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Off Our Rockers

Off Our Rockers Art
Mary Batten as a child with her father and her brother Vasco

From Lies, Race, and Redemption: A Memoir

By: Mary Batten

As a white Southern woman born in 1937, I grew up in a segregated society of “White only” and “Colored only” signs, separate water fountains, separate bathrooms, separate waiting rooms and schools and churches, separate entrances to the town of Smithfield, Virginia’s one movie theater. “Separate but equal” was the mantra, but it was a lie. You had to be blind, insensitive, and in total denial to believe it. Since I was the privileged color, racism hadn’t threatened my life and stripped me of my humanity, but it had sickened my soul.

My awareness that something was wrong with the way we were living began with a childhood question …

I am five or six years old. “Whose sister is Aunt Sara?” I ask. An innocent question, but it sucks all breath off the back porch where my mother, aunt Tier, and I are sitting on the glider with my grandmother, whom I call Mammaw. We’re trying to keep cool in southeastern Virginia’s muggy summer heat. From the kitchen, the odor of hog jowl and turnip greens wafts onto the porch, mingling with the armpit odor of sweat and lavender soap. In the field across from the porch, Pop—my grandfather—is weeding peanuts. 

From time to time, he takes off his straw hat, pulls a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and mops his brow. Tier will soon get up and make a pitcher of lemonade for him. When Mother and I are at home, we squeeze lemons and make a bucket of ice-cold lemonade every afternoon to take to Daddy and the field hands. Mother sets the bucket in my red wagon and we pull it from the yard up to the field.  

Next to the porch, blue hydrangeas are in full pompom bloom. Between the hydrangea bush and the corner of the porch, a large black spider with a yellow belly sits in the hub of her silken web. Not a leaf quivers. Mother, Tier, and Mammaw look at me and stop fanning themselves with their Jesus fans—cardboard  fans with pictures of Jesus on the front and a funeral parlor advertisement on the back, the kind of fans tucked behind hymnbooks in church pews. But I’m not thinking about the heat. I’m waiting for somebody to answer my question. I’m trying to get something straight about my family. 

I’ve gotten the idea that it’s important to understand who your relatives are—aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and on down the bloodlines. Keeping track of family relations is confusing, but it seems to have something to do with understanding who I am.  I have just learned that an aunt is your mother or father’s sister, and an uncle is your mother or father’s brother. Aunt Sara and Uncle Bill work on my parents’ farm. Of course, I notice their rich chocolate skin color, but I don’t think it has any special significance. It’s just part of who they are, like their brown eyes and black kinky hair. So I want to know whose sister is Aunt Sara.

Mother’s eyes open wide, looking startled behind her glasses. Tier, usually at no loss for words, is suddenly silent. Mammaw looks sternly at me through her gold wire-rimmed granny glasses as if I’ve said something I shouldn’t. My question lingers, suspended like the spider in the web. Why is nobody answering? 

Finally Mother regains her composure. “Aunt Sara isn’t your real aunt. She’s colored. Colored people and white people aren’t in the same family.”

“But you said she’s my aunt,” I protest, my entire sense of logic violated. Haven’t they told me what an aunt is? I don’t think I misunderstood. How can Aunt Sara be my aunt and not be my aunt at the same time? What is going on? 

“That’s just a title of respect white children use for older colored women,” Mother says. Tier and Mammaw start fanning again and gently rock the glider back and forth. Tiny beads of perspiration dot mother’s nose. She takes a handkerchief out of her dress pocket and wipes her face. I look at the three of them disbelievingly.  

My world, which has seemed so safe and knowable, explodes in confusion. How can something be true and not true at the same time? Why can’t colored people and white people be in the same family? What’s so important about the color of a person’s skin? As far as I’m concerned, Aunt Sara is part of my family even if she isn’t anybody’s sister.

Back home I go in Mother and Daddy’s bedroom, pick up the mirror lying on the dresser and hold it close to my face, almost touching my nose. Why am I white? Why is Aunt Sara brown? I try to imagine my face is brown. If I were brown, I would still be me. But brown me would be treated differently than white me. This life that has always seemed so normal to white me is filled with confusing signals. Why should the color of my skin—the color of anybody’s skin—make a difference in how people treat each other? It doesn’t make any sense. From that moment, I pay close attention to everything I see and hear about white people, colored people, and race.

I have lots of questions. A few years later, when I’m around ten, I ask the dinner question.

“Why don’t Bea and James eat with us?” Bea and James are the black couple who work for Mother and Daddy, but we don’t sit at the same table to eat dinner, as the midday meal on the farm is called. It’s summer, and my family eats at the kitchen table, but Bea and James sit at a table on the back porch. Mother cooks for all of us. “White people and colored people don’t sit at the same table and eat,” Mother says. So I take my plate of food and glass of iced tea and go to the porch to eat with them. Mother and Daddy don’t try to stop me. Bea and James just smile and make room.

 “Colored” is a derogatory term today, but in the 1940s and 50s it was the polite word used by whites for blacks in the South. “Nigra” was the term educated white southerners used to indicate they knew the correct word was Negro. But it was always an uneasy term for whites because if they didn’t enunciate clearly, it could slide into that other “N” word that my brother, sister, and I, and many other white southern children were taught never to say on fear of being punished as severely as if we had cursed. “Respect colored people” was the message my parents and Sunday School teachers emphasized, but segregation so narrowly defined the meaning of “respect” for black people that it seemed more like disrespect to me. “A good n—– knows his place,” some white men said, and it was clear that “place” was different from the one that I and other whites occupied. 

Colored people couldn’t sit at tables in the drugstore and enjoy a Coke and Nabs. If they needed to pick up a prescription, they had to go to the pharmacy at the back of the store and stand, waiting until all the white people had been served before picking up their prescription. At the post office, a colored person waiting in line was asked to step aside if a white person came in. If Bea, whom I considered my friend, came into the drugstore when I was there, we couldn’t hug each other or sit and chat the way we did at my house, and we couldn’t go to the town’s one movie theater and sit together. Whites entered through the lobby and sat in the auditorium; blacks entered from the alley and sat upstairs in the balcony. Segregation put the brakes on us, separating us not only from each other but from our innermost selves–our feelings, dreams, passions. We were living a color-coded life that affected everything, work, play, friendships. Everything.    

In summer on the farm, my brother Vasco and I play with the children of our black neighbors. Perselle Parker, one of Vasco’s best friends, comes to play many afternoons and Saturdays. They paint their bicycles exactly alike—purple wheels with yellow rims. The finishing touch is a squirrel’s tail on each side of the handlebars. Both boys have shot squirrels and saved the tails as trophies. Then up and down the lane to the road they ride. Back and forth, whooping and hollering and laughing. Two boys enjoying themselves.

Nancy Winnegan, who is around my age, comes across the road to play with me. Her mother, Annie Lee, works for my grandmother, aunts, and other white women in the neighborhood. The Winnegans are a large family, some ten children and their parents living in a small tenant farmer house.

Daddy stops me from playing with black children only once. Vasco and I are wrestling with Bay Boy Winnegan outdoors on the ground under the clothesline. Daddy happens to look through the kitchen window and sees us.

“Mary Taylor, come on inside the house and help your mother,” he calls.

Annoyed to have my play interrupted, I go inside. “Little white girls don’t play with little colored boys,” Daddy says.

“Why not,” I ask.

“You’re getting too old,” is all he says. I’m probably still around ten. It doesn’t seem fair that Vasco and Bay Boy can roll around on the grass but I can’t. Another one of those things I can’t do just because I’m a girl?

Although Bay Boy and Nancy and Perselle are our friends, we can’t go to school or church or parties together. It’s as if there’s something wrong with being friends in public. We’re all living double lives. There seems to be one set of rules for how colored people and white people can behave in private and another set for how we can behave in public. But where did these rules come from? Who made them up? They don’t make any sense, but you have to keep them straight, especially if you’re a white girl and a black boy. Your life might depend on it. 

There are even differences in how we’re supposed to talk to and about each other. Emma Jane, Agnes, and other colored women who work for Mother and my grandmother call them “Miss Louise” and “Miss Emma.” By the time I’m ten years old, they call me “Miss Mary Taylor,” but I call them by their first names. They aren’t old enough to be called “aunt.” One day I’m talking about Agnes to Aunt Tier and I call Agnes a lady. Tier corrects me.

“You don’t call a colored woman a lady,” Tier says. “She’s a woman.”

Now I’m really confused. Don’t lady and woman mean the same thing? Why should only white women be called “ladies?” None of what I’m seeing and hearing reflect what I’m learning in church.

In Sunday school we sing:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children in the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Well, Jesus might love all the children in the world, but not all white people are like Jesus. Pictures of Jesus show children of all colors and nationalities standing around him. But life isn’t like the song. If we’re supposed to love everybody, why do blacks and whites have to be separated? How can you be friends in one situation but not in another? How can you love your neighbor as yourself, but not be allowed to go to school and church together and marry? Why? Why? Why?

Safe times for racial mixing were funerals, weddings, and other special occasions such as a 50th anniversary celebration. When Carrie and DeBrese Bailey celebrated their 50th anniversary, they invited all the white people they worked for and their white neighbors to come early in the afternoon, an hour or two before their black friends and family. I went with my parents, and we had a pleasant enough time, but everybody was so stiff except Daddy and DeBrese. They really enjoyed talking with each other. I could tell because they broke into belly laughs. DeBrese was a country preacher, and Daddy had always wanted to be a preacher, so they had a lot in common except the color of their skin. “Fifty years. That’s really something,” Daddy said, patting DeBrese’s back. 

“Yessuh, sure is,” De Brese said. Everybody was oh so polite, it was almost pitiful. I had the feeling that the fun would really start after all us white folks left. Even when we got together, there was a separateness, an unspoken tension. Jim Crow was always lurking beneath our lives. 

I was so conflicted. I didn’t know who or what to blame. History? The South? White people? Colored people? Which people? 

Questions ganged up in my mind. Mother and Daddy were good, decent people. They wouldn’t harm anybody, colored or white. They were not hypocrites. But the hypocrisy of racism was as pervasive as a swarm of mayflies. I was always swatting at it, but it kept coming back in my face.

There seemed to be unwritten rules for how white people and colored people were supposed to act. My parents and grandparents were always telling me what I couldn’t do because I was a girl, what I had to do because I was a girl, and what I must never do because I was a white Southern girl. 

Throughout high school, I argued with my father, challenging him. “How can you call yourself a Christian and believe in segregation?” He was deeply devout, even taught Sunday School at a little country church.

“It’s the way we’ve always lived,” he said.

“But that doesn’t make it right.”

“You don’t understand, my girl.”

But I did understand. I understood that race affected all of our lives—colored and white—from birth to death. Although nobody used the terms “racism” and “white supremacy” at that time, I understood very well that whites believed they were superior to blacks merely because of their skin color. We were living in a caste system, but nobody used that term either.

One day, when I was fourteen years old, my emotional dam broke. I had to do something to express my frustration and growing anger over the divided way we were living. 

Looking back, I think of it as my first act of liberation. I sawed the rockers off one of my mother’s antique oak rocking chairs. Mother and Daddy had gone to town to buy groceries. I took advantage of their absence, got my father’s saw out of his toolbox, and started working. 

First I turned the chair on its side, exposing one of its two rockers.  Grasping the wooden handle of the saw, I leaned over and began sawing at the joint where the rocker was connected to the back leg. It wasn’t easy. The saw was too big for the job and after each stroke, I had to pull the saw out and then jab the teeth back into the same groove. As the saw blade cut deeper into the wood, crumbs of sawdust dribbled out and the rocker loosened, weakening until finally it gave way. Then I began sawing the joint where it was attached to the front leg. Back and forth, back and forth until the entire rocker plunked down on the floor with a loud thud. One rocker gone!

Eager to finish before my parents came back home, I turned the chair on its side and worked as fast as I could on the other rocker until finally it, too, dropped on the floor with the flat clunk of wood hitting wood. I turned the chair over, set it upright on its four stubby new legs, and sat down. Without its rockers, the chair was low to the floor, perfect for sliding under the card table that I used as a desk. Now I had to get rid of those rockers. Gathering them in my arms, I took them outdoors and threw them on a woodpile in the backyard shed.  They’d make good firewood. Then I put my father’s saw back in his toolbox and skipped to the house singing one of my favorite songs, “That Lucky Old Sun,” as loudly as I could.  

Freeing the chair of its rockers made me feel free.  But when Mother came home, she immediately spotted the wounded chair, and she did not appreciate my handiwork. She could hardly speak. 

“What’s happened to my chair?” she asked.

“I sawed off the rockers,” I admitted.

“You know you didn’t!” 

You’d think I had sawed off her legs. 

“What in the world possessed you to do such a fool thing?” my father asked.

I couldn’t tell him the truth—that sawing off the rockers relieved my anger at the racially segregated South. I wanted to free myself from this way of life as I had freed the rockers from the chair. So I told him a half-truth. “I wanted a flat chair to sit at my desk.” 

The whole truth was that the rocking chair symbolized everything I hated about the South—segregation, skin color prejudice—people just rocking back and forth, stuck in a rut, going nowhere. 

But Daddy didn’t deal with symbols. He was a man of the earth. A farmer with a 4th-grade education, he worked with the soil, dug potatoes with his bare hands, sowed seeds, tended his crops, and cared for the pigs, chickens, cows, and mules that were part of our lives and livelihood. Each growing season he gambled with the weather, hoping for just the right amount of rain and sun for the peanuts, corn, and soybeans to thrive and produce enough to sell and support our family. As a farmer, he was proud of his independence from the workaday world of stores and offices. “I don’t lick any man’s boots,” he often said. I admired Daddy’s independence and wanted to be independent, too.  

I had to get away, but as a teenager, I couldn’t just leave without any means of supporting myself, so I began making plans. After high school, I planned to go to college, get an education, develop skills that would help me get a job. Mother and Daddy wanted me to go to college, but they didn’t have the money to pay for it. My grades were good, I was my class valedictorian, I would apply for a scholarship and a college job. I would work as hard as I could; nothing was going to stop me. 

Then something important happened. On May 17, 1954, when I was a junior in high school, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of the schools was unconstitutional. Being a pack rat, I found my diary entry saved from all those years ago: “Today the Supreme Court’s decision to abolish segregation was revealed. For the South, it is a revolution which will require so much time for adjustment. In a way I’m glad this thing has finally broken through, actually it had to sooner or later. I pray that our officials will be granted wisdom with which to understand and ability with which to cope with this problem. If only prejudice could be destroyed, somehow it must be and soon!”

I thought people should celebrate, hold a parade, but nobody else I knew felt that way. Instead white people in my rural community of Smithfield, Virginia, organized a white citizens’ council and a private academy for white children. By the time I left for Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro in the fall of 1955, the state of Virginia was full throttle into doing everything politicians could conjure up to keep from integrating the schools. Their policy, called “massive resistance,” kept most Virginia’s schools segregated until the 1970s.

The academic year 1956-57 brought what promised to be a welcome change to Woman’s College. They admitted two black students. At last, I would be in a racially integrated school in the South. I was proud of my college until I learned how this integration was to be carried out. Instead of integrating the black students into the normal routine of college life, the administrators placed these two students in one dorm all to themselves. They cleared out the smallest dorm building on campus, the one where I had lived as a freshman. My friends and I were incredulous. 

“It’s great these girls are being admitted, but outrageous they’re stuck in a dorm by themselves,” Nancy said.

“They’re treating them as if they have a contagious disease,” Norrie said.

“Yeah, the disease of being born black,” I said. 

We decided to do something, met with the dean and volunteered to live in the dorm with the black students.

“This isn’t real integration; it’s segregation,” we argued. “It’s not right to put these girls in a dorm by themselves.” 

“Thank you girls for coming forward,” she said, “But the administration has decided this is the best way to integrate the college. With a dorm to themselves, they’ll have their own sitting room to entertain their families and boyfriends. We’ve made our decision and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

They weren’t going to back down. They wouldn’t admit it was a mistake probably because they didn’t think it was. I tried to imagine what they were thinking. Were they afraid some white parents would pull their daughters out of the college if they heard about integrated dorms? Probably. God forbid, upsetting some white parents. But what about the black parents? What about those girls? Integration by another form of segregation wasn’t integration! It was the kind of fool thing white people do when they’re afraid to let go of the past.

Leaving the dean’s office, I was more determined than ever to get out of the South. I wouldn’t even stay to graduate from the college. Come summer, I would get a job as a waitress at Virginia Beach, where other college girls worked in the summer, and save enough money so I could move to New York City the coming fall. Three of my college friends also planned to move to New York and we would live together.

I was so angry with the South that I didn’t think I would ever want to come back to live in such a sick, corrupt, backward culture.  Since I’d never lived outside the South, I didn’t realize that racism in other forms such as housing and employment practices was pervasive throughout the United States. I didn’t realize that racism was systemic.

When I told my father my plan, he was devastated and tried to convince me to stay in Smithfield. We had a terrible argument. “I’m going. You can’t stop me,” I yelled. “You can’t keep me at home. I have to live my own life!”  I was twenty years old, full of anger even at my parents, who didn’t deserve it. Segregation wasn’t their fault. Racism wasn’t their fault.

A curtain of gray drizzle was falling the late afternoon in August 1957 when I boarded the Trailways bus at Turner and Griffin’s Service Station in Smithfield to begin my move to New York City. My father sobbed, his big shoulders heaving up and down uncontrollably. He knew he couldn’t hold me back, but seeing me leave was tearing his heart out. He had given me $200, a huge sum for him. “That’s all I can spare, my girl,” he said. I knew it was a sacrifice for him and Mother to spare that much, but I had to accept it. Without that money plus what I had earned, I had no way of going to New York.

I had two suitcases, a large one of books and a smaller one of clothes. The rest of my clothes were packed in a large sausage barrel that Daddy got from someone he knew who worked for one of the meat-packing plants in Smithfield. He and Mother would ship that to me once I found a place to live and had an address. My immediate stop would be a YWCA on Manhattan’s East Side. My money had to last long enough for me to get a job, register for classes at The New School for Social Research, and find an apartment that I could share with the three other girls from Woman’s College. They would be moving to the city in a few weeks. I’d be the first to arrive. 

As I took my seat on the bus, I looked out the window and waved at Mother and Daddy. Tears were streaming down Daddy’s face. Mother, always more stoic than Daddy, was fighting back tears. I hated seeing them cry and knowing that my leaving was hurting them. I felt badly that I didn’t feel like crying, but I was ready to go. Everything I wanted seemed ahead of me. I was so happy to be leaving Smithfield and the South. As the bus hurtled through the night, north to Washington, DC, Baltimore, State Road, Delaware, then onto the New Jersey turnpike and into New York City, my excitement mounted. I was not afraid because I knew where I was going.

I knew I would come back to visit my parents, but I didn’t know whether I would ever come back to live in the South. If I did, it would be on my own terms. No rocking chairs.

Mary today in the rockerless rocking chair 

*** 

Mary Batten is a writer for television, film and publishing. She is the author of 16 nature/science books for children and adults, Her many projects have taken Mary into tropical rainforests, astronomical observatories, and scientific laboratories. She was nominated for an Emmy for her scriptwriting on the Children’s Television Workshop series 3-2-1 CONTACT. In 2020, she created a book series, Life in the Extreme. The first book in that series is Life in a Frozen World: Wildlife of Antarctica (Peachtree 2020). The second book, Life in Hot Water: Wildlife at the Bottom of the Ocean, came out in 2022 and was selected by the National Science Teaching Association for its list of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12. Website: marybatten.com. This essay is an excerpt from the author’s memoir-in-progress, Lies, Race, and Redemption.