Recently, my husband and I had dinner with friends living in downtown Chicago. Phil and LaJule are newly retired and enjoying a fairly carefree lifestyle after having spent years working in very successful careers.
Recognizing that they had traveled extensively, I asked them about some of the places they had visited. They were worldwide travelers, but hadn’t done much traveling within the United States. While Phil and LaJule grew up in Chicago, her family is from Alabama. Segregation and other forms of racism in the late 1950s and 1960s diminished her interest in returning to the South as an adult.
LaJule recalled the annual car trips to visit grandparents living in Alabama. Her mother had to pack food for the long drive because they were never certain where they could stop to rest along the way. Fried chicken and boiled eggs were a staple on these car trips because they didn’t require refrigeration. And it was always problematic where they could pull over to use the restroom.
LaJule mentioned also learning about a booklet published from 1936 to 1966 to assist African American motorists find places to stay and restaurants where they could eat when traveling. Hoping to diminish the likelihood of experiencing discrimination, a New York City mailman, Victor Hugo Green, published The Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as The Green Book, a guide to places across the country friendly to African Americans. After passage of Civil Rights laws made it illegal to discriminate in public spaces, the booklet ceased to be published. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book
Another story LaJule recounted was never understanding why her grandmother would harshly tell her that she could not go to a nearby amusement park. She could hear the noises from the amusement park and wanted to go have fun like other children. However, without any explanation, she was never allowed to go. This made a deep impression on her as a young child, particularly because none of the adults provided any reasons. It was not until she was a young teenager that she learned about Jim Crow segregation in the South.
As adults, LaJule and Phil made one trip to Alabama for a family reunion. She had not been in the South in many years. While she was there, she decided to go to the amusement park which had been off limits to her as a child. When she walked through the entrance gates, she became overwhelmed and broke down in tears. Some white people who saw her crying approached to find out if Phil and she needed help. When she explained what had happened to her as a child, several people offered apologies. Others stated that they had been ignorant of Jim Crow laws when they were younger and had just accepted segregation as the way things were supposed to be.
LaJule didn’t expect people to be so openly apologetic and recognized that all of them had been victims of the times in which they lived. Her tears were cathartic, healing a childhood psychological scar she didn’t realize she had carried with her through adulthood.
Her experience reminds me of the poem, Harlem, by Langston Hughes:
What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?