Friday, September 11, 2009

When We Were Colored

This month’s show is the perfect example of exactly why I LOVE doing In A Word.

This month, I had the Triple-whammy experience of reading a book that I normally would never pick up on my own (the Dublin “One City, One Book” selection); absolutely falling in love with it; and then—the cherry ontop—I had the honor of meeting and interviewing the amazing author.

That’s as pretty close to heaven as it gets for a book geek like me. To summarize:

Incredible book:

Historically edifying
Emotionally moving

A memoir of Eva Rutland’s time as a stay-at-home, “colored” mother of four in the days leading up to civil rights in America, the book was first published in 1964—the same year that the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation. Then it was titled, “The Trouble with Being Mama.” Rutland’s goal was simple—to seek common ground with white women through the universal experience of motherhood. The book has been recently reissued, with a new title, a new foreword, and the assistance of the author’s daughter, Ginger Rutland, an editor at The Sacramento Bee.

Rutland writes genuinely and lovingly of her childhood in the South in the days of segregation. Her grandfather, a former slave, had built a successful business and put every one of his dozen children through college. Although it’s hard for us to imagine, Rutland remembers her middle-class “colored” youth as magical, “How beautiful it seemed--Atlanta, with its ermine-trimmed, diamond-studded, velvety cloak of segregation.”

It turns out that life was much more difficult and complicated for Rutland once she moved with her husband and small children to “liberal” California, which did not officially segregate whites and “coloreds,” but had a strong undercurrent of prejudice that was much more difficult to navigate than the clear delineation between the races in the South.

For example, even though there were no boundaries of white and “colored” parts of town, when Rutland and her family wanted to buy a lot on which to build a house, they had to get a white friend to buy it and then sell it to them. The owner would not sell directly to a “colored” family.

Rutland’s soft touch brings you gently into her world, makes you empathize with her as a mother, and then knocks you over with an anecdote about the reality of being “colored” at that time. The personal and the politics are seamlessly woven together and that is the power of the book.

Incredible author:


As I read this book, it seemed like Rutland was telling my story, although, on the surface, we could not be more different. Eva Rutland is a Black/African-American/“Colored” mother who tells of raising four children in the 60’s in the midst of the rapidly changing world of segregation and integration, and all the everyday challenges of any mother trying her best to take care of and teach her children well. By contrast, I live in a multi-cultural city that embraces, even celebrates, diversity. While Rutland’s daughter was forbidden to play with one of her white friends because the friend’s mother believed that “Negroes were dirty,” my children bring home friends of all colors and races, without a fleeting thought to their differences.

Still, as Rutland supposed, we mothers have common ground.

My favorite part of the book had nothing to do with race. It was when Rutland reflects upon all the time she has spent volunteering for child-centered activities like Girl Scouts and PTA—many times leaving her family at night to attend meetings or spending lots of energy on things that we supposed to be “enriching” for the kids, but often turn out to be more about the egos and social lives of the mothers.

Her conclusion, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If I had it to do over again, I would spend more time reading books, reading myself and reading to my children and cleaning the house.” Well, I agree with the reading part at least.

Incredible discussion:

Two passionate guests who lived through this period in California—one as a child and one as a parent.

A Must See show! You can watch online, streaming video! Just click here and watch the show M-F at 6:30 am, 1 pm and 9:30 pm.

Eva Rutland is a hero—not just for her courage, good sense and elegance in speaking out and finding common ground in a time of racial divide and fear—but for giving us all an example of how powerful the written word can be. To make us understand, to make us feel, and bring us, as readers, into a world that we would have otherwise never known—leaving us the wiser and richer and, maybe even kinder for the experience.

I leave you with these words, from the new foreword, Rutland writes, “Now, almost fifty years later, life in America has changed, but my story is as relevant today as it was then.”