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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.