Learning from Our Elders on MLK Day

An unexpectedly candid conversation about racial reckoning.

I was taught that Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero in school. I was taught that Black people had achieved equality because of his work. As I got older, I began to see that sitting next to a white person or going to a restaurant without being arrested wasn’t indicative of total racial equity. As I learned more about the sordid history and contemporary reality of racial disenfranchisement in the United States, I became more curious about Nana’s experience.

Barbara Jean McElhaney, 1958.

My Nana, Barbara McElhaney, is 82 years old. She has been Negro, Colored, Black, and African-American in her lifetime. She lived through a massive cultural shift in American history. I’ve always been interested in her story, though she never shared much with me when I was little. I expected her to be uninterested in being interviewed for Martin Luther King Jr Day, but to my surprise, she said, “of course.”

She was born Barbara Jean Davenport in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, on February 2nd, 1939. The second of 13 of my great-grandmother’s children. She said, “It wasn’t until I moved to California that we experienced racism,” That’s not because it didn’t exist in Louisiana – a state that saw hundreds of lynchings in the years 1882-1936 – but because her family had as little to do with white people as possible.

“In Louisiana, I don’t remember seeing many white people where we lived, and if there were white people there, you just didn’t see them.”

Between 1944 and 1952, my Nana attended an integrated school in Oakland, California. She and her siblings would take the 40 min bus ride to and from school every day. “I remember trying to connect with other children, White children, and they wouldn’t speak to me. I thought they were odd,” recalls my Nana.

Wedding of Barbara and Clarence McElhaney, 1958.

“I remember some White folks, grown folks, would come up to me and just run their fingers through my hair; I had very red hair, which they saw I guess as unusual for a little Black girl. They’d give me a quarter when they did it. I don’t know why; maybe it was for good luck or something. I didn’t like it. It bothered me, but I was afraid of what they’d do if I didn’t go along with it. We weren’t used to that type of treatment. We hadn’t been around that many White people before.”

My great-grandmother purchased her first home in the predominantly white suburb of East Oakland in 1954. There was very little redlining at first, but it increased as more Black families moved in. White homeowners left. The construction of Highway 17 in the 1950s cut off the Black community’s access to Downtown, disturbing its cohesion and economic viability.

As the Black community grew, White parents elected to send their kids to private schools or predominantly White schools in the city. There was a general social consensus that racial mixing was discouraged. By the time Nana graduated high school in 1956, all the teachers and staff at her school were Black.

My Nana recalls hearing about massacres like Tulsa as she grew up. Despite personal affronts like having her hair touched and being called slurs, she was insulated from the most serious indignities and violence.

The 1963 March on Washington gave her a deeper understanding of Black Americas’ condition, especially the effects of institutional racism. My Nana was 24 years old, married, and already the mother of two.

With the movement being televised she became increasingly aware of more violent racism.

McElhaney family photo 1970.

“There were decent White folks who cared, and there were those who couldn’t, wouldn’t see us as human. I watched them spray people down with hoses. I watched them release their dogs on people, and I saw how White people around me would laugh. You could see how people had no respect. That’s the problem I have; just because my skin is a little darker doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be respected. I thought all the people who endured this were brave. They were very brave.”

The Author’s grandparent’s 1958.

People play different roles in the struggle for liberation, my Nana was not a movement person. Her younger sister Alice was a member of the Black Panther Party. My Nana’s concern was the safety of her children. “That time was scary. My eldest son loved to wear black. All of a sudden the Panthers started doing that so I had to stop him. I didn’t want people to think he was a part of it. I didn’t want him to get hurt.”

“My impression of Martin Luther King Jr. was that he wanted us to get together. For people of all races to have a fair and just life. Not just along racial lines but class and gender lines as well.

“Despite his flaws, I genuinely believe that he meant what he said in that speech.” As she spoke, I could tell she wanted to say more, so I prompted: “but you aren’t sure that other people believed it.”

“How could they? You see how many people are in prison in the freest country in the world? People might have heard him, but I don’t know if they believed him.”

Author’s grandparents with their friends in 1958.

For a long time, I believed this narrative I’d created that my Nana’s experiences were different from mine and that she couldn’t possibly understand me. Our conversation showed me I’d made the wrong assumption.

I always perceived the Oakland I grew up in as very different from the Oakland my Nana’s youth. Today’s Oakland remembers itself as The Black Liberation city. In school, I learned about Oakland’s history of militant racial resistance. They neglected to tell us how slowly those changes happened and the history of apathy among city officials regarding racial justice.

In 2016 Oakland was one of the first Bay Area cities to establish a Department of Racial Equity. Oaklanders like to see Oakland as always having been racially progressive; the humbling reality is that if Oakland had been racially progressive, there would have been no need for ongoing racial resistance.

It was interesting to find how many experiences Nana and I shared. Oakland has changed, but a lot has remained the same.

The author age 12 in her grandmother’s wedding dress.

Hearing my Nana’s story did not give me the hope I was looking for. As we celebrate benchmarks of racial progress on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is crucial that we also consider what we have yet to accomplish.

We in the Black community place a strong emphasis on respecting our elders. Just as we in the Jewish community read in Leviticus 19:32 we are commanded to honor our elders. Yet how often do intergenerational conversations about race happen? While our experiences may not always directly align many of us often fail to consider the wisdom our elder’s experiences have to impart upon us. Their insights may help us reach our goal of collective freedom.

My Nana’s story made me reflect on my own experiences. While sometimes I still get called slurs and White people do touch my hair, (though I don’t receive quarters) I have gained, on paper, many more legal protection and opportunities than my Nana had when she was my age.

If Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today, this would be his 93rd year. He would be just ten years my Nana’s senior. I wonder how his dreams would have evolved. I wonder what he would have said to his grandchildren.

While I remain optimistic, I’m confronted with the reality that change may not occur at the pace that I hope for in my life. My generation may not complete the task, but we will not desist from it.

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