A Lesson of Promise and of Memory: The Beginnings of A Memoir

I told this childhood story once before in public and without shame. My Granny Turner was old school. A brilliant woman ahead of her time and in an age when Black or “colored” women were limited as much by sex as by their race. My Grandfather had a great nickname of endearment for her: “Business Woman.” That meant she was no joke — except when she really did laugh so hard she could not stop. But, if I acted up, I was provided with the very democratic opportunity to “pick my own switch,” with which to be disciplined. Old school. Old rules.

My grandmother was born at century’s turn in 1900 and had become a pharmacist in a time when nearly all Black women (and most Black men) were unable to achieve professional status — not because they were incapable — but because the hurdles rose higher to always stop their strides. This was the inevitable logic of American Racism — a brand that had a generic canned variety, but could come in different flavors depending on its omnivorous desire to subjugate Black America in an age of legalized apartheid.

And as things would have it, I would spend an entire year with my grandparents — not as some children do because of family crises or need — but as some kind of childhood sabbatical into a family heritage and to the South.

My days at school were spent at an otherwise all white Southern preparatory school — for Durham, North Carolina was slowly awakening from de jure segregation in the best old genteel-style. Not a hateful, vicious separation; but still an adjustment to the previous decade’s sedate mandate of “all deliberate speed.” Integration would come to Durham, where the Duke heirs had established a Southern aristocracy by a somehow more quiet and condescending reign of racial separation. The unspoken words were: “Y’all know you don’t belong here.” But change would still come. And, I would be a part of it.

But more than this, Durham itself was different from many other Southern Black communities. In it was not just simple achievement, but actual success within the sphere of racially-separated life in mid-century America. Blacks had built an insurance company that would assume national prominence, and a significant community bank. Also, a liberal arts college and law school in Durham had been the place for apprentice teachers like historian John Hope Franklin. The Law School had trained the young Maynard Jackson and Floyd McKissick. And many others who would also serve.

I could not know as a child that once when my grandfather awakened early in the morning to check on the status of the young college student boarding with my grandparents — the latest in a line of extended family — that he was actually making sure that the talented young student would face no further repercussions for his pioneering student protest participation.

In the long lens of history, we assume that these protests were risk-free and televised events. In truth, men like my grandparents parents’ young student-boarder — and young men like Robert Moses and Julian Bond — were at risk of limb, if not their lives, in those early days of struggle. And yet, they still must live their own lives, get their educations, and find their way in life like anyone else. But, I know now, justice never left their sight.

I realize looking back that my real education during that one year came as powerfully from what I observed when I visited the basement quarters in my grandparents’ home — ”Mack” was there reading his great hero Cervantes in the original Spanish; for Mack, “Don Quixote” was a black man’s anthem. I would listen to the seeming far-fetched bravado of a young man majoring in Spanish, who still never bragged or boasted of his own courage in that time of change. Through that, I was being given my own quiet lesson. Perhaps, one that, in truth, only years have shown me plainly.

I think I remember that Mack said that it is our fate to embrace courage, like Don Quixote. At least that is what I want to remember. And, the embrace of courage can never be foolish. It never need announce its presence, or look for recognition; for it will always be well-recognized by anyone who matters. And it can and will persist no matter what the challenge.

-Albert Turner Goins