My friend and co-worker told me this week that she recently lost the oldest living member of her family. May was 102 on her last birthday and by all counts lived a pretty good life. May, like my friend, is African American and had seen some things in her days.
May came North around the same time my friend’s father did, in 1918. He was born in Macon, Georgia in 1914 and was only 4 when the family made the move. Like many African Americans in those days, they came North to find a better, less oppressive life than they had in the South. At least that was the dream. Sadly, as we know all too well, the dream can often be far from reality.
My friend’s family eventually wound up in the western suburbs, thinking they were far enough from a metropolitan area to avoid some of the issues they had encountered elsewhere. Turns out they were wrong.
When my friend told me about May’s passing, I could tell it brought up some memories for her that sounded as if they had been buried for some time. My friend knows I write this column so when I asked her if she could share some memories of what is was like growing up in a middle-class suburb. A suburb I have been in many times. Shopped there. Had dinner there. But the stories took me completely by surprise.
“My grandmother was a domestic worker for several families in our community. I knew a couple of homes that she worked in so one day after school, I thought I would stop by and pay her a visit. I walked up and knocked on the front door and asked if I could see my grandmother. A white person told me to step back and wait on the porch. A few minutes later, my grandmother came out, madder than a hornet and explained that “we” are not allowed to come to the front door. She scolded me good and when I got home, I got it all again. My mother spanked me and told me that I almost got my grandmother fired and we are never to use the front door.”
“Another time I was across the street playing with one of my neighbor friends in her room. It was getting close to dinner and the girl’s mother called her into the kitchen and I could overhear her tell my friend that ‘that girl’ would have to leave because her father would be home soon and he didn’t like ‘those kind of people.’ Later, when the parents found out I had brothers, even the mom would not let me come over because they didn’t want ‘those boys’ looking at their girls.”
My friend is not that much older than I am, but I’m not rude or stupid enough to ask her age. But the stories she was telling took place in the late 50s and early 60s, in the affluent western suburbs.
I recently got a surprisingly good definition of white privilege from my daughters and it’s not what I thought it was. When I drive my car, I don’t get a second glance from anybody. In fact, I have joked that if I’m driving my parents' 2006 Buick, I could be on the phone, drinking a martini, driving and wave at a policeman and they would probably just wave back. If I were an African American, it would be a different story.
• Jonathan Freeburg is an Ottawa transplant for the last 25 years. Jonathan also is a regular contributor to 1430 WCMY Radio. His real job is insurance as a cover-holder for Lloyd’s of London.