Lessons in Racism, Volume 24

The Swamp Girl

Although I traveled the world as a child and met many people of varying backgrounds, my main experience was growing up in a town where there was only one black family, the rest all being white Midwestern folks. The main black and brown people I knew were on my TV set. Which, of course, did not give an accurate representation of what was happening around our nation. I really deeply loved everyone the same — Americans, just like me.

During my career, I ended up moving to the south, to the east coast. I scheduled interviews with two hospitals.

The first was a prestigious hospital on the coast. I did the interview, got along smashingly with the group manager but at the end of the interview he pulled me aside. He was a southern white man and I was a tiny, ‘just a daisy,’ petite, well educated white woman.

“I want to be completely helpful and open with you,” he said. Referring specifically to the racial makeup of the community, he continued, “I think that your other interview is going to be a better fit for you.” I understood he was being honest and helpful to me and I thanked him for his input.

I did take the job at the second facility and quickly began to understand his comment. Although the place at which I worked was much more “cosmopolitan” in its approach, the deeply southern, insular, racist, and extremely misogynist spin on every aspect of life was truly a shock.

Later on, I ended up doing periodic shifts at that first hospital and at an inland community hospital. The only time I ever felt compelled to carry a gun was traveling to that rural southern facility. It was not the citizens I was concerned about, it was the police. I had to drive through a hundred miles of swamp to get there and I intuitively felt concerned about my safety regarding the police. I knew they could pull me at any time and no one would ever find my body in the swamp. Shifting it from the seat to the glovebox each time as I crossed the state line in accordance with law, I carried my gun.

Working at that hospital was a daily, indescribable surprise. I saw the FBI raid a doctor’s office as he was apparently trading narcotics for oral sex in his office, all day, every day. I saw segregation, even among the staff with whom I worked which broke my heart. Everyone in the town had the same last name, black and white. When I asked why that was, I just got a stare.

One day, a young, thin, drug addled black woman came to the emergency department. She was screaming and yelling nonstop. The white nurses behind the nurse’s station nodded at the black nurse to go take care of her, but the yelling persisted. I thought I might be able to help so I walked over to the bedside with the black nurse at the side.

“How can I help you, ma’am?” I said to the patient.

“You M’fing cracker, you cracker, you F’ING CRACKER!!!!” she yelled at me, full volume.

I was confused. I thought I heard her say “cracker” and I could not understand what she wanted.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“What are you TALKING ABOUT you M’fing cracker!!!” she screamed at me, followed by a few more minutes of the same rants.

I was very distressed. I wanted to help her so badly but I could not understand what she was saying. The only word I could make out clearly was cracker.

“I’m so sorry ma’am. I really don’t understand what you are saying. I can’t tell, do you want a saltine, a graham cracker, we have peanut butter if you are hungry. Or a sandwich?” I said.

That threw her into a rage. I could sense an inhalation from the direction of the nursing station. The nurse at her side had to hold her down on the bed as she continued the same loud words flowing out like a raging river, filling the hospital, I am sure.

Then… all at once… she and the nurse looked at each other. The realization hit them both at the same time. I really had no idea what she was saying.

They both burst into fits of laughter. No more anger. No more raging. I was totally embarrassed because I still had no idea.

Anyway, I did get her crackers and peanut butter and we hit it off quite well.

That’s why I didn’t fit in at that other hospital. I didn’t know the rules.

That sweet, beautiful, cooing black baby girl standing for hope grew up to carry the weight of the entire Civil War, Jim Crow, and current open racism in her heart, across her body, and on her back. She ran smack into a skinny white woman whose ignorance of the situation was laughable. Laughter can heal us if white people choose to see their blind spots and their subconscious hate and fear. It is white people’s work to do.

I always think of her whenever I eat a saltine cracker and send a moment of ephemeral love her way, wherever she is.

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