When My Grandparents Took a Bus through the Southern U.S.

A few times recently I’ve read, in articles and posts on other subjects, a reference to a racist statement made by the writer’s grandparents. They have been one sentence in a longer piece and I, unfortunately, didn’t bookmark them, so I can’t provide a link for an example. However, the basic pattern is something to the effect of: My grandmother said x, which was racist, but I ignored it because, well, she’s older and her generation doesn’t understand. This could potentially bring up a wide-ranging conversation on the racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, of times in the past and to what degree we need to ignore it or confront it, but for the moment I’m just going to limit myself to a story that I was told about my grandfather.

My grandfather had, as a young man, hitchhiked around the country. He was something of the black sheep in the family. In a family of classical violinists, he played drums with swing and jazz combos. His father was a violin maker and cabinet-maker and his older brother followed in their father’s footsteps. Meanwhile, my grandfather hung out in rough areas of New York City, joined the navy, did a little amateur boxing and never learned a trade. In the end he wound up working in a factory. In his journeys, he picked up Spanish, which he eventually learned to speak fluently, and developed a serious case of what I will call Mexophilia. He loved everything Mexican. He had paintings of Mexico on the walls and knick-knacks along the top of the bookcase.

He had traveled to Mexico a couple of times as a young man and wanted to go again with my grandmother. To get to Mexico, they had to take a bus. Between New York City and Mexico, lies the Southern states of the U.S. There, the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant. My grandfather and grandmother got up and began walking down the aisle of the bus when my grandfather noticed that everyone was not getting off the bus. He paused and asked one of their fellow passengers why he wasn’t getting up. He told them that the restaurant did not serve blacks. When my grandfather heard that, he turned to my grandmother and said, “We’re sitting back down. We’re not going to patronize a place like that. We’ll eat when we get to Mexico.”


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