visitors to my home are visibly upset by my Mammy memorabilia. Disgusted, riveted and
confused, they stand before my big-lipped, bug-eyed, watermelon-eating, sassy Sambos and
try to think of something to say that won't get them in trouble. There are dish-towel
holders, cookie jars, salt-and-pepper shakers, doorstops, figurines, paper fans shaped
like fat mammies in kerchiefs -- the dregs of the trade. In high-priced antique shops and
auctions, the good stuff -- voluminous plantation records, original minstrel-show sheet
music, etc. -- are known as "black collectibles," and folks like Oprah Winfrey,
Julian Bond and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have driven the prices into the stratosphere. Still,
I do the best I can at yard sales and the like.
My personal favorite is a heavy iron bank circa 1920 that I went into debt for and
carted all the way home from Florence, Italy. It's the head, arms and shoulders of a
uniformed Uncle Ben's Rice-type lackey, white gloves and all. He looks like the missing
link between a bellboy and an orangutan. You put a coin on its hand and depress the lever
on the back to make it feed itself the money: Its pop-eyes roll back in its nappy head
with orgasmic gluttony. If I ever manage to buy a home, I hope the deed has a "whites
only" clause like George W. Bush's so I can enlarge it to poster size and expand my
collection, my evidence that today's racial realities have an audit trail.
The leading Republican presidential contender has now officially joined the rogues'
gallery of American leaders forced to confront, however temporarily, our nation's racist
substructure and their own complicity in it. When he bought his Dallas home in 1988, the
deed stipulated that it could be occupied "by white persons only, excluding bona fide
servants of any race." When he sold it just after being elected governor of Texas in
1996, the clause was still there. He claims not to have known about it and, now that he
knows, not to be concerned because such restrictions have long been unenforceable thanks
to a 1948 Supreme Court decision, the 1968 Fair Housing Act and many subsequent state
He must never have seen "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's
masterpiece, starring the youngsters Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, about a black Chicago
family's attempt to live in their dream house in a white neighborhood -- a dream deferred,
of course, despite the Supreme Court's decision on racial covenants.
The broker who handled Bush's sale told the Associated Press that to excise the
restriction, the multi-millionaire Bush would have had to collect signatures from
three-fourths of the residents and "go through a lengthy, cumbersome and potentially
expensive process." So far, it's a non-issue. Since Matt Drudge broke the story on
Monday, only CNN, AP, Slate and a tiny scattering of publications have even mentioned it.
Perhaps that's because Bush is in such good company.
John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William Rehnquist, Joseph Biden, Michael
Huffington, Dianne Feinstein, Daddy Bush -- they've all had to face the cameras and
distance themselves from their lily-white, Gentile enclaves and the documents they
"never read." Very likely they didn't, but did they really need to in order to
make sure their nice, exclusive neighborhoods stayed that way? "Privilege" is
environmental; it means never having to do your own dirty work.
On the other hand, the Bush campaign points out that blacks buy and sell homes with
these same deed restrictions every day. "Sure, my attorney pointed out the clause
when we bought in 1990. My wife and I just laughed," says Alphonso Jackson, president
of Central South West Corporation, a former Bush neighbor and an African-American. He
confirms that most of the homes in the area have restrictive covenants.
My hometown, St. Louis, has loomed large in the development of civil rights law and
racial politics in America. The 1857 Dred Scott case arose there -- ultimately, the
Supreme Court held that blacks, free or slave, were not citizens and had no rights that
whites were bound to respect. Next stop: Civil War. With black emancipation came, among
other things, racially restrictive covenants to keep the races separate and unequal. They
were so commonplace throughout the United States that there's no way to count them all;
the Federal Housing Administration actually required them. Then, in 1948, came Shelley vs.
Kraemer, the (eventual) Supreme Court case that rendered racially restrictive covenants
unenforceable. Looks like progress, doesn't it?
Yet 24 years later, when I was 12 in 1972, sans discussion, my mother and I refused to
get out of the car when the realtor tried to show us a house in one of St. Louis' many
unintegrated neighborhoods. My chest still constricts just remembering those white faces
as the residents straggled out of doors to see the niggers look at the empty house next
door. The realtor begged but we wouldn't budge. Grimly, my mother would only say, "I
don't want to be a pioneer" as she pulled the car door from the woman's hand. She'd
already survived 18 years sharecropping in Mississippi and 25 as a manual laborer up
North. We knew what the law books said, and we knew what the reality was. We confined our
search to the black part of town. No, nobody made us. We just were neither stupid enough
nor brave enough to put American justice to the test.
In 1991, on "PrimeTime Live," hidden cameras would record a black tester
facing discrimination at every turn, from employment to housing to shopping. Throughout
America, the process of buying a home remains fraught with redlining, steering and
segregation for minorities, illegal though it may technically be.