Why didn’t I know the world was black and white?

Even the cotton was white, but we all picked together, black and white, side by side.
Even the cotton was white, but we all picked together, black and white, side by side.

IT WAS A BETTER TIME back during the 1950s.  Well, maybe it wasn’t, and we were simply too ignorant to know the difference.

The world was full of strife, but none existed beyond the barbed wire fence that enclosed our little twenty-two-acre farm in East Texas.

Men were dying in Korea. But we didn’t know any of them.

Tornadoes were stalking the countryside, but they had left us alone.

A drought had crept across the land, dried the creek, and left a mud bog where my father’s stock pond had been.

The cattle were thirsty.

So were the hogs

Daddy would quench their thirst if I had to pour them water by hand. I did not live in a mechanized world. I had to rely on buckets, two of them, one in each hand, both growing heavier with every step I took.

We hired an old black man on the far side of the hill to dig us a well. If nothing else, old Bond knew how to dig a well and hit water.

“How much do you charge?” my father had asked.

“I keep the clay,” old Bond said.

“Fine,” my father said. “But how much money do you charge.”

“No money,” old Bond said. “Just the clay.”

He carefully kept the clay moist and took it home at the end of the day.

Old Bond ate the clay.

“It’s got minerals,” he told us. “I eat ‘em, and I don’t get sick.”

He was right. Old Bond would die someday but it wouldn’t be because of sickness.

“Why don’t you dig up the clay in your back yard?” I asked him.

Old Bond shook his head. “I don’t work for myself,” he said.

Old Bond dug holes in every yard on the south side of Pitner’s Junction.

We had a well, and I hauled buckets of water for a mile to keep the five cows and two hogs that occupied our bottomlands during those hot summer months.

The buckets didn’t make me strong.

They did their best to break my back.

In the afternoons, I played baseball with Bay, Ray, and Stein. They lived just across the oil road and up on a small rise, just high enough to keep them from being bothered with mosquitoes.

I was white.

They were black.

We didn’t pay any attention to it.

They went to their school.

I went to mine.

I was envious. Their school was closer. I had to ride seventeen miles on the bus to mine. I would have gone to their school if anyone had let me.

During the summer months, their father hired me to pick cotton for a penny a pound. If I did real good, I would come home in the shank of the afternoon with a dime and a couple of pennies in my pocket.

When my father hurt his back and couldn’t work for a month, their mother came down to the house every Saturday morning and brought sacks of vegetables she had taken from her garden.

She didn’t want to see us go hungry.

Every time her husband’s car broke down, which was quite often, my father carried their family to church on Sunday mornings.

He didn’t want them to miss the meeting they had scheduled with the Lord.

We didn’t act white.

They didn’t act black.

We all simply acted like neighbors, which is what we were, and that was all that mattered. We depended on them, and they knew they could depend on us, and we all slept well at night.

Long after I left the farm, the schools integrated, and the schoolhouse nearest my home was closed down. The last time I saw it, the windows had been broken out, and the decrepit yellow brick building was encased with weeds and vines.

Several years ago, I read that my old school at New London had a new board member.

It might have been fate.

It might have been justice. I

t was probably just the changing of times.

I only knew that the school had itself a good man.

Ray was now helping run the school he had never been allowed to attend.

In my novel, Little Lies, the spectre of black and white does raise its ugly head in a climactic moment.

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  • Sara Marie Hogg

    Wonderful memories, Caleb. I love the Southern expression, “carried” as in meaning to haul. When I moved to Texas in 1962, I heard that expression often. I also remember people helping each other through rough times, as caring people and not skin tones.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Sara, on the farm, we all knew we needed to lean on each other to survive, and the color of someone’s skin was never a barrier. I think folks in the country lived a kinder, gentler life than those who lived in the cities and had turf wars.

  • What a wonderful post. You painted that time so vividly and the message so beautifully. Thanks for sharing such impactful memories. Those things we learn in childhood shape who we are today. I love that all of you saw beyond color and still do. Loved this, Caleb!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks so much for your comments, Mae. I sometimes believe the 1950s were an idyllic world because we didn’t have 24-hour cable news channels telling us how bad it was. My world ended when an oil road reached a drilling rig. We’d turn around and go home and listen to Inner Sanctum or Suspense on the radio for our thrills.

      • I wasn’t around then, but I think simpler times had a lot to say for them.Even now, I wish the world would slow down!

  • I KNEW, even as a kid, that the maids we had (this was Mexico City in the 50s and 60s) did NOT have the opportunities I had. I just had no idea what I could do about such an entrenched system. I was wrong then and it’s wrong now – and I still have no idea what I, personally, can do about any of it.

    But I think that’s one of the reasons I stay in the States. You can’t run an upper middle class household in Mexico without servants, and I have no interest in perpetuating that system.

    I think it’s a disgrace that our public schools don’t provide the opportunities every American child should get to an education good enough to make it. I can’t believe that our children graduate without being able to read.

    Mexico’s educational system is even worse than ours; I think they like having servants.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, these days all children have the same opportunity in education. They all sit in the same classrooms – black, white, brown, yellow, mixed. But the curriculum has been diminished so everyone can pass, whether they can read or write, spell cat, or add two and two. We no longer demand for children to learn. We spoon feed them and move them on out. It is a disgrace and it begins with federal rules and regulations in Washington.

    • Christina Carson

      Alicia, sometimes in third world countries, being a house servant is an opportunity for employment. When I was in Colombia for a while, you were expected to have servants for they saw it as employing the local people who often had no other work.

      • I know that. And I know that my mother always insisted her maids go to school, gave them time off, made sure they could go at the right hours, paid for their books and uniforms, whatever was necessary.

        Several of ours moved up.

        But the SYSTEM is set in such a way that MOST people can’t work their way out of it. And the system is the fault of governments – and the appalling schools, with sinecures for ‘teachers’ who don’t even show up.

        Add that to a very strong class AND color system, and it must seem like a noose perpetually about to be tightened.

  • Sally Berneathy

    Great article. Often people don’t believe me when I say I grew up without realizing racial prejudice existed. I’d heard the N word and knew it was a bad word…along with a lot of other words I didn’t dare repeat! But I never made the connection to my father’s friends who came to visit and often stayed for dinner, especially if they were helping Daddy with a project. They had various colors of skin and some had funny accents, but they were all our friends. In the third grade our teacher urged us to tell our parents to vote against integration because: “What if a little N kid sits next to you and asks to borrow your pencil and returns it with the eraser chewed?” And suddenly I knew what the N word meant! Eraser chewers! And how did the teacher not realize we had a bunch of them already???? I’m not sure how old I was when I understood prejudice, but it made no sense then and it makes no sense now. I’m glad we passed laws to stop it, but I’m very sad those laws were necessary.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Well said, Sally. I, like you, was shocked when I learned how ignorant I had been. I think prejudice hit the cities a long time before it found its way down the back roads to our farms.

  • Great story, Caleb. Now I can’t wait to get a copy of your book. I love southern blues stories.

  • Don Newbury

    Wonderful. Reminds me of the time in Brownwood, where, a few hours before annual HPU homecoming was to begin, I was invited to “say a few words” at anniversary of a Black church there. I remember being frustrated, because I have ALWAYS hated it when speakers rush in, say a few words, then leave. Though in bad spirits, I agreed to go, and it turned out to be a 3+hour program. However, it was tear-stained. About midway and before I spoke, a spindly little old lady read “significant minutes” from written proceedings of the previous 100 years. One statement chilled me to the bone: “And the churched voted to send a love offering of $1.32 to Howard Payne College for sending their preacher boys down here to the flats to practice missionaryin’ on us.” Tears flowed as I realized this kind act was done DECADES before Blacks were allowed on campus except for landscaping, janitoring and working in the cafeteria. I thought of that old saying, “Lord, we ain’t what we ought to be, and we ain’t what we want to be. But, thankfully, we ain’t who we used to be!”…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, those are the moments that stick with you always and become a part of who you are. So often, we get so involved with dealing with things that we forget we are dealing with the people who make those things possible. Deep inside every skin color, we all have a heart that beats with the same color.

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