By Marge Roth
There was a time in Brooklyn in the 1930’s when, in the several square blocks in our neighborhood with which I was familiar, as an observing 10 year old I was affected by the differences in people.
We were in a relatively prosperous middle class neighborhood, made up of rather large single-family dwellings–well-kept houses and well-kept lawns. But it was also an area in transition. Some of the large single-family houses had been converted to what we called two-family houses, an apartment on the lower level and an apartment of similar size on the second level. Two-thirds of the way down the block, an apartment house of 5 or 6 stories had been built. To my childish eyes it had suddenly appeared. It didn’t fit in and we looked down on it and on the eventual occupants. It was a sign of the changes occurring – of people, economics, and movement, in a place that had seemed stationary. We kept this house and its meaning on the fringes of our consciousness; we never walked in that direction and never knew anyone who lived there. In psychological terms we were the insiders and they were the outsiders.
My home represented a variety of differences. For us, one of the main ones was the difference between the North and the South. My grandparents were born and bred in the South–Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. My father and his ten siblings grew up in Florida, southern to the core. When he was 12, the family moved lock stock and barrel to the Bronx, New York where there would be more opportunity for educating eleven kids. What they thought about economic opportunity I don’t know. They had run the general store in the town of Kissimmee, Florida. It was the only store and my grandmother kept it supplemented with freshly canned vegetables, jams and baked goods besides the usual stock.
I was often entertained as a child by stories of this very rural and somewhat primitive life of the 1880’s that included going barefoot, eating watermelon by dropping a melon on the ground, and when it broke open only eating the heart. There was frequent discussion in our home in Brooklyn when we had watermelon of how close to the rind one should eat. My father, raised on hearts, did not eat close to the rind. We lovers of watermelon did. He also salted his melon, which we found very strange.
One of the North-South differences was related to attitudes about African Americans to whom my father and grandmother referred as “darkies”. Although I knew this was never part of me, the use of this expression seemed gentle and intimate. There was something very personal and affectionate about it.
But racial and color differences were not a major part of our lives. In my grammar school of about 800 kids there were no children of color. There were Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Any prejudice which could not be openly expressed was along religious lines. More Jewish people were moving into the neighborhood and more Catholics and Protestants were moving out.
We kids blended pretty much. We all dressed alike, looked alike, played the same games.For one period of time there was a different group in our school –the orphans who suddenly appeared, scattered among some of the classes. They all wore clothes much too long for them, had straight hair cuts and, to me, looked forlorn.There were no orphans in my class, but my heart went out to them. Influenced by stories which attracted me – Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Oliver Twist – I longed to reach out to one of these children, but never felt able to. They appeared one day and after a short time disappeared as suddenly.
We were really only with children like us. Differences were there, some economic, but not too obvious. We sang Old Black Joe and My Old Kentucky Home, which would not happen today. We knew we were singing of a different time and place, a time gone by. Some of the words of the songs we sang made that clear, but that past was draped in nostalgia ” There’s no more work for poor Uncle Ned; He’s gone where the good darkies go.”
Those feelings were separate, dropped with the watermelon. With years of adjusting to life in the North and a big city, to a variety of people, the Southern prejudice faded. For some it never really went away, for others it did. My grandmother, in her eighties and with a trace of the South in her accent told me how wrong and mistaken she thought their attitudes had been.
Perhaps the effect of this was to produce a number of social workers who wanted to improve the quality of lives, and a following generation devoted to equality, to “getting to know “The Other”. The Republicans had produced Democrats and a generation that embraced a new vocabulary and experience, but also, aware of the family history, tinged with shame for having been Southern and on the wrong side of the Civil War.