Thursday, March 3, 2011

How I Came to Love Justice Earl Warren & Hate Peaches

“Mama, what’s ‘I-m-p-e-a-c-h’ mean?” I bellowed over the engine noise, swashing  through the  open windows of our 1958 Ford country squire.  Fried chicken crumbs flecked my lap. I had been picking and tossing them out the window.  In the process, my attention had lit upon a billboard, with an American flag taking up one side, red and blue words painted across the other in bold lettering.    It was the third such sign I’d seen in the past hour, set along this lonely stretch of road, which cut through rural Alabama.   
“Gal, if you don’t get that arm of yours back in this car window, I’m going to --,” Mama’s voice trailed off.  I wrenched my arm back into the car.  Unlike mothers on t.v., mine did not scream and jump on chairs when, a mouse skittered across the kitchen floor. She raised her voice at us, when she knocked against roadblocks standing in the way of her precious children’s forward motion.  Growing up with Mama, I had learned how seldom words conveyed what was really on a person’s mind. 
 Ida Mae Barker Hilliard’s short, fine-boned stature belied her fearlessness.  In fact, every summer she made the fifteen hundred mile drive from Westbury, New York, to Mermentau, Louisiana, a hamlet of brackish marsh and rice-mills, set on the banks of the river from which the town got its name, in the southern part of the state.  There, my brother, sister and I would spend the summer with our grandparents and maternal relatives.   During those three-day road trips, rather than wander off the highway at night  in search of a “colored motel,” without running water or cabins that stank from the outhouse being placed to close to the back door, Mama wired herself up on strong, black coffee.    She packed three shoeboxes full of fried chicken in the car and drove night and day.   My Mother also packed plenty of toilet paper.  She didn’t let us use the “colored only” toilets at the gas stations on the highway,  but she never explained why.  
“Are you hungry?” Mama asked, no longer screaming but in a voice suddenly soft and apologetic.     
“No Ma’am,” I replied.  The car swerved to the side as Mama reached for the thermos of cold coffee.  She corrected the wheel.      
“The man on those billboards,” she said after a few moments hesitation, “is a judge named Earl Warren.  He sits on the Supreme Court.”   
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said, although I didn’t see at all.  Suddenly, Mama pulled off to the shoulder of the road.  With the engine still running, she glanced back at my brother and sister, sleeping slumped against each other, and then locked her gaze on me.   
“Judge Warren declared that Negro and White children should go to the same schools,” Mama said.  Her words cut the air through clenched teeth.  “But the white folk down here don’t like that.  They want to impeach him, which means to throw him out of office.”  It was that very same summer of 1961 that my taste buds mysteriously turned sour on what had once been my favorite fruit -- peaches. 

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