Damn Yankee

By Ann Anderson Evans

As well as reporting on the cotton business, The Cotton Trade Journal, Mr. Francis Hickman, Proprietor and Publisher, sponsored the annual pageant that crowned the “Cotton Queen.” As a representative of that journal, my father met each year’s Queen when she visited New York and told us about her over dinner. I pictured a series of wasp-waisted southern belles beaming under a rhinestone tiara. Mr. Hickman lived on a grand estate in Germantown, just outside of early-Elvis Memphis, and in the summer of 1959, when I was a senior in high school, he invited the whole family to visit.

I’d spent summers at camp in Maine, but knew little of America outside of New England. I was excited as we piled into the Nash Rambler and drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains into the land of the Mississippi River, Tennessee Walking Horses, grits and ham breakfasts, and sharecroppers (Mornin’, Mistuh Hickman).

Mr. Hickman was a congenial, aging bachelor who enjoyed entertaining. The impressive skills of his cook were reflected in his girth. He invited my father’s opposite number in Memphis to dinner one night, and the conversation turned to swimming pools because I’m a swimmer. The man said there were Nigra pools and White pools. I was used to the term “Negroes.” Even Martin Luther King used that word. The word “Nigra” seemed far enough away from the N-word to be used in polite company, though what did I know. “We don’t swim with the Nigras because they all have syphilis,” the man said. I didn’t know what syphilis was, but it didn’t sound good.

When we went into the city, I was shocked at the separate drinking fountains and movie entrances. Coming from a cabal of civil rights activists in my high school in Montclair, New Jersey (which meant that we actually spoke to Jews and Black people), I had read of such things, but seeing them in front of me was appalling. I was indignant when I learned that in southern branches of my own church, Christian Science, Negroes sat at the back. That was one reason why I left it the next year.

Over a bridge game I got my first Yankee Lecture, delivered in the dulcet tones of a well-brought-up Southern lady friend of Mr. Hickman’s. “You Yankees don’t understand us down here. You think we’re all ignorant, vicious racists. You make fun of our accent and all, but we are good people. We’ve lived together with the Nigras for hundreds of years, and we understand each other. Besides, I have it on good authority that racism is much worse in the North than it is in the South.”

Yes, we made fun of the Southern accent. And I had to acknowledge that in Montclair the schools were segregated up to the high school, where most Black students were tracked into different classes than people like me. The neighborhoods were segregated, and no Black person would have ventured onto the streets of Upper Montclair for shopping or entertainment. And, of course, as Martin Luther King said, there was no more segregated time than Sunday morning. In the Montclair branch of the Christian Science church there were no Negroes at all. Maybe Mr. Hickman’s friend had a point. I could learn something from these soft-spoken people. Maybe I could practice more humility.

I took some of my high dudgeon back to New Jersey. Greenwich Village, where I lived in the mid-60s, was a hotbed of civil rights activity. The loss of Martin Luther King brought me to tears, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X opened my eyes and my heart.

From 1965 until 1976 I lived in Athens, Greece, far from racial strife, since there weren’t any Black people in Athens.

I married an Australian journalist, had two children, returned to Montclair, and divorced him. In 1982, I met Tom from Nashville, North Carolina. He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American boy, a song-and-dance man who had left the South for Broadway and had no desire to go back. His raving conservative sister Chee called him a “bleeding heart New York liberal.”

Settling into a post-Broadway career as a computer programmer, he was a fount of buoyant optimism. His mother, Mary Laura, was living in New York City back then, making a modest living babysitting for the children of tourists staying at fancy hotels. When we announced our vague goal of marriage, she confided to me that he had once suffered what she called a “nervous breakdown.” In hindsight, I recognize her caveat emptor. But I’d known other people who had suffered “nervous breakdowns” and had recovered nicely, so I didn’t worry about it. If I had known then what I know now, I would have wondered if his unrelenting buoyancy was depression’s sibling, mania, especially since his father had been manic-depressive.

Mary Laura was a tiny woman, and after someone on a bike knocked her down on 8th Avenue and 46th Street in the process of stealing her purse, she moved back to Nashville, saying she wouldn’t host us there until we were married. No premarital hanky-panky between HER bedsheets!

In 1984, a few months after our wedding, we took the kids and visited Mary Laura, in Nashville. Tom was looking forward to seeing his hometown again, especially as it held warm memories of his beloved grandmother, who had encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a Broadway star.

Nashville is a strip of houses along Route 64 in the flat, eastern part of the state. The railroad track which once carried Franklin Delano Roosevelt down to Hot Springs, Georgia runs through it. Mary Laura remembered seeing Roosevelt waving from the train. She was super proud that an ancestor had once been the sheriff of Nash County. After a dispute over the maintenance of the family burial plot, she was no longer on speaking terms with her brother, who owned a pig farm just outside of Nashville. There was a whiff of William Faulkner about the place, but the barbecue and cornbread were outstanding, and we relaxed.

It turned unbearably hot and I yearned for some water to jump into, so we went to the public pool. My daughter and I changed into our bathing suits in the ladies’ dressing room and met the guys poolside. There were dozens of people there, kids cannonballing, parents holding their toddlers while they splashed around—high-decibel mayhem. We were the only White people. It was unsettling, but we had our swim and went back home.

I asked Tom’s mother where all the White people were. “They’re all at the country club.” She said it so shamelessly.

I enjoyed chatting with Aunt Annabelle, who was in her 90s. She was as homey and pleasant as marmalade. I wanted to learn what it had been like to live through the last century. She would have been born in the 1890s, when memories of the Civil War were fresh. She’d lived through the Jim Crow era and the period of mandated school desegregation. When I told her about the pool, she said, “Times have changed since I was a girl, but now I have nothing against the Nigras. I like them. As long as they know their place.” I wasn’t going to interrogate Aunt Annabelle. I was in her house, her town, and I wanted to learn the truth of how she was thinking. If I argued and stamped my foot, she’d clam up and I’d never know.

On the way back home, we visited Tom’s cousins in Virginia, where I got the Yankee Lecture again from his cousin’s wife. “You Yankees don’t understand our ways down here. You’re more cold and businesslike. We care about people down here. We care about family, not about money and time. We’re not cold like the Yankees; we’re a warm people. We take care of each other.” There was a Ronald Reagan fillip to the Lecture which had been added since I last heard it in 1959. “Ann, I’m supposing you’re a Democrat, but we’re mostly Republicans down here because we don’t want the government telling us what to do. We feel we know best how to educate our children, and we generally just take care of each other. We don’t need anybody to tell us how to do that.” If she had let me get a word in edgewise, I would have told her I had a job and two children to raise and wasn’t deep into politics. Besides, for a reason I no longer can understand, I voted for Ronald Reagan.

It was true that I did not like to spend half an hour gathering gossip from the telephone repairman before he repaired the telephone. Maybe I should try being a little less efficient and a little more interested in the people around me. Besides, the Gone With the Wind burden still lay on me a hundred years later. I was still atoning for General Sherman.

 

About a year after our Nashville visit, Tom’s eternal optimism led him into a job at UPS. The pace was furious and he made some programming errors just prior to the Christmas rush which affected the handling of thousands of shipments. Either because of the stress and humiliation, or because it was otherwise fated to happen, he slipped into a dangerous depression and was fired. On some days he couldn’t get out of bed, and wouldn’t have showered at all if I hadn’t insisted. He tried to commit suicide, but “the rope broke.”

Now I had a job, two kids, and a desperately ill husband. To keep the family afloat, I had to work a lot of overtime and often didn’t get home until my kids were asleep.

Mary Laura got angry if Tom’s weekly phone calls lasted less than 45 minutes. It was so hard for him to be cheery for 45 whole minutes. I wrote to her and to his cousins about his illness and his suicide attempt. They did not answer me. Caveat emptor. I didn’t write to Chee. She thought he was lazy, a disgrace to the family, and “a poor excuse of a man.” So this was how Southerners “took care of each other.”

It took about a year, but Tom got better. A college buddy, Ross, and his wife Cindy came to spend a week with us while they soaked up some theatre and some New York energy and excitement. They lived just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and their house gift was a University of Alabama T-shirt—the most comfortable T-shirt I have ever owned. I still wear it, spotted and a bit worn, 27 years later.

I wanted our farewell dinner with Ross and Cindy to be special, so we had leg of lamb with all the fixings and chocolate cake for dessert. My children had homework to do and left the table, and the four of us were relaxing over coffee when Cindy mentioned that they were sending their daughter to a private school. My ears perked up. I had read about Southerners avoiding desegregation laws by sending their children to private schools. After Memphis, I knew that what I read in the newspaper was probably true, but again it was jarring to be brought face-to-face with it.

I wanted to hear more. “She’s in a public school now?”

“Yes, but when she leaves the neighborhood school and goes to the high school, things change, and we’re going to send her elsewhere. The high schools are just awful. They have these teachers who can barely speak the English language, and they sure don’t know anything about Shakespeare.”

I knew what teachers she was referring to, and the Yankee in me galloped into view. I addressed what was between her lines. “Not so long ago it was illegal for Black people to even be literate. I think it’s pretty amazing that they’re high school teachers now.”

She looked startled, then bristled. “Do you know that there is a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey?”

I wanted to laugh at her flaccid attack. I had heard it before, and had taken it to heart, but now had lived long enough to see it for what it was, a defense of the indefensible. “No. I didn’t know. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the North, but at least we have changed our laws, and we’re trying to change our habits.”

Her look made me think maybe I had ruined Tom’s relationship with Ross forever, but this woman of the South controlled her outrage while at her hostess’s dinner table and asked me, “Well, what would you do if it were your daughter?”

I became what they expected me to be, a rude, cold Yankee. “I would do what Black mothers have done from time immemorial. I would scare up a pencil somewhere, send her to school, and tell her to do her best.”

Somebody intervened with a joke or a loving hand because she didn’t throw her hot coffee at me, but our farewells were chilly the next day.

I had the feeling that, as of 1986, the Civil War wasn’t yet over.

 

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Ann Anderson Evans is a writer, linguist, and professor. She is the author of Daring to Date Again, a memoir to be published by SheWrites Press in November, 2014.  A wife (for the third time), mother, and grandmother, she has lived in Spain, Israel, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Greece. She speaks six languages.  Her website and blog are at www.annandersonevans.com.


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