as i've thought about writing this post during the past few days, it suddently struck me that all the african-americans i knew as a child i addressed by their first names. in american society in the south during the period about which i'm wrting, the late 1950's, a child like me would never have addressed a white adult by that person's first name, but rather would have spoken to mr. x, mrs. y, dr. z. yet no one of any age addressed an african-american with this kind of respect; african-americans were addressed as one would a child or a pet. most of those about whom i'm writing are not known to me except by their first names, because that is how i heard them addressed and that is how i addressed them. looking back, this seems unbelievably insensitive to the respect that should have been accorded them, but the practices of society were so ingrained in white southerners that no one ever thought of the contempt for an entire race of people that this custom exemplified.
today i write about the only african-american from my childhood that was addressed by a title of respect, miss ollie. miss ollie was one of the best educated people i knew as a child. she was a customer in my grandparents' store and their neighbor. my grandparents' home was attached to their store, and miss ollie lived behind their home with an alley separating the two properties. her father had been a school administrator, and his parents were freed slaves. miss ollie taught in a school somewhere north of the town in which my grandparents lived, and she lived in that community during the week, returning home to the home she inherited from her parents on the weekend.
i always looked forward to seeing her in my grandparents' store during the summers, when she was at home during the week. her manner of speech was intriguing. she spoke in a sort of sing-song voice, and when she talked, i could almost hear a melody underlying her words. it was if she lived in an opera. it didn't matter to me what she said; i was fascinated by the way in which she spoke. she spoke with great precision, pronouncing every consonant crisply. there was none of the laziness of speech that characterizes our southern speech patterns.
my grandparents treated miss ollie with great respect, never calling her by only her first name. yet i never heard them say her last name. perhaps adding the "miss" to her name was as far as they could go in addressing a black person. their entire bearing changed when she came into the store, and even a child my age could sense that she was someone special--a person who had overcome adversity and risen above the station that society had assigned her, a person whose family had not been content to accept the roles that were expected of them, a person who cared deeply about the children of the communities in which she lived and worked.
miss ollie's posture, like her speech, was regal. though she was short, about five feet, four inches, the way in which she stood and moved indicated that she had great respect for herself and expected no less from others. maybe that is another reason she was held in such high regard in both the black and white communities. i often thought that her students were so fortunate to have miss ollie as their teacher and wished that i could have a teacher like her. i am sure that she instilled in them a pride in their race that helped them overcome many adversities and made them question the way that they were treated in a segregated white-dominated society.
there are so many questions i would like to ask miss ollie now that never occureed to me as a child who accepted the societal norms of the time. i wonder what instilled such dignity in her, what her parents taught her that enabled her to become such an amazing woman. my prayer today is that each of us can overcome the expectations of society, that we will question the roles of gender and birth that society tries to enforce, treating ourselves and others with respect that disregards the expectations of society.