by Dorothy Cleveland

Story Summary

One day during the 1950’s, a mixed-race couple came to visit the Atwood’s farm in rural Wisconsin. What happened to cause a young girl to question her mother’s response to the couple?

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the difference between subtle and blatant discrimination?
  2. Is the child’s perspective credible? Is the mother’s perspective credible?
  3. What role did the dad play in the situation?
  4. What do you think would have happened if the child had confronted her mother?

Resources

  • Interracial Marriage: Loving V. Virginia (Courting History) by Cathleen Small
  • Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy by Sheryll Cashin

Themes

  • African American/Africans
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript
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Hi I’m Dorothy Cleveland.

I was raised in the 1950s in rural Wisconsin. We lived in a small town that was surrounded by farms. One day, my Mom and Dad took me to the Atwood’s, friends of ours who had a farm. When we arrived, my Dad went to the barn. And my Mom and I we went into the back door into the kitchen.

I didn’t realize it at the time but upon reflection that small town that I grew up in. Well… it was as white as Mrs. Atwood’s kitchen. The ceiling was white, the walls were white, the floor was white, the cupboards were white, the stove was white. And Mrs. Atwood had on a white apron and her hair was bleached platinum. She was straining milk, raw milk in that white enamel kitchen sink. Everything was white.

We sat at the table my Mother and me. And I liked listening to the two women talk. And then we heard the crunch of gravel on the driveway. We peeked out the window through white curtains and we saw a gold car, a Lincoln – long and sleek. And out of it came two people; a man and a woman, an older couple.

Soon, Mr. Atwood and my Dad came through the kitchen door with the couple and we did introductions all around shaking hands and smiles and, you know, our names and things. Now there was no room at the table for me so I was relegated to the floor next to my mother. All I could really see were feet and legs.

I listened to the hum of the voices as they talked and my Dad told a few jokes, some a little off color. And, then, there was a pause in the conversation, and I could see two sets of hands came under the table. One was my mother. My mother was ringing a hankie in her lap. The other was this new man that came. He put his hands, his wrists on his knees and was rubbing his hands together.

The rest of what I saw were the dirty shoes of my father and Mr. Atwood. I saw the tennis shoes… the white tennies by Mrs. Atwood. My mother had her feet tucked in underneath the chair and her ankles were pressed tightly together.

The new woman, well she crossed her legs and I got to see her painted toes – something I didn’t see very often – between her, her toeless shoes, her high heels. And the man, he had on black shiny shoes with his feet firmly planted.

I saw his hands, rubbing them together. And I thought, “I wonder if he’s a mechanic.”

You see his hands were Brown on the top and they were pink on the inside with brown lines. They were, well, they looked like my Dad’s hands. My Dad was a mechanic and he, well, his hands were stained from oil no matter how much he scrubbed them and so I wondered if this man was a mechanic because their hands looked exactly alike.

Then, my Mother stood up and said, “Lloyd, I don’t feel well. You have to take me home. You have to take me home now.”

Well, we quickly said our goodbyes and went out to our car. And when the doors slammed shut on that big old Buick, my Mother said, “It’s a disgrace. A white woman married to a black man. And when he shook my hand, I just felt filthy. I can’t wait till I get home to wash.” And then she swept one hand across the other as if she was removing dirt and then put her hands into white cotton gloves.

I wanted to say his hands were just like Dad’s and Dad’s hands aren’t dirty. But I knew better. My Mother was angry and you didn’t cross my Mother when she was angry.

Now, I wish I could tell you that my Mother changed. And I wish I could tell you that memory didn’t haunt me… still. What I can tell you is that man’s hands were just like my Dad’s.