On Road Trips, Race, and Retail

I have to admit that as much as I love the schizophrenic pace of Patricia Williams' The Alchemy of Race and Rights, I found myself needing to put the book down on more than one occasion. Anger is the main reason, followed closely by frustration and a sense of helplessness. You see, I’ve been “that woman” in a department store in the South where the cashier wouldn’t wait on me because I was Black. Regardless of the fact that I was ready to make the large purchase, a large leather tote by one of my favorite designers, and I guess she didn’t notice the fact that I already had one on my arm. Like Williams’ Benetton clerk, due to the color of my skin, it just didn’t compute that I was there to give her money, and quite possibly that my money was just as good as the white woman’s she waited on instead of me. To this day, my father refuses to shop in Dilliard’s (at the time it was Gayfer’s, yeah, I’m outing myself here), because he was snubbed in their men’s shop.

And Professor Williams, it’s Forsyth County, Georgia, not Forsythe, (not sure how your editors missed that one). I’ve been there; well, I’ve been through there. You see, when we were growing up, my dad liked to take us on road trips. We started locally, travelling through the North Georgia Mountains and on onto the Great Smoky Mountain Parkway that led us into Tennessee and North Carolina. We’d take the scenic backroad, HWY 441 to be exact, because it had the most awesome views. If we timed our trip just right, and we often did, it looked as if the mountains were on fire with all of the bright reds and yellows and oranges as the leaves changed colors before they fell. And it ran straight through Forsyth County, Ga. And before Oprah made Cumming, Georgia famous (or infamous) we knew that the little white sign on the side of the road that read “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here,” meant what it said. So we’d drive on to into the mountains, through Cherokee, North Carolina, and into Asheville, where we felt safer. I can remember one time we actually saw another Black family on the road and we waved and blew at each other, just happy to see other folks like us on the road.

I often wonder what would have happened if our car had overheated, or if we wore out the transmission (as people who aren’t used to driving down a mountain often do), somewhere in the North Georgia Mountains, or the not-so friendly parts of North Carolina. Might we have ended up like the young brothers in Howard Beach? My dad has never been in trouble with the law; he was merely a Black man travelling with his wife and two daughters. Would it have mattered at all if we had stopped in Cumming, Ga, where we knew we weren’t welcome and where all the Black folk had to be out of town by dark? They say it’s different there now. But old habits die hard. I doubt very seriously that Black folk are more welcome there now than they were when I was 16 years old, and I suspect that the white folks who lived there in 1988 felt victimized after Oprah made their racism known to the world. (Not the fact that they were racist, but the fact that it was televised.) No doubt they felt the same sort of righteous indignation that the residents of Howard Beach felt, spurred by need to protect what “belonged” to them from outside agitators. But what about the rest of us? Where do we belong? Do these highways and national parks not belong to us of us with brown and black skin? Apparently not, may Michael Griffith rest in peace. And may we NEVER forget that some of us are just a short drive away from the type of righteous indignation that kills.