on February 1, 2008
Eva Rutland's When We Were Colored is the slightest of these three books, but in some ways the most intriguing. A collection of personal essays originally printed during the 1950s in women's magazines such as Redbook, Woman's Day, and Ladies Home Journal, they were first published in 1964 under the title The Trouble with Being a Mama. Thus, with the exception of the new preface written for this reissue, the book is not retrospective but rather a series of contemporaneous accounts of her family's experience of what she calls "integration qualms." At times, Rutland would agree with Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote in his better-known memoir Colored People (1996), "For many of the colored people in Piedmont . . .integration was experienced as a loss. The warmth and nurturance of the womblike colored world was slowly and inevitably disappearing." However, Rutland's overall purpose was not to indulge such nostalgia, but to educate her readership, who were largely white women. Her pedagogical methods are shrewd. She begins each essay "seeking common ground with white mothers" on issues such as the role of "psychology" in childrearing, helping your children make friends, moving the family to a new neighborhood, difficulties with husbands and fathers, preparing children for school and dating, and joining the PTA.
Once she has built firm connections with her readers, she introduces the "hook" at the end of each essay. She describes the day her brothers, walking home from work, were jumped by a group of "white boys" and cut with switchblades. She ends the essay with a reflection on her brother Sam, a college graduate:
the deep, ugly bruises of a lifetime of blows--the long, long walk on a cold, wintry day to the segregated school, the push to the back of the bus, the climb to the "jim crow" section of the theater to see a special movie, the longing walk past the spacious parks and swimming pools reserved for whites, and job--truck driver, under the supervision of a man whose education could not touch his own. The switchblade marks were only the surface marks--a symbol of "what they think I am."
Many essays end with similar anecdotes: her daughter's white schoolmate whose mother won't let her "come over"; a bright black child with excellent grades placed with the "slow learners" in school; a school dance so fraught with racial and sexual tension that her daughter asks later: "I was so embarrassed . . . Why didn't they just tell me not to come?" In places she addresses her audience directly: "But I can only tell you that they are human as are your own children." Of the night she watches Vivian Malone walk past Governor Wallace and enter the University of Alabama under armed guard, she writes, "I cannot help but believe that somewhere, perhaps in the South, a white mother, simply because she was a mother, also watched with tears and pride and fear."
Rutland returns frequently to the theme of social class: her father was a pharmacist and though she insists they were poor, she admits "we were so much better off than many of our Negro neighbors." All her mother's relatives had graduated from college, and her mother consistently had hired help. As a child her world existed "across town," where friends and members of her extended family lived among the black bourgeoisie of Atlanta. Of her friends, she says "All had cars--comparatively rare in my day--many had fine houses, some had maids, and most attended private schools." Returning as an adult to these neighborhoods, she writes:
Visiting Atlanta, I would go from one spacious home to another--luncheon and bridge during the day, parties at night. Or we would visit Lincoln Country Club--the Negroes' private club with its own little golf course. Or we would take the children to visit our alma maters and the other surrounding Negro universities, stroll on the beautiful campuses, listen to a lecture, attend a University Players production, walk through the library. How I wished my children could grow up there, go to school there. How beautiful it seemed--Atlanta with its ermine-trimmed, diamond-studded, velvety cloak of segregation.
Though one may read the above sentence as tinged with irony, Rutland was a proud woman: proud of her race and class; proud of her family, especially her compassionate and tolerant mother; proud of her children; and proud of the "brave young people" who decided "segregation was wrong anywhere--schools, bus stations, lunch counters--and picketed all over the country"--even when they shut down her beloved five-and-ten cent store.
At the same time, though she denies it, she is touched by shame. She writes that the color of her skin is the mark of the slave ship, the stamp of shame upon her heritage. As she explains,
The shame transmits itself to you, and you lower your head when confronted with the symbols of your past--a bandanaed Aunt Jemima, a black-faced comedian with a Negro dialect, a bare-footed boy with his face sunk in watermelon.
And the shame becomes a burden on your heart, a chip on your shoulder, carried with you into the marketplace, the streets, the schools.
In the next breath, though, she insists that because of her family and her segregated schooling, where she learned Negro history and literature (especially the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar), "I think I escaped the shame altogether, and the chip rests lightly on my shoulder." I'm not so sure. She does have a sense of humor and is able to laugh at herself. But in her urgency to convince her white female readers of the full humanity of Negro mothers and children, pride battles shame. Continually imagining herself through white eyes, she remains shadowed by what "they" think, the double-vision so well described by W.E.B. DuBois in Souls of Black Folk (1903). In the end, pride wins out. Her book closes as she watches the 1963 March on Washington: "But most of all I was proud of the people, black and white, who stood in the sweltering sun, tired and weary, quiet and dignified, saying more eloquently than we ever could, We, the people of the United States."
From the January/February 2008 Issue
"Stepping Out and Moving Forward" by Margo Culley