When I was young I believed vehemently that the actions of people and events were beyond my ability to control. The first lesson in this belief system occurred around my eighth birthday far from home. I was enjoying our semi annual vacation visiting relatives in Montgomery Alabama. I was shocked to learn that we were going out to lunch. In 1958 families rarely ate out. I remember every detail of this occasion. I was wearing a royal blue shorts outfit and a sunburned nose while sailing through a blindingly warm southern summer day. My hands were clean in anticipation of putting purchased food in my mouth. I dreamed that the parents might let me order desert.
The restaurant was a downtown diner that smelled like fried chicken and yeast rolls a block away. My father led the tribal family line of Scotch Irish Cherokee aunts, uncles, and cousins. Mother and I were trailing my younger siblings. As I started floating ecstatically into eating out world my feet were suddenly frozen to the scorching pavement. A sign on the door screamed out and grabbed me by the throat.
NO NIGGERS ALLOWED.
The N word was forbidden speech considered a vile curse word by my Kentucky born mother. I actually became dizzy. I could not walk in the door. I sat down on the side walk. Naturally I was chastised by my mother for blocking traffic. I just pointed and said â€œWe can’t go in there. Look at the sign!â€? I believe I was crying. My mother quickly explained my behavior to my father and I was severely instructed not to make a scene. â€œThis is the south and the way it isâ€? my father hissed with a piercing whisper. Mother looked me in the eyes and said, â€œWe don’t live here. We will talk about this later.â€?
I did not understand the history behind that sign or the struggle of the people that felt it every day, everywhere. But even at the age of eight I knew, I believed that sign represented something bad something evil. I had no power to take that sign down. I had only one way to show my fear and anger. I refused to order. I did not partake of the glorious food or drink. In all honesty I remember it being one of the few times in my life that I had no appetite. My will was tested by the pecan pie ala mode and my will won. I believe the powerless must find a way to protest, to object, to speak especially when we think our actions are to no avail. I was powerless Not to act. I had no control of my hand when it ripped a corner off that cardboard sign as I left those fabulous southern cooking smells behind me.