This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, a Publication of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, in the Winter-Spring edition 2009.
Rev. P.T. Holloway, my grandfather, was an ordained minister in the South Georgia conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1924 he preached a sermon condemning the lynching of an African-American in the community he served. My mother was the youngest of seven children born to P.T. and Lilly Holloway. Mom remembered being terrified as a little girl when her Uncle Rufus died. The terror did not come from his death. It happened after the committal at the graveside. Hooded men wearing white robes came out from behind the bushes to hold their own ceremony. Nobody knew Uncle Rufus had been a member of the Klan.
My parents married in 1941. Dad was 21. My mother was 16. During World War II my father drove in the motor pool while stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia. His experience as a veteran qualified him to drive a bus for the Jacksonville Coach Company in Jacksonville, Florida. Dad proudly boasted he would have kicked Rosa Parks off his bus in a heartbeat. Southern protocol demanded African-Americans to surrender their seats to Whites and take their place in the back of the bus.
I am a son of the cultural schizophrenia of the south. As a six year old boy I never understood why there were separate water fountains and restrooms for “Whites” and “Coloreds”. Dad hated Cassius Clay and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our once a week restaurant experience was usually at Morrison’s Cafeteria. James was our regular waiter who would fill our glasses with iced tea. Dad gave James a $7.tip one year at Christmas, a dollar for each of his seven children. Mom said he was a “good Nigra” which was “southern” for a shuffling Uncle Tom who tried to please his white superiors.
I awoke one morning at 2:30 a.m. and heard unfamiliar voices in our living room. Two uniformed policemen were sitting on the couch. My Dad was being questioned. Mom told me everything would be o.k. and to go back to bed. Police do not make social calls at that hour. Her words did not reassure me. I later learned Dad had run over and killed an African-American man on his last run of the night. The man was drunk, had stepped off a curb, and Dad couldn’t stop in time. Dad was not charged, but he quit driving the bus and he began drinking heavily. It was his way, I suppose, of dealing with his pain.
My parents did not graduate from High School. I was the first in our family to attend college, initially motivated for a student deferment to stay out of Viet Nam. In a freshman sociology class I had a sudden epiphany. From national income averages I discovered our family was never middle class. I saw us as we were: poor white trash. I majored in Political Science and minored in Black History. Dad read my texts: Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Langston Hughes. He told me of a lynching he had witnessed when he was just four years old. His cultural lenses began to change.
Education may create empathy and understanding but it isn’t enough. Insight doesn’t always heal. Abuse frequently becomes replicated in family systems and can surface in every generation. Racism is abuse trapped in a cultural family system. Why I wasn’t infected with this virus of hate is unclear to me. I just always knew it was wrong and this is what we taught our children. Racism institutionalizes splitting and becomes culturally embedded. Projecting toxic emotions onto others and disowning your own demons is delusional. You don’t have to make someone inferior to boost your own pseudo sense of superiority. No one is better than anyone else. Believe in yourself. Be humble. Remember from whence you came. We’re just poor white trash.