“Nigger take this! Take it, I tell ya!” Howard yells at the black carhop. It is 1951 in Macon, Georgia. I am eight years old. My brother, Toby, is six. We are in the back seat of a 1948 Ford. I am cringing. I do not know what Toby is doing— probably laughing and picking his butt.
“Naw, sah. Naw, sah.” The black carhop shakes his head, backing away from the brown paper bag my stepfather, seated in the driver’s seat, holds closed in his fist. From the bag comes noises that sound like a hurt and angry animal.
“Nigger, ya want me to whip ya? I tell ya, take this here bag,” Howard yells when no sounds come from the bag. As the man steps to take the bag, screeches and growls erupt from it again. The carhop, eyes wide with terror, jerks away until again my stepfather yells, “Nigger, ya know what is good for ya, ya take this.”
The thin, dark man stands four feet from the car, frozen still, his eyes flashing their whites. He says, “Yas, sah. Yas, sah.” He does not move for what seems like an hour, until Howard throws the bag at him and it erupts in louder noises. The carhop runs.
Laughing raucously, Howard snickers. “Stupid niggers,” he says to his friend, Buck, in the passenger seat.
Buck stops his ventriloquism to join the laughter and yell, “Hey, nigger, ya butta do wha yer told, or we get you. Get here an’ take our order. Don’t you drop nuthin neither. These childrun need some frenchfried potatoes and a Coca-Cola. Them potatoes better be hot and them Coca-Colas good and cold.”
Still almost choking with laughter, Howard reinforces Buck’s order, “And ya be quick about it.”
The thin carhop turns, runs. When he returns with fries and cokes for Toby and me, his shaking hands can barely hold the tray, causing another explosion from Howard. “Nigger, ya good for nuthin’. Cain’t ya even carry no food? Why ya even alive?” Laughing, Howard and Buck pass another brown paper bag between them, taking swigs of whiskey from the bottle hidden inside.
For as long as I can remember, this scene has played in the back of my mind. In conversations with liberals confessing our racist backgrounds, I related with shame that I came from this family and with pride that I have come to be able to tell of it. Listeners respond with disdainful faces and comments that seem to show they have not grasped the full significance of the event.
Until two days ago, I didn’t grasp the full significance either. Not until I walked among cement, coffin-like, rust colored rectangles at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aka the Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama. All of my young life in Macon, Georgia, I had heard adults laugh about the “spookiness” of “niggers” who were just scared of everything. It seemed to be a genetic impairment with no possible explanation, nothing the whites could have done to scare them. It was further evidence that niggers were just stupid. Of course, as a southern child, I knew nothing of slavery.
Walking through the first covered pavilion of coffinesque slabs hanging from the ceiling at the memorial, I began to hear my stepfather’s voice: Nigger, take this. And to see my stepfather’s hand extending from the car window holding the squawking brown paper bag. I saw the thin black man’s wide, frightened eyes as he jumped back. All the rest of the scene came alive in my mind. I was in it all again.
At each coffin, I heard Howard’s and Buck’s derisive, half-drunk laughter.
Howard had invited Toby and me out for a Coca-Cola and french fries and to play a game with him and Buck. We were generally intrigued with Buck’s ability as a ventriloquist. I suppose we hoped he would make our ears bark, or a woman on the street meow, or that we’d be included in some other secret, grown-up game. We were supposed to like their game. I sat silent until Howard turned and yelled, “What’s the matter with you knuckleheads? Ain’t ya having fun? I’ll give you one upside the head to cry about.”
Toby laughed maniacally. I stared.
Howard did not hit me if I sat still.
I did not know why Howard and Buck were scaring the carhop. I knew it was mean. I did not like mean games. Likely I felt but did not know the level of hatred and violence enacted in the game.
Members of the Equal Justice Initiative investigated lynchings across the south and were able to identify more than 4,400 victims between 1877 and 1950, with the dates and counties of the lynchings. Each of the eight hundred columns at the memorial represents a county where a lynching took place. The names of the county and state and the lynching victims themselves are engraved on one of eight hundred columns.
Macon, Georgia, is in Bibb County. The column for that county lies in a long row of Georgia slabs flat on the ground like a coffin. Looking at the four names on the Bibb County column, I saw the carhops terrified eyes as I heard my stepfather yelling, “What ya even alive for?”
What kind of man was my stepfather that he would think it funny to “scare a nigger half to death,” as he and Buck said? What kind of people did more than scare other people half to death but went all the way to killing them? Did he? How is this anchored still in souls of those who enacted this violence?
Though afraid of heights, I learned to climb pecan trees, to be lost when Howard called Toby and me to go for Coca-Cola on Saturday afternoons. Toby, always hungry, loved the fries and cokes. His son, now a Trump lover, posts sorrowless hatred on Facebook. My son walked with me through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, sharing sorrow.
It is not that Toby was a bad person. He was simply born two years after me, a year and a half after our father returned from D-Day with a disastrous post-traumatic stress disorder. Toby knew no father’s love and care and none of our mother’s happiness when she was grounded in a caring relationship, as I briefly had been.
How can the damage ever be repaired? ■
Elizabeth Trawick, MD, is a psychoanalyst practicing in Birmingham, Alabama.
- Photograph by Timo Bonin