On the way home from my father’s funeral, I stopped to fill the gas tank and use the bathroom before getting on the road. The knob on the bathroom door was broken. Everything was filthy and stank to high heaven. Somehow, I managed to hover above the toilet perched on one high heel while the other foot held the door closed, all while holding my breath. When I was finished, I didn’t bother to force the door shut while I washed my hands. Just as I was making my way out to (blessed) fresh air, the door swung open. An old black man with a cane stood in front of me. Few times in my life have I seen a look of such utter terror.

He quickly diverted his eyes to the floor, scurried backwards, bowed in my direction and repeated, as if in prayer, “I’m sorry ma’am. Excuse me ma’am. Please forgive me ma’am.” I was startled but completely understood his mistake of opening the door with me still in there. I tried to explain that the doorknob was broken, but he just kept scurrying, bowing, and ma’am-ing me. I was dumbfounded. After all, he was probably older than my parents. He had a cane for god’s sake. I should have been referring to him as sir, not him to me as ma’am. And what the heck was all the bowing about?

My father and I hadn’t spoken for nine years when he died. I was hard-pressed to go to his hometown even when we were on speaking terms, so I certainly hadn’t been around those parts when we weren’t. The Civil Rights movement had made little progress there in the 1970’s of my childhood. And apparently the world had continued to move forward around it since then, rather like Jim Crow Brigadoon.

When I got back to the car, I told my mother what happened. She’d been gone from that place since she divorced my dad in the 70s, but even she knew the dynamic. She looked at me with both love and pity that the old man’s perspective on the situation had completely escaped me. She patiently explained that he was undoubtedly scared shitless that my husband or father was going to show up at his house that night and beat the hell out of him for walking in on me.

Nah, I thought. It’s nearly the twenty-first century. Could this place really still be so backward? I thought about going back into the store to explain to the man that I understood that it was an accident and that I had no husband or father. Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t let them harm him for an honest mistake. And then the man walked out of the store. Our eyes met, and he scurried off as fast as his cane would allow.

It’s been twelve years since that experience, but it still haunts me. I always thought it was because I wondered what horrible experiences in that old man’s life left him so terrorized. That’s true, but there was something else, too. As a feminist and person doing my best to face my role in racial inequity, I don’t expect a man to commit any violent act or intimidation in my name. That said, sitting in that gas station parking lot, having just seen my father buried, was the first time that I had to admit that it was no longer in my power to refuse my father’s ridiculously antiquated and twisted version of chivalry. He would no longer offer it. He was gone.

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Alison Aucoin is descended from people who spent their weekends dressing up in costumes and taking silly photos of one another to send to relatives who were serving in the Pacific during WWII. She makes her living as a freelance grant writer but is much happier squeezing playdough with her two year-old Ethiopian daughter, creating photography/audio projects, crafting manifestos on her blog (http://endebetehyemhoneyelem.blogspot.com) and making costumes with her trusty glue gun. She is one of only about a half dozen Cajun Jews in existence.

61 responses to “Jim Crow Brigadoon”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Oh Alison, my chest has gone all tight and constricted. How brilliantly you have written this, each paragraph more intense and more poignant than the last…
    There’s just so much in this piece – So many levels. Now I have to go and ponder. Thank you for writing this.. and for making me think.

    • Wow Zara, thank you. Having lived the majority of my life in the South I forget that the rest of the world is so very different. I really appreciate your perspective.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Alison,
    This is really a sad one.
    I’m glad it was 12 years ago.
    Next one, let’s have some jokes,eh?

  3. Mary says:

    That some people have been left so scarred by our past is heartbreaking. A man that age ought to be able to walk with dignity and brush off any minor misstep. That he’s had this kind of fear ingrained in him is just awful. Sometimes, I am not at all happy to be from the South.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh man… I have a similar story from the Castro and it’s just really saddening stuff. People can be such assholes in the name of their beliefs.

    And so sorry for your loss, too, regardless of when it was.

    • Thanks Simon. They don’t really make sympathy cards for the death of your estranged father. It’s taken me all twelve of these years to figure out how to integrate it all. Guess I’m making progress but more to go.

  5. angela says:

    very powerful in a short amount of space.

  6. Thanks Angela. I had more but deleted it. Seemed unnecessary. Glad to get confirmation that I was right.

  7. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Years ago, a family member told me a story about his childhood. He said when he was about five years old, his family had an African-American man helping them with some yard work. (This was the 1950s.) At lunchtime, everyone got ready to go inside. My family member noticed the man sitting on the back porch steps and told him to come along to eat. His mother said something like, “No, he’s going to have his lunch outside.” The message, to everyone, was quite clear.

    I hope things have changed for the better in that particular Brigadoon by now.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      I guess some Brigadoons evolve. Others not so much…

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Just yesterday I was dripping sweat, filthy from grubbing out bananas and torch ginger, and frankly exhausted. I pulled myself up on my porch to sit and recover, and in to the driveway comes my lawn mowing guy, who is an older Filipino (the last major immigrant group into Hawai’i). I, however, am older than he is.

      I wasn’t expecting him, so when he called out that he was going to eat his lunch, I thought — Well, that’s cool. He knows he can park here and eat his lunch if he wants to.

      He sat on the walk.

      I said, Come on up to the porch, then.

      He came as far as the bottom step, and sat. I didn’t push him to do more.

      I went back to work. He started mowing the lawn.

      I was ready to puke from fatigue and heat. I went to the back of the house and said to Ruth, I need some water. I can’t stop working until Jose finishes.

      Thus the social/cultural/ethnic/age theater in Hilo.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        I’ve been thinking about what you posted, Don. I’m still not sure what to say other than the world is still so full of invisible lines, tangible as steel.

  8. Slade Ham says:

    I read this the day you put it up and have yet to decide how to comment. I still haven’t for that matter. I’m a product of Southeast Texas though, and some of the mentality responsible for that man’s fear still very much exists. That man deserves so much more than that.

    It saddens me.

    Wonderfully written, Alison.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Thanks Slade. I guess by now that old gentleman has passed away. I hope he has found peace. My father too actually.

  9. Richard Cox says:

    A beautiful and poignant piece, Alison. Really powerful.

    Like Slade, my family is also from Texas. Rural northwest Texas. The odd thing is, growing up I could sense the mentality you describe, and I never understood it. But I was shocked the first time I visited the deep south. I couldn’t believe the difference. The Texas where I grew up is a happy melting pot compared to the divide that still exists in, say, South Carolina. I suppose it has to do with the different histories of the two places.

    It may have been twelve years ago, but you write it like it were yesterday.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Thanks Richard. In addition to enjoying the act of writing, I feel like I’m getting to go back to old stuff and re-examine, without the heat of the moment. It’s proving to be very enlightening.

  10. Anon says:

    The whole topic of race relations is interesting to me. I grew up on the opposite side of the spectrum in inner-city New England. I once had the almost comical (except for the context) experience of having all conversation stop when I walked into a restaurant and then getting challenged me with, “What do you want, white boy?”. I’ve also been refused service in some places because I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t realize that was racism until I was older. I just assumed that’s the way things worked – that you can be the “wrong color” for a given situation. It would be nice if we could all just drop the tribal crap and move on together but it seems a hard virus to kill.

    • Richard Cox says:

      This is something I’ve often wanted to write about but didn’t have the balls to do it. Tribalism (or whatever the right name for it is) can be found among all cultures. We like people similar to ourselves. It’s a hard virus to kill because it’s part of the core program.

      The problem lies when anyone unfairly imposes his will on another, especially when entire populations do so. I hate it when any entity marginalizes another. I hate bullying. Personal preferences aren’t ever going away, but all living organisms deserve to be treated with respect.

      • Anon says:

        Hm. Normally I’m chatty. Why can I only think of, “Witness, brother!” now? Well said, Richard.

      • Slade Ham says:

        God, but that really deserves attention Rich. I’ve always been intrigued by people that want to erase racial lines, or more specifically to pretend to live in a world where those differences don’t exist. The trick is obviously to coexist peacefully despite whatever our apparent physical/cultural/spiritual differences are.

        That mutual respect you mention is what seems to be lacking. “Tribes” should not be mutually exclusive.

        • Anon says:

          Precisely. It’s not about some sort of enforced and artificial homogeneity or repression of self or others. It’s about noting the differences, saying little more than, “Huh. Okay.” and moving on.

        • Richard Cox says:

          It’s such a difficult topic to cover. It’s too easy for a person who really is racist to fall back on the argument that all races marginalize each other. Like that term “reverse racism.” I hate that. The term itself implies that one race is somehow superior to another. Racism is racism.

          However, in any culture there are differences with respect to population number, to financial and political power, etc. And I think the people who enjoy those situations, whoever and wherever they are, own a special obligation not to oppress. Because of the ease with which they are able to oppress.

          I’m probably not saying this the right way. What I do know is some of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had in life are those where I have enjoyed the company of cultures other than my own. The worst experiences I’ve had are where I have been bullied. The knowledge of those situations largely govern my personality. I want everyone to be happy…or at the very least content. 😉

        • Slade Ham says:

          “And I think the people who enjoy those situations, whoever and wherever they are, own a special obligation not to oppress.”

          You said it perfectly.

          “What I do know is some of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had in life are those where I have enjoyed the company of cultures other than my own. The worst experiences I’ve had are where I have been bullied.”

          And then you somehow made it more perfect, haha.

        • Anon says:

          Either I’m misunderstanding you equally or you said it the right way. Not trivializing it but I’ve told my daughter, “The bigger the hand, the lighter the touch.” in dealing with her baby brother because the more power you wield, the easier it is to inflict damage.

        • Richard Cox says:

          We are so friendly today. It must be the light sabers, mutually assured destruction and all.

          Plus a fairly intimidating fedora.

        • Slade Ham says:

          You can’t win, Richard. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I always wondered how Obi Wan knew that. When I get struck down, it hurts.

          I mean, yeah, he knew it because of the Force. But what about Vader? Did he miss that update? If you kill the old man with your light saber, he’ll become a Force ghost who can continue to teach your son how to kill you.

          Yes, all you non-Star Wars geeks, these are important questions.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Can you guys do the ‘zzzzht’ noise of the lightsaber? I bet you can…

        • Anon says:

          Meh. Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kids.

        • Slade Ham says:

          Actually, Zara, I can. With a microphone, it’s kind of a low wonggggg…. zzzzzkchh…. sound. Hahaha.

          Email me a pic and I’ll get you a saber. You before Simon, promise. Oh, and pick a color.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I have a light saber app on my iPhone, which makes the sound for me, Zara. And you might have read it on FB, but it’s always a hoot to turn on that app in a bathroom stall and wave the phone around.

          I take my entertainment where I can get it.

        • Slade Ham says:

          And I don’t have your answer Rich. Maybe the Dark Side doesn’t have Force Ghosts. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen one. Anakin only became one after he redeemed himself. Maybe that’s like Jedi Heaven, and Darth had no knowledge of it because he was evil.

          I’m grasping here.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Anon, I find your lack of faith disturbing.

        • Anon says:

          I just typed a very witty and rather moving response to that but apparently WordPress’s I18n plugin doesn’t include “Wookie”….

        • Lorna says:

          You guys are cracking me up. My 14 year daughter has the same light saber application on her cell phone Rich and she drools all over the toy light sabers at Target. She has the sound down too Zara, just as Slade described it.

        • Zara Potts says:

          I want a noisy gold one…

        • Zara Potts says:

          Look what Slade did!!!

        • Anon says:

          Gorgeous work! Although I might suggest you angle it outward if you’ll be leaping up and down, in case of a misstep on landing. You can do that kind of stuff with a katana because you only have to mind the slicey-cutty bit in front but I hear light sabers can ruin your day omnidirectionally.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Nice green saber. Shades of Skywalker.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Zara Skywalker. ZZZHhhhhhhhhhsssssst.

        • Richard Cox says:

          That is the best Gravatar of all time. Hands down. The pose and hand placement and Slade’s perfect Photoshop work. Phenomenal.

        • Richard Cox says:

          P.S. I’m so jealous I bought a new power supply for my own light saber to juice it up a bit.

        • Anon says:

          I was going to claim that I had a light saber under my trench coat but that just sounded, like, seriously wrong and creepy.

        • Zara Potts says:

          You’re not creepy, Anon. Even if you do have a lightsaber under your trench..

        • Zara Potts says:

          Richrob, I can’t wait to see what the power supply is going to do to your picture.

        • Anon says:

          Thank you, dear. Does this mean I’m just wrong (;? Now, seriously – mind your head with that thing!

        • Slade Ham says:

          Yours is definitely brighter now, Rich. Much better. Believe it or not, I too am jealous of Zara’s Gravatar. It’s all her doing though. She did the jumping, my part was easy.

          I need to revisit my own now. I’ll be on Photoshop if anyone needs me.

          On a side note, we have turned Alison’s wonderful post into a Jedi Council Meeting 🙂

        • Richard Cox says:

          Yes, and she’s probably thinking, Hey, this was serious post, you J-Holes!

        • Anon says:

          I’ve probably scored at least one f-wit. Apologies, Alison. I’ll take my nonsense elsewhere.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Sorry, Alison!!

        • Alison Aucoin says:

          No worries ya’ll. I have to admit to being insanely competitive & it drives me batty when I get so few comments to my pieces. Of course this little sidebar really doesn’t count, but still it makes the tally look good. Thanks!

        • Slade Ham says:

          The upside to it, Alison, is that it was your very well written story that drug us all here in the first place 🙂

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      I’m very happy that my essay was thought-provoking to you Anon, but I have to say I don’t agree that what you experienced was racism. I understand racism to be systemic toward the goal of oppression. It seems to me that the interactions you where you were marginalized because of your race were self protective from a place of limited power. Doesn’t feel the same to me. That said, I’m the white mom of a child of color and I do wish that oppression would be less prevalent so tribalism for self preservation would be less appealing.

      • Anon says:

        I suppose it’s a matter of semantics – oppression is oppression, whether it’s at an individual level or systemic. When you are targeted for violence or treated differently because of nothing more than the color of your skin, that’s racism. Granted there are as many levels of foolishness as there are circles of hell (and then some) but, at its basic level, making assumptions about a person based on their apparent ethnic heritage is racism. There were also numerous instances of having certain financial doors closed to me due to my color, city services for which I was snubbed, et cetera for the same reason.

  11. Marni Grossman says:

    Alison- I love loved this. You didn’t need a lot of words to bring this powerful experience to life.

  12. I suppose in our new world where WE speak of equality and enlightenment, we believe that the lines of race have blurred or even been erased. When in fact, for some, that line will forever be indelible as a ribbon of scar that has deeply dissected the flesh.

    Thank you for this, Alison.

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