without saying, though of course, lots of people were saying it, repeating racist jokes and addressing grandfathers as boy. The Blacks’ poverty was proof of their lowness, as if conquering systemic racism and overcoming a substandard education should not be a hinderance from rising from rags to riches. Look at the Greek immigrants, the Italians, etc.[2]

Last Tuesday, my friend Warren Moise presented his excellent memoir The Class of ’71: A Tale of Desegregation in Gamecock City to the Thomas Street Book Club. This was our first in-person meeting since the pandemic, so attendance was sparse. In fact, all the participants were white male Southerners of the boomer generation, so we all had stories to tell of race relations back in the day, of “maids” entering through back doors and yardmen eating their lunches on back stoops.

However, to my mind, the most poignant narrative came from Ed, a physician who grew up in Little River, South Carolina.

In high school Ed worked at an A&P supermarket bagging groceries. Like many establishments, the store had an in-door and an out-door. After working a month or two, Ed discovered he could save time exiting the store through the in-door as he carted customers’ groceries to their vehicles in the parking lot. 

One of the stores’ produce suppliers was an elderly Black man who brought in his vegetables on a cart composed of wood and cardboard, a sort of oversized wheelbarrow he pushed along the highway to the store. 

One day, Ed rocketed out through the in-door and collided with the old man, overturning the cart, knocking the man to the pavement. The cement was strewn with vegetables, with smashed tomatoes, the cart destroyed.

Clearly in the wrong, Ed was mortified, worried that the old man was hurt, that he’d have to pay for the ruined produce, that he might be fired.

Slowly, Ed said, the old man tottered to his feet, placed his cap back in his head, looked Ed in the eye, and said, “Excuse me, sir.”

[1] C.f. Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.

[2] It just occurred to me that what I’m writing is exactly what opponents of critical race theory want to, pardon the term, whitewash. 

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