Racism is man’s gravest threat to man–the maximum hatred for a minimum of reason. Abraham Heschel
Friday evening was a big night. Hundreds of people gathered for a party celebrating the musical history of my hometown, Gastonia, NC. It was held in the old Eagle’s 5&10 uptown. When I went there to rehearse the night before, I realized I had not been in that place since my childhood.
Gone are the racks and displays where 5 and 10 cent items sat in their glittery glory. Gone also are the soda dispensers and hotdog broilers behind the long chrome and formica counter. Come to think of it, even the counter is gone. It was huge!
Every day but Sunday customers and workers from nearby stores and mills would crowd the lunch area and sit on the oil cloth covered stools that were bolted to the floor. Bustling women in crisp white took orders, bantered with the regulars and served the steaming plates and bowls of today’s special. But, only the white customers had the privilege of actually sitting at the bar while they ate.
When my father started making enough money to pay the few dollars a week it took, he and my mother hired a “maid.” Pauline was her name and for years this gentle soul helped my mother raise her 5 children, while having children of her own she had to care for in addition. It was a common story of the genteel South of my childhood: classic inequality and discrimination. No matter how well treated the “help” there was always the dividing line of white/”colored”.
On some special Saturdays, Pauline would take me uptown. We would ride the bus for that seemingly endless 1.5 miles. When we got on the bus we would walk all the way to the back. I thought that’s where the best seats were. When we got to the lunch counter one day I was very excited. I loved sitting on that tall stool, eating a hot dog that invariably dripped ketchup and mustard all over the nice clothes Pauline would soon wash and iron again.
That day, however, something happened that awakened me to the nature of prejudice. Once I climbed up onto the stool, I beckoned Pauline to join me and sit on the empty stool to my left. In a mood I’d never seen from her she quickly shook her head, almost imperceptibly, no. Even in my small brain I connected the dots–Pauline could not sit on that stool, or any other in that Eagle’s store. She also had to drink from the water fountain that read “Colored” above it.
As we played and sang the songs of The Tams, The Impressions, Ben E. King and other great African-American artists last Friday night, I was consumed by the irony that this place, this very store, was the site of my original awaking to racism. And while much progress has been made and conditions are better for most, still racism in many forms abounds in our land and in our hearts.