The Folklore Project

Atlanta, Georgia

Where I Found Wisdom

By Pam Gresham Pomar

I was born in Calhoun, a small town in rural North Georgia. In the ’60s, I grew up surrounded by the poor and undereducated of our community. I heard the N-word used with regularity. I knew that I saw black people out and about in our town and that the black children sat in the balcony in the only movie theater. I never wondered about why they might not be in the restaurants or in our church. The churches we attended were small, with preachers who pounded the pulpit, waved the Bible and shouted in a unique cadence, while sweating and turning red in the face. I heard a lot about sinning and going to hell, but nothing about the sin of dehumanizing our fellow human beings. My image of black people was shaped by what I heard: the tone of voice people used, and that word. The only black people I ever saw looked poor, poorer than us. It was many years before I realized there was a black middle and upper class.  

The single event that most shaped my world regarding race relations was brief and passed without notice by anyone else. I was so young, 4 or 5 years old, riding in a car in the summer with my mother, cousins and aunt. I was known as the smart child in the family. I was gazing out the open window and saw a black person standing on the street corner.

I said, “Look, there’s a n****r!” My mother and aunt immediately shushed me, told me not to say that so loudly.

“Why not?”  

“Because he’ll cut you.”

“But why?”  

“Because they don’t like to be called that word. It’s a bad thing.”     

I felt hot, embarrassed … stupid. Something I wasn’t accustomed to. If it was bad, and they don’t like it, then why do we say it? I never used the word again.

The Civil Rights Movement happened. I resented being lumped in with all white people. I was ignorant about black culture and I knew it, but I was conscious of my limitations and tried to avoid bias and prejudice. I had so much to learn. I didn’t attend an integrated school until I was 12 years old, when black students were bused in. What I came to understand was that no matter how good my heart or my intentions, if I said something that was offensive to anyone, then I needed to apologize and learn from the experience.  

I wonder now, as an adult, where I found that wisdom within myself as a child. Was it because I was a country girl who moved to a city? Because I talked funny and the other kids made fun of my cornpone accent? Because I was the only one of my friends whose parents divorced? Does experiencing prejudice in any form make you more sensitive to the experiences of others? There is so much more to it than I can articulate. Some people, including the young, question the status quo, and others do not. I grew up to believe a great many things I didn’t learn at home. Where did it come from? I have to believe that it was from the seeds that were planted by the system in which I was educated, just a public school in Rome, Georgia. Still, there were some right alongside me who to this day believe they are better than those who are different from them.

But there are also people who, without the benefit of education or exposure to diverse communities, feel in their hearts that we are all brothers and sisters in this world. They believe the assumption of privilege due to race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, economic standing and even intelligence or ability, is just wrong. Where does this come from, and how can we foster it in children? Say what you will about our kin in poor communities feeling ignored or disenfranchised, the truth is that supporting bigotry, aggression, the objectification of women and the inhumane treatment of others is wrong no matter what. Forcing one’s own system of beliefs on others is contrary to our founders’ intentions. It’s un-American. It’s insupportable, and it can’t be ignored.