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Racial Divide by Terry Barr


In the summer of 1989, my wife and I traveled to my hometown—Bessemer,

Alabama—to celebrate my birthday with my parents who had clandestinely orchestrated

a gathering of some of my long-lost childhood friends. I should have noticed how

carefully my mother had cleaned and redecorated our den. That comfortable room with

its cushy sofa, laz-y-boy recliner, and console stereo had hosted past teen parties

celebrating my seventeenth birthday and my high school graduation. Now its warm

yellow, blue, and orange-colored décor was arranged to welcome this more grown-up

occasion—my adult friends, ready to honor and celebrate the man I had become: the man

who left home and brought the world back with him.

On the morning after our arrival, I rose at 6:00 am, a habit I had gotten into ever

since my wife’s pregnancy had begun causing her extreme nausea. This was our first

child, and I had adapted to the morning regime of bananas, applesauce, soft-boiled eggs—

anything my wife could keep down, if only for thirty minutes. On some evenings I

sautéed liver and onions to combat her anemia, holding my own bile the entire time.

Turned out, she adored liver. Such are the mysteries of a pregnant woman’s cravings.

But on this morning as I was gathering her tray, the phone rang. My old-world

Southern mother often receives calls before eight am. So I thought nothing of this one

until I heard her musical soprano drop an octave.

“Oh, I see…yes, he’s right here.”

I took the receiver though I really didn’t want to. It was my wife’s sister.

“Terry, Baba-Jun passed away last night. I didn’t want to call you then because I

knew you’d be so tired, and Nilly needed her sleep. I know it’s your birthday, too, and I

hate to do this, but like my husband said, you’ll have plenty of others.”

“Baba-Jun,” in Farsi, translates to “Dear Father.” My wife is Persian, an

immigrant from Iran. Her entire family arrived in the US in ripples between 1979 and 1984.

My mind flooded at this point. Naturally, my primary concern was my Iranian

wife who was currently lying in my childhood bed in the house in which both my mother

and I had grown up. But my parents had been counting on this visit for months. Now

what? They used to claim that I chose girlfriends based on how far I’d have to drive their

car to see them. Could they have conceived in those simpler days that I would travel the

lengths of the earth for love? Was there ever a distance too far for me?

But sometimes the world, or in this case a gorgeous Middle Eastern girl, comes

Since my marriage, I know that my parents had often felt cheated by how much

time and energy I had invested in my wife’s family. Here, then, was another interruption,

albeit one that we all lamented in our various worlds.

My bedroom was two rooms away from the phone. I tried to keep my voice

low as I spoke to my sister-in-law. I wanted to break the news to my wife as gently as

possible, but when I walked into the bedroom, her piercing, raven-black eyes, now moist

and fearful, told me that she had already heard it all.

Every weekend before this one, we had traveled from our home in upstate South

Carolina to Knoxville to visit her father whom we all knew was dying of prostate cancer.

While in Iran, he had been falsely imprisoned by the Ayatollahs, during which time he

suffered a major heart attack. Upon his release, his prostate condition went unchecked for

too long. He could have survived had he received proper and timely treatment. He was

only sixty-four.

I held my wife as she cried, whispering words of love for her and for her Baba.

My mother entered a few minutes later and together she and my wife shocked me

with news about my surprise party.

“My God! I can’t believe you kept this a secret from me and for so long! No one

ever surprises me.”

“You’ll have to call everyone now and tell them what happened,” Mom said.

“Don’t worry about that. Of course everyone will understand.”

Then they gave me my present: a first edition of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the

irony of its title lost on everyone but me.

I was moved beyond sound: they didn’t understand a word of the precious book

they bought me, and if they knew of its deeper absurdities, they might wonder why

anyone would want it or pay so much money for it. To me, though, it was my greatest

literary treasure: a novel without a clear beginning or ending. A dream. Or maybe a

nightmare, given the strange association it would now have for me.

I hugged my mother, kissed my wife who was so happy for me despite her own

Later, my mother presented me with the guest list: my old friend Fred! Hadn’t

seen him since his wedding eight years ago. There were a few others I’d regret not seeing

too, but as I scanned the list, I saw two names that I would have certainly banned had I

been consulted.

---------------------------

Robert, Amy, and I had spent countless hours as far back as junior high going

to parties, church outings, Marshall Tucker Band concerts, and various other non-

sanctioned events. Over one long summer in the early 1980’s, as we wasted both time

and ourselves tossing a Frisbee in random country meadows, I watched these two grow

closer. And so at the end of that August, I wasn’t a bit surprised when they announced

their engagement. I was in their wedding and was naturally part of the entourage they

invited to a weekend mountain cabin afterward to further celebrate their joy.

The mountain cabin they rented for this group honeymoon comfortably housed the

twelve of us who gathered on that October weekend. Robert grilled steaks for everyone

that first night, and couples were seated four to a table with candlelight and wine. It

felt so adult, so warm, like we would all be friends forever even though most of us had

already moved states away. My girlfriend at the time seemed to fit in with everyone,

though when I look back at it now, fitting in meant tossing a Frisbee with a straight arm,

rolling a perfect joint, and being willing to stay up all night playing card games while

listening to 70’s rock. Maybe that’s why she and I broke up a few weeks later.

--------------------------

“I really wish you hadn’t invited them,” I said to my mother. “Now I’ve got to

“Why, what’s the matter?”

But we needed to get on the road to Knoxville soon, and I had neither the time,

nor the patience to explain.

So I began dialing.

II

Four years earlier, I came home because I had gotten married in secret, and it was

time to tell my parents. To say that I felt guilty would be like saying that I loved Southern

hickory-smoked barbecue. My parents, of course, knew my wife; we had been to visit on

several occasions, and they liked her. They just didn’t know that a year earlier, she had

actually become my wife.

I remember standing in the den of my parents’ home, scene of years of family

evenings gathered there in front of an ongoing series of black and white and then color

Motorolas. The one behind me now was wrapping up the national news. Reagan’s face

filled the screen as he mouthed the mindless platitudes that marked his reign--platitudes

my father clung to as if they had come straight from the Torah. My parents were doing

the evening dishes in the kitchen that adjoined the den via an eight-foot wide rectangular

“window.” My father could therefore dry each dish while viewing his favorite programs.

For several long moments the three of us stood on opposite sides of that window,

staring at what we couldn’t understand.

“Where did we go wrong?” my father asked.

“Wrong? What do you mean ‘wrong?’ You’ve done everything right! Nilly and I

love each other. She’s kind, generous, and I’d trust her with my life. What else should I

Dad shrugged, placed the final dinner plate in the cabinet, and turned to my

mother who remained eerily silent.

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

They didn’t ask why we had been so secretive, why we didn’t allow them into our

trust. Maybe they knew, as I did, that had I discussed the plan with them beforehand, or

asked their blessing, they would have resisted and tried to talk me out of it. They would

have expressed their doubts and fears of my marrying outside my culture. Outside of the

two “faiths” that they, in their own married rebellion, had brought together and that so

loosely joined our family.

------------------------------

In the early 1950s when they married, neither side of my parents’ family

welcomed their union. My mother’s mother, a righteous Protestant matriarch, was

dismayed that her daughter had chosen a Jewish man seven years her senior—a man

who still lived in his own parents’ home. My father’s mother, a demanding vessel

dispensing guilt and shame in equal proportions, refused to attend their ceremony unless

a rabbi officiated. No rabbi within thirty miles would do so, however, because my

parents confessed that they would raise their children in my mother’s faith.

I imagine the distance they felt, that awful divide, sitting across my father’s

rabbi’s desk. The stern refusal; the embarrassed silence.

Finally, a Montgomery, Alabama, rabbi agreed to unite them. He drove 200

miles round trip in one afternoon to do so and made fifty dollars for his services.

Rabbi Blachschleger.

Despite his good faith, my father’s mother nevertheless sat shiva for her apostate

son. He was now dead to her, though that didn’t stop her from calling on him to flip her

bed mattress monthly, as well as for other assorted chores, over the next forty years. A

forty-year period when he drove his new family every Sunday without fail the twenty-mile

trip over foothills back roads so that we could sit at the feet of this scornful woman.

And then we’d drive home again—to the house where he and my mother wed. The

same house she grew up in and where we all lived with her mother, the house’s legal

Needless to say, my two grandmothers had issues that divided our family, issues

left unspoken and so unresolved over the span of twenty years until my mother’s mother

---------------------------

“I’m just afraid that one day they’ll try to force you to move to Iran,” my mother

finally said.

At least her real objection was on the table.

“Don’t worry about that, please. I’m not moving to Iran. What would I do there?

For God’s sake, they had to move here. They got political asylum. Nobody wants to

move back there.”

Which was true enough, although at that moment, my mother-in-law was in Iran

trying to secure some of their retirement funds that the government had seized.

Originally, we had hoped to tell my parents when she returned so that we could stage the wedding that my mother had always dreamed for me. But the waiting was just too hard,

compounding my guilt daily as if it were interest on my meager savings--guilt that I

couldn’t bear because my parents were practically the last ones to know. My new in-laws

knew the truth from the start. They were behind our marriage from the very beginning

and seemed to have fallen in love with me before my wife did.

“They liked you so much that I almost refused to keep seeing you,” my wife

confessed not long after our wedding. “I was only twenty-one. What did I know?”

My in-laws said to me, “You are our son!” At first, I was taken aback at these

words. Would I now be theirs and theirs only? They were looking out for their daughter’s

best interests and knew, somehow, that we were right for each other: A true match.

It was like an arranged marriage, except that I was my own representative. I

received my future in-laws’ blessing, but what about the one from my parents?

So after our brief service at the Knoxville court house—a service actually

performed in the maintenance shed behind the court house by a “dignitary” who no doubt

used the five dollar fee he required of me for a nice bottle of syrupy-sweet wine—we

returned to my in-laws’ apartment. They had prepared the traditional Persian wedding

dish—Shirin Polo--made of saffron rice with almonds, slivered orange peel, and baked

chicken.

When I told my close friends of this joyous occasion, most of them found our

news exciting and romantic. Such good friends!

For my parents, though, “exciting” and “romantic” clearly didn’t express their

view toward us. In their hour of lamentation for their first-born son, they camped in the

kitchen while I soldiered on in the den, the distance between us decidedly unbridged.

Finally, because one side had to move, I asked:

“Will you at least talk to her now? You know how much she cares about both of

you, and she’s pretty nervous about all of this.”

A pause. Then…a shift.

“Yes. Get her on the phone. It’s all done now anyway,” my mother sighed.

III

In the Alabama of my childhood, bridging a great divide wasn’t exactly an event

to commemorate. In the 1960s and 70s, no one divided the state more than George

Wallace did. If you were an ardent supporter of the “Battlin” Judge-turned Governor, as

my friend Jamie and his family were, you were likely to shower any conversation with a

liberal use of the epithet “Nigger,” as in “Kennedy’s just a nigger-lover,” or “Don’t drink

from that fountain. It’s for niggers.” And it often got worse. When Black children passed

down our street, Jamie, his Eagle-Scout older brother Bill, or even his daddy would yell

“Sic ‘em” to “Blackie,” their dog, and follow that command with “You better run nigger!”

Though I never joined in the shouting, once, I did get swept away in the

excitement: “Dad-blame-it, they sure can run. Gosh!” Instantly, Jamie’s mother turned to

me and said: “That’s vulgar, and we don’t use slang around our house. You’re taking

God’s name in vain.”

I had no idea what she was talking about then. I barely understand now. Did she

think I knew, at age five, that my words were substitutes for “God Damn” and “God?”

Did she believe I understood her admonishments and my own offense? Did she truly

believe that I was shrewd enough to hide a purposeful blasphemy?

Jamie’s family and mine were all members of the same Methodist church.

Though many of the church’s teachings simply ran though the sieve of my

consciousness, I did hear and believe this one: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And, I

realize now, I thought everyone else at my church believed it too. For we all sang “He

Lives” on Easter Sunday and attended Messiah on the first Sunday afternoon of each

December. But in the late 60’s, when a Black family of four—daddy, mama, a little girl

and boy—visited one Sunday, Jamie’s family led the charge that tried to fire the “nigger-

loving” preacher who let them in.

My parents detested George Wallace, and they forbade my brother and me from

using the word “nigger,” telling us instead to say “colored” or “Negro.” If they heard

Jamie or any other friend say “nigger” in our house, they would order these children

home. And if the friend lived too far to walk, I clearly remember Mama putting us all in

the car and driving the offending boy to his parents’ care. Part of me hated seeing my

playmates go home; another part of me, maybe the bigger part, relaxed when they did.

Despite my folks’ inoculations, I became infected by kids’ talk. Once, after

hearing a friend say “Bastard” at everything that angered him, I called my own brother

one. I didn’t count on his racing inside and informing our mother, verbatim, of my

offense. But he did, and she proceeded to literally wash my mouth out with soap.

However, my mother didn’t hear everything I said. One summer morning as our

long-time family maid Dissie was straightening our bedroom and humming some

unknown-to-us spiritual, my brother and I staged a puppet show. With my “Frances the

Mule” and his “Mr. Ed,” we had a good rendition of our act going. Out of nowhere and

almost unconsciously, my puppet called my brother’s puppet a “nigger.” He stared at my

silver puppet. I stared at his brown one. Then our eyes met. All in the silence of seconds.

Everything stood still before us, except for Dissie who kept on cleaning and

straightening our lives and humming the tune that always managed to see her through her

She never said a word about my remark to anyone.

IV

“Well, I love you too.”

My mother handed me the receiver, and I assured my Persian bride that all was

“I think the hardest part is over. Don’t worry, they’ll be fine,” I said, perhaps

more calmly than I really felt. “And anyway, Robert and Amy are coming over soon, and

when I told them about us, they were cool. The rest of the night will be pretty light, I

We hung up then after whispering our “I love you’s.” I wished that I could hold

her, that she was here with me, but we both realized my parents and I needed the privacy

to say what we had to. And though it had been difficult, we all had survived the feelings

of shock, secrecy, and betrayal. I never doubted that we would. For despite our past

conflicts over hair length, car privileges, ragged flannel shirts, and extremely loud rock

music, my parents and I trusted each other. While they imposed tight curfews and made

me work during high school and college summers, they also allowed me room to grow

and make choices. I chose my own college, my various majors. I refused to consider

ROTC as a viable payment option for those college years. And when I was ready, I

stopped attending the church that never truly was my choice.

My parents helped me stretch. They financed a high school trip to Europe,

somehow. They insisted that I accept a patronage position with my congressman in DC,

which meant dropping out of college for a term.

They helped open the gap of independence between us, and I think we all

believed that it would never get so wide that we’d be unable to stretch across it and touch

each other.

But with my wedding announcement, I also realized that when you stretch, you’re

likely to wrench a joint or two.

When Robert and Amy arrived, we cracked open our Budweisers, settled down

on the velvety sofa in our den, and caught up as old friends do. My parents hung with us

for an hour or so, and the troves of gossip kept us laughing and light. I love the lightness

that sixteen ounces of beer provide. The loosening of tongues, the breakdown of anxious

inhibitions. And when my folks excused themselves to get ready for bed, I welcomed the

chance to totally let go with my pals.

Part of me wished that we had a concert to attend or were about to hit our favorite

club for a night of dancing as we used to do every weekend in the not-so-distant past. If it

were still daylight, I would have suggested that we head outdoors to fly my master-

Frisbee one more time.

In hindsight, that’s what we should have done.

Instead, we settled deeper into the cushions.

With Robert grinning by her side as if he knew exactly what she was about to ask,

Amy, with her pixie haircut, semi-pock-marked skin, merry eyes, and a laugh that for so

many years never failed to charm me, leaned forward and said:

“So Terry, what’s it like to be married to one of those ‘sand-niggers?’”

And she and Robert chuckled as if we were all in on the joke.

Until Amy uttered it, I had never heard that phrase before, didn’t know it existed.

I had heard “camel jockey” applied to a fellow grad student’s Iranian husband, but the

speakers were only pseudo-tough guys observing a mixed couple waiting at a bus stop.

They had no history with this couple--my grad school friends--making their remark

racist, but impersonal. Which left me, upon hearing a slur far worse, exactly where?

I have no clear recollection today of the moment after the offense. They had been

such good friends. How can I explain the depth of our friendship, what I thought we had?

I was beyond hurt. This felt like the end of something, and even then I wasn’t

sure exactly what was ending. Later that night I called my oldest, best friend, a guy we all

loved; a guy who had “come out” to all of us years earlier. I knew he’d understand what I

was feeling:

“I’m sure she was just kidding,” he appeased.

“Yes, I know she thought so,” I said. “But how can Amy kid about this? How can

I ever not hear those words when I see or think of her?”

“You can’t,” he sighed. “You just can’t.”

I realized then that I had stayed silent to the “niggers” of the past—all those times

when I heard friends use that hateful word. It seemed so abstract then, so distant. We

didn’t have Black friends or really know any Black kids. Like it or not, in the world of

my youth, my friends and I lived on the same side of something: a divide that for too long

I never had to cross.

And now, the side I had chosen to live on spoke a different language—a language

that didn’t contain this abhorrent word.

I felt glad in that moment that I was leaving Bessemer the next day. For the first

time in my experience of leaving “home,” I knew that I wouldn’t be leaving a part of me behind.

That moment was coming, but in the one before me, where Amy and Robert

grinned so expectantly, I stammered some self-deprecating words—words intended to

defuse this horrible situation. Perhaps I’m totally wrong. It seems to me now, though,

that in those awkward minutes, our den, the rectangular window leading to our kitchen,

my parents’ bedroom, all the rooms of our house, and all the phone lines between my old

world in Alabama and my new one in South Carolina, went absolutely quiet.

Dead.

Maybe I told them that I was tired. Maybe I said that I had a long drive the

following morning and needed some sleep. Maybe. In any case they left, and the three of

us never spoke together again.

V

Since I had kept this scene, those dividing moments, to myself, I couldn’t fairly

explain to my family why I didn’t want Amy and Robert attending my birthday party. I

wasn’t sure why they even accepted my mother’s invitation.

So I called, not knowing how the conversation would go.

Robert answered the phone, sounding half-asleep, a normal condition for him

although it was pretty early on a Saturday morning. After listening to me explain the state

of affairs in our world--our loss, our sadness--he began his tale:

“Well, we probably weren’t coming anyway. It’s been hard lately. Amy and I

might be breaking up.”

He said that Amy was asleep upstairs and he didn’t want to wake her.

“I’m really sorry for you,” I said. “I hope things work out.”

Which they did. Robert and Amy divorced later that year, and frankly, I didn’t

know how that made me feel.

---------------------------

On the five-hour drive to Knoxville that day, my wife told stories of her father,

who had been an oil company executive. She told of the house he built for their family in

an affluent Tehran suburb, of the vegetable garden he grew, of the American cars he

loved-- especially his Pontiac which he had transported from America to Europe and

which he then drove from France all the way to Iran. And of the beach house on the

Caspian Sea that the family visited several times a year, driving the three hours to get

there through the snow-capped Alborz Mountains on hazardous roads with no side-rails.

Of the beautiful white sand that my wife, her sisters, and cousins played in by the water,

not many miles from that other mountain range that links the Caspian to the Black Sea:

The Caucasus. Seeing her pictures of those days reminds me of my own family vacations

at the Gulf of Mexico, the white sands of both beaches seemingly identical.

The sand on the Caspian shore was the only sand that my wife saw during her

sixteen years living in Iran.

VI

There are secrets we can’t wait to reveal and some we never will. My parents love

my wife and our two daughters. They appreciate the good life we lead, the example we

set in our community.

I never told any of them what happened with Robert and Amy. I just couldn’t. I

couldn’t say that word again, a word used against me and the person I love most in the

A few years ago, on the occasion of my oldest friend’s fiftieth birthday party in

Bessemer, I ran into Amy. We were very cordial. She had remarried, it turned out, but

hadn’t brought her new husband to the party. My wife hadn’t accompanied me either,

owing to our youngest daughter’s soccer tournament.

“You go and have fun,” she said. “Believe me, I’ll be fine here.”

At one point in the evening, as Amy was laughing with another friend, she turned

toward me. When our eyes met, I searched them for a minute. Did she remember that

night more than twenty years earlier? Did she ever think about those words? And did she

wonder at the fact that I never called when I came to town? I saw none of the answers

in her eyes, though, and soon she was laughing with yet another friend, remembering

something else from the past.

Something more comfortable.

The next morning as I was power walking through my mother’s neighborhood, I

came to Robert’s old house. Though his father still lives there, Robert, too, has since

remarried and moved a few counties away. As I passed, I felt that strange sensation of

what “used to be” in the days in which we had the comfort of believing we were all the

same under our skin.

I thought of all of this again this past summer when I taught Sherman Alexie’s

Indian Killer to my freshman literature class. In it, a serial killer is plaguing Seattle, and

many people believe he must be an Indian. White thugs hit the streets ready to massacre

anyone with a reddish aura. As a gang corners one victim, they scream at him and call

him a “Prairie Nigger.” Without missing a beat, he responds by telling them that his

people never lived on a prairie; they live by rivers. So to be accurate, he says they should

call him “Salmon-Nigger.” I read this section to my class, and before I knew it, I was

recounting my story to them. I told it all, and they listened intently, the seven white kids

and the one black student, as if we were all sitting not on hard plastic classroom chairs,

but on comfortable sofas and laz-y-boys in the den of a loving family’s home.

I don’t know yet if it felt cathartic to unload this weighted tale from my past. My

students’ generation has already bridged gaps that irrevocably separated members of

mine. As I looked into their blue, brown, and black eyes, I knew they understood.

And I knew then that it was time to tell my story to the ones I love.

Terry's work has appeared in Red Fez, RiverLit, Construction, and is forthcoming in Sport Literate and Blue Lyra Review.


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