One of the worst things about growing up in the South was learning that the last place where racism should exist was often the first place you'd find it: at church. And you wouldn't just find it there; racism was subtlety built into the structure of whole denominations. It was pervasive in that same way where you don't notice a bad smell when you've been around it too long. You can only notice it if you step away and come back or if someone points it out and you put some effort into smelling the thing they're talking about. Not that a lack of racial integration is true of churches just in the South; it's true of churches in general. As Joshua DuBois recently said, "Right now, 11:00 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." And it's better now than when I was a kid.
When I was a kid...
There were no black people who lived on my street. However, if I went around my block to the next street, it was all black. Well, there may have been what was referred to as "white trash," which I didn't understand any better than I had understood "porch monkeys." The only point of context I had for the term was that there was a kid in my grade, John Spain, who was really mean and constantly in trouble and my mom used to tell me to just ignore him because he was "just white trash," so, in my mind, "white trash" meant "bully," not someone who shared the same socioeconomic position as, say, the black people on the street behind mine. [I say behind because it was the block behind my house, not the next block over in front of my house.]
And there was a marked difference between my street and the street behind my house. All of the houses on my block had nice, green lawns, even the house that was mostly unlived in. There were no cars on any of the lawns or broken bikes or toys. And there wasn't any trash. I mean actual trash, garbage, which tended to pile up at the curbs on the street behind mine. Most importantly, I suppose, at least to the people on my street, there were no black people. Ever.
Which was a problem, because I had a friend who lived on the street behind mine, and he was not allowed to come over to my house to play. I think, actually, that was more his mom than mine. There was this one time when I wanted him to come to my house and, when his mother said no, he protested, and she started whipping his butt right there and dragging him into the house. [That was not necessarily uncommon no matter what color you were.] I don't think either of us ever brought that up again.
At some point, I wanted to invite him to church with me (I think around 3rd grade), and, because it came up when I was with him, I just asked him. Without checking with my mother first. That was probably a mistake. I ran home to ask my mom; he went inside to ask his mom. His mom actually said yes; mine did not. She told me she didn't think it would be a good idea. I, of course, didn't understand why it wouldn't be a good idea.
Now, she did actually make an attempt to explain it to me. But it didn't make sense to me. See, there were actually two black kids in my church. A boy in my grade and his younger sister. They were it, though, in a church of 1200-1500. Not that I was aware of the numbers. I pointed out to my mom that, look, there were these two other kids, but she could only tell me that they were a special circumstance, something which I never found out the why of even when I was good friends with both of them later in high school.
However, I do think that my mother was probably, actually correct in her assessment of it not being a good idea. That wasn't something I understand until I was in high school, though, and which I'll talk about next time. All I knew at the time was that I had to walk back around the corner to his house and tell him he couldn't come. I had to crush his excitement (and he was excited) by saying no. It was one of the hardest, longest walks I've ever made, It was just a trip around the block, but, to my 3rd grade self, it was like walking to an execution.
Which it was, in a way, because that was the beginning of the end of our friendship. It just wasn't the same after that. I don't know if it was just me or if it was both of us, but it felt like something broke when I had to tell him that he couldn't come after all. And he wanted to know why, and all I had was, "It's not a good idea." What a horrible phrase, that.