Making America Great — Then and Now

I was born in Batesville, Mississippi in May 1963, a few short months before the Kennedy assassination, the final year of TV’s hit “Father Knows Best,” and smack in the middle of the Cold War. My brother, 16 years older, had grown up balancing his shotgun on his bike handlebars and peddling to the woods outside of town to shoot tin cans. On long summer days, I too hopped on my bike, taking off mid morning and not returning until it got dark. I had friends with Barbies to play with, gullies and woods to explore, forts to build, fish to catch in the little pond down the road. I went home for supper every night, and every night it was waiting for me.

As the national stage talks about “making America great again,” I think back to my childhood, the world I was born into. And I remember those good times — playing badminton in the back yard, popping in the drugstore to get candy, running to the neighbor’s house whenever I needed something and Mama wasn’t home.

But I remember other things, too. I remember things that didn’t make sense, even back then to a little girl — things that made me feel icky.

I remember referring to our help as a “black lady” and being scolded for my word choice.

“Lady is a term for white women,” I was told. “Your mother is a lady. That person you talk about, she’s a woman.”

When the all-white private school popped up on the edge of town, my parents refused to send me there, keeping me in the public school instead. The local country lawyer, my father lost clients because of it. When my 9th grade math class planned its end-of-year party, I volunteered our house, along with my mother’s spaghetti for 20 people. She was happy to do it, saying, “Make sure everyone gets here before dark. I want the neighbors to see these colored kids coming to our house, playing in our yard.”

I was a kid. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand why, at choir practice at the Batesville Presbyterian Church, the other kids kicked my South Panola High School book bag like a soccer ball, chanting “nigger-lover” with each hard kick. I didn’t think hate like that was supposed to happen at church. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong.

There are other things I remember from growing up in that bygone era, things like

  • Landlines, party-lines, and telephone cords that stretched for days, cords you could wrap yourself up in when talking to a boy
  • Our black and white TV, with three channels, (CBS on 3, NBC on 5, and ABC on 13) — channels that could only be changed if you got up and walked over and turned the knob yourself
  • Harvest gold appliances and shag carpet woven in three shades of green

My mother worked, and because of it, was different from the other moms. It took a long time for this little girl to notice that most women didn’t work, and those who did had crappy front desk and secretarial jobs where they expected a little pat on the butt as a sign of affection.

I remember other things too.

  • Cars without seat-belts, car-seats, and air bags. Most had AM radio, and a few had AC
  • TV dinners, with the fried chicken in the big section, green beans in the smaller one, and apple crisp for dessert, eaten on the TV trays in front of the TV
  • Lynchings, cross burnings, and midnight disappearances that no one ever talked about
  • White-only waiting rooms and water fountains at the train station where Mama worked and at my dentist’s office — and most everywhere else in town too
  • White-only lunch counters and restaurants and stores. No signs were needed. It was understood
  • Preachers who were quietly reassigned, teenage girls who were quietly sent away

Sometimes we talk about that “simpler time,” when the Thanksgiving dinner took all week to prepare, followed by hours of hand-washing and scrubbing the dishes, pots, and pans afterwards. I had to help. My brother didn’t.

That simpler time had a different vocabulary, too — terms like “high yellow,” “uppity,” “polack,” “slant-eye,” and “faggot.” Folks talked about the other side of the tracks, but we never went there. Monday Night Football entertained us with sportscasters saying things like “That monkey sure can run!”

I was born into a world that had, up to that point, given us

  • Two world wars, one great depression, and decades of their aftermath
  • Thalidomide, and babies born without legs or arms or other important parts
  • The Holocaust, and nightmares of gas chambers and bodies dumped in trenches
  • Nuclear bombs, bomb drills, and bomb shelters

I grew up in a world that included

  • The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and The Love Boat
  • The Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Birmingham Baptist Church, and the Lorraine Motel
  • James Meredith enrolling at Ole Miss, not 30 minutes from my home — my uncles barricaded inside the University as “good folks” tried to keep him out
  • Cloth diapers, go-go boots, and plastic encased sofas, lampshades, and barcaloungers
  • Bussing
  • Smoke-filled rooms — in every room of the house, the store, the office
  • Sasquatch
  • Jello salad

In my lifetime, I’ve seen the eradication of polio, and watched as my country ignored a growing AIDS epidemic until too many lives were lost and too many parents were left grieving.

My children know of these things as history, their mother’s story from small town Mississippi back in an era they can’t quite imagine. And for that, I am deeply grateful. My oldest cast his first vote for a black man running for president and didn’t really see what the big deal was. My daughter knows that women can rule the world, that she has dominion over her body, and that a pat on the butt is a crime, not a sign of affection. My son and his boyfriend go to dinner and the movies and could one day marry if they so choose. My career tracks right alongside my male colleagues, and while I don’t quite make as much as they do, it’s getting better, and I’m grateful. My mother helped pave that path, while still getting supper on the table every night.

America has always been great, but more importantly, it gets greater. That’s the point, why it’s so great; we work hard, strive further, do better. We right the wrongs that came before us. We do what we can to leave it better than we found it.  Everybody can get a seat at the table now, not just a select few. We understand global threats and we have the science, technology, and wherewithal to counter them.

When did we let fear and anger take over? Progress moves forward, not backwards, and we’ve got plenty of work still to do. Every generation faces the work to be done, those before us and those who will come after. In his farewell address to the nation, President Reagan harkened back to John Winthrop, the pilgrim who wrote of the “shining city upon the hill” to describe the America he imagined. President Reagan’s words — his own vision of that shining city — resonate more today than perhaps even back then.

“In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. . . She’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Mississippi in the 1960s was a complicated place in a complicated time. My parents did their part to move it forward. Good chance yours did, too, wherever you grew up, in whatever era it might have been.

I may not agree with everything President Reagan did, but I think we shared a common view that it is our job —our birthright and our heritage — to keep doing the work that was started before us, in bygone eras of simpler times that really weren’t so simple. It’s our job to keep democracy sacred, our doors open, and our hearts tuned to those with whom we share the planet.

There’s a lot of work still to be done. The –isms are still alive and well in America, and we must do better. Going backwards isn’t an option. My mother taught me that. I’m hoping yours did too.