For most of her life, my paternal grandmother was a racist. She didn’t talk about it in front of the grandkids. Nobody talked about it in front of the grandkids. I probably would never have given it much thought, if Mom hadn’t mentioned it when she found out I had snuck off to an anti-apartheid rally in the late 70’s. I do know that some of her sons did not share that part of her beliefs, I think because they had served in the armed forces at a time when those institutions were being integrated. So most of the family was apparently uncomfortable with it.
But the racism was there, even though no one spoke of it. Grandmother had bought into “southern populist” rhetoric, and she named Dad after one of it’s practitioners, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, even though she was born and raised in Alabama. By 1970 her beliefs hadn’t changed much at all. She had given up on George Wallace, and was supporting his former speechwriter, Asa Carter, for Governor. Asa’s campaign appearances always had the battle flag in the background, but the kicker was the content of his speeches. For some reason, the only campaign issue Asa only seemed to worry about was the peril of allowing black boys to go to school with white girls. Now it makes me sick, but back then it only made me puzzled.
I’m not saying Grandmother was a bad person. She was a good person. Everyone has faults, and hers was probably typical for the time and place she grew up. If the story ended here it would be pretty unremarkable, and I wouldn’t be writing about it right now. But at some point in the closing years or months of Grandmother’s life she changed.
One Sunday, a few months before she died (I think it was 1980), we were sitting on the porch of my aunt and uncle in Gadsden, Alabama. Grandmother’s health was going, and by that point she was having a hard time holding food down, but the family was able to take her out of the retirement facility for an Easter celebration. She and I were just sitting, and she began to talk about how a lot of the people at the facility were “colored”. With an expression that can be best described as stunned, grandmother looked at me and said “They’re just like we are.” I would have hugged her, but given her condition she might broken a bone or something. Instead I just said, “I know”.
I know that today, saying “They’re just like we are” would probably be considered quaint, at best. But for my Grandmother, who had lived most of her life believing in bigotry, this was a genuine epiphany. I’m just glad she lived long enough to see it.