Finding Fault With My Southern Roots

Part I:

Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe – I met Natalie and I Let Go

The year was 1981. I was 17, fresh out of high school and very naive. My life, thus far, had been sheltered. I’d spent very little time outside the comfort zone of the suburbia where I was raised.

I decided I’d rather start working than go to college, and soon landed the coveted entry level position of “file clerk” at Allstate Insurance where my older sister worked. The office, located in Buckhead (an upper class neighborhood in northen Atlanta), was less than 20 miles from our house. But, it was a whole new world to me; and I was excited.

On my first day, however, that excitement had turned into a serious case of the “butterflies”. I’d never had a job; and had no idea what to expect. This huge two story building with its’ 300+ employees suddenly felt incredibly intimidating. My new boss didn’t help matters, either. He’d been friendly enough at my interview; this Monday morning, not so much. After gathering my 15 or so fellow filers for what I thought would be an introduction, he just grunted out a “This is the new girl. Figure out who’s going to be stuck trying to train her.” As he walked away, he added a sarcastic “Have fun”, and then mumbled something about me never having worked a day in my life. I wanted to turn around and go back home.

But, one girl spoke up right away. With a huge smile, she told me her name was Natalie and asked mine. She re-introduced me to my new co-workers as “Dena” and said she’d be glad to be my trainer. She had a way about her that immediately put me at ease. I thanked Natalie for her help and being so nice. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just made my first best work friend.

(Natalie also explained why I shouldn’t take our supervisor’s attitude problem personally. He’d recently been caught exposing himself to another employee and was about to be fired.)

From that first day on, me and Natalie were pretty much inseperable. Our personalities just clicked. We’d team up and get our work done early so we’d have time to goof off. We ate lunch together every day, and usually hit the pizza place next door for a happy hour beer on Friday afternoons. (One could legally drink at 18 back in those days.) On Halloween, we both dressed up like roller derby queens and had a blast skating around the office all day. Our friendship made work fun, but work is where it stayed.

Other than that hour or so at the end of the week, Natalie and I never talked outside of business hours. This wasn’t something we talked about or even considered. It was more like an unspoken understanding. No matter how easy and natural our friendship felt to us, we both knew that Natalie would never fit into my “real life” any more than I would into hers.

Maybe I should explain. You see, I am white and Natalie is black. And, at that time, most people in the south only hung out with people in their own race. As a matter of fact, Natalie was the first black person I had ever known.

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The first 18 years of my life…

When I was a kid, the “N word” was a part of our everyday vocabulary. It was the punch line in most of our silly, childish jokes and the “go-to” term for name calling when we were mad at or just wanted to tease one of our friends. It was also what we claimed to “catch by his toe” in the “Eeeny, Meeny, Moe” counting rhyme. I knew, of course, that the term referred to black people, but none of its’ history. I used it, not from a place of malice, but as a form of jest.

I really don’t remember my parents using the “N word”. Maybe they did, just not in front of me and my sister. We never heard them cuss, either. With other family members, it was a different story. I’d hear them use the word all the time, but not angrily. So, it didn’t incite animosity in me. It’s hard to explain, but, in my mind, black people were more like fictional characters. I knew them through stories, jokes and rhymes, but not in real life.

My Dad sold life insurance, and most of his policy holders were black. He would go to their house to collect their premium every week, and it wasn’t unusual for them to call him at home to make arrangements. I was one of those kids who always had to answer the phone, so they usually talked to me first. I always got a kick out of their accent, and would try to imitate it later on to my friends. If my Dad heard me, I’d get in trouble. But, I wasn’t trying to be mean, I just liked to make people laugh.

Johnnie May was a name I’d heard as long back as I could remember. She was a black lady who’d cleaned my Great Great Aunt’s (Momie) house when she lived in Atlanta. I wasn’t around then; they moved to Cobb County a couple of years before I was born. Even though they didn’t see each other anymore, Momie and Johnnie May remained close friends. Momie kept me up-to-date on all the significant events happening in Johnnie May’s family. I knew about the birthdays, graduations, and babies of all these people I’d never met.

There weren’t ever any black kids in school with me until my senior year when a brother and sister transferred to Osborne. I graduated early, so I only was there for one quarter. I’m not even sure if I met the siblings. I definitely wasn’t around long enough to get to know them.

There were my Dad’s customers – voices I’d hear on the phone sometimes. Johnny May – A name I’d hear in stories. And, two kids I may have passed in the hall between classes. Until I graduated, these were the only black people I’d come in contact with in my life.

Television was no help either. In the ’60’s and ’70’s, we only had three channels to choose from. Around 1976, three independent networks began broadcasting in our area. So, if you had a decent antenna and the weather was right, you might be able to tune into those as well. But, even with those extra choices, you’d rarely see a black face on the screen.

Most television shows in those days featured an all white cast. Some did have their “token black character” who’d appear occassionally but usually didn’t figure into the main storyline. And, any show that had an all black cast was always a comedy. Black characters were silly with some eccentricity or over-the-top personality; Fred Sanford, George Jefferson, and JJ (Dyn-O-Mite) Evans. They weren’t people you’d take seriously. There weren’t any serious or dramatic roles for black actors.

Through punch lines, rhymes, cartoons, and television comedy, society had painted me a stereotypical image of black people. They’d been portrayed as dumb and lazy. They’d been made to look ridiculous, undiginified, and thought of as jokes. Black people were depicted totally different than white people like me. And, although it wasn’t said outright, I’d been led to believe that they were the inferior race. I was naive and accepted this as truth.

Then…

I met Natalie. She was funny, but she wasn’t a joke. I laughed WITH her all the time; but, I never laughed AT her. She was working full-time at Allstate during the day to put herself through college, which she attended at night.  Dumb and lazy? No, more like smart and ambitious. On that first day, Natalie reached out to me, a complete stranger, with kindness and compassion. Had the situation been reversed, would I have done the same for her?

Racism isn’t always about hate. Over the first 18 years of my life, I’d developed a preconceived notion of people whose color of skin did not match my own. I’d used a derogatory term with no regard to the meaning behind it. And, I’d embraced the mindset that my white skin put me in a class above everyone else. It was time to do some serious soul searching.

My friendship with Natalie changed me. I was done with the “N” word. It represented an opinion I no longer held. It was a big step, and began my long journey to awareness. I had so much more to learn but I was on my way.

*********************************************************

  I don’t know where Natalie is today. We didn’t keep in touch after Allstate. I can’t even remember her last name. Our friendship was brief, she was only in my life for a very short time. But, I know she was put there for a reason. And, I will forever be grateful for her teaching me one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

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