It seems that movies have the effect of raising my consciousness about racism, at least enough to write about it. I watched “The Help” last night. It was a wonderful movie, funny, heart-rending, inspiring, uplifting. But it also evoked vague feelings of guilt, a familiar feeling for us codependents who feel responsible for everything, even the things we had nothing to do with. I certainly had nothing to do with any of the situations seen in “The Help.” Mom and Dad worked hard to provide the things we needed as we grew up, but our lifestyle was anything but lavish. Our home more closely resembled the homes of the maids than the mansions where they worked, and no one I knew had hired help except one family whose house I never visited. But I still felt a little guilty because I was so unaware of what was going on in a lot of the world. It makes me wonder what kind of injustice is going on now that needs my attention.
Following is an essay I wrote in 2009 before I started my blog. It was another time when a movie pricked my conscience.
A Public Apology | by Linda Brendle
Posted on Facebook Notes, October 17, 2009
I watched “The Express” last night, a movie about Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman trophy. It was a wonderful, inspiring story, but it was also a story of discrimination, bigotry, and intolerance. As I watched the white boys chase the black boys off the railroad tracks, the referees turn a blind eye to blatant violations of rules and good sportsmanship, the hotels and restaurants offer inferior service or refusing to serve at all, I became very uncomfortable. The story happened in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when I was in my early teens. Where was I, and why didn’t I know what was going on?
When I was 7 years old, we moved to Mesquite, a very small town just southeast of Dallas. I spent all but my first grade year in the Mesquite Public School System. Although I heard the words “segregation” and “integration” from time to time, it was not an issue in Mesquite, because there were no African Americans in Mesquite, or at least none that were visible. There was a tiny school just outside the western city limits, and I remember driving by and seeing black kids running around, playing tag, laughing and enjoying recess. But I never saw them anywhere else, and I don’t remember wondering or asking where they lived or where their parents worked or where they went to church or why they didn’t go to the same school I did.
When I was about 9 years old, I saw a black woman in the grocery store for the first time. She was a large woman, and she was dressed in what looked like men’s clothes. She had on slacks, a t-shirt, and lace-up shoes, and when she left the store, she walked instead of driving a car. I was amazed to discover that black people went to the grocery story, too, but I didn’t wonder or ask where she worked to earn the money to buy the groceries or where she lived.
The only example of blatant discrimination I remember was at the Big Town Mall, the first enclosed mall in Texas. There was a water fountain just outside the ladies’ restroom in Montgomery Wards. On the wall above the fountain was a small black sign with white letters: Whites Only. I remember a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I don’t remember a sense of outrage that made me march straight to the manager’s office and demand that it be removed. Someone else must have felt that outrage and acted on it, because the next time I visited that restroom, the sign was gone.
I wasn’t a stupid kid. In fact, I graduated 3rd in my class of 312. But as I’ve often quipped, I may be intelligent, but sometimes I’m not very smart. The truth is, I’m a lazy intellectual. We took the daily newspaper, but all I read was the comics and Dear Abby. And when given my choice of books, I always chose fiction. I had a good memory, and learning came naturally to me, but I never developed the intellectual curiosity that comes from having to work and dig for understanding. I learned rote facts without understanding the causes and effects that lay behind them. I regurgitated names and places, but I didn’t know the people they represented. I quoted facts and dates, but I didn’t understand the struggles and turmoil behind them.
While Ernie Davis was fighting for a chance to use his God-given talents, I was whining about having to practice the piano. While he was sleeping on a cot in a squalid room hidden in the back of a fancy Dallas hotel, I was picking out furniture and curtains for my bedroom. While he was making history, I was doing nothing. And for this I sincerely apologize.
“All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
A modern translation of a quote by Edmond Burke